Every now and then, we receive a message about the TEDx talk “Super Science Behind Menstrual Practices”, asking why it is no longer available at the earlier url. So here’s why.
This talk was banned by TED a few months ago saying that it carried ‘dangerous misinformation’ that could not be verified by gynecology. We did not contest it as the TEDx organizers stood to lose their license. So we let it go.
The reason we did not and do not attempt to provide so called scientific research papers based on Modern Medicine to explain Ayurveda is because Ayurveda cannot be understood through the limitations of Modern Medicine. It is like asking a tiny fish to explain the ocean through its lens. The ocean of course can easily explain the fish, but not the other way around. Any attempts to explain Ayurveda through the lens of Modern Medicine would be akin to the fish talking about the water around it. It doesn’t even realize that there is an entire ocean beyond its surrounding waters. To understand Ayurveda, we need to study Ayurveda in its own light.
For those who might be interested, we have the script of the entire talk here.
The Super Science Behind Menstrual Practices – The Banned TEDx Talk
For most women in India, menstruation is synonymous with various cultural practices – avoiding strenuous physical work, avoiding certain type of food, taking rest, staying away from temples, and so on.
The most common reason that has somehow percolated our society is that of women being impure during menstruation. Nothing could be further from the truth.
About three years ago, my team and I began our search into what might be the origin of these practices and what was their purpose? We travelled to over 9 states in India and spoke to a wide cross-section of people from different indigenous communities, different religions and belief systems and even different scientific backgrounds………and this is what we discovered – None of these practices were invented to suppress women. In fact, none of them have anything to do with purity or impurity. And unlike popular belief, these practices are not rooted in RELIGION, although they may feature in religious texts. These practices came into being as a measure to prevent menstrual and reproductive health problems. We found that cultural practices around menstruation are deeply rooted in indigenous sciences; in our case, Ayurveda.
Difference between Ayurveda & Modern Medicine
When one thinks of Ayurveda, the picture in mind is of an ancient sage with a mortar and pestle, busy grinding away all sorts of herbs. And then we look at modern medicine, and there is a picture of a well dressed doctor with a stethoscope, surrounded by technologically advanced diagnostic machines. But how “modern” is modern medicine really?
Modern medicine, especially modern pharmacology is based on the principles of Classical Science – that is, the atom is the basic building block, then you have molecules which in turn form cells, which come together to form tissues, which groups again to form organs and then organs are classified into the various systems – digestive system, respiratory system, reproductive system, etc. So disease is understood and treated at the molecular level.
But wait a minute, why is modern medicine still talking in terms of Classical Science when other fields have adopted the Quantum approach! What is this Quantum Science?
Quantum Theory explains things at the sub-atomic level, stating that everything behaves both as a wave and as a particle. Heisenberg, the architect of Quantum Mechanics said this “underlying all physical matter is the intrinsically interconnected dynamic network of energy leaving nothing isolated in the universe”. Essentially, it means that all of us and everything around us is made up of waves of energy and we are all interconnected and influence each other.
So what would it look like if Quantum Science and not Classical Science was applied in Medicine – It would look very much like Ayurveda!
Ayurveda in that sense is far more “modern” than Modern Medicine.
Ayurveda in India’s cultural practices
An understanding of the basics of Ayurveda is a must if one has to interpret the cultural practices in India, especially those pertaining to menstruation.
Since Ayurveda works on the quantum theory, it goes beyond the atomic & molecular level, and dives deeper to the level of the forces which influence disease and cause the atoms and molecules to behave as they do.
Let me give you an example. Take the condition of Menorrhagia or Heavy Menstrual Bleeding. One of the reasons for women to bleed excessively is a hormonal imbalance. So the popular treatment in modern medicine involves Hormone Therapy, wherein synthetic hormones pills are consumed, which reduce menstrual flow. Needless to say, there are side effects as the body treats the artificial hormones as foreign entities. In this case, the treatment is aimed at hormones because we do not know what causes the hormones to be imbalanced.
Whereas in Ayurveda, the treatment is not directed at the hormones, but at the biological forces which cause the hormones to become imbalanced in the first place. By regulating the forces that control hormone secretion, the body’s natural rhythm and balance returns, naturally resulting in normal menstrual cycles.
