Commonly associated with hot flushes, erratic menstruation, insomnia, exhaustion, dry skin, angry outbursts, and more, menopause tends to be a life event that we dread rather than look forward to. Not all women experience symptoms, some women have many, or more extreme, symptoms. Only a minority of women sail through with little or no side effects.
Whilst I have experienced and continue to experience many of these ‘symptoms’, I can also say that menopause has been, and continues to be, the greatest healing and awakening period of my life.
Menopause is defined as the absence of menstruation for 12-months and peri-menopause refers to the transition preceding this phenomenon. For the purposes of this article, I will be using the term menopause to include both the peri and the menopause stages. As I write this, I am currently menopausal, having not bled now for 2.5 years. I am still very much navigating this awesome transition.
Menopause is a significant rite of passage. Similar to the adolescent transition, where a girl enters womanhood with her first bleed, when a woman stops bleeding, it is both the end of the reproductive phase of her life and a significant entrance into the second half of her life.
At her first period a girl meets her wisdom, through her menstruating years she practices her wisdom, and at menopause she becomes her wisdom
– Native American saying
For some women the passage can be smooth sailing. For others is can herald a time of great change. Regardless of our individual experiences with this inevitable journey, self-care is absolutely critical during this time.
A Time of Crisis and Awakening
Menopause can be a time of crisis. This doesn’t necessarily make menopause a terrible thing. The Chinese name for crisis is Wei-Chi and is depicted as both a danger and a time of opportunity. Viewed from this perspective, menopause can also be seen as an opportunity for growth.
Christiane Northrup, a medical doctor and menopause expert, refers to menopause as the “mother of all wake up calls” whereby anything that a woman has “swept under the carpet” will surface as an opportunity to heal and resolve. Midwife and women’s mysteries expert, Jane Hardwick Collings (2016), refers to menopause as “a labour and a birth” – a rebirth of the new wise version of a woman.
“After working with thousands of women going through this process, as well as experiencing it myself, I can say with great assurance that menopause is an exciting developmental stage—one that, when participated in consciously, holds enormous promise for transforming and healing our bodies, minds and spirits at the deepest levels” (Christiane Northrup, 2012)
Whilst menopause in its most basic definition is a change in reproductive hormones and the subsequent cessation of menstruation, these hormonal changes can have significant affects on all areas of our lives including our physical health, emotional life, relationships, careers and spirituality.
Personally, as well as professionally with women I have worked with, I have found menopause to shine the light on what is no longer working or is no longer aligned with a woman’s truth. It can be a turning point where we re-evaluate the first half of our life, looking to choose how we will live the second half. This manifests differently for each woman. I have known women who started to see their relationships break down either to end or to transform into deeper levels of intimacy; women who suddenly recalled childhood sexual abuse; women who have suddenly found their careers to be unappealing and move on to a more meaningful journey; and many women after years of prioritising others start prioritising themselves, their self-care and their interests.
My own menopause was most certainly a significant personal crisis, calling me to review every area of my life. Peri-menopause started for me in my early 40s. It was heightened, I am sure, by the adrenal overload caused by a very stressful change management job in the city. My manager, who herself had tried natural methods of managing her menopause, suggested that I would need to “go on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) to be able to keep up with the boys”.
This moment was a key turning point for me. As a life long advocate of natural medicine, I was never going to consider taking HRT. The feminist in me was shocked that I would need to pharmaceutically drug myself to maintain a career in the patriarchal establishment.
This was nearly 10 years ago. Looking back I can honestly say that my menopause transition was one of the greatest gifts for helping me to live a more authentic and empowered life.
Medication and Menopause
In the recent past, we have been led to believe that medicating menopause with drugs is necessary. HRT was first available in the 1940s and became widely used in the 1960s for the management of menopause. Many women in my mother’s generation were medicated through their midlife rite of passage. I believe that in my mother’s case, HRT had significant consequences to her health and wellbeing.
