Yoga and the Menopause06 Sep 2018, Posted by Workshop in
As summer gradually gives way to autumn, with leaves already falling due to the recent heatwave and drought, I reflect on how the seasons mirror the natural cycles of change in our lives, and how that we, as part of nature, also need to notice and honour these times.
Menopause can be a challenging time for many women, often producing an array of uncomfortable physical symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, headaches, weight gain, loss of libido, tiredness and sleep problems. Psychological symptoms can include irritability, mood swings, depression, anxiety, forgetfulness, lack of concentration, and loss of self-esteem.
In desperation, many women turn to medication which may or may not help suppress these symptoms but without addressing the cause – which is basically due to hormone imbalances that can be treated with a healthy diet, deep rest, gentle exercise, and especially hatha yoga.
By the time most women hit their mid/late forties they have spent 20+ years juggling career and/or family life leaving them chronically tired and depleted. Any physiological imbalances can become exaggerated at this time of change as our inner selves scream for attention in search of health and wholeness.
Menopause is a natural process which is becoming increasingly medicalised because modern lifestyles don’t give women the time they need to truly rest and nurture themselves during this important period – which can last several years. The more we are cut off from nature and natural cycles, the more we are cut off from our true selves and the more we suffer.
Yoga helps us to know ourselves, by developing awareness and listening to what our bodies are telling us, and is an important ingredient in any self-care practice. Yoga works on many levels at once – physical, mental, emotional, energetic and spiritual. It is extremely good at helping to balance our endocrine system – which produces many different hormones that control most of our bodily processes.
Hormones are described as “biochemical messengers” of the blood. They are extremely potent and regulate much of the subtle biochemistry of life. As our ageing ovaries slow down production of the sex hormones – estrogen, progesterone and the androgens – it is taken over by other endocrine glands as the need arises. However, if the other glands are not functioning properly imbalances occur which cause health problems, as at any other time of life.
The understanding of where these glands are and how they work together in harmony is clear from ancient yoga and Ayurvedic texts, and many yoga poses stimulate the different glands in a variety of ways through inversions, twists, back bends, forward bends, standing, sitting and lying down.
The major glands of the endocrine system are:
the pituitary gland, at the base of the brain; the hypothalamus, a region of the brain just above the pituitary; the pineal, also near the pituitary; the thyroid, at the base of the throat; the parathyroid, located behind the thyroid; the islets of Langerhans, in the pancreas; the 2 adrenal glands located above the left & right kidneys; and the 2 almond shaped ovaries located in the pelvic bowl. (The thymus gland is considered part of the immune system rather than the endocrine system.)
Healthy adrenal glands are crucial for a smooth transition into menopause. However, by mid-life most women’s adrenal glands are depleted by habitual stress, poor nutrition, constant stimulation from substances like sugar and coffee, environmental pollution and other problems. The adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol – known as the stress hormones, which help us tolerate many of the stresses and burdens of life but also suppress the immune system.
Gentle forms of hatha yoga give menopausal women the opportunity to nurture their bodies in a way that brings balance and harmony. Restorative yoga in particular, where we use bolsters to support us in poses (asanas) rather than physical effort, means we can release and surrender more deeply to the effect of each asana. Supported relaxation pose (savasana) enables deep rest which is one of the most healing things we can do for ourselves.
I turn 54 later this year, I am 2 years into post-menopause, and I have never felt better – in body, mind and spirit. Thanks to a regular yoga practice, a healthy vegetarian diet and a calm rural life style (plus lucky genes?) I didn’t suffer any of the usual physical symptoms of the menopause. However, I did suffer from a frozen shoulder, an extremely painful and long-lasting condition with very limited mobility, but an experience for which I’m grateful as it motivated me to begin a daily meditation practice.
I also remember feeling irritable and melancholy (a sort of semi-permanent PMS), as well as a feeling of “stuckness” as I tried to work out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My two teenage daughters would soon be leaving home and a romantic relationship of 5 years had just ended. During this time it was my restorative yoga practice that really helped me just to “be” and accept whatever was happening in my life, to let go of the past and make space for the unknown future.
As with puberty and pregnancy, our menopausal selves are undergoing an enormous transformation, which like any change can be very challenging. However, I like to think of menopause as being more like the transformation of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly – a complete metamorphosis which can bring unforeseen freedom to be who we truly are.
Caterpillars rest inside a cocoon for between one week and one year before emerging as beautiful butterflies. During this time their bodies break down into liquid DNA before reconstructing as a completely different being. Obviously, our physical change is nowhere near as extreme as that, but on a mental/emotional or soul/spiritual level the power of the menopause can be truly life changing.
The menopause was traditionally something to be celebrated rather than dreaded or ignored. Women moving into the third (autumnal) phase of their life, or “crone” age, were recognised for their wisdom and their continuing contribution to society was highly valued. Fifty may be the new forty but menopause is still a time for taking stock, and if you haven’t already begun a self-care practice you will likely be told, by your higher self and in no uncertain terms, that it’s time to start.
Transitioning into menopause for me involved moving house and taking the plunge to become reliant on teaching yoga to earn a living. Sharing the benefits of yoga, mindfulness and self-compassion is how I want to spend the rest of my days, contributing what I can to the evolution of peaceful co-existence between all beings living here on Mother Earth.
(Thanks to my artist friend Mia Fernandes for the beautiful butterfly painting.)