So unlike popular conception, Ayurveda is not just about replacing chemical drugs with plant based drugs, NO. It in purest form, Ayurveda is about your body’s ability to heal itself and how YOU can facilitate that process.
So what are these biological forces that regulate all our functions? In Ayurveda, three biological forces are recognized and they are called the Vata, the Pitta and the Kapha, which oversee our movements, metabolism and immunity respectively. These are called the Tri-Doshas, and they occur in different combinations in individuals impacting our health, personality and in women, our menstrual cycles.
Explanation for Cultural Practices
The first week of the menstrual cycle, soon after the period, is marked by a dominance of Kapha dosha. Kapha is what gives strength and stability; which is why we feel energetic, have better stamina and we are able to push ourselves more physically just after our period. It is our most stable time of the menstrual cycle.
Following this, comes ovulation. During Ovulation and the week after it, it is the transformative energy of Pitta Dosha, the fire, which dominates. Women experience Pittam or body heat especially on the days just before their period, when Pitta dosha is usually high. This high Pitta is one of the reasons for acne during PMS.
The process of menstruation itself is dominated by Vata Dosha which controls all movements within the body. Vata is responsible for sending signals to initiate movement of hormones that cause menstruation.
If Vata is aggravated and not functioning normally it could create a hormonal imbalance, resulting in various menstrual disorders. Similarly Pitta aggravation, especially by indulging in food or activities that increase the bodily heat or Pittam, will also cause menstrual discomfort. This understanding is the basis of many cultural practices pertaining to menstruation – preventing Vata & Pitta from being disrupted. For ex.,
- Vata symbolizes movement and any excess movement such as travelling or sports during menstruation could disrupt your cycle. Take rest, we are told.
- Similarly, food that is cold or dry can increase Vata And food that is sour or spicy can increase Pitta – so we are told to avoid it. Eat a warm khichidi, we are told.
Vata Dosha has 5 sub-types, each regulating different functions in different parts of the body. The sub type which regulates functions in the reproductive region is called the Apana Vata. The Apana Vata is responsible for all downward and outward movements such as the elimination of wastes, downward movement of the child during birthing and also the downward movement of menstrual blood. It is comparable to the body’s gravitational force, and as such needs to always be directed downward.
During menstruation, if women undertake activities which change the direction of Apana or temporarily stop its downward flow, then they are quite likely to experience menstrual cramps due to the Apana being pulled in opposite directions. For example
- inverted postures during Yoga or Gymnastics could reverse Apana
- poor digestion and accumulation of bodily toxins could also disrupt or block Apana
- restraining the natural urge to urinate might result in the downward Apana being forced to find another path
- Religious spaces such as temples are created in such a way that our bodily forces are turned upwards. So if a menstruating woman entered a space which is likely to affect and cause the Apana to reverse its direction, the result would be severe cramps and pain.
Now some of you might be thinking – I did these things during my period and nothing much happened. The right way of putting it would be “Nothing much happened which I noticed”.
Our mind is so used to everything being loud, that subtle changes like this can easily go missed. Who would notice a ripple in an ocean of waves? But, if we repeatedly exposed ourselves to spaces and activities which are “culturally recommended to be avoided” during menstruation, the long term effects might not go unnoticed.
For ex., a repeated inversion or obstruction of the direction of Apana could result in the menstrual flow itself reversing its direction. As bizarre as it may sound, this is very similar to the condition which modern medicine calls Endometriosis. Although modern medicine is not too sure of the cause of Endometriosis, one of the theories called “retrograde menstruation” suggests that during menstruation, some of the blood and endometrial tissue backs up into the fallopian tube, implants in the abdomen and grows. As with other cases of Apana inversion, Endometriosis is terrifyingly painful condition. But this might have been prevented had we fully understood the science behind menstruation.
Don’t just limit this subject to an intellectual conversation. Instead, try and experience it. If you are a woman, your body is a tool to directly experience the science, even though modern medicine does not yet have a language for it. Next time you bleed, observe what your body is going through. Be silent, be still – so you can listen to your body talking to you. Your menstrual cycle is the living proof of the existence of a deeper science. It would be a shame to let it go by unnoticed.