I sit writing in the Cairo airport as I return to Toronto from rural Nigeria. I spent ten days conducting training programs in mindful teaching, and on women’s health and menstruation at The Embodiments of Love Academy (and yes men, you should continue reading… you too should know about the issues that affect 50% of the world’s population!). I have always loved traveling though not for the usual reasons. Sight seeing and beech vacations seem to have dropped out of my life years ago. Rather, it is the inner sight seeing that develops and the ability to connect with others in ways that go beyond language, culture and beliefs that I love so much. There is nothing that can shine light on our most deeply held assumptions (and therefore blind spots) about life like immersing oneself in an entirely different world view and set of material circumstances.
The menstrual workshops served to be a wonderful learning opportunity for myself and all the ladies involved. With the generous donation of reusable menstrual pads and underwear by Yoga Without Borders (YWB) and Aangen, as well as with the experienced leadership of Angad at YWB, we conducted two workshops exploring all issues of menstruation from initial menses to menopause and everything in between. One of the issues which came to light when discussing the reusable pads was that there is a belief in their community that menstrual blood is unhygienic and contaminated (as if infected) and that they would become sick and dirty if they washed their pads. They were wondering if they would need strong disinfectants or bleach to clean them safely. Further they felt that they too become dirty and unclean while menstruating. As we discussed this there was clearly discomfort and even disgust reflected in their faces. These were beliefs that I had never encountered before and which from a medical standpoint simply don’t hold. What did feel familiar were the feelings of embarrassment and general need to hide and disguise the fact of menstruation. This seems to be something women face across cultures and around the world.
As we explored the beliefs held about menstruation in this small Igbo town, a wonderful conversation ensued in which we reviewed the role of the uterine lining in nourishing a fertilized egg and therefore all pregnancies. It became clear that not only is menstrual blood something quite like other bodily fluids (and much more hygienic than stool), but it is in fact made of the nutrients that are the very foundation of life when an egg implants. This means that every man, woman and child has been nourished by this very blood and that the very act of creation depends upon it. From this perspective, menstruation becomes an essential part of the creative life cycle. The women connected strongly with this and with their own powers of compassion, generosity, love, humility, and creativity. These powers lie within each of us though they are often hidden by low-self esteem and negative self-perceptions, particularly while menstruating for many women. I can’t begin to describe the shift in self-image that ensued in the entire group (including myself) as we explored this together. They were so enthusiastic that they approached me to ask when we were going to meet next and how they could be sure to share this with the other young women in the community as well as in schools and villages beyond their own. And so the school club “Femmecare” was formed. I am deeply grateful to the women of TELA for their openness, receptivity and passion for supporting their sisters, daughters and students.
Coming into contact with deeply held beliefs and recognizing that they are simply a story and not a reflection of any absolute truth is a moment of liberation. Sometimes this is easier to see reflected in another culture than in one’s own but we can find our freedom most profoundly when we transcend the limitations of our own beliefs. So I would like to ask you a few questions. What beliefs do you hold that are culturally determined? What do you take for granted as “Truth” because your society or your family tells you it is so? Have you ever challenged those beliefs? I would love to hear your answers to this question. Let’s have a discussion! Can you imagine a world in which that belief did not exist? What would it be like to live without that belief or custom?
The recently deceased Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Michael Stone often wrote about how profoundly intertwined our sense of personhood becomes with the social norms we are born into. If our spiritual practice is to unravel our limited and narrow sense of self (which is vulnerable to such tremendous suffering), than we must also start to unravel the social narratives of which we are a part. We can take this one step further when our life choices also begin to take apart and unravel socially accepted norms. His life was a beautiful example of this and I am grateful for his teachings and life, short though it was.
“We must do our best to listen to one another and the pulsing world which sustains us, and to work on behalf of biodiversity itself, not on behalf of our infinite desires and habit energies. It’s not just reflection that the spiritual person must cultivate but also the response to the insights arrived at through reflection and the deep commitment to take our practice out into the world. The world is calling out for people like you.” Michael Stone – Yoga for a World Out of Balance.