YOUR BODY, YOUR CYCLE
& HOW TO USE
A MOON MANDALA
The whole menstrual cycle is an alchemical process in itself, during which every woman who bleeds goes through a transformation inside herself. To menstruate means to live through a cyclical transmutation in which the past is shed and the new is embraced. Experiencing this transformation through conscious ritual awakens us to our connection with the cycles taking place all around us and to our relationship with all life.
- Lara Owen
BODY LITERACY & MINDFUL MENSTRUATION
When we connect with our own cyclical nature and celebrate it as a source of power, we have the opportunity to deepen the source of our inner wisdom. Learning about the menstrual cycle has shown me that womb-keepers are beautifully entwined with the rhythms and seasons of the natural world. The moon affects the flow of water in lakes and oceans and just like the tide, our bodies are a continually shifting balance of hormones resulting in the ebb and of flow of fluid; the blood of menstruation, the dry phase after the period, the wet fertile fluid and the dry phase of premenstruum.
Many indigenous cultures refer to menstruation as moon time. Traditionally, menstruating's tribe members would go to a moon-lodge to rest and meditate, where their attention could be elsewhere- on the dreamy spiritual planes, gathering wisdom. Our view of the moon changes daily as it cycles through four phases; from darkness, into waxing crescent, then fullness before waning.
We are also creatures of fluctuation and we experience a monthly biological cycle with four phases: menstrual, follicular, fertile and luteal- each with it’s own unique brew of hormonal, physical and energetic elements. The witchy author Danielle Dulsky describes this experience quite poetically: “to be in flux is the feminine’s nature, and such is the way of lunar life. You must give yourself permission to change constantly, every sleep a restful sort of moonlit labor during which you give birth to a new version of yourself just as the sun rises.” Perhaps it’s not surprising after all to learn that the processes of cyclical bodies were once revered and considered sacred. Native cultures the world over have honored their young with ceremonies to celebrate menarche, the first menstrual period. In ancient times, menstrual blood figured powerfully in creation myths and cosmology. Scholars are coming to acknowledge that the Goddess was alive in the prehistoric imagination and that her images represented a human commitment to “fertility” and “nature” (Noble, 1983).
Menstruation is a uniquely womb-based experience, essential for creation and inextricable from our health and wellness. And yet, we grow up never learning much about it, except for being told we can become pregnant and must use pads or tampons when we bleed. Our dominant social perspective regards menstruation as an inconvenient biological necessity, whose evidence should be hidden and covered up, preferably undetectable. In the midst of developing our self-worth as women thru the eyes of a patriarchal culture, we inevitably forfeit the power and wisdom inherent in our cyclical bodies. For this reason, I consider body literacy essential to any empowering process, from consensual healthcare to sexuality and healing journeys. A little background on the term body literacy, it was coined by Laura Wershler, a veteran sexual and reproductive health advocate, who wrote: "The concept of body literacy occurred to me after I read a novel illustrating the disempowering impact of illiteracy. The inability to read diminishes self-esteem and opportunities to participate in the exchange of ideas. The connection to the lives of girls and women is obvious—the education of girls is a key strategy in all international development work. It struck me that most educated women in developed countries live with another kind of illiteracy—they are not taught to “read” or understand their own bodies. On the contrary, they are taught to distrust their bodies and accept various artificial means to “manage” them."
I began learning about my menstrual cycle when I was 24 years old. At the time, I was in a relationship with the man who would eventually become the father of our two daughters. I tried hormonal birth control and it caused havoc in my body. I had just opened a restaurant serving clean organic whole foods, choosing to ingest hormones felt very counterintuitive. There had to be something other than a barrier method that would not riddle my body with unwanted side effects!
My research eventually led me to the method that would change my life. It was the Symptothermal Method, a Fertility Awareness-Based Method (FABM) that involves tracking your cervical mucus and basal body temperature. This information can be used to avoid pregnancy with up to 99.6% effectiveness with perfect use. I was thrilled to have found the kind of pregnancy prevention method I was looking for (no foreign objects in my body, no hormones, no side effects) but it was a bitter sweet discovery. As I learned about my own anatomy and biological processes in regards to fertility, I could not get over the fact that as a cyclical woman, raised by a family of women and having graduated from college - I had never been taught this before! I remember feeling a sense of injustice. I thought of so many young girls who, like I once did, feel confused over the mysterious secretions that seem to show up at arbitrary times - going so far as to self-diagnose yeast infections or feel that their body works against them. Not knowing about cervical mucus can have a major impact on a young person's self-image!
