Alexandra Pope: how to make peace with the menstrual cycle

17th November 2014

In the first of the Womenkind series of articles that reveal the story behind inspirational people, Suze Pole interviews Alexandra Pope – an incredible woman leading the way in understanding more about women’s health and wellbeing.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to attend one of Alexandra's workshops on healing the menstrual cycle. I learned so much through this day long teaching and have been able to pass on her wisdom to many women who come to my acupuncture clinic with menstrual problems. Alexandra sparkles with fun, mischief and passion for her subject. I can highly recommend her courses; her work is ground breaking and contains essential wisdom for women who want to really understand their bodies. 

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Alexandra is author of 'The Wild Genie: The Healing Power of Menstruation', 'The Women’s Quest Workbook' and co author of 'The Pill: are you sure it’s for you'. Alexandra is a women’s leadership coach and educator at the forefront of the emerging new field of menstruality, exploring woman’s psycho-spiritual journey from menarche to menopause and beyond.

Welcome Alexandra. We are delighted to be able to share your important work here on Pukka Planet.

We live in a world where women are expected to be able to perform in the same way all month long regardless of their menstrual cycle. After working with women and their menstrual cycle for many years how do you respond to this?

Absolutely no one is the same all the time, neither men nor women. We are all governed by our body's inbuilt basic rest-activity-rest cycles i.e. the 24 hour circadian and 90 minute ultradian rhythms and as well as those, we women also have the menstrual cycle. 

We all have different energies through the day, we have times when we’re firing on all cylinders and times when we just want have a cup of tea or go to sleep. Tampering with these natural cycles is not good for health. Imagine your doctor saying  ‘take this drug and stay awake all night, think how productive you will be without wasting time sleeping.’ That’s what its like when we’re told to ignore the menstrual cycle and be bright bunnies all the time. The fundamental self-care pattern of activity followed by rest is what keeps us well and this pattern is built into our menstrual cycle as a monthly reminder of the need to rest.

In the first half of the cycle after menstruation and leading up to ovulation, women have this expansive energy that carries them out into the world. This is a high energy time of being super productive, sociable, and feeling really good. In the second half of the cycle, after ovulation, that process reverses again as a woman gradually withdraws and turns inwards once more. Women can feel overloaded here as her natural focus is to become quiet and more tuned into her inner feelings and this increases the closer she gets to menstruation which is why its important not have too much stimulation going on in this part of the cycle.

Through understanding the natural rhythms of her cycle a woman can use menstrual cycle awareness to predict when she will have more energy when she may feel more vulnerable etc.

What do you say to the women who dread their periods because of problems such as PMS, period pain and so on.  What can they do to help themselves ?

Restoring knowledge about the power of the cycle is the first remedy. In many ways women are suffering because of the hideous cultural message that the menstrual cycle is irrelevant and the lack of honouring of what is going on for women in their cycle. Their suffering is the fallout of the loss of the powerful creative and spiritual knowledge that is locked in the menstrual cycle process. Starting to restore this knowledge even in the most basic and simple way can start to change things often in quite a radical way for a woman. Then she is able to manage stress and energies better, and feels more dignity and self-respect; and there is no more powerful medicine. She starts to have more authority to assert her needs to do whatever she needs to do on a very practical level to heal her health such as diet, rest and so on. This is vital for a woman to be in good health.

When I’m with a woman who is really suffering, first of all I can really take her side and acknowledge her suffering and then I work with them to find a little 1% shift for her in terms of how she can start to honour the cycle.

One of the first things I say to women is in an ideal world what would you love to be doing as you are coming into menstruation and usually the answer is ‘ I want to get away from the world, slow down, be by myself, I so don’t want to cook, clean, and look after my family.’ So we work with how she can bring about just a 1% change it may be just leaving the wet towels or clothes on the bathroom floor just giving herself the luxury of walking away from it all even if she just needs to pick it up 24 hours later. Once women start working with this idea of a 1% shift they become amazingly creative at managing to bring more space into their lives.

Can you describe to us the lovely image you work with comparing the phases of the menstrual cycle to seasons ?

The first thing I explain to women is that we are seasonal beings as are men. We can all relate to the change of the outer seasons: autumn shifting into the dark of winter etc. The seasons changing bring up all sorts of feelings, we experience ourselves differently in different seasons and it is no different with the menstrual cycle where we could say we have seasons built into our body.

Our pre-ovulatory time is our inner Spring which takes us out into the world again after the quiet time of menstruation. The power of the inner Spring is a lovely natural motivation, a fresh beginning, full of natural focus and optimism, a sort of willingness to go out and try things again. It’s a beautiful feeling like our spirit is young again, any cynicism or bitterness that we may have had coming into the winter of our menstruation has melted away and we feel ‘oh maybe life is okay after all.’

Then we come into our Summer, our ovulatory time when we have this easy, harmonious energy where we can be all things to all people, like Superwoman. Everyone loves you as your energies at this time are about bringing harmony and doing everything for everybody. It’s a very high energy time and you really get stuff done; it’s very productive: you’re out there, you’re going for it and you’re magnetic.

You generally feel your most gorgeous at this time of the cycle and its partly because your emotional life and your own needs are nicely quiet and packed away so we can attend to other peoples needs. A woman can really show herself and strut herself at this time in her cycle. It feels fabulous but funnily enough when I say to women on workshops imagine being like this all the time they all crack up and say ‘Oh my god it would be awful, it would be a nightmare I’d be completely exhausted.’

After our glorious Summer there is the agonizing moment where we cross from our inner Summer to our inner Autumn and often women wobble at this point which is quite normal as your spirit is negotiating from being super ‘ out there’ to now having to come back in into a deeper intimacy with yourself and your emotional life.

