Without time for stillness, your hormones (and well-being) can pay a steep price for an accelerated pace of life. Years after a yoga injury inspired me to slow down and study acupuncture, I now help women elude the dangerous cycle of chronic stress. Here, a cautionary tale, a yoga sequence, and acupressure meditations to boost vitality, wake up energized, and find peaceful and calming bliss.
How Injury Led Me to Find Balance
I used to think yoga was too still for me, until I discovered Ashtanga’s beautiful rhythm and grace. Living in Buffalo, New York, in my early twenties, I spent weekends commuting to Toronto for my yoga teacher training and to study with my mentor, Ron Reid. What a pace of life!
But, that rapid pace had consequences. As Reid would say, my energy leaked all over the place. I was flexible and capable, but I didn’t understand containment or how to use my core to support my body. Metaphorically, this theme of overextending without support trickled into my entire life.
Eventually I traveled to India to study with Sharath Jois, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Maty Ezraty, and Chuck Miller. But I was overdoing backbends and in pain. I thought I’d be fine; I was young, resilient, and reckless. When I moved to LA after my trip, I had a full-blown back injury.
See also 16 Poses to Ease Back Pain
As I focused on healing, I reflected that I had always intended to study some form of medicine. Acupuncture turned out to be the most effective treatment for my back, so I was inspired to pursue my master’s in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and herbal medicine.
Now my patients are mainly women seeking to overcome fertility issues or balance their hormones. Some of my clients are using assisted reproductive technologies, so I work with their reproductive endocrinologists and offer acupuncture, herbs, and lifestyle adjustments to support medical treatments.
I knew I wanted to work with women, perhaps because I was always frustrated with my gynecologist visits. I dealt with too-frequent cycles and terrible PMS and acne. Birth control pills were my only option, and I didn’t take them. Looking back, my imbalances were all really related to diet, stress, and emotional distress. Once I made significant changes—saw a therapist, got help from friends in the naturopathic and TCM community, and developed a dedicated yoga practice—I was able to bring my body back into balance.
That’s why the integrative clinic I cofounded with my husband Joe Clarke and friend Carla Vidor blends TCM methods with the diagnostic tools of functional medicine. In addition to checking pulse and tongue, we review bloodwork to uncover underlying conditions, like thyroid issues or gut infections, so we can treat the cause of imbalance.
The Science of Why Stress Management Is Key to Balance (and a Solid Night of Sleep)
When we talk about hormonal balance in women, I believe stress management is a good place to start. We work at such a crazed pace in our culture, and we value doing—there is no surrender of being. Though we don’t face tigers every day, we live in constant state of fight-or-flight.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is a negative feedback loop that regulates stress response. Within seconds of encountering stress, the brain’s hypothalamus secretes corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), initiating a game of telephone. CRH tells the anterior pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone, which prompts the adrenals to release cortisol.
The “stress” hormone cortisol plays a critical role in quality of sleep. Cortisol and melatonin (the “sleep” hormone) have an inverse relationship, tag-teaming your circadian rhythms. At night, with cortisol at bay, you fall asleep as melatonin peaks. Then, melatonin tapers as cortisol gradually rises until it spikes and awakens you the next morning. Cortisol ebbs during the day as melatonin rises, culminating in bedtime. And so on.
But chronic stress scrambles this process. Cortisol levels skyrocket into the evening, and an overwhelming week can both exhaust you and cause insomnia.
There are other negative feedback loops that signal to the thyroid and ovaries. If imbalances go on for too long, they can alter or even shut down reproductive function, as well as impact your metabolism, immune system, and cardiovascular health.
Quick Tip for Better Sleep
Ever fall asleep just to jolt awake at 3 a.m.? Poor blood sugar management may be to blame. After all, stress doesn’t exactly help with healthy eating habits. Plunging blood sugar can trigger an emergency response: hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and glucagon surge to extract glucose from the muscles and liver in order to feed the brain and body. The solution: Eat more wild-caught fish, legumes, nuts, seeds, and avocados. As slower-burning sources of energy, they can prevent spikes and crashes.
A Hormone-Balancing Yoga Sequence
Getting out of survival mode gives your nervous system a chance to recover. In a resting state, you can stabilize cortisol patterns, regulate your reproductive system, and restore a blissful sleep cycle.
A yoga practice that prioritizes stillness can calm your nervous system and harmonize your HPA axis. Remember, if you are pushing full throttle at work and home—and eating processed foods—you can’t push your yoga practice as well.
I designed this hormone-balancing sequence to induce both the relaxation response as well as detox. Our organs are overloaded with harmful chemicals, so twists help clean out your liver, colon, even your ovaries. Plus, once you release abdominal compressions, fresh blood rushes back into your uterus and ovaries to create more cell activity and build (and shed) endometrial lining. All postures below, except Savasana (Corpse Pose), should be done using Ujjayi (Victorious) Breathing.