We equate getting our periods with bleeding and pregnancy, but never do we discuss our fertility and the relevant signs our body produces. Instead we are supposed to be “clean” and “perfect”; anything to the contrary is “gross”. In the wake of ignorance and unrealistic expectations, it’s no wonder so many of us reject parts of ourselves. It’s a sad and unfortunate fact that our sexual and reproductive health education is incomplete and inaccurate. We grow unaware that our monthly shedding is the key to our own renewal. Too many generations of menstruating bodies have inherited shame about their blood. But I think the tide is slowly turning and I am inspired by brave and wise women all around me. My greatest wish is that our children inherit a sense of appreciation and wonder about their own bodies. My experience alone will not suffice, the opportunity for this inheritance must also exist within a culture - this is what I work to create.
I’m not sure who said it first, “Every end is a new beginning” but they could perfectly well have been talking about menstruation. Most of us think of our period as marking the end of a cycle but actually bleeding marks the beginning! Your body simultaneously sheds the buildup of your last cycle and begins preparing for the new one. The first day you see red blood is considered Day 1. You begin releasing the lining of the uterus which became thick and spongy during the past few weeks. Hormone levels drop and energy levels may do the same. For many of us this is a time of great release after the internal tension that builds up during premenstruum.
Give yourself loving consent to let go of the layers built up during the month. Not just the physical uterine layers but also the psychic debris and emotional clutter. The moon is new moon is in darkness, just like this “ending-beginning” phase. Please keep in mind that it’s not necessary for your cycle to literally sync up with the actual moon- if you bleed with the new moon or if its summer all year long where you live is not central. When I talk of moons and seasons, I refer to your own unique cycle, your moon, your season; your body is a microcosm of the earth! Instead of yearly, we pass thru a monthly process of shedding-renewing-creating and so forth.
Menstruation is associated to winter time, marked by the energies of withdrawal, a time to listen to your inner self and to your body. The archetype of the wise crone lays claim to this phase. The barriers between the conscious and subconscious mind are lowered, enabling you to open up your awareness and interact with your innate wisdom. Listen to what those subtle messages are, especially if every month you’re coming up against the same thoughts, worries, or fears at this time.
Instead of allowing these thought to make you feel overwhelmed, take advantage of this phase to identify which areas of your life need your attention. Those messages will be most clear at this time. Then use the other weeks in your cycle to address these issues in a variety of different ways to help you come up with the best solutions and improvements for you (Vitti, 2014).
But for now, the crone archetype whispers to us the message that all wise women say... my dear, slow down.
We tend to think of our cycle as something that happens solely below the waist, but actually, it involves the hypothalamus and pituitary glands - both above the neck. The hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland to send follicle-stimulating hormone to your ovaries. As a result, a group of follicles (tiny fluid filled sacs where eggs develop) are recruited within each ovary and begin to ripen and emit estrogen.
This is your inner spring time, bursting with energy, capable of sprouting new seeds and new beginnings. You may experience greater determination, ambition and concentration, and be able to achieve more in your work. It’s a great time for starting new projects, brainstorming ideas and meeting new people. The moon is a waxing crescent that grows brighter each day. Physical energy increases and emotionally you may feel outgoing, playful, revitalized and upbeat. Socialize, exercise, dance, walk, and take pleasure in your body and the world around you.
Ovulation is an event that occurs within the context of your fertile phase. Estrogen is rising and signals to the uterus to build a new, bloody lining. Estrogen also promotes the production of cervical fluid. Your cervix is the lower opening of the uterus and can be felt protruding into the upper vagina. The cervix is lined with channels called crypts. These crypts produce cervical mucus – often seen during the follicular phase with a tacky quality which then progresses to a creamy, then slippery to stretchy egg white-like texture right before ovulation.
Toni Weschler offers great insight in Taking Charge of your Fertility: “Cervical fluid is to the woman what seminal fluid is to the man. Since men are always fertile they produce seminal fluid every day. Women, on the other hand, are fertile only a few days around ovulation, and therefore produce the substance necessary for sperm nourishment and mobility only during that time. It’s fairly intuitive. Sperm require a medium in which to live, move, and thrive- otherwise they will quickly die. Once the sperm travel from the penis to the vagina, they need a comparable substance to sustain them. But the only time its crucial for sperm to survive is around the time the egg is released. This is why women produce the substance that resembles semen for only a few days per cycle. Ultimately, cervical fluid has several key functions. It provides an alkaline medium to protect the sperm from the otherwise acidic vagina, it nourishes the sperm, it acts as a filtering mechanism, and perhaps most important, it serves as a medium in which the sperm can move.”
