Hands up if you’ve ever called in sick or skipped class with debilitating period cramps? Period poops killed your date night plans? What about PMS-induced migraines? Join the club. While every woman may have a sheet of pain-killers on hand for moments like these, Maria Rau and Felicia Liu, founders of herbal tea brand Ying Yi Wellness are working to ensure they can alleviate your period woes even before you get them.
To understand Ying Yi’s modus operandi, we need to appreciate the differences in Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Unlike Western medicine which treats and offers some would say ‘quick-fix’ answers to symptoms, Traditional Chinese Medicine aims to ‘the whole’, addressing the root cause of problems—certainly not an overnight process. In ancient days, one would consistently see a TCM practitioner to maintain good health, not just make a beeline for the clinic when dis-ease sets in. But how does this all relate to periods and this homegrown brand? Launched during the early days of the pandemic, Ying Yi Wellness is TCM 2.0. The holistic herbal wellbeing brand creates modern TCM treatments geared at regulating period while relieving the symptoms of PMS. And, given that people with uteruses can menstruate for about 40 years in their lifetime, here’s why their mission to support people with periods matters.
What did discover about periods in developing Ying Yi Wellness?
On average, a woman menstruates for about seven to nine years of their life. A lot of people forget that a period is what happens when your uterus is functioning, which in return gives life. Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. And about 15 per cent of couples in Singapore are unable to conceive within 12 months of trying for a baby. In about 39 per cent of these cases, the cause is female infertility, which is closely related to period health. Syndromes that arise before, during or after menstruation are a physical sign that cannot be ignored, but less and less people are paying attention. People start to normalise PMS as something that you just have to go through every month, until the complications from that leads to PCOS or other more serious health problems.
Why did you start the brand?
Maria: When I first started working, I noticed many of my friends and colleagues use periods as a reason for decreased work performance. As a woman, I want to be able to do my best work, but I know that my body can limit me and my performance. Many women just put up with it. But that discomfort is a signal for you to pay attention to your body, so you shouldn’t just ignore it. I also hear more women telling me about their PCOS or PMDD. And this is something that can be avoided if you have awareness early on in your life and start early to maintain your overall health.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is similar to the concept of taking vitamins everyday as preventive medicine
We find that treatment for chronic syndromes is best with a holistic approach. However, there is little of this type of treatment for menstrual health in Western medicine. Usually, in Western practices, doctors resort to contraceptive medications to treat menstrual cramps and regulate periods. When I got married and tried to get pregnant, I realised a lot of these problems that had been overlooked since we were young affect fertility greatly.
What is your signature period tea designed to do
Maria: The biggest difference is that we offer three different teas for three phases of the month as a package. It’s different from other herbal teas that claim you can take one product that will take care of everything. It often happens that we hear that you can eat one type of food or take one supplement and your health will improve, and then studies show that taking too much of the same product tends to have negative effects. If your body is feeling unwell, it may be deeply related to a much more complicated problem where discomfort is just a signal. If we really want to improve a person’s overall health, it takes time and requires meeting different needs that occur at different stages.
Of course, this means that you can not expect a single product to solve your health problems in a few days. These days, people want immediate results, but studies show that transformation takes time and perseverance
You will rarely find companies that make such teas designed for different stages, as it comes with higher costs. But Ying Yi’s mission is to help women with their problems, not just selling products. We also chose the tea format, even though it’s more expensive to manufacture than a pill, because we want to encourage people to incorporate the food or beverage they eat and drink as part of their journey to health.
Felicia: As a woman, our body chemistry changes every day due to our periods. Our product is designed to take that into account. And it is similar to what you would get at a TCM clinic, but with a much more convenient subscription model and lower cost. We also know that TCM practice focuses on different body constitutions. That’s why we have gone through several iterations of formulas that are effective but gentle for each body type during cycles. We have also focused on modern lifestyles and dietary habits. For example, our formula was developed to counteract the spicy and overly fatty dishes that women in Asia tend to eat because it’s just so much easier to eat out at food stalls instead of cooking at home.
Dr Wu Pei-Wen, your TCM doctor at Ying Yi Wellness believes in ‘treating the whole’.
We believe that the absence of disease is not by definition “in the best of health.” Health and wellness have many facets. It is about balancing body, mind and spirit. Taking care of the basic aspects of our lives—eating, sleeping, etc—is fundamental to good health and mental well-being. TCM can be used as preventative medicine and has a wealth of experience for female physiology from which it develops its theories and treatments.
