Restorative Yoga for Menopause - A Great Rejuvenator for Women at Midlife|
by Suza Francina, R.Y.T.
Author and Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor
For women at midlife and beyond, yoga offers a primary form of menopause medicine that can help them adjust to hormonal changes and cope with a wide range of symptoms - including hot flashes, night sweats, heavy bleeding, mood swings and fatigue - without negative side effects.
For the past thirty years, my classes have been filled with women who began yoga during the menopausal years. Now that I’m fifty-five years old and officially in menopause (defined as that point in time when a woman’s periods stop permanently) my yoga practice is an antidote to the stiffness and fatigue that tends to settle into the body with the passage of time. Even a short yoga session helps replenish my energy reserves, especially when practiced with the help of yoga props. During the year that my periods stopped, I told my students that yoga is my “menopause medicine”. "And," I added, "you will not hear about a study ten years from now saying yoga is bad for you!"
I often remind my students who are in the perimenopausal (pre menopause) years, that if you practice yoga before menopause, then all the poses that are especially useful for coping with uncomfortable symptoms are already familiar, and you can reach for them like a nurturing and supportive friend.
The spiritual science of yoga recognizes that equilibrium in the physical body helps to bring emotional balance and mental clarity. Yoga supports a new archetype that depicts older women as wise, strong, healthy and intuitive.
Yoga’s Unique Benefits During the Menopausal Years
Yoga reduces the effects of menopause’s hormonal changes by balancing the endocrine system. It smoothes out the hormonal and glandular changes that take place during this stage of life. The regular practice of all the categories of poses -- standing, sitting, lying down, backbends, forward bends, twists, and inverted (upside down) poses -- stimulates and activates all the glands, organs, tissues and cells of the body. Yoga’s inverted poses are particularly important during menopause as they have a powerful effect on the neuroendocrine system, allowing fresh, oxygenated blood to flow to the glands in the head and neck.
A woman’s body is quite capable of adjusting to the hormonal changes that occur when the ovaries slow down. If all our other glands are functioning well, they will, in most cases, continue to produce all the hormones a woman needs for the rest of her life.
It’s important to bear in mind that all menopausal symptoms are related and using yoga to ease the unpleasant effect of one symptom generally leads to better health in the rest of the body. Every yoga pose has a multitude of effects on all the systems of the body.
No aspect of yoga is more important for women crossing the menopausal bridge then to take time to practice yoga’s restorative poses – passive poses where the body is completely supported by yoga props. Props help you stay in poses for a longer time and conserve your energy, allowing the nervous system to relax. Restorative yoga poses are recommended for replenishing your adrenal reserves. This is especially important during times like menopause when women often find themselves in a vicious cycle of feeling "too tired to exercise," (often due to adrenal exhaustion) and then feeling even more tired because they are not exercising.
Yoga Bolsters – Menopause Medicine
Yoga bolsters provide a firm support for the entire length of your spinal column, from the lower back to your head, when you are lying down. The muscles of your abdomen, chest and back release their tension, lengthen and relax deeply. Bolsters are specifically designed so that the sides of your rib cage open and expand over the bolster and move downward toward the floor. When your rib cage expands laterally in this manner, your breathing capacity naturally deepens. The bolster leaves a vital, lasting impression on the body of what it feels like to have the chest open and free. (Note: Two or three firm blankets, neatly folded similar to the shape of a yoga bolster, can also be used.)
Keep your yoga bolsters (or folded blankets) in plain view so that they call to you, to remind you to take time to stretch and relax - just like your toothbrush reminds you to brush your teeth. When tired, get in the habit of lying down on your bolster in “The Goddess Pose” (Supported Lying Down Bound Angle Pose) or other restorative pose described in this article.
Most restorative poses can be safely practiced on their own. For example, if you are feeling tired, practice Supported Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose or Supported Lying-Down Bound Angle Pose for ten minutes. If you have twenty minutes, practice both or stay in one pose longer. Do not be in a hurry. It is far better to do fewer poses in a peaceful, leisurely way than to rush through too many. There will be days when it is a blessing just to be still and rest deeply in one pose for as long as you like. Yoga gives us some much-needed time to be quiet.
