Menopause is the time in a woman’s life where the ovaries stop releasing eggs meaning it is no longer possible to conceive a child. Menstruation ceases and the levels of female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone drop. Naturally this usually occurs in the late forties to early fifties, broadly speaking. Menopause can also be brought on by others factors such as chemotherapy or the surgical removal of the ovaries. Perimenopause is the transitional phase where the periods often become irregular.
During both these phases it is common to experience hot flushes, mood swings, vaginal dryness and memory problems. Symptoms and their intensity vary greatly from woman to woman.
How Does Yoga Fit In?
According to Yoga As Medicine, many yogis and an increasing part of the scientific community believe that stress plays a “significant role” in the intensity of menopausal symptoms. Consequently, reducing stress and calming the CNS (central nervous symptom) can help reduce hot flushes and mood swings.
The combination of yoga poses (asana), pranayama (breath work), restorative poses and meditation is particularly effective in minimising the effects of stress.
Traditionally taught yoga offers not only poses on the mat that are beneficial to building bone density and muscle mass, it also offers a mindful, peaceful, non-judgemental space to connect inwards to the breath. Bringing attention to comfortably extending the out-breath, for example, has a measurable effect on the nervous system. A breath ratio of 4:6 inhale:exhale (in other words four steady counts in and six steady counts out) supports the nervous system to return from a stressed state to a relaxed state. The breath alone is immensely supportive in reducing stress.
Yoga-asana as gentle physical (and meta-physical) practice can also help with another stress-related condition that can occur to women later in life; osteoporosis.
Stress and osteoporosis are linked - mental tension increases the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the blood. Excess cortisol interferes with with new bone growth and contributes to the loss of calcium from bones as they age. In addition to supporting the mind to calm and the body to relax as stress levels drop, the physical aspect of yoga-asana builds bone strength, counteracting osteoporosis.
Unlike other forms of weight bearing exercise yoga-asana offers weight bearing in the hands, wrists and arms in poses such as Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana, pictured below). Given that wrists fractures are the most common breaks related to thinning bones yoga-asana can be particularly supportive for older women.
Menopause is a time of great change, passing from the phase of fertility into the time of matriarchy, where the body retains its blood and offers wisdom in its place. Meeting change is a spiritual issue. Yoga, breath, meditation and gentle mindfulness help meet the denial, anger and resistance that can be a natural reaction to change. Yoga’s emphasis on meeting challenges with grace, gratitude and acceptance are an antidote to any negative, judgmental or self-defeating attitudes.
Poses to Support Menopausal Symptoms
Viparita Karani - Legs Up The Wall Pose
Benefits: An incredibly restorative pose which supports the endocrine (hormonal) system, aids lymphatic drainage, supports healthy circulation. All round de-stressing and superbly regenerating.
How To: Place a bolster, thick cushion, or two folded blankets about 15cm from the wall. Sit towards the bolster with your side facing the wall, press your hands onto the bolster to hold it in place. Swing your legs up and onto the wall and let them rest against it. Lower your upper body back using your arms for support, scoot your pelvis into place so that just the bottom of your tailbone is hanging off the bolster. You will be in a very gentle and mild backbend. Ensure your weight is on your shoulders and hips, and that your head and neck are comfortable and relaxed. If your start to lose circulation in your feet or legs simply come down earlier, or cross your legs, keeping your hips where they are.
Rest in this pose for five to fifteen minutes.
To come down, bend your knees and use your feet to push off the wall to bring your buttocks to the floor, in front of the bolster or blankets. Use your arms to hep you sit up.
Uttanasana - Standing Forward Bend with Head Support (pictured below without head support)
Benefits: This pose stimulates and nurtures all the abdominal organs. Particularly it activates the liver and spleen, which helps the body regulate stress by detoxification. It improves digestion and supports the hormonal system by encouraging blood flow to the head. A wonder pose.
How To: Begin by placing a yoga block(s), bolster, or chair in front of your feet to support your head. Stand with your feet together. On your exhale fold at the hips and keeping your back straight bring the crown (top) of your head down to rest on the support in front of you. Bring your hands or finger tips gently towards the floor. If your hands are off the floor bring your plans to rest softly on your shins or ankles.
Stay for five to ten steady breaths.
May these practices bring you peace and insight.
Be well, be yoga.