Each phase of the menstrual cycle requires a different treatment and focus, depending on the different needs of the body
Ying Yi chose tea as a means of communicating to modern women that the wisdom and knowledge of TCM, gathered over generations, has practical, everyday benefits. Brewing a cup of tea not only allows you to benefit from the natural and healthy ingredients, but it is also a moment to pause and slow down.
Walk us through your entrepreneurial journey, what had to happen for Ying Yi to be founded.
Maria: Ying Yi is mostly self-funding, at the time, I was not sure if I could continue Ying Yi. But I am very lucky to have my partner Felicia and our doctors on board who helped us on this journey. And of course, my faith has been a source of strength for me. I believe that Ying Yi would not even exist if I did it alone. That’s why we focus a lot on mental health in addition to menstruation, because we can understand the difficulties that every woman faces in society. Self-care is important for us women as we tend to carry more things on our shoulders. I am really glad that we started Ying Yi. At least on the first day of my period, I can accompany my husband to the hospital, to cook and to work without feeling uncomfortable.
“The week Ying Yi was launched, my husband was diagnosed with end-stage cancer. I remember it well when he went for a more detailed examination and I had a meeting and then went out to deliver the product to customers. I tried to smile at everyone who opened the door, asking them how they found out about us and what menstrual problems they had. When I returned home that evening, I felt helpless and could not stop crying,” shares Rau
Felicia: Before YY, I had the opportunity to join a joint venture startup in Taiwan. This experience was both rewarding and extremely taxing as I experienced racism and sexism on an almost daily basis in a work environment that was largely dominated by men. Culturally, it was very different from the US or even Singapore. In the midst of the stressful start-up environment where I had to learn a new culture and new job skills, I had to deal with a boss who was constantly gaslighting me. Being a woman in Asia takes extra resilience, grit and a great support group of women who are constantly talking about these issues to identify these difficult situations.
When I joined Maria in starting YY, I was traveling through Europe to take some much needed time off from mental exhaustion and burnout at my previous job. At my friend’s wedding in Italy, I met a group of women in their 60s and 70s. Most of them are widowed and living in retirement, but the zest for life and bonds of femininity they forged were inspiring and heartwarming. The founding of YY became clearer during that time, imagine going through all that while having your period every month, so naturally, starting Ying Yi became more than just a product but a call to support women.
But of course, starting a business is never easy. Anyone who has done it can tell you that. The reality is always going to be harder than what you imagined. When we started YY, Maria had already started 6 months before me, and we bootstrapped for another seven to eight months. So in total it was almost 1.5 years before we got a little funding. Seeing that our runaway down was getting shorter and shorter, we decided to take the no salary approach to extend our runway. Watching my small savings eat away month after month with no income was mentally draining and constantly in the back of my mind and I already thought I was someone who could handle stress quite well but for the first time in my life, I experienced insomnia. The entrepreneurial journey is definitely tough, but as Maria said, seeing customers have great experiences after using YY products is more than rewarding. Maria and I know that we are not the only ones who find ourselves in difficult situations. Ying Yi is a love letter to women and a safe space for women to not only help them navigate difficult situations in their lives, but also remind them to take the time to focus on period health, which is the foundation of their well-being.
What stigmas around menstruation or women’s health are you hoping to break through Ying Yi Wellness?
Maria: A period is not dirty. It may be messy but it is a natural part of being a woman, just like life, and many girls and women do not have a complete and accurate understanding of menstruation as a normal biological process. And even fewer men understand periods. This makes it difficult to educate them about its effects. In traditional Chinese medical studies, the treatment of female health is largely based on the incremental stages of 7 years in a woman’s life. A woman’s fertility begins to age between 30 and 35. At the age of 49, fertility decreases drastically and menopause officially occurs. Nowadays, lifestyle and opportunities are different from the last generation and as of the current generation, we generally have children at a later stage of life. After age 28, women begin pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. When people understand this timeline, you are more likely to understand the importance of educating girls from their first period. The truth is that education and an open conversation about periods, reproduction, sex, and pregnancy wellness builds self-confidence, contributes to social solidarity, and encourages healthy habits avoiding serious illness such as ovarian cancer.
Do you have plans to create new teas for other health issues beyond periods?
We definitely have plans to develop products that address issues beyond periods. Women’s health is something we want to focus on as a starting point because as women we face so many physical challenges at all stages of our lives and many of these issues are stigmatised, such as ageing and menopause. TCM also has a unique approach to mental health, something we learn becomes increasingly important as we age. Syndromes of daily work life such as dry eyes from constantly staring at a computer or bloating from poor diet should also not be ignored. We want people to understand taking care of yourself can be simple.