Despite its popularity, the conversation surrounding the efficacy of Yoni steaming is divisive. Western biomedical practitioners collectively consider Yoni steaming to be dangerous and problematic. On the other hand, naturalists and healers consider steaming a gynecological heal-all. With Yoni steams trending in the holistic marketplace, women are becoming curious about all the alleged benefits of the practice.
What is Yoni Steaming?
Also known as pelvic, vulva, or vaginal steaming, Yoni steaming is a practice in which select herbs are steeped in water to produce steam exposed to the vulva. This steam is intended to heal a variety of gynecological ailments. Despite gaining popularity only recently in the contemporary western world, yoni steaming does appear to have a long (and somewhat documented) history. Used in China, Belize, Guatemala, and perhaps even parts of the Caribbean and African subcontinent, yoni steaming doesn't appear to be a new practice.
Yoni steaming has traditionally been used in holistic medicine to address a small variety of vaginal complaints. Despite its name, yoni steaming does not have its origin in Ayurveda. Instead, the iconographic term Yoni was appropriated by westerners to add an indigenous flair to the practice -- similar to yoni eggs and yoni pearls. For this reason, we prefer the term vulva steam or pelvic steam.
Indigenous women in Belize used pelvic steaming during mother roasting for postpartum tearing and restoring warmth to the mother. Additionally, Chinese women used Pelvic steaming in traditional Chinese herbalism in conjunction with sitz, douches, suppositories, internal herbal therapy, and acupuncture.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) uses topical herbs for the genitals in the form of steam, liquid, and creams for the primary purpose of relieving itching, inflammation, irritation, and abnormal odor. Steams are prescribed in accordance with TCM medical theory. It's not uncommon to see them used to clear heat, cold, damp, dryness, terms used in TCM to describe pathogenic Qi.
Naturalists often misconstrue TCM's use of vaginal steaming twisting its application to support the efficacy of their product. Only a skilled (licensed) doctor of oriental herbalism would know how to create a topical herbal formula for their patient adequately.
Collectively, it would appear women historically used pelvic steams to treat external issues of the genitalia in addition to providing the benefits of local steam therapy to the pelvis. Steams had a narrow and purposeful application primarily for mother roasting, cleansing, and treating symptoms of infection.
Misguidance of the Holistic Marketplace
Yoni steaming is now synonymous with natural living, indigenous knowledge, herbal magic, feminine rituals, and self-care. The attraction towards Yoni steaming is understandable -- it looks fun, relaxing, and makes you feel feminine.
Although the surface message seems empowering and intriguing, not everything marketed towards our health is truly good for us. We live in a world that is constantly selling products towards our vaginas, for better and worse. All feminine products are marketed to make us feel beautiful, young, and woman-like. The reality is you rarely need any of these products, and some of them are flat-out harmful.
Most of these empowering messages are coded with truly disempowering language. The underlying message is that your womb and vagina are unclean by nature and in need of pampering and purging. These messages perpetuate reproductive and sexual shame, so you're inspired to buy, buy, buy. Companies have been doing this for years; yoni steam sellers have only adopted new rhetoric. Whether claiming to tighten the vagina or professing to purge actual womb demons, the shame tactics are all the same. It is just one more way to monetize off feminine insecurity and miseducation.
Yoni steam sellers, advocates, and practitioners don't all have an insidious agenda looking to make a quick buck off your vagina. Some genuinely believe in the power of steaming primarily through their own experience. I know and respect several yoni steam practitioners and herbalists who claim steaming helped them with postpartum recovery, pain, and chronic vaginosis. They took the initiative to share this practice with others, and there's nothing wrong with that.
If you are a yoni steam seller or facilitator, I ask that you receive this information not as slander to your craft but as guidance on improving women's health. Pelvic steaming is awesome, but it has been mystified and sensationalized on the internet to make the holistic marketplace big bucks. So without further ado, here are some of the most common pelvic steam misconceptions.
(1) Topical herbal steams have a large impact on internal systemic bodily functions
Yoni steam proponents claim that pelvic steaming works due to a unique combination of herbs. The herbal properties are carried into the steam and absorbed through the vagina, uterus, and bloodstream. These herbs enter the body internally, affecting the hormones and reproductive organs similarly to an herbal tea, injection, or suppository. This underlying misconception serves as a framework for the following misconceptions below. It is why sellers and buyers believe that steaming can treat systemic, internal, and chronic gynecological ailments.
