Understanding Menopause: How Yoga Can Help
Move over hot yoga, and make room for something even hotter. Now that Boomers are aging, with Gen Xers not far behind, some 6,000 women enter menopause every day in the U.S. That’s more than 2 million women a year joining the ranks of the post-menopausal, and many of us will be spending a third of our lives coping with what my mother’s generation referred to in mysterious whispers as The Change. Welcome to hot flash yoga.
Up to 85 percent of women report hot flashes (aka vasomotor flushes) during menopause, according to the National Institutes of Health. After reviewing a number of research studies, the NIH concluded that yoga, tai chi, and meditation, “may be helpful in reducing common menopausal symptoms including the frequency and intensity of hot flashes, sleep and mood disturbances, stress, and muscle and joint pain.”
Can yoga replace hormone replacement therapy? Why not? Hormones, biochemical molecules that signal and regulate human functions, are secreted into the bloodstream by the body’s endocrine glands, and yogis have long noted the correlation between the endocrine system and esoteric anatomy. Asana stretches and squeezes the endocrine glands. Chanting activates them through vibration and resonance. Mudra and dharana (concentration) stimulate the glands’ energetic correlates, the chakras.
How can this ease menopause? As a woman transitions toward menopause (typically between age 40 and 60), the ovaries begin to slow their production of estrogen. The endocrine glands attempt to regain balance. The pituitary may secrete more FSH and LH. The adrenals, thyroid, and other structures shift to produce more estrogen. However, the adrenals may already be overstressed, complicating this ongoing balancing act. The effects include hot flashes, insomnia, anxiety, irritability, depression, and osteopenia (bone density loss).
Women in Western cultures are much more likely to experience these effects. This is often attributed to a Western diet, but stress may also be a factor. And then there’s the pervasive idea that menopause is a medical problem (a financial opportunity worth billions to drug companies and insurers). A friend once remarked that her health insurance company categorized her menopause symptoms as a “pre-existing medical condition” and slapped a rider onto her policy. Ouch!
How can yoga help? According to the NIH, the majority of menopausal symptoms are due to sympathetic activation—or, in the language of ayurveda, excessive heat. Between them, ayurveda and yoga offer a number of ways to enhance the body’s parasympathetic response. Pranayamas such as shitali, sit cari, or dirga help re-establish balance by emphasizing cooling. Forward bends calm the adrenals. For other symptoms, weight-bearing asanas and practices that stimulate the thyroid and parathyroids—such as Setu Bandhasana, Sarvangasana, Jalandhara Bandha, etc.—may help prevent osteoporosis. Standing poses, inversions, and energizing pranayamas help uplift mood. The movements of Surya Namaskara are said to balance the entire endocrine system.
But yoga can also help us go beyond addressing physical symptoms to embracing menopause as an opportunity, even as a blessing. Despite living in a technological society, women still share the touchstone of initiations and passages, from menarche to childbirth to menopause. Our cycles aren’t always convenient or pleasant, but they do connect us to nature—the moon, the tides, the seasons of life—and to each other. We learn to roll with change, becoming resilient while staying grounded. And, viewed through the lens of yoga, a woman’s physiology may help her focus inwardly in a culture obsessed with externalities. Diving into yoga’s deeper aspects is an ideal way to self-nurture, and not just at menopause.
What are some ways your practice is supporting you through life’s seasons?