Grandmother Moon & Massage: a series exploring the cyclical, somatic nature of the menstrual cycle.
AN INTRODUCTION OF THE CYCLICAL RHYTHMS WITHIN & HOW MASSAGE THERAPY CAN SERVE AS A SUPPORT FOR EACH PHASE OF THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE
"Our cyclical nature is an integral part of who we are and how we exist in this world. Each day of the menstrual cycle, we experience subtle changes and hormonal shifts that inform how we respond to and receive our lives. When we acknowledge that we are hormonally, emotionally, physiologically and energetically supported in different ways each day, we respect the truth of our bodies and learn to work with our rhythms, rather than against them." ~ Samantha Neal
Welcome and thank you for being here.
The intention for the Grandmother Moon & Massage series is to weave together the interconnectedness of the scientific as well as the spiritual nature of the menstrual cycle to bring awareness to the cyclical rhythms that are experienced within one's menstruating body and to better understand the radiance, fluidity, and connection that is available through our reciprocal and relective qualities to Nature.
As a massage therapist, I aspire to share how this path of bodywork may be a support during each phase, through honouring the fluctuations in one's cycle. I would also like to acknowledge the variability and exceptions to the general, including many conditions that influence the body's reproductive cycles. These articles do not dive specifically into the different conditions that may alter one's cycle and experience of it. The intention of this series is to provide foundational insight into the innate rhythms to hold as a grounding point to explore one's individual cycle.
This series is offered in five independent articles, one for each of the four phases of the reproductive cycle (Menstrual, Follicular, Ovulation, Luteal) and one introductory article (the one you are currently indulging in) which takes a more scientific approach in explaining the anatomy of the pelvis and the physiology of the governing reproductive organs. The aim is to build a knowledgeable foundation before flowing into the esoteric and energetic aspects of the individual phases.
EACH ARTICLE FOR THE PARTICULAR PHASES HOLDS THE FOLLOWING:
~ the interconnected and cyclical energetics of the Lunar and Earth cycles
~ how these cycles influence and mirror the four phases of the menstrual cycle
~ the hormones involved/activated
~ symptoms that may be experienced
~ ways in which massage therapy can support each phase of a menstruating body's cycle
I welcome and encourage you to practice curiosity and compassion when exploring this content, and to bring awareness to the fluidity and variability that is one's individual cycle.
from my heart to yours...
Anatomy & Physiology
Before we dive into the depths of energetic and esoteric anatomy, I believe it to be significant to first honour the anatomy and physiology of the pelvis and reproductive organs in order to create a foundation for deeper exploration. Below is a brief description of the musculoskeletal anatomy of the pelvis and reproductive organs and their functions as well as the neurovascular and endocrine (hormonal) connections.
Below is a diagram of the pelvis and it's bony associations and characteristics. The pelvis (hip) girdle consists of two hip bones/pelvic bones. They join in the front at the pubic symphysis and unite in the back with the sacrum (tailbone). Functionally the pelvis provides a strong, structural support for the vertebral column and the pelvic and lower abdominal organs. The pelvis can be thought of as the keystone of the body as it connects the upper and lower aspects of the body.
There are over 20 muscles that act on the hip and pelvis. For ease, they are stated here in groups... they include the hip flexors (front of pelvis/hip), gluteal (back of pelvis/buttock), adductors (inner thigh), quadriceps (front of thigh) and the hamstrings (back of thigh). There is an expansive variety of combinations in which these muscles may relate and interact with one another to contribute to discomfort, tension, weakness and/or pain experiences.
The pelvic floor consists of approximately 15 different muscles that act to support the pelvic organs, maintaining appropriate intra-abdominal pressure, maintaining the integrity of the visceral sphincters and assisting in defecation, urination and childbirth.
Disclaimer: As I am not personally trained in pelvic floor muscular physiology and pelvic floor treatments are not in my scope of practice as an RMT, I will not be discussing this area in much detail. If you are interested in pelvic floor work and healing, I recommend communicating with a practitioner who is certified in this line of work.
THE PHYSIOLOGY OF THE REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEM
The female reproductive system is a collection of internal and external organs; the ovaries, fallopian/uterine tubes, uterus, and vagina. They work together for the act of procreation and pleasure.
The ovaries are a pair of glands on either side of the uterus and are held in place by various ligaments. Ovaries produce the cells which mature into an ova (egg). The hormones that are produced by the ovaries are progesterone, estrogen, inhibin and relaxin. Ovulation is the process of the rupture and release of a mature ova into the pelvic cavity. This event is caused due to high concentrations of estrogen that encourages the release of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) which influences the growth of the egg.
The uterine tubes extend laterally from the uterus and provide a route for sperm to reach an ovum and to transport the ova to the uterus to either be implanted or discharged during menstruation. This is the location of fertilization.
The uterus or womb is a hollow organ that lies between the urinary bladder and the rectum and is the size and shape of an inverted pear. It is the site of implantation of a fertilized ovum, the development of a fetus during pregnancy and labour and is the source of menstrual flow when implantation does not occur.
“All the activities of our sexual body — menstruation, intercourse, conception, pregnancy, birth, and menopause — involve streamings and swellings and transformations we have little control over, even though they take place in the very core of our body. At puberty, our breasts grow and angles become curves. Blood streams from our vagina. Our moods soar and plummet, carried on strong, billowing waves of hormones. When we make love to a man, we are penetrated to the core, while a man remains more or less his compact, contained self. In pregnancy and birth, nature takes the ball entirely out of our hands. We swell like balloons. We are nauseated or ravenously hungry. In birth, we crack open like eggs, and that is just the beginning of decades spent in service to our offspring. Then menopause hits, and again, we are buffeted by the winds of hormonal changes." ~ Jalaja Bonheim
The reproductive system is supplied by the hypogastric nerve plexus, which is a complex collection of nerves located at the lumbosacral (lowback/pelvic) region. It is a part of the autonomic nervous system and is composed of two portions. Similarly to the six petaled lotus of the sacral chakra or Svādhiṣṭhāna, this plexus is composed of six branches.