HRT is used to alleviate the ‘negative’ symptoms of menopause, including hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disturbances, psychological issues and genito-urinary problems, as well as for the prevention of osteoporosis. On a societal level, HRT has created a way to control the natural process of a woman’s body to fit in with the societal demands and pressures.
In 2002, results from a large Women’s Health Initiative clinical trial found that HRT increased risk of heart disease, stroke, blood clots and breast cancer. There continues to be controversy around the safe use of HRT with studies now refuting these concerns.
Many women are now questioning and looking for other ways to support their menopause naturally. We are fortunate to be living in a time where we have access to information and choices that allow us to care for ourselves holistically during the transition. Rather than simply masking symptoms, we have the tools to reclaim our lives and transition with conscious awareness into our ‘second spring’.
Yoga for Menopause
Yoga has been crucial to riding the changes in my own menopause. Because of yoga, I have been able to experience the journey with elevated consciousness and without the use of pharmaceuticals. I have turned to complimentary health practitioners several times during my transition, including Naturopathy and Chinese Medicine, but the more I develop my own personal practice and self-care routine, the less I find myself needing to rely on others for support.
I have found that the key to a healthy menopause is to support our body’s natural tendency to maintain homeostasis, as our bodies are always trying to stay in balance. The yogic sciences including asana, pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation and Ayurveda all offer an amazing array of wisdom and practical self-care practices that can create balance during the unsettling changes that menopause can bring.
In order to maintain balance, I recommend establishing a regular daily routine that includes a selection of yogic self-care practices. You may find some more effective, more enjoyable, or easier to implement than others. The key is to start and to find in time, what works best for your body and your lifestyle.
It is important to keep in mind that self-care during menopause is not only limited to this transition. How we care for ourselves during this time sets up our habits for personal health that will carry us to the second half of our lives and into old age.
Simple Yogic Self-Care Routine
1 Align Your Sleep Cycles with the Sun
Living in tune with nature’s daily cycles and circadian rhythms is central to Ayurveda. Circadian rhythms are endogenous (internal to our bodies), but are also impacted by our local environment and external cues like day and night and seasonal changes. Aligning our own circadian rhythms with Mother Nature’s rhythms is crucial for realising optimal hormonal health. It is no wonder that western societies experience so many hormonal complications – the constant bombardment of stimuli from unnatural light, screens and devices most certainly disrupts our natural circadian rhythms. Learning to live in sync with nature’s cycles can help de-stress the mind and body and balance our over-stimulated systems.
One of the most effective changes I have found during my menopause has been to be in bed and asleep by 10pm and arise at sunrise.
A few tips for syncing your circadian rhythms with nature:
- Try to avoid staying up past 10pm. There is an important stage of body restoration and detoxification that happens primarily between 10pm-2am.
- It can be helpful to turn off any devices and to only expose yourself to natural light at least 1 hour prior to bed.
- Try to wake each day with the sun and to start your day with your own self-care routine. It is best to focus on yourself before getting caught up into daily to-do lists and/or caring for others.
Meditation has become an essential part my morning practice. It allows me to sit and tune in deeply to my truth and essence. Daily meditation sets me up to approach each day from a centered and connected place.
If you don’t have a meditation practice, I would recommend exploring different approaches through classes, workshops and online until you find something that works for you.
For years I struggled with meditation, as I found many approaches to be overly prescriptive or mind-centered. When I discovered a tantric approach to meditation, I felt like I had arrived home in my womanly body. The focus on breath has been a gateway into a sensual, blissful state of consciousness, which has been key for my personal healing throughout menopause. Further, my meditation practice will shift with my cycles, some mornings I will simply just sit and observe the breath moving in and out of my body.
A few tips for meditation:
- KISS – Keep it Simple Sweetheart!
- Practice regularly – practicing a little and often can be more effective than going to a weekly class.
- If I am particularly distracted or agitated when I sit to meditate, I will do 5-10 minutes of nadi shadhona (alternate nostril breathing) to settle my nervous system. This pranayama technique is a very powerful stress-reducing practice and is highly recommended for menopausal women.