Finally, the acupressure meditations included here build a heightened sense of awareness in your subtle body. In TCM, it isn’t the pressure or needles themselves that heal us. Rather, they offer an energetic suggestion, creating conditions so your body can begin healing itself. My yoga teacher Ron Reid used to say that energy follows intention, and in my life I’ve seen that to be true.
1. FISH POSE (MATSYASANA), VARIATION
This restorative pose opens your chest and counters a deskbound (or device-centric) lifestyle, which can cause neck and upper-back tension. Place a block at medium height, the long way, between your shoulder blades. Place another at the same height underneath the back of your head, like a pillow. Keep your palms up; relax your legs, arms, and face; and focus on breathing. Stay here for 3–5 minutes.
See also Root Down, Lift Up: Fish Pose
2. SUN SALUTATION A (SURYA NAMASKAR A)
On an inhalation, from standing, raise your arms overhead. Bring your palms together as long as doing so doesn’t create neck tension; otherwise keep them apart.
On an exhalation, fold forward, bringing your hands to the floor and relaxing your head and neck.
See also 10 Steps to Perfect Sun Salutations
With an inhalation, lengthen and unround your spine as you bring your hands to your shins or fingertips to the floor.
Inhale into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose) or Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). Exhale into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose); stay for 5 breaths. Step or jump forward, inhaling as you lengthen your spine. Exhale into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). Inhale, come all the way to standing, and reach your arms up overhead again. Exhale to Samasthiti (Equal Standing). Take 5 rounds of Sun Salutation.
3. GARLAND POSE (MALASANA)
Bring your feet about mat-width apart and slightly turn out your toes. Come into a squat; if your heels lift from the floor, place a blanket underneath them. Reach your hands forward and bring your forearms to the ground to try to lower your torso between your thighs. Remain there, or bring your hands to prayer position. Stay here for 10 breaths.
4. MARICHI’S POSE A (MARICHYASANA A)
Come into Dandasana (Staff Pose), with your legs straight out in front of you. Keep your left leg straight, and bend your right knee so it points to the ceiling. Place your left hand on the oor for support as you reach your right arm forward toward your left foot.
Stay here, or if your right shoulder is comfortably past your right leg, wrap your right arm around your right knee; bring the left arm back, and reach for your left wrist. Inhale to lengthen and look up. Exhale and fold into the pose. Hold for 5–10 slow breaths. Repeat on the left side.
5. MARICHI’S POSE C (MARICHYASANA C)
From Staff Pose, keep your left leg straight and toes pointing up, bend your right knee so it points to the ceiling. Begin to twist to the right. Take your right hand behind you, and take hold of your right knee with your left hand. Stay in this shape, or bring your left elbow to the outside of your right knee. If your shoulder reaches outside of your knee, you may be able to wrap your left arm all the way around your right knee and grab your right wrist. Lift your low back, and reach up through the top of your head. Stay for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the left side.
6. BOUND ANGLE POSE (BADDHA KONASANA)
From Staff Pose, bend both knees, bring the soles of your feet together, and allow your knees to open out to the sides. If your knees are above your hips, support them by propping blocks or pillows underneath each. Keeping your elbows close to your body, hold your feet. If your knees are close to the oor, the soles of your feet may be able to open up toward the ceiling. Keep your low back lifted by pressing your sitting bones into the floor. Keep your chest broad and reach up through the top of your head. Stay for 5–10 breaths.
See also 7 Steps to Master Bound Angle Pose
7. ALTERNATE-NOSTRIL BREATHING, OR CHANNEL-CLEARING BREATH (NADI SHODHANA PRANAYAMA)
Sit in Sukhasana (Easy Pose). With your dominant hand, hover your thumb and ring nger over your nostrils. Close your eyes to eliminate distractions and to draw your attention inward. Take a deep inhale and exhale through both nostrils. Cover your left nostril and take a deep breath in through your right nostril. Cover the right nostril, release your left nostril, and then exhale through the left nostril. Inhale through your left nostril, then cover your left nostril and release your right and exhale through your right nostril. Continue this pattern for about 5–10 minutes.
See also Channel-Cleaning Breath
Lie down on your back with your palms up. Make sure your shoulder blades are at on the floor so your chest opens. Leg go of your legs; keep your belly soft. Take a moment to relax your face, especially your jaw, cheeks, forehead, and eyes. Keep your breath relaxed, natural, and soft. Allow your mind to focus on the breath until it can be still on its own without any thoughts.
STUDY WITH MARIA
Feeling on edge, in pain, or out of sync during your period? Dealing with PMS symptoms like dramatic mood swings, cramps, or insomnia? Trying to conceive—or avoid pregnancy? Join Maria for a 6-week online course that will dive into the physiology of your reproductive cycle—from both the medical science and Traditional Chinese Medicine perspectives—along with yoga practices, acupressure meditations, meal plans, and more, tailored to the phases of your cycle, to help you feel your best every day of the month. Learn more or sign up today!