- Overwhelming fatigue
- Irrational anger
- Brain fog
- Hot flushes
- Loss of libido
- Night sweats . . .
These are just some of the symptoms the menopause can surprise you with. Surprise you? Few of us talk openly about the menopause. The women in my family didn’t speak about reproduction at all. I had no idea what was happening when my periods started and similarly didn’t recognise the symptoms of the menopause
I’d always suffered from anxiety, but at 43 I went to the doctor with some other concerns. A blood test confirmed I was in the perimenopausal stage of the menopause and I was prescribed HRT.
I’m now 55. I no longer take HRT, but still experience hot flushes, brain fog and anxiety. In fact, my brain fog was so severe that at one point I went to the GP because I was convinced I had early onset dementia! I love language and I was finding that I was using the wrong words in the wrong context, struggling to find words that were on the tip of my tongue, using the wrong version of simple words like ‘to’ and ‘too’ or ‘their’ and ‘there’. I’m not unintelligent and this disruption to my language skills was, for me, more distressing than some of the physical symptoms.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve come to rely more on my yoga practice to help me manage my symptoms, particularly those pertaining to stress and mental health. Here’s how yoga can help you, too . . .
There are 5 points of yoga. These are:
- Proper exercise or Asana
- Proper breathing, Pranayama
- Proper relaxation, Savasana
- Proper diet
- Proper thinking and meditation, Dhyana
Yoga for Emotional and Mental Health
The meditative aspects of yoga encourage us to bring our awareness to our breath. This simple act of focussing on the breath as it enters and leaves the body helps us to relax. This is the exercise of Pranayama. It encourages us to notice and use the entire capacity of the lungs.
When we are stressed our sympathetic nervous system is triggered and cortisol released into the blood stream, which triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response and we begin to shallow breathe, from the top of the lungs. As we relax our heart rate slows down and our parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated. This soothes the stress response and allows the release of oxytocin, the ‘happy hormone’ into the blood stream, and so we experience the same feelings of joy and relaxation as we do when being hugged by a loved one. We begin to use the full capacity of the lungs, breathing into the belly and back instead of just from the top section of the lungs.
Our breath acts as an anchor, allowing us to melt deeper into relaxation, rest our minds and bodies and still our thought processes. With practice, we can apply meditation to our daily routines; morning, afternoon or evening, whichever fits into our schedule. It doesn’t have to be for long, 3-5 minutes can be enough to reduce the pace of breath and relax the heart rate and after a while it becomes second nature.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not magic! And there will still be times when all our learning flies out the window in the presence of a stressful situation – and we’ll be right there, ready to punch someone on the nose, or hightail it in the opposite direction! But gradually we’ll become more and more adept at noticing our reactions to stress, aware of our breath and heart rate and able to heal ourselves by spending time working with our breath and coming to stillness, Dhyana.
Yoga sessions end with a period of relaxation called Savasana. Slow and steady – there’s no race to be won, but the benefits to your mental health could be transformative.
Yoga for Physical Health
The practice of Asana in yoga works with the breath, Pranayama to physically stretch and strengthen the body. Regular exercise is essential at any age, but as we become older and perhaps tire more easily, the temptation is there to sit in front of the TV, to read or to do something we consider relaxing, but which doesn’t involve movement. It’s important to get up and move, even if we don’t feel like it. Yoga is a great place to start. It stimulates the following systems:
- Muscular – extending and flexing muscle fibres and allowing a fresh supply of blood, oxygen and nutrients to feed the muscles, helping to keep them toned and the body mobile.
- Cardio–vascular – boosting the flow of blood around the body, which delivers a fresh supply to muscles, skeleton and organs. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to the body and helps in the removal of waste.
- Lymph – boosting the flow of lymph fluid around the body we also boost the immune system. The lymph system returns protein and plasma to the cardio-vascular system and drains waste and toxins from the body for elimination.
- Nervous – mentioned above, by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and releasing oxytocin.
- Respiratory – the use of the breath brings awareness to properly filling and emptying the lungs and using the full capacity of the lungs, so breathing becomes more efficient.
- Endocrine – the flow of blood stimulates healthy hormone production and the efficient carrying of hormones around the body.
- Digestive – due to the increased efficient flow of blood and lymph, but also because certain Asana produce a massaging effect on the organs which aids the process of elimination and absorption of nutrients.
- Skeletal – weight-bearing Asana encourage bones to stay healthy and exercising the joints aids mobility.
- Reproductive – increased blood flow and a healthy endocrine system keeps the reproductive organs nice and healthy.
- Integumentary – the increased flow of blood and nutrients to the skin, hair and nails will improve the quality of the skin, leaving you looking radiant!
- Urinary – massaging the adrenals and promoting kidney activity aids efficient urination.
Physical practice also involves us focussing on what we call a ‘drishti’ point to help us concentrate on what we are doing. This encourages us to bring together the mental, physical and breathwork aspects of each asana to attain ‘unity’, a sense of balance, or homeostasis, in the body.
Yoga for Diet and Nutrition
A proper diet? Students of yoga generally follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. As we experience the menopause we often begin to look at our diet more seriously. I know that when I changed to a vegetarian diet I started to feel better. I’ve had a weight problem my entire life and I noticed that although I didn’t lose weight, it was easier to keep it fairly level and stop it shooting up.
Like many menopausal women, I’ve also tried to cut out excess sugar and caffeine. I used to love a glass of wine – well, more than a glass! Now, however, 2-3 large glasses make me feel sick, so for me there’s no point in over-indulging.
I firmly believe, as with all aspects of yoga, you will find what’s right for you as you continue the journey.