3 Gentle Asana Practice
Some of you may already have a yoga asana practice or some may be thinking of starting some sort of physical practice. You may find that during menopause you move away from the stronger dynamic rigorous yoga practices and are drawn more to gentle yoga styles. During menopause we are moving into the more Yin phase of our life.
A few asana practices that can be useful during menopause:
- Vinyasa flow can be a wonderful practice for menopause to get the body moving and flowing. The strength and dynamism of the practice can vary according to how you are feeling each day and in each moment. It can be lovely to practice to feminine music to help feel the sensual flow of the body.
- Yin yoga can be a wonderful practice for women in menopause. The stillness of the postures is a meditative practice in itself. In addition, many of the postures work with the liver and kidney meridians, which can be beneficial to support menopause.
- Your asana practice can vary day to day. If you are no longer bleeding it can be useful to tune into the cycles of the moon, to practice a more dynamic flowing practice near the full moon, and a quieter stiller practice during the new and dark moon.
- Whilst we can be drawn to more gentle styles of yoga during our menopause, it is important to remember that the more dynamic postures particularly standing postures build bone density, which is important for the prevention of osteoporosis.
4 Abyanga – Self Massage with Oil
Abyanga, the practice of oil self massage, is one of the most beautiful and profoundly grounding self-care practices I have found during my menopause. In abyanga, a generous amount of warm oil is gently massaged into the entire body before showering or bathing. Part of the beauty of this practice is that you don’t need to go out and buy special products – you can use commonly available oils, like sesame, coconut, olive etc. Choose organic oils where you can.
Women’s hormone expert, Claudia Welch, states that Abyanga is one of the simplest and surest ways to nourish yin energy and support hormonal balance:
“Abyanga has a profound effect of nourishing the body and calming the nervous system. The regular application of oil to our bodies can significantly allay many of the stressed and dry symptoms that can be present during menopause. Abyanga regulates sleep patterns and decreases the effects of ageing” (Welche, 2011)
On the days that I do an abyanga self massage, I feel deeply nourished, grounded and centered, and this feeling carries me through the day. Give it a try!
If you are experiencing extreme imbalances, it can be beneficial to see an Ayurvedic practitioner to determine which oil is best, and also to add prescribed ‘medicated’ herbal oils to the base oil, deepening the nourishing experience of the practice.
How to practice Abyanga:
- Warm up a small amount of oil in a small bottle in a cup of hot water.
- Let the oil stand for a few minutes to warm.
- Apply the oil all over you body, starting at feet, up to your face and head.
- Massage the oil into your entire body, beginning at the extremities working into the middle of the body. Rub vigorously in sections, with love and patience, shins and calves, knees, thighs, focusing on joints until the whole body has been massaged. Keep it up for approximately 5 to 10 minutes -the longer the better!
- Rug up in a gown (or I like to use a Onesie!) and leave the oil on your skin for about 10 -20 minutes. I find it best to rest during this process. If I can, I will lie down and read some inspiring text. If it is a busy morning, I will make breakfast while the oil is soaking, to be ready to eat at the end of my self-care practices.
- Enjoy a warm bath or shower. Don’t soap off the oil, just rinse with hot water.
Talking and connecting with others, particularly supportive women, can be very important during menopause.
A few meaningful ways to connect with others:
- Sit in circles with women, including older women who are also experiencing menopause, can help us realise that we are not alone and that many of our experiences are shared.
- You may find that you need counselling or therapy to deal with specific issues arising for healing and resolve.
- Talk with your partner. Particularly if you are in a heterosexual relationship, it is important to help educate men about menopause. Let them know what you are going through, what your needs are and what to expect during your transition.
Jane Hardwicke Collings (2016) Menopausal Madness. Seven Sisters Workshop, Mount Martha.
Northrup, Christiane. (2012) The Wisdom of Menopause: Creating Physical and Emotional Health during the Change. New York: Bantam.
Women’s Health Initiative https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/whi/whi_faq.htm
Welch, Claudia. (2011) Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life: Achieving Optimal Health and Wellness through Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine, and Western Science. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Lifelong.