After a long stay in restorative poses, you will feel and look like you’ve had a massage and a facial. Your face and whole body will feel smoothed and soothed, from the inside out. Your eyes will look clearer and brighter. You will look at your world as if from the top of a mountain. The deep rest, peace and quiet you experience with restorative yoga is a doorway to meditation.
In all poses - and in all of life - keep your abdomen soft, your chest open and your breath flowing.
Essential Poses for Crossing the Menopausal Bridge
Here are the key restorative yoga poses for balancing your hormones, relieving hot flashes, supporting pelvic health and replenishing your energy reserves.
Place your props for the following poses on a yoga mat so they don’t slide. As you read the descriptions that follow, be aware that in practicing yoga, there are subtle adjustments and refinements that cannot be covered in the space of an article. A qualified teacher can give you specific, individualized instructions and show you how to make these healing poses truly comfortable.
Supported Lying Down Bound-Angle Pose -The Goddess Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)
This supremely nourishing pose is essential for replenishing energy reserves during the menopause transition. This pose places the abdomen, uterus, ovaries and vagina in a position that frees these areas of constriction and tension that inhibit balanced hormonal activity. Blood flow is directed into the pelvis, bathing the reproductive organs and glands and helping to balance hormone function. The centering, balancing effect of this pose helps reduce mood swings and depression.
In this pose we are practicing what yogis refer to as "deliberate stillness." We give the mind and body a chance to integrate and also let go of the past. If you have trouble sleeping soundly, practice this pose before going to bed or if you cannot fall back asleep.
How to Practice: Sit in front of the bolster placed lengthwise behind you, the soles of your feet together. Place a folded blanket at the top of the bolster to create a comfortable support for your head and neck. Loop a strap behind your back, at your sacrum (near your tailbone, not your waist). Bring it forward, around your hips, across your shins, and under your feet so that the soles of your feet are secure. Secure the strap in such a way that it is not too tight or to loose.
Place a folded blanket (or yoga block) under your outer thighs (and forearms, if needed, to be comfortable). Place an eye bag over your eyes to help quiet the movement of your eyes and help your brain to relax. Stay in the pose for 10 minutes or longer. To come out of the pose, place your hands under your thighs and bring your legs back together. Remove the strap and straighten your legs, allowing them to fall evenly away from the midline. When you feel ready, bend your knees, turn to your side, and use your hands to help you slowly sit up.
When you come out of Lying Down Bound-Angle Pose, you can turn and face the bolster and relax in Supported Child’s Pose.
Supported Child’s Pose (Adho Mukha Virasana)
For those moments when you feel like you’re falling off the menopausal bridge and wish you could either stay in bed or run off and have a "crone’s year alone," try kneeling on the floor, hugging your bolster and retreating for a few minutes into Child’s Pose. It gives you the opportunity to take a break and detach yourself from the sometimes seemingly impossible demands of life.
This comforting, restful pose helps calm your nerves and emotions, helps lower blood pressure and feels wonderful on your back.
How to Practice: Sit on your heels with your knees on the floor, about hip-width apart. Place a bolster or two folded blankets in front of you and lean forward until your torso and head are completely supported. Turn your head to one side. Give yourself several minutes to relax and feel the soothing effect of the pose. Remember to breathe softly, slowly, and truly "hug" your bolster. Allow yourself to sink into the bolster, relax and let go. Turn your head the opposite way before sitting up.
Supported Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Downward Facing Dog Pose inverts the internal organs and increases blood flow to the brain, helping to counteract lapses in memory that can occur at moments of hormonal fluctuation. This pose helps lift and tone your uterus, improves circulation to your pelvis and strengthens the pelvic floor. It is a key pose for easing hot flashes. A weight bearing pose for the upper body, it strengthens the bones in the hands, wrists, arms and shoulders, thus helping to prevent osteoporosis. Resting your head on a bolster or folded blankets, as illustrated, makes the pose more restful.
