Interview by Hannah Ransom
Today I have an interview with Alexandra Pope of Red School The interview is a little longer than a normal blog post, but has a bunch of stuff you don’t want to miss, like:
- How the menstrual cycle is the best self-care tool you could ask for
- Why body literacy is as vital as (just plain) literacy
- How and why your experience of your menstrual cycle may differ in different phases of your life
- What some of the best steps to take are when you are trying to deal with cramps or PMS
Hannah: Alexandra Pope is a psychotherapist and a menstrual health educator. She does a lot of work with women and their menstrual cycles, particularly their menstruation and healing some of the issues around that which often includes physical symptoms like pain and PMS. So, Alexandra, would you like to give us a little bit of an overview of the big projects and things you are doing right now?
Alexandra: I would absolutely love to do that. Thank you very much, first off, for inviting me to speak to you about this. Well, yes, I’ve got a high dream and ambition which is to restore this whole psychological and spiritual field of work that’s connected to women and the menstrual cycle. This begins at menarche and is developed through our menstruating years, at menopause it becomes a real flowering of something for our mature years. I run introductory workshops as well as a deep training, where I teach women about the psychological and spiritual forces of the cycle and the developmental journey that a woman goes on. We talk about a power of menstruation or the power of the menstrual cycle, but what do we mean by that word “power”? And it’s huge. The menstruating years are this huge journey of initiation and that’s what I am teaching. And menopause is like graduation day, frankly.
Hannah: Yeah, so do you do a lot of work with specific stages? Like with those going through menarche and those having issues during their reproductive years and also rituals for menopause?
Alexandra: I don’t do work with girls, though I used to. I do work with women about their menarche, because women have to heal something there. I teach on the psychological dynamic of the menstrual cycle, so I run these trainings and I talk about how you can use the cycle for a wellness tool that’s for self-care, life management, stress management… And actually, that is everything. Understanding that lair of the cycle and how the cycle is this amazing self care tool builds in women the inner psychological musculature to then properly channel the creative and spiritual forces of the cycle. So you have the wellness lair, then the creativity, then the spiritual.
I’m running a training in England and next week we are going to do the creativity residential where we focus on how your calling speaks to you and how your cycle helps you to manifest that calling. So I teach in very precise ways about the creative process and how that is deeply embedded in the female body. It is so brilliant that the female body comes coded with it’s own personal development program and it’s own spiritual practice. I mean it’s a complete outrage that this is not known. That every woman and girl does not grow up knowing that this is her birthright. Anyway, things are changing, and actually, the work on fertility awareness is absolutely core. And Jane [Bennett] and I say that body literacy is as vital as literacy. Or, you know, financial literacy. Having this body literacy is radical on so many levels. Not just for contraception, but for so much else.
Hannah: Yeah, I totally agree. It’s so important for women to learn even if they don’t want to use it as birth control just to have that knowledge of their body. And it’s such an empowering thing for those women that I would really love to see the knowledge more widespread.
Alexandra: You know, It’s really empowering, Hannah, and a women who knows fertility awareness have a kind of bounce in their step. It’s like a little secret, like, “I know what’s happening in my body, I know that this is about to happen.” It’s so great!
Hannah: I’m curious, when you have people coming to you for your workshops, do they often come because they are experiencing pain or PMS, or do you have people that are exploring spiritual aspects of their cycles. If it is the pain and PMS, what are the first steps you have them take. Like, is it just keeping track of their cycles and knowing where they are?
Alexandra: Yes, initially, because I have been doing this work for 30 years, and because I was holding workshops in Australia, I thought who is going to want to come to a workshop on menstruation? Today people do come because they have difficult times with their cycles and with menstruation, but there are actually many women who come now because they just love their cycle or have been turned on to their cycle by my work and want to learn more. So they are coming because they want to understand the creative and spiritual forces at work as well as have a brilliant self care and life-management tool. So it’s both.
In answer to your question, how do I approach women who are struggling with menstrual problems or what is the first thing. Well, I have to say the first thing is, as you said, cycle awareness. Our introductory workshop here in London, which we call “awaken your menstrual power”, is that. But we teach the inner seasons of the cycle. The different power you have in the different phases of the cycle. It’s as if women haven’t been able to live in the full order of the cycle. We’ve only been allowed the ovulatory and pre-ovulatory women. The pre-menstrual and the menstrual sides of us we’ve had to squash and wait until we get back to “normal” again. So, we’ve only really ever fulfill that first part of the cycle.