The superior hypogastric plexus contains the sympathetic function (regulates unconscious activity) of the urogenital (urinary and reproductive) system. The endocrine (hormonal) organs that are innervated by this neural system are the ovaries and testes which produce the hormones testosterone and estrogen which influence our sexual behaviour and our emotions.
Blood is circulated to and from the pelvic organs and tissues via the common iliac arteries and veins. Menstrual flow from the uterus consists of 50–150 ml of blood, tissue fluid, mucus, and epithelial (outer tissue) cells shed from the endometrium (innermost lining of uterus). This discharge occurs because the declining levels of progesterone and estrogens stimulate release of prostaglandins (hormone-like compounds) that cause the uterine spiral arterioles to constrict, causing contractions of the uterine walls. As a result, the cells they supply become oxygen-deprived and start to die. Eventually, the entire stratum functionalis (thick superficial layer of uterus) sloughs off. At this time the endometrium is very thin, about 2–5 mm, because only the stratum basalis (deepest tissue layer) remains. The menstrual flow passes from the uterine cavity through the cervix and vagina to the exterior (G. Tortora and B. Derrickson, 2014.)
HORMONAL ENERGETICS & COMMUNICATION
There are many interconnected threads of communication occurring in each moment within the body in respect to various functions and the menstrual cycle is no different. Some phases are more hormonally charged than others therefore have clearer symptoms and experiences associated with them such as the menstrual and ovulatory phases, whereas phases such as the follicular and luteal phases tend to be more subtle in their hormonal activity. What seems important to note is that each week, each phase, each cycle, will carry a completely different biochemical experience which states the significance of practicing curiosity, compassion and trusting one's intuition when exploring the cycle.
Below is a brief description of the function of the hormones that are most notably involved in the cyclical fluctuations of the menstrual cycle. The organs which are in constant communication regarding the reproductive cycle are the ovaries, anterior and posterior pituitary glands and the hypothalamus (hormonal control centre in the brain). Refer to Figure 1 for a representation of the hormonal tides occurring during the menstrual cycle for an average 28 day cycle.
promotes development and maintenance of the female reproductive structures and secondary characteristics
increases protein anabolism to build strong bones
lowers blood cholesterol
moderates levels of Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone (GnRH) , Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing Hormone (LH)
FOLLICLE STIMULATING HORMONE
initiates follicular growth
converts androgens (group of hormones that play a role in masculine characteristics) to estrogens (group of hormones that regulate female reproductive organs/feminine characteristics)
stimulates further development of the ovarian follicles to secrete estrogen
triggers ovulation mid-cycle
promotes formation of corpus luteum (a mass of cells that forms in an ovary and is responsible for the production of progesterone during early pregnancy)
works with estrogens to prepare endometrium for implantation
prepares mammary glands to secrete milk
inhibits release of GnRH and LH
*Figure 1: representation of the hormone fluctuations throughout the cycle ~ for an average 28 day cycle*
"Our bodies are home to an intricate hormonal system that constantly works for our survival. This system produces feel-good chemicals as the motivation and reward for taking steps toward what’s good for us. Since the therapeutic goal of bodywork and corrective exercise is to tilt the balance away from stress and toward relaxation and healing, we can use our hands-on work to help give a boost to these essential happiness hormones." ~ Erik Dalton, PhD
INTEGRATIVE PRACTICES FOR THE PHASES OF YOUR CYCLE
As many humans who bleed experience some level of discomfort, pain, mood changes, or disassociation throughout their cycles, integrating various modalities and practices that help to regulate the nervous and endocrine systems can significantly alter the 'negative' experiences into more pleasant and 'positive' ones. As we begin to walk the path of knowing thyself through self-inquiry, practicing the role of the witness, and becoming more familiar with the cyclical nature within and around us, we create space for an innate radiance and power to come forth into our worlds.
Approaching this journey with an intuitive inquisitiveness and openness can cultivate a spaciousness that allows for the growth and intimacy of an entirely new relationship with our bodies.
There is not one practice or modality that fits all... this journey will look different for everyone. The root of the idea is to cultivate an increased awareness of one's body and it's rhythms and practice what feels nourishing for oneself in the moment. The main practice that will be discussed throughout this Grandmother Moon & Massage series is bodywork in the form of therapeutic massage as touch has been scientifically proven to promote the production of feel-good hormones including serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and pain-relieving endorphins.
Below are a few ideas and practices that may be of interest to explore throughout your cycle...
REST & MOVEMENT
The wisdom of the menstrual cycle is neither absolute nor easily definable. It requires a daily meeting of the truth of our present moment. One that is always changing - cycle to cycle, day to day, and moment to moment. It is a process of listening from the inside out, so that we may hear what is truly alive within us. ~ Samantha Neal
Samantha Neal ~ Wisdom Within
Gerard Tortora and Bryan Derrickson ~ Principles of Anatomy and Physiology (2014)
Isabella Wilde ~ The Temple of Sisters
Jalaja Bonheim ~ Aphrodite's Daughters: Women's Sexual Stories and the Journey of the Soul
Erik Dalton ~ Triggering Feel-Good Hormones Through Touch (2018)