Articles by Michele Pernetta: Yoga and Menopause
Yoga has shown to be very useful to women experiencing the changes associated with the menopause.
The combination of the 26 poses, which alternate activity and relaxation, softer poses combined with more strenuous asanas, with poses that bring compression and release have the effect of bringing balance to the whole body, minimizing mood swings, balancing hormones, bringing relief from depression, bringing vitality and deep relaxation, to balance tiredness and lack of energy. Although it is the whole 26 pose series that has the best effects, we may for the purpose of discussion, talk about the known effects of some of the poses individually.
A healthy energized and detoxified body will cope much better with the changes associated with menopause.
A study on 120 women between the ages of 40 and 55 showed that after eight weeks, women in the yoga group showed a significant reduction in hot flashes, night sweats, and sleep disturbances, while the women in the control group did not, according to Dr R Chattha, of the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana in Bangalore.
We all know that Yoga is unsurpassed as a way of dealing with the challenges life throws at us, returning to our natural state, releasing stress, and getting fit, healthy, strong and flexible. It is also very useful through menopause, for the following reasons.
Reducing nervous tension, calming the nerves and reducing stress and anxiety will be welcome to many women going through menopause. Restorative postures such as Half Tortoise, Savasana, Head to Knee pose and Deaf Man, can relax the nervous system and may improve the functioning of the endocrine system (especially the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, the thyroid, and the parathyroid gland), which helps the body adapt to hormonal fluctuations. The deep breathing and Pranayama exercises calm the nervous system, bring mental relaxation, and reduce high blood pressure and irritability.
We do not perform extreme inversions (such as Headstand and Shoulder stand is optional), which have been shown to sometimes aggravate hot flushes) but we do gentler inversions (Separate Leg Stretching, Camel) so women are able to reap the benefits of inversions and gain relief from anxiety and irritability without aggravating their body.
Spinal twisting relieves lethargy, nervousness and tension.
No one really knows what causes hot flushes. Some say the hypothalamus plays an important role; another possibility is that the hormonal fluctuations in the body irritate the blood vessels and nerve endings, causing the vessels to over-dilate and producing a hot, flushed feeling. Most researchers (as well as many menopausal women) agree that stress, fatigue, and intense periods of activity tend to intensify these episodes. Yoga reduces stress and fatigue. Calming and balancing the adrenals, releasing stress, detoxifying the body and teaching the yoga practitioner how to breath correctly, are all beneficial tools in the journey through the menopause. Some women expressed concern about the heated room in Hot Yoga studios in relation to their hot flushes. Contrary to their concern, the heated room allows the yoga to work deeper and faster, and actually had the opposite effect on the hot flushes, reducing them rather than aggravating them. We don’t know if this was due to the heat or to the entire yoga sequence, but it seems not to matter…it works!
Certain yoga poses have been shown to balance hormones, which is good for women of all ages.
Cobra is good for the uterus and ovaries, bringing fresh oxygenated blood to the deeper internal organs, and balancing the osmotic pressure in the kidneys (also aids eliminating water retention.) Half Tortoise Pose helps in the secretion of enzymes, hormones and acids by pushing up the internal organs and is good for the thyroid, parathyroid and pituitary, and Sitting Head to Knee Pose balances melatonin and serotonin, the feel good hormone and the sleep wake cycle hormone.
Some weight gain can be attributed to hormonal fluctuations, which Yoga helps to balance, but also a stronger yoga style such as Fierce Grace is unsurpassed as a way of controlling weight, as it is also a good cardio vascular regime. By building muscle we can more efficiently burn fat. Many poses specifically help with metabolism through compression on the thyroid and pancreas (Sitting Head to Knee Pose, Standing Head to Knee) and other poses raise the heart rate and respiration giving a boost to the cardiovascular system (Balancing Stick, Airoplane, Standing Head To Knee, Awkward, Warrior Series.)
Fierce Grace Yoga also flushes the lymph glands helping detoxify and cleans the body, useful when balancing weight.
Countless students have successfully lost large amounts of weight safely and gradually with Bikram Yoga. It also regulates our appetite, and makes us more attracted to healthy foods. Weight loss is more about a gradual balancing of the body and hormones, intelligent exercise, detoxification, better eating habits and a lifestyle change, than a quick fix. Yoga is an excellent way to achieve this.
Many people think that the way to a slim waistline is to do a lot of sit ups. Many Yoga styles have no sit ups, but their practitioners have lean slim waistlines well into their late 70’s and even 80’s! This is because by the traction on the lower spine, lifting and strengthening of the abdominal muscles, and the pulling up of the pelvic floor muscles, we keep the abdominal area toned, lengthened, and healthy. This “core” should not be flabby and weak, this directly affects our digestion and elimination as well. By twisting, stretching and detoxifying this area, we not only look better, but we feel better and our entire health is improved.
