By the time Lisa de Jong experienced her first womb meditation, she was living in fear of her body.
Debilitated by years of extreme period pain, she had gone from doctor to doctor looking for solutions, a diagnosis, anything. By her mid-20's, after many attempts to treat her pain with medication, Lisa was still living with pain and the emotional burden it places on your life.
"Every month I didn’t trust my body to be well, so I always anticipated my period and I would always be in fear of it,'' she says. "My pain got so bad I was fainting in the bathroom.
"I was in my early 20’s and I wanted to have a hysterectomy."
It would be a while longer before Lisa found through diagnostic surgery that she had endometriosis, a condition affecting up to one in 10 women in Ireland that causes extreme pain during menstruation, as well as fertility issues. Struggling for answers, she turned to education, reading all that she could about menstruation.
That’s how she found herself performing a womb meditation, speaking directly with her womb, turning inwards.
"When I did that, I started to cry and I realised I was holding onto a lot of grief and all my life I had been rejecting that part of my body. That’s when I had to turn towards the pain and listen to it and be more compassionate."
Lisa is one of a comparatively small but dynamic community of menstruality coaches, educators who guide women through menstruation, teaching them to live in harmony with what Lisa calls nature’s "feedback system".
Her experience of crippling pain led her to study with the Red School, an organisation that combines aspects of spirituality, psychotherapy, and wellness to guide women through menstruation, from periods through to menopause and beyond. Their focus is the "cyclical nature" of menstruation, a process they believe can be used to improve a woman’s wellbeing.
According to Lisa, the school emphasises "understanding one’s body from a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual perspective where we understand that every day a woman is a different makeup, physiologically based on her hormones and therefore learning to live more cyclically, it will actually prevent period pain".
In short, instead of fighting against your body, flow with it.
A new, old wellness trend
If you think it sounds like something Gwyneth Paltrow would do, you’re not far wrong. The rising tide of menstruality coaching has not occurred in a bubble, and those dabbling with tracking periods are surely doing it in the name of some form of wellness.
For the uninitiated, it also smacks of biohacking, the trend of applying tech-hacker-style regimented calculations, optimisations and general tracking of bodily functions in an effort to become the healthiest, and some say most efficient, version of you - a practice beloved by Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter and, for some, the male Gwyneth.
And it is a little of that, too. The United States women's soccer team made headlines when they won the World Cup, not least for how they collectively tracked their periods to enhance their performance.
But while menstrual awareness may have many of the trappings of wellness, it is also imbued with the ancient lessons of those who toiled without period tracking apps and Paltrow’s Goop-approved herbs and supplements. There are no specific apps involved, no set diets or ritual "flushing of toxins" from your system. Just the somewhat radical belief that menstruation holds all the information needed to fine-tune your lifestyle.
Essentially, your body is your app.
The community is particularly active in the US and UK, where figures like Claire Baker, the creator of the Adore Your Cycle movement, has amassed almost 20,000 followers on Instagram by sharing her updates on each day of her period. Her feed is a delightfully feminine one, full of evocative sketches of arching female bodies, smiling selfies in dappled sunlight and a tastefully apt colour scheme of pink and red.
For Lisa, it’s a reaction to life in a "rational, forward-thinking" world, which she finds predominantly masculine. "I suppose it’s capitalism as well", she adds. "The pressure to achieve, the pressure to perform - we do suffer. It’s not in our nature to do that. We’re cyclical in nature."
What does a menstrual coach do?
Rather than helping women with just periods, menstruality coaching looks at the entire menstrual cycle, working to get a picture of the "physical, mental, emotional and spiritual body", Lisa says. She teaches women about the hormonal changes taking place in their bodies and how to harness the unique strengths they bring, while through period tracking they build an idea of how each woman experiences menstruation.
But it goes even deeper than that for some. Some women come to her to get help being more connected to their "cyclical nature" and "be more connected in the world", to work on their creativity or being more assertive in work.
Central to this is the archetype of the seasons, the other cyclical process that defines our lives. "There’s a lot of wisdom and power in the cycle in the same way as there is in the seasons of the year", Lisa says. "We need to have winter and the death of nature in order for new life to emerge."