We validate pelvic steaming as a real holistic modality. We even sell a pelvic steam right here on our site and approve of its use in TCM and indigenous practices. The herbs infused in the vapor can affect the external vulva and anus, bringing antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, emollient, analgesic, and anti-pruritic properties to the surface. The steam softens the skin, opens the pores, warms the local area, relieves soreness and inflammation, and dilates blood vessels improving blood flow.
All this to say, herbalists use pelvic steams for their topical benefits only. We use these herbs to gently affect the flora of the vulva and anus to stop itching, burning, dryness, inflammation, and external microbial imbalances. At no point in TCM or biomedical herbalism do we use topical herbs to access the bloodstream via steam unless used as an inhalant. If we want herbs to enter circulation and affect the organs, we use internal herbal medicine or, at the very least, a suppository. Even a poultice applied directly onto the skin would not produce such an internal impact.
Some would argue that topical herbs can enter the bloodstream through the dermis. To a certain degree, they do, but to no greater degree than your soap, face moisturizer, or body lotion. When we want to affect the hormones and organs, we use internal medicine, not external topicals, especially not those administered through steam which is perhaps the weakest medium.
(2) Vaginal Tightening
Perceived vaginal tightness is dependent on (1) the natural structure of your physique and (2) the tone and strength (or the lack thereof) of your pelvic floor. This means that vaginal tightness is primarily dependent on your musculature. Only by engaging with this muscle group physically through exercise, physical therapy, or surgery can we expect to alter the relative "tightness" of the vagina.
Herbal steam won't strengthen your pelvic floor muscles -- not even a little. To suggest otherwise would be as silly as using steam to strengthen your glutes or repair diastasis recti. Many steams are marketed to improve vaginal tightness. This is especially disheartening for two reasons: The first being that it preys on an insecurity projected onto women -- is my vagina loose? The second being that it creates false hope for women dealing with prolapse or pelvic/vaginal flaccidity.
If you have noticed a decline in tone and tightness, it's very treatable, although not with the use of steam. Physical therapists who specialize in pelvic floor therapy can be very helpful in rebuilding PF strength and perceived tightness. Through the use of pelvic floor exercises and therapeutic techniques, women can usually resolve their issues.
(3) Womb Cleansing
Womb cleansing is an interesting claim as many sellers never elaborate on what is meant by "cleansing the womb." Some are suggesting that steaming can dislodge old crusted menses stuck in the endometrium. It's important to emphasize that steaming does not, cannot, and will not enter your uterus. If your steam is hot enough, it may rise to the height of your cervix, at which point you would be severely burned. Unfortunately, this happened to a woman who attempted an at-home yoni steam several years ago.
Your vagina is made of fugal folds that balloon inwardly, causing the vaginal walls to "collapse" or "close." If you lay down on your back, spread your legs, and look directly into your vagina, you cannot see more than an inch or so into your canal, and you most certainly won't see your cervix.
To open these walls, you must either (1) physically fill the vagina with something (fingers, tampon, sex toys), thus creating space within the walls, or (2) spread the opening of the vagina and allow air pressure to move into the canal. Again, the only way for steam to possibly enter the canal is if it is rigorously hot and you have spread the vulva to allow air (and steam) to enter the canal, at which point you would be burned! So why do some women claim excess menses and discharge dislodges from their vagina following a pelvic steam?
(1) The discharge/menses would dislodge anyway, and it just so happened to have come out following a steam.
(2) The steam stimulated the local area enough for vaginal lubrication to descend excess menses and discharge through the canal, which would descend its own eventually. This could just as easily happen during a hot bath or sauna.
Interestingly enough, some women claim that the same thing happens after administering a douche or yoni pearl -- two harmful products that should never go in your body. Remember, not every bodily reaction is indicative of healing or proof that your product works.
(4) Infertility and PCOS
Fertility is perhaps the most disheartening medical claim used by yoni steam sellers. Fertility, menstruation, and ovulation are controlled by the pituitary gland, with most infertility cases having an endocrinological origin. Because pelvic steaming is local, affecting only the vulva, it does not impact the production and regulation of hormones. Herbal steams carry very little medicinal product. The phytonutrients infused in the vapor mildly affect the skin topically. As discussed above, steams do not alter the hormones or chemically impact the reproductive organs in any way.