Two things I want to clarify in that excerpt- One, when she says that the cervical fluid “nourishes” sperm, she is referring to the fact that the sperm can live up to five days in fertile-quality cervical mucus (or fluid, I use both terms interchangeably). Second, about that “acidic vagina", the slight acidity serves as a natural barrier to infection and irritation. It represses the growth of bad bacteria and encourages the growth of good bacteria (which we now know is vital for preventing infections). In addition, the vagina has the ability to keep itself clean by secreting natural fluids to flush out old cells and maintain a healthy ph. You know how sometimes underwear gets those slightly crusty white-ish or yellowy streaks? That’s just the vagina cleaning house!
Keep in mind that this is totally different from cervical mucus. During your fertile phase, estrogen levels peak and the pituitary gland secretes luteinizing hormone- causing a ripe egg to burst from its follicle and the ovary. This is ovulation. Some people feel a twinge of pelvic pain with the release of the egg as well as a surge of energy or a sense of depletion. Once the egg tumbles out, it is quickly swept into the uterine tube. Assuming fertilization does not occur, the egg remains viable for 12-24 hours, after which it simply disintegrates and gets absorbed by the body.
Your resting body temperature will be higher after ovulation and remain so until menstruation. It’s not something you would notice unless you took your take your temp every morning. Those of us who chart our cycles use this biological marker to confirm ovulation. I love the body to earth parallel that Fertility Awareness Educator Katie Singer describes, how our bodies like the earth’s surface, cycles through phases of cooling and heating, which in turn create moistening and drying, which in turn create a fertile environment for life to evolve.
Your fertile phase is your own sultry summer. This is a time of ripeness and bringing into being- be it life or the fruitful creation of your endeavors. It is a highly productive phase, full of energy, creative impulse and sexuality. The round, full moon mirrors the egg. Radiating your energy outward and connecting with community is at the heart of this phase. Alissa Vitti, author of Womancode says “This is the time to have important conversations…when your heightened communication skills will allow you to convey your thoughts and opinions more clearly, as well as to be more receptive to those of others.”
The mother-creatrix archetype imbues us with a sense of self-confidence and capacity to expand, which enables you to offer support, encouragement, and strength to others, with the confidence that you are both able to give and sustain it.
The empty follicle from which the egg burst is now referred to as the corpus luteum, Latin for “yellow body”. The corpus luteum remains on the surface of the ovary and produces progesterone which makes the endometrium spongy (a spongy uterine lining is required for implantation-pregnancy to be successful). Progesterone also causes your waking temperature to become warmer and your cervical mucus to dry up. After an average of 14 days-16 days, the corpus luteum expires and your hormone levels have declined enough to trigger the release of your uterine lining, your period.
During the first half of the luteal phase your energy may still be high, so continue to enjoy the activities you took on during ovulation, then scale back on your intensity as your energy declines. This is a dynamic time which gradually alters as the phase progresses. Your inner moon moves away from the heat of your inner summer and into the long exhale of early autumn. During this phase your intuition becomes heightened, and you may crave spiritual nourishment, time alone, self-care rituals and authentic communication more than physical touch.
Pay close attention to your emotions and acknowledge them. This lessens the likelihood of it being expressed through the body as a symptom. This phase can be the most dramatic of all and can have the most impact on our daily lives. Toni Weschler’s insight goes like this: “When we try to force ourselves to be linear and constant, to be the same cheery, outgoing, productive women day in and day out, we’re setting ourselves up to feel like failures - and to suspect that we’ve lost our minds at certain times of the month. Remember, women in our society are socialized to always be nice, always be the caretaker, always be giving, and never show dissatisfaction. Perhaps a better way to perceive your premenstrual emotions is to recognize that it is a time when you finally allow yourself to express the frustrations society expects you to suppress.”
Lara Owen in Her Blood Is Gold echoes this sentiment: “PMS should actually stand for Pre-Menstrual Strength, because that is what it really is: our female power turned in on itself because patriarchal culture fails to nurture and honor women’s reality and women’s gifts. When that power is recognized and developed, it becomes clear that what the premenstruum brings is emotional clarity and courage.”