Once it’s explained, it’s as intuitive as eating two tubs of ice cream and holing yourself up indoors on your period. Inner winter is the first day of menstruation, when bleeding begins. Lisa calls this phase a "dark time of rest and re-charge" when hormones are at their lowest and a woman needs to rest more in her custom-built "period cave".
Inner Spring is the "transition season to ovulation", which takes place in inner Summer. It’s a season associated with joy and playfulness and taking action on things we might have dropped in inner-winter, but Lisa warns: "If a woman runs out of the period cave she might deplete her energies and feel exhausted or flat or anxious or depressed during this time. It’s learning to ride that wave of hormones that are increasing slowly."
Inner Summer is, as one might expect, when things get fun. As the phase when ovulation takes place, Lisa explains that women have a renewed sense of energy and verve. Women can feel "superwoman powers, she can be all things to all people and if something bad happens in your life, you can take it, you have more emotional resilience". A good time to wear a new lipstick, give a presentation at work or embrace your sexuality - essentially, hot girl summer.
Finally, inner Autumn is when a woman’s energy turns inward, the phase best - and wrongly, if you ask Lisa - associated with PMS. Though women can feel irritable and sensitive at this point, Lisa says this is a "no-nonsense time", adding that "it’s a time of discernment". Nesting for the oncoming period by batching cooking, cleaning and self-care are important here.
Imagining the menstrual cycle in this way has a few benefits: it prettifies it, replacing images of bloodied tampons and painkillers with blossoming trees and lovingly constructed period caves; it imbues a prosaic and often bothersome experience with ancient, mystical charm.
More than anything for this writer, however, it reminds us how short the process is, how minute and concentrated each phase is and how easy it is to get completely unraveled by your body’s processes. This is why rest is so important, but also so radical.
If she has one lesson, Lisa suggests women take their period week as a week of rest, dropping as much unnecessary busywork as they can and luxuriating in themselves. To my burnt out, overwhelmed, caffeine-addled brain, this feels like groundbreaking advice. Resting is now radical. What does that say about us? Is the bar that low?
Yes, yes it is.
"We live in a very stressed culture," Lisa says, "and there’s almost this addiction to stress and to adrenaline which serves the purpose of achievement and fulfillment in that sense but actually on a deeper level it’s not really fulfilling us in our happiness."
"We have an in-built system to remind us to rest during that time and when we do rest, we can be amazing the rest of the cycle. We’re not missing out."
This approach is not commonplace. Seeing periods as this life-improving, power giving force will be difficult for some people, depending on their experience of them or what society has told them about periods. Yet it is a subject that people - especially women - are desperate to have.
Charlotte Amrouche is another educator who gives workshops on period stigma and sustainable period products, as well as the woman behind the Instagram account Míosta. In her workshops, she meets people "ready" to talk about periods, actively looking for the outlet.
"It always ends up being conversations about more than just periods. It ends up being conversations about contraception, consent, bodies in general. It seems to be this entry point to a wider conversation about female bodies and reproductive health issues."
Central to this is the wider context of women’s bodies and health - the abortion referendum, the CervicalCheck scandal and the global focus on women’s wellbeing - as well as the myriad period-related events of 2015, often called "the year the period went public". It was in this time that Instagram poet Rupi Kaur fought the social media giant after it removed an image of her on blood-stained bedsheets; Kiran Gandhi ran the London marathon while free-bleeding (bleeding without a sanitary pad or tampon).
There is a move towards engaging with the body, too, in a hands-on way. Period cups are becoming more popular, as women work through society’s lesson that blood is disgusting, shameful, to be hidden. In 2017, sanitary pad company Bodyform finally released the first advertisement featuring red "blood" instead of blue liquid, as was the norm.
The pressure to love your period
We are firmly in the age of period positivity, when educators like Lisa and Charlotte are undoing the eons of negativity towards women’s bodies and their processes. However, Charlotte cautions that focusing solely on short, snappy Instagram posts or pushing period-related self-love regardless of the situation could do more harm than good.
"There’s a thing that happens where we are being so positive about our period, we want to empower women, we want women to feel power in their bodies and to not feel shame about them or disgust about their menstrual blood.
"It is great to feel positive about your period but then there’s an aspect too that you could be experiencing a lot of pain and discomfort and so it’s also okay to feel quite crap about it, too."
"I don’t want period positivity to become another thing that women have to live up to. There are already so many things that we have to try and be as women."