A lot of premenstrual suffering is because a woman is not aware of and therefore not cooperating with the natural impulse to pull in but this natural impulse to pull in is not a limitation or a weakness; you are transitioning into a deeper connection to your self and that means you start to wake up to things you might have been repressing or ignoring

The Autumn phase of our cycle has many powers to it and one is what I call  ‘the great reality check moment’; if you find this premenstrual time very difficult it is because your psyche is telling you something; either you are out of sync with something in your life or you are doing too much for others which is often the case. This is your readjustment moment and the energies are very powerful at this time as the Autumn energies are about being the truth speaker.

All women become more permeable, sensitive and intuitive at this time of the cycle. Do not waste this energy, it can really cut to the chase. You shoot from the hip at this time and if you are aligned with this energy people will sit up and listen though they may not like it. Don’t expect to be loved in this part of the cycle as here you are potentially a provocateur and if you don’t use this energy consciously at this time it will come out unconsciously as PMS.

In this Autumn of your cycle you need to be disciplined with your self- care practices; its crucial to rest and eat well, don’t let your blood sugar get low at this point and be careful with alcohol as you can’t tolerate it in the same way as you approach menstruation.

So in Autumn you start to turn into yourself and become more tuned into your inner feelings which is why you  can feel overload here and this increases the closer you get to menstruation which is why its important not have too much stimulation going on.

Menstruation itself is our inner Winter; just as in wintertime you want to cosy up to the fire and you don’t really feel like putting on your high heels and going partying; at menstruation we have that same impulse to retreat, to be more quiet and still. It is the classic retreat time; it’s like our inner temple where we give over to the sacred within ourselves. If a woman pays attention she will notice she has an inner impulse to down tools anything between 2 hours and 2 days before bleeding.

And when a woman feels it she should name it for herself as it’s the moment when you should say ok I’m off to the red tent or the menstrual temple however you want to put it. It’s a pyschological necessity in us and the big question of course is how do we handle this in our busy lives? Even just being aware that menstruation is the moment for retreat makes a huge difference. Retreat is all about rest, repair and renewal and if we do this at menstruation we can enter an expanded consciousness that allows us to feel the spiritual worlds and so it is really like us stepping into our inner church.

Menstruation is the sleep moment, the moment to rest. If women are going to get any message from this interview I would love them to validate this experience for themselves and to listen to their body instead of being tyrannised by this ridiculous idea that you have to be Superwoman, totally productive, out there and gorgeous  24/7; this is part of the pathology of patriarchy and it is messing both women and men up.

Alexandra, what do you say to the women trying to get pregnant whose cycle is so full of tension especially after ovulation when they are looking for the minutest sign of pregnancy or impending period. How do you get them to make friends with their cycle ? 

A healthy menstrual cycle is a fertile cycle. You can begin to create a healthy menstrual cycle by practicing menstrual cycle awareness and by making peace with the whole process. It’s a whole integrated unit. You can’t just have ovulation on its own because ovulation only happens because of what happens at menstruation Each phase of the cycle plays its part. You’ve got to honour the impulse of each phase to start to restore health and wellbeing and fertility can follow on the tailcoats of that.

When I was telling the Pukka editorial team I was going to do this interview the men were keen to know what they could do to help their women in their menstruation. How do they best adapt to the changing way women respond to their environment in different aspects of their cycle ?

Well I’d love to do a separate workshop for men where they can exclaim and go ‘ Whoah, what do I do ? I can’t get anything right…?’ Part of the difficulty for men is that women aren’t aware of what’s going on because they haven’t been taught this knowledge. Men are walking a tight rope here and need their own education on this. They have to be conscious of their own cyclical rhythms, of when they are up and when they are down and they may find that their rhythm is in sync a little bit with their partners as the menstrual energy rhythm is often the strongest rhythm and can ‘organize’ the family.

I also think some men develop their own self-care mechanisms at the time a woman goes into her inner Autumn to cope. Up to then she has been there for everyone and suddenly she is withdrawing and will withdraw more and more up until her bleeding. Men will have their own way of responding here, some men become more clingy and others step back. Both of you are having to negotiate the transition here. I recommend men ask women what they need at this time, and support that as best they can.

Ideally a man needs his partner to practice the cycle awareness we have been discussing but he should also learn about where she is in her cycle even if she isn’t tracking it and be mindful of what you are noticing but not say ‘Are you premenstrual ?’  because for women who are very sensitive at this time that implies they are being difficult or moody. The man who is very dependent on his partner needs to get his act together to be more independent especially in the premenstrual phase; it’s his inner work as well. The biggest gift a man can give to the woman is to protect her menstrual time of rest as a non-negotiable zone. He can be the guardian of that space, he can make sure she has her own time, he can pick up the slack, say no to people on her behalf, do washing up etc. Men love being given this sacred task as guardian of the menstrual space, it’s the most beautiful loving gift he can give his partner and if he can respect the rhythm of menstruation we will be putty in his hands.

Thank you Alexandra, that was fascinating. We hope you will come back in the New Year to tell us about your work with the Menopause.

You can find out more about Alexandra’s work on her website www.redschool.net

Alexandra Pope

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Suze Pole, Acupuncturist, mother, musician

Suze Pole has been an acupuncturist since 2000 and has specialised in women's health ever since. A passionate music lover, Suze now plays the saxophone and loves exploring the vibrant world of jazz. Married to Sebastian Pole, Pukka's master herbsmith, Suze has also played a key role in the development of Pukka's brand and herbal evolution.