So the very first thing I teach women is that they’ve got to learn to live into the whole of the cycle. I give them a very beautiful framing for thinking about the cycle so they can really value it, even as they are suffering. And it’s really crucial that they do chart their cycle so they know where they are in their cycle at any one time and they know that moment when they are going into the difficult time so they can prepare for it.
I was working with a woman today that her story was so terrible; she’s in her middle 30s and she’s a mum, married, and she’s happy. You know, the elements of her life are good. But every month, for about one week, she becomes insane. And she turns it on her husband. And it’s really extreme. Poor poppet, my heart went out to her. But she was thinking: What’s going on? I love my husband. But she is just destructive. But talking to her, what was really apparent to me was that she was denying something very central in herself and that it was coming back to bite her each month pre-menstrually. It was something very core about her nature and her powers. Actually, this woman is a very sensitive woman and she is probably highly intuitive, she may be psychic. Often, if a women has a really violent reaction in her pre-menstrual time I often think that she is a high sensitive and doesn’t know how to take care of it. And she was very hard on herself, very critical, and the backlash came pre-menstrually. So, it will be a journey for her to turn this around because it’s about her starting to validate her own nature and start to take a stand for who she is and be kind to herself. This woman really needs support now to do her inner work and it’s all coming out on her husband even though it’s all about her. There may be some relationship work later. Does that make sense what I am saying to you?
Hannah: Yes, I am always curious about and see how females in our culture and society deny taking time for ourselves and meeting our own needs. We are seen as this nurturing, ovulatory woman, but when it comes to other times in our cycles like when we have anger we can’t really vent it we are called a bitch, we are called petty, so you can’t have these feelings, they aren’t validated. Also, just not being able to take that time for yourself when you are craving it due to relationship stuff or work stuff or whatever. Just the way that we are valued. And not even the way that other people value us necessarily, but the way we value ourselves, too.
Alexandra: That’s absolutely right. We aren’t allowed to be the woman that we become in the second half of the cycle. The basic energies of the cycle is that in the first half your energies are going out towards the world and your basic sense of self is strengthened and your own needs are much more quiet and you’ve got a lot of juice for others. If we only lived in that world of us tending to others and being out there are having that nice high all of the time, what would happen? And women all get it when I ask that question. They say “yeah, yeah, we’d all burn out”. I say “that’s right. And guess what? The wisdom of our cycle is so fabulous because the wheel turns.” In the second half of our cycles our bodies say “That’s great, you’ve done everything for everybody else now you’re making the trek back home to yourself.”
So the whole second half of the cycle is about you subtly withdrawing your chi from others and coming back and checking in with yourself so your own needs wake up. The closer you get to menstruation the more permeable you become so you really can’t repress stuff.
This. Is. Health. Creating.
Every month we have a reality check with ourselves. Where do men get that? I do not want anyone ever again to condemn the menstrual cycle as a problem. It is the most extraordinary self care tool. We get this reality check so if we get any reaction we go “Oh my God, what’s going on?” and you do a little inventory. It is so cool
Hannah: Yes, well hopefully we do take that inventory, anyway. I think that one of the problems is how we treat medicine in general, listing any problem as a symptom and just wanting to get rid of the symptom instead of thinking about what caused the symptom.
Alexandra: One thought that comes to me when you are talking about symptoms: We talked about PMS, but with menstrual cramps, too. One woman cut the pain killers all together by simply saying “no” more often in her premenstrual time. She reduced her workload and just kept her boundaries really strong and by that she cleared up her pain. Now it’s not always that simple for all women, but all women could reduce their pain by doing that for sure. There is a lot of physical pain that can come from emotional pain.
Hannah: Yeah, that is kind of what I was asking you when I was asking about the first step. I think it is interesting that you don’t necessarily know what is causing the symptom for you. For some people it might be quite a progression of things they need to try before it all works, and for others it might be the first thing. I think that’s why it’s really important to come from the holistic mindset of doing the least harmful and most health promoting thing first. Like, what harm could ever come from tracking your cycle? (laughs)
Alexandra: Yes, very dangerous. A woman wakes up to herself (laughs)
Hannah: I’ve read your book Wild Genie, and something that you mentioned in it was that you had some practitioner tell you that they thought that you would work better with the energies of bleeding at the full moon and ovulating at the new moon. I am curious about that because I am one of those people that usually the closer I ovulate to the full moon I am totally scattered. I don’t really like it. I also like my post-ovulatory time better. I am more focused and calm. So I was just curious about the different way your cycles can line up and how that can make you experience your cycle differently.