How to Practice: From Supported Child’s Pose, come to your hands and knees. Bring your knees back in line with your hips and place your hands on either side of the front edge of the bolster. Position your feet hip width apart, curl your toes under, press your hands firmly into the mat and, on an exhalation, straighten your legs so that your body forms the shape of a dog stretching. When you come down, separate your knees and come back to Supported Child’s Pose.
Supported Bridge Pose-The "Menopausal Bridge Pose" (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Supported Bridge Pose is restful for the heart and may help balance blood pressure and hormonal secretions. This pose has a calming effect on the mind and nervous system and is recommended for relieving mood swings, hot flashes and tension headaches. Placing your head lower than the rest of your body with the chest open is soothing and refreshing, and removes lethargy and depression.
Supported Bridge Pose helps regulate and balance blood pressure. Women are more prone to elevated blood pressure when the protective effect of estrogen is withdrawn. As you stay in the pose, feel the effect deep inside the whole belly area. The effect of dropping the belly, uterus and ovaries in the pelvic bowl helps to balance the hormonal secretions and thus helps ease the hormonal fluctuations of menopause.
How to Practice: Place one bolster or stack of folded blankets horizontally and another vertically, forming a T shape. Position yourself near the end of the vertical bolster so that when you lie down your head is near the far end. Slowly slide off the end until the back of your head and shoulders rest flat on the floor. Your feet should rest comfortably on the horizontal bolster.
Stay in Supported Bridge Pose for 5 minutes or longer. When you feel ready to come out, bend your knees, slowly turn to your and sit up. Turn around, face the bolster and briefly go back into Supported Child’s Pose.
Supported Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose - The Great Rejuvenator (Viparita Karani)
Few things are easier and more refreshing, especially after standing upright for long periods of time, then simply lying on your back and elevating your legs up a wall or other surface. This is a safe and soothing way for women new to yoga to become accustomed to inverting their body. Practice this daily if your legs and feet swell easily, or if you have varicose veins.
This is a key pose for replenishing your adrenal reserves. During the year that my periods stopped, especially on hot days when the heat added to a sense of fatigue, I practiced Supported Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose for at least fifteen to twenty minutes every day, often much longer.
How to Practice: Place a bolster or two folded blankets about 2 inches away from the wall. Sit sideways on the bolster so your right hip and side are touching the wall. With the bolster under your bottom, lower yourself back, using the support of your elbows and forearms, and swivel around to take your right leg and then your left leg up the wall. Stay in the pose for 10 minutes or longer. If you are tired, it is natural to fall asleep in this pose. When you are ready to come out, bend your knees, turn to your side, and relax on the floor for a few more breaths before you slowly sit up.
Supported Deep Relaxation Pose
The "pause" that refreshes during the pause. Practicing Deep Relaxation Pose on a bolster (or stack of firm, folded blankets) opens the chest and helps remove depression, as well as physical and mental fatigue. This pose is used to help treat high blood pressure, relieve migraine and stress related headaches. It can also be helpful for insomnia.
How to Practice: Sit in front of the bolster placed lengthwise behind you (or firm blankets folded lengthwise into the shape of a bolster). Place one or two folded blankets at the top to create a comfortable support for your head and neck. The edge of your bolster should be close to your tailbone. Before lying all the way back, look down the front of your body and see if your upper and lower body are centered so that the line formed by your nose, chin, center of your chest, navel and pubic bone extends directly toward a center point between your heels.
Center your spine on the bolster. You may have to experiment with the height of the blanket under your head so that it feels truly comfortable. Your forehead should be slightly higher than your chin and not drop back. Your body should feel supremely comfortable, supported by the bolster, blankets and floor. If you feel discomfort under your back, try repositioning your back on the bolster or decreasing the height under your back by placing a folded blanket under your bottom. Or lie flat on the floor and place the bolster or a folded blanket under your knees.
Suza Francina is author of Yoga and the Wisdom of Menopause: A Guide to Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Health at Midlife and Beyond (Health Communications, Inc., 2003) and The New Yoga for People Over 50: A Comprehensive Guide for Midlife & Older Beginners (HCI 1997) She is a Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor and Registered Yoga Teacher based in Ojai, California. She can be reached at www.suzafrancina.com