TCM is great for treating infertility using acupuncture, herbal therapy, and moxibustion, but never with vaginal steaming. This is because infertility is a systemic disorder of the endocrine system. If your infertility is structurally based (i.e., blocked fallopian tubes), steaming will still not treat the issue. There are awesome treatment protocols used in biomedical and integrative medicine for infertility, so don't waste time, money, or hope on a pelvic steam.
Endometriosis is a disorder in which uterine tissue grows outside of the uterus. This tissue continues to act like regular endometrial cells, so they too will thicken, bleed, and shed throughout the month. Several factors play a role in the development of endometriosis. Factors include:
(1) retrograde menstruation: Counterflow of menstrual fluid and endometrial cells back into the pelvic cavity and fallopian tubes. Retrograde flow happens to all women to a certain degree and does not singularly indicate that you will develop endometriosis. Retrograde menstruation is only concerning when the inverse flow is immense and prolonged. A buildup of menstrual blood can become trapped in the pelvic cavity, causing inflammation and pain. Chronic counterflow can occur from an overproduction of menses and asynchronous uterine contractions, both largely controlled by hormones.
(2) Transformation of peritoneal or embryonic cells: hormones stimulate non-endometrial cells into endometrial cells outside the uterus. These cells proliferate in a blood-rich environment that causes them to grow and eventually bleed during menstruation. It is also possible for endometrial cells to flow to different areas and begin proliferation via a blood vessel.
As discussed above, steaming does not enter the uterus or fallopian tubes and will not affect the volume of menses produced throughout the month to properly address retrograde flow. The steam never makes contact with the abnormal tissue and does nothing to regulate endometrial cells.
Yoni steam proponents claim that steaming can relax uterine spasms while promoting the downward flow of old menses or leukorrhea. Ironically enough, the uterus's synchronous contraction (spasm) is responsible for dispelling menstrual flow through the vagina. They claim this happens because either (1) the steam stimulates the cervix and uterus directly, causing it to shed, or (2) the external pelvic region is locally stimulated by steam, causing indirect relaxation of the uterus.
Why do some women claim that yoni steaming helped to improve their endometriosis? They likely mean that steaming helped improve the pain associated with their endometriosis (more on pain below).
(6) Menstrual Pain
Pain is subjective and can be exacerbated or relieved by many factors. We love treating menstrual pain with heating pads, baths, massage, and warm cinnamon tea. Because steam therapy can help with pain and temporarily improve blood circulation, it can theoretically relieve menstrual discomfort. However, many sellers attribute this pain-relieving action to their profound selection of herbs. The truth is, it has almost nothing to do with the herbs and everything to do with the nature of steam/heat therapy's effect on the body. You could theoretically get the same benefits from a warm bath, a heating pad, or a steam room.
So why add menstrual pain to the list if steaming may help? Because this claim is often misguided or overemphasized. Women are led to believe that regular steaming throughout the month will somehow regulate uterine contractions and reproductive hormones internally improving their entire menstrual cycle. Although steam may temporarily relieve pain locally, it will not do so through some internal mechanism. It only relieves pain during and shortly after the practice, just like a steam room. Since you should not steam on your period, it's off the table as a sensible modality for menstrual pain.
We love pelvic steaming. Steam therapy localized around the pelvis can provide warmth, comfort, local circulation, and pain relief. When sensible herbs are added to the steam, we can treat topical complaints like dryness, irritation, itching, and inflammation. Some incredible formulas have been outlined by revered doctors of oriental medicine like Bob Flaws in his work fire in the valley and continue to be a promising modality for women's wellness.
Unfortunately, the holistic marketplace has a way of twisting certain modalities for the sake of setting trends and selling products. With time, outlandish claims become commonplace, with many women unknowingly taking part in miseducating others when they start selling their own pelvic steams. During a time of capitalistic self-care, it's easy to get caught up in the craze.
A holistic medical modality for women should remain preserved without the marketplace mystifying its use. My advice is that we continue using pelvic steams in the ways they have been used in integrative herbal medicine, constantly reaffirming our modalities with healthy criticism and clinical evidence.