Alexandra: Yes, gosh, I can remember the practitioner, but my energies were very low at that time and I think it was about how to conserve my energies because my health wasn’t great when I was going through the worst of the pain.
I don’t have a position on this with women at all because you bleed when you bleed and you ovulate when you ovulate, but I think it’s good for women to notice how different their experience can be depending on when they bleed. It really illuminates very clearly all of the different cyclical forces that can affect us, and not just our menstrual cycles. For instance, when I bled at the dark moon my bleed would be really still and deeply internal and very shut down. Beautiful, I loved it. And if I bled at the full moon I was off my head. I was like: What dug am I on? I was as high as a kite. Absolutely ecstatic. And it depends on your nature as well.
Hannah: Yeah I think it’s amazing how cycles can be so individual. I have seen a lot of books that people have a very set idea of how you will experience each part of your cycle, but I’ve found that for a lot of people they don’t necessarily have that experience. I don’t really have that experience, like at ovulation I don’t really like it, I’m kind of jumpy. It’s great to notice your own personal changes and even how those might change, like you were saying, if you are bleeding with the moon or with seasons. I think it’s really just more need for self-awareness than a need for learning things from other people.
Alexandra: Exactly. The way I teach it to women is to talk about the archetypal cycle. So there is an archetypal pattern of birth, growth, flowering, shedding, coming in, dying, and so on. So you’ve got this archetypal energetic pattern and there are so many things within that that women share, but then all women are going to have their own version of that. It depends on your nature and then each woman will have a natural home in the cycle, a place they feel most comfortable.
I can look at a woman and say “you are such an ovulatory woman!”… I was never an ovulatory woman. I never knew what to do with those energies. I never had children. I was a pre-menstrual and menstrual woman. I was really productive and creative. That reflected my character. So you get to see where your strengths and vulnerabilities are. What I’m encouraging woman to do is where their vulnerabilities are that’s something they have to cultivate for the creative process to be complete there are areas you have to grow into. So I had to learn to grow into that ovulatory time.
So there is the archetypal pattern and you have your own personal cycle within that. And I have had woman tell me I am obsessive about the cycle. I say “Yeah I am.” I encourage women to be obsessive about it for a while until they get the detail on their own pattern because there will be precise things that happen at the same time every month and that depends on their own nature.
I have a friend in Australia who has a joke about day 25. She says ” Day 25? It’s the don’t mess with me day.” So I joke with women and ask “When’s your day 25? It may be day 23 or 26, but you’ll all have a day 25.” The cycle is so gloriously precise when it does have a pattern, some women don’t have regular cycles and that’s a problem. But for women who do, it’s so lovely.
Hannah: Yeah, and I think that’s the thing that is awesome about fertility awareness is that even when you are not trying to figure out everything about how your cycle works you end up noticing little things that happen to you at certain times in your cycle because you are putting some attention to what phase you are at all of the time. I think it’s a great first step to learning anything about your cycle.
I personally got into anything about cycles AFTER learning fertility awareness. I love, though, that when people don’t have regular cycles they can still notice consistencies with fertility awareness. Such as “I am always like this X number of days after ovulation.” I think the day 25 thing is really common, though. I don’t seem to have it, but I do love that post-ovulatory time. Oh! That was another thing that I was wondering about along with something else you said. I wonder how your experience of the different parts of your cycles changes after having a child. I’ve also never had a child and wonder if you have experienced that much with clients.
Alexandra: What the cycle does is change with time, anyway. The marvel for me when I was menstruating was that every time I bleed I felt this marvel. Even though I bled so many times it was as though I was experiencing this wisdom, this power anew and a new layer of it. Even now, post menopause, I have learned even more about the cycle just from listening to women’s stories.
My colleague Shawnie, with whom I run the women’s quest. She just had her second child and she didn’t have a big period of bleeding before the second after her first, so in a way, she is my guinea pig. We are really tracking her progress because she really chose to work with her cycle in a very conscious way before she got pregnant. She worked with my women’s quest workbook, which is 13 months, and made a very strong intention to work through it before conceiving. We were in Ireland together sharing a little B&B and this one night she felt really antsy and felt really pre-menstrual and was thinking her period should be here by now. She was up in the middle of the night and taking a shower. She was just waiting for her period to come, and she was at the end of this 13 month workbook that she was set on finishing… Her period never came, she was pregnant!