In my personal experience this has indeed become clear for me. I celebrate the coming of the autumn wind within my inner landscape. Sometimes it stirs so forcefully that I can hardly keep my feet on the ground. Clarity can bring challenges to a head and change is not always simple. Even so, consider this a communing with your inner wild nature. It is a time of letting go, no more hanging on to what doesn't feel right for you. Awareness, attention and compassion are key now. Your moon is waning, seeking a dark respite from the outside world, a soul-place.
Note: Energetically speaking, although the cycle is divided into four phases, the demarcation between these phases is not rigid; rather, each phase merges naturally into the next. Each phase may be expressed and felt entirely different from the energetic influences I have described and some of your may find that their own cycle expresses itself in a more intricate pattern.
A moon mandala is different from “charting”, which I also do. I practice (and teach) the Symptothermal Method of Fertility Awareness. But I felt a yearning for tracking the energetic and psycho-spiritual nuances of my menstrual cycle. I wanted a visually lovely way to honor this, using a circular chart that would incorporate lunar phases. Funny how the collective mind works because I found tons of charts online fitting that description and purpose! Eventually I had a moon mandala created to my specifications by an artist friend. I am excited to be sharing it with you.
It has been deeply satisfying to honor my cyclical rhythms and the flux that influences my moods, desires, energy levels, and feelings throughout my cycle. I hope you give it a try and see for yourself! Keep in mind that there is no “right way”, what’s important is that you make it your own.
I start each moon mandala on Day 1 of my cycle and I match it up to the “petal” that has the current moon phase. I like to see the actual moon in relation to my own. I tend to bleed around the full moon and it’s always interesting to consider external and internal energetic influences.
Another option is to reflect more internally on your own moon phase, regardless of the actual lunar cycle. Your Day 1 can always line up with the image of the dark moon.
Towards the end of the day, I take out my moon mandala and pause to close my eyes and enjoy a few deep, slow breathes. Then I ask myself the following questions: Where has my mind been? How do I feel? How does my body feel? What does my spirit convey?
For example, in each petal you can fill in these details using a simple acronym that touches on the different ways you may experience yourself - now that I have the hang of it I just think S.E.M.P:
Spirit: change, watching, isolation, peace, volatile, wounded, wandering, mystery, profound
Emotion: peaceful, angry, intuitive, detached, melancholic, frustrated, strong, anxious, grateful,
Mind: focused, productive, active, present, scattered, brain fog, distracted, reflecting,
Physical: vibrant, sensual, heavy, tired, exhausted low energy, drained, active, strong, achy
connecting the menstrual cycle & the moon
body literacy as a tool of liberation
my journey to body literacy
the miseducation surrounding menstruation
the menstrual phase or moontime
the follicular phase
the fertile phase
the LUTEAL phase
connecting to your cycle with a moon mandala
Sometimes I include something I did like “solo beach time”, or something that deeply affected me. On one of my not so good days I may use an archetype to describe myself, like “The Dark Mother”. You can choose not to include much detail and just write down one word each day that reflects your overall mood or energy. Play around with it and see what feels meaningful and satisfying for you. The moon mandala I offer has a tier of smaller inner petals. I use it to describe my cervical mucus or period: heavy, light, dry, dry, tacky, fertile, etc.
Here is one of mine from a few years ago.
You can color the petals to match your mood or note your sexuality that day- active, passive, loving, lustful, none. Leave them blank, color them in, add another layer of insight, it’s up to you!
I hope this simple gift helps to spark the beginning of a meaningful connection to your inner rhythms! In case you haven't received one, download below:
If you have questions or want to find out more about cycle charting for contraception, I'd be happy to receive your questions. Get started by connecting with me below.
Christiane Northrup, M. (1994). Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom. New York: Bantam Books.
Dulsky, D. (2017). Woman Most Wild. Novato: New World Library.
Gray, M. (1994). Red Moon. Element Books Ltd.
Noble, V. (1983). Motherpeace: A Way to the Goddess through Myth, Art, and Tarot. New York: Harper Collins.
Owen, L. (1993). Her Blood Is Gold: Celebrating the Power of Menstruation. New York: Harper Collins.
Singer, K. (2004). The Garden of Fertility. New York: Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc
Vitti, A. (2014). Woman Code. New York: Harper One.
Weschler, T. (2015). Taking Charge of Your Fertility. Seattle: Harper Collins.