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 Villella, E-RYT, LAc, and co-owner of Elysia Life Care, for Yoga for Women's Health, 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!
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.
STUDY WITH MARIA
Tired of dealing with mood swings, cramps, or fatigue? In her online course, Maria dives into the physiology of reproductive health and offers yoga, acupressure, meal plans, and more to regulate your cycle and boost overall well-being. Learn more: yogajournal.com/womenshealth.