But one thing I do teach women, actually, is when they have their first bleed after a child is to treat it a little bit like menarche again, especially if they haven’t had a good menarche experience. It’s like they can start over their bleeding again. I don’t have a lot of experience with it, though. I think the main thing that can affect the way women experience their cycles after birth is tiredness in the body, because I don’t know a mother who is not tired. Just that tiredness and fatigue can skew things. I do know women whose pain has cleared up after pregnancy.
Hannah: Oh, yeah, I’ve heard a lot of that. I was wondering in terms of the parts of your cycles that you really like. Like maybe, when you are actually trying to get pregnant, instead of trying to avoid it, you love that ovulatory time, even if you didn’t like it so much before.
Alexandra: Yes, totally, and menstruation is the enemy. For women who are actually trying to conceive they often have a huge tension in them. Those that might be taking their temperature, thinking about IVF, because these are women who have been trying for a long time. One of the first things I say to them is that they have got to make peace with the whole cycle.
There is so much stress and tension in them and they have to value what menstruation is giving them because menstruation is the ballast for the whole cycle. How you bleed sets the tone for the rest of the cycle. How well you are rested at menstruation affects the whole tone and quality of the cycle and a rested women is a healthier woman. So if you are trying to conceive you have to make friends with menstruation, it’s crucial.
I am actually thinking of a woman, she wasn’t trying to conceive but she had endometriosis and was trying to reduce her pain through this cycle awareness workshop. Anyway, one menstruation she felt so fired up and so charged up with ideas and everything that she just got carried away and exhausted herself and that month she had the worst menstrual cycle, the worst pain because she did not rest at menstruation. It just skewed everything. I would say for a woman that is trying to conceive she really needs to embrace the whole process and live inside it all. Because it’s a health building process.
Hannah: Yeah. I wonder about what you were saying about rest at menstruation. I find that in terms of work, especially having your own business, menstruation can be such a time for ideas and creative work. I know I often want to work because of the ideas, but also need rest. I think I am going to start noting how much I rest during menstruation. I don’t normally keep track of anything other than cervical fluid and temperature and occasionally if I have light cramps. I’d love to see how that changes my cycle, though, and my focus and everything.
Alexandra: First of all, Hannah, what I have to say is there are no rules around the cycle. What’s crucial is following your inner tendencies. Some women want to slow down or stop during menstruation and some women huge ecstatic high or visionary durst of ideas. It’s almost like a kundalini awakening. It’s actually a very vulnerable time because of this psychic force that comes through. It’s like your plugged into the earth and your a channel for something now. And if you haven’t got sufficient energy and psychological holding your system gets completely blown and that doesn’t serve you or anybody. You are still quite young, Hannah, and you’ve got a lot of chi in your body, so you can probably handle it, but in the long run it’s not great, so I would encourage you to really chill, but take notes. Write it all down. How marvelous that you have the experience. I wrote about it in the pill book, of the four phases (but actually, I’ve now made it five) about what is going on. In fact, in our latest newsletter I write about that, in a very general sense, about what is going on.
There is a very particular process that is going on at menstruation. One is that it is really about releasing something. This is health care thing. You really just get to drop your bundle and cleanse. Purify, if you like. It’s just letting go of everything. And then that fundamental need for rest. This is the quintessential moment for resting for women. I think we can pretty much go the rest of the time, but this is the time that our bodies need to re-fuel. So there is the cleansing, and then the deep surrender and rest, and there there is this lovely visionary, ecstatic energy that takes off, and then out of that we get really clear direction for the month ahead, it’s so amazing, so precise sometimes. What is so glorious is that our body gives us all of this for free. All we have to do, is we just have to stop.
Hannah: I agree, we get this as women and we are so lucky to have all of this feedback. You know with charting cycles even, we see what is going on specifically with our hormones, and that is one of the first things that is going to go kind of funky if I am not paying attention to myself. It’s amazing. Thanks so much, again, for coming on and talking to me today!
Alexandra: Of course, it was a pleasure.
Find out more about Hannah and Holistic Hormonal Health here