Fatigue and mental burnout
Of all the symptoms women complain about during perimenopause, fatigue is second only to hot flashes. Plunging progesterone could be the cause, especially if the fatigue is coupled with depression and lethargy. If a woman feels inexplicably weary for days or weeks on end, depleted adrenal glands could be part of the problem and yoga is excellent at restoring balance. Fierce Grace Yoga’s gentle forward and back bending sequence is also excellent for the thyroid, regulating metabolism and blood sugar levels. Lifting and stretching of the neck and throat, coupled with compression of the throat, balance the thyroid.
The same postures that counter depression, such as backbends, chest openers and inversions, can help focus the mind. Bringing blood to the brain and encouraging deep, focused breathing, can improve mental alertness. And Savasana (Corpse Pose) soothes the nerves, calms the mind, and puts the body into a state of repose.
Backbends are useful, because they encourage the chest and the heart to open and often bring renewed energy, determination, and feelings of wellbeing. They open the chest, improve respiration and circulation, and help lift the spirits. Spinal Twist treats lethargy.
Spinal twist and pranayama breathing help mental clarity, as do half Tortoise, Rabbit. Head to Knee is good for loss of memory, Standing Head to Knee improves concentration.
During perimenopause, estrogen spikes (or progesterone plummets), causing anxiety, nervousness, and irritability. Forward bends helps calm the brain and relax the nerves, and can help reduce irritability and mental tension, because bending forward and shutting out external distractions and stimuli can soothe the mind and reduce the effects of stress. The nervous system then receives the signal that all is well, and the adrenals and sympathetic nervous system stop working so hard.
If insomnia is a problem, inversions can sometimes help, because they ground the body's energy and burn off excess anxiety. When followed by restorative postures, as we do in the floor series, they encourage a deep state of rest. Yoga has shown to be very useful against insomnia, with Half Tortoise being particularly beneficial. Yoga is well known for helping people with insomnia.
Depression and mood swings
A recent study at California medical University proved the best way to treat depression was backward bending.* (see below.) Backward bends stimulate the adrenals and massage them into action. Also, the heart and lungs open and take in more oxygen.
Chest-expanding poses energize the body by improving respiration and circulation, and thus counter feelings of depression. And many yogis have discovered that inversions, (simply bringing the head below the heart) also affect mood. By turning everything upside down, inversions influence your emotional being in a positive way.
Standing Head to Knee Pose helps depression and loss of memory by bringing the head down level with heart while increasing heart rate and respiration, thus bringing increased energy to the head and brain.
Yoga is meditational, it allows us time to simply be, and teaches us how to control our minds. It is useful to note, that simply taking an hour and a half out for oneself, to simply be, to breathe, to release and relax, and turn inward, and to have a safe arena to get in touch with our feelings, and move through our limitations with sensitivity and intelligence, has huge personal and health benefits. Yoga teaches u to “go with the flow” and accept ourselves. Menopause can be difficult emotionally, and yoga allows us to accept we are constantly changing, embrace these changes, and be responsible and positive in our response to them. Yoga is ultimately a spiritual practice, which enriches us as people, and teaches us love and compassion for ourselves and others. Women of all ages can benefit from this and have yoga as a support, as an oasis in their busy lives, and a safe place to work through challenging times throughout their lives.
*Twenty-seven women and 10 men were enrolled in the study, of whom 17 completed the intervention and pre- and post-intervention assessment data. The intervention consisted of 20 classes led by senior Iyengar yoga teachers, in three courses of 20 yoga classes each.
All participants were diagnosed with unipolar major depression in partial remission. Psychological and biological characteristics were assessed pre- and post-intervention, and participants rated their mood states before and after each class. Significant reductions were shown for depression, anger, anxiety, neurotic symptoms and low frequency heart rate variability in the 17 completers. Eleven out of these completers achieved remission levels post-intervention. Participants who remitted differed from the non-remitters at intake on several traits and on physiological measures indicative of a greater capacity for emotional regulation. Moods improved from before to after the yoga classes. Yoga appears to be a promising intervention for depression; it is cost-effective and easy to implement. It produces many beneficial emotional, psychological and biological effects, as supported by observations in this study. The physiological methods are especially useful as they provide objective markers of the processes and effectiveness of treatment. These observations may help guide further clinical application of yoga in depression and other mental health disorders, and future research on the processes and mechanisms.