By Asha Saith
The word yoga has been a part of my existence since I was a child. My mother employed the exercises for an injury to her spine and my grandmother, noting the benefits started Yoga in her forties and was able to achieve an unassisted headstand in her fifties!
For me personally, I do Yoga classes because I leave each class feeling good – rejuvenated and relaxed and also recharged – and ready to face whatever life has in store for me. In my humble opinion this mental state is a strong contributor to good health.
According to Wikipedia: the word Yoga has the literal meaning of yoke, from a root yuj, meaning to join unite or attach.” Yoga may simply be described as the practice of disciplines to achieve mental, physical and spiritual well being. These ancient disciplines were used to set the practitioner on the path to oneness or union with the Supreme Being. The disciplines practiced throughout the centuries of Yoga’s existence have been tried and proven to produce a healthier existence.
In today’s world, when one looks up the word Yoga one will inevitably see the word health in close association. Today’s Yogis, especially amongst the western practitioners, expect to derive health benefits from their practice. The beauty of Yoga is that there are so many styles, forms and intensities that one can choose according to individual needs, and the practice of any combination will result in better health.
Modern scientific research has proved that the main practices of yoga, i.e. diet, breathing, meditation and postures (exercises) are strongly recommended for maintaining good health.
Dietary advice employs the use of foods from the vegetable kingdom and pure foods rather than the processed and refined foods or foods that have been artificially or chemically modified. Scientific research has proved that today’s foods have been linked to many illnesses, from cancer to obesity.
Abstinence from meats is also recommended for yoga practitioners and dietary research has also shown that vegetarians live a longer and healthier life.
The number one cause of many illnesses and disease is stress. Yogic breathing involves deep and controlled breathing to promote a calm and relaxed state of mind, no matter the circumstance.
Lack of sleep and fatigue are another cause of serious illness and affects our ability to deal with our day to day existence.
Both meditation and deep breathing are recommended and have been proved to be effective in dealing with stress management and for relaxation.
The slow and gentle exercises of Yogic postures or asanas increase strength, flexibility and balance and contribute to a fitter body and a reduction in injury. In addition, properly performed Yogic postures decrease the risk of injury so common in other sports. The practitioner is encouraged to do as much as their bodies allow, without stress to muscles and joints. Unlike so many other forms of exercise, Yoga is not demanding or competitive and can be practiced at one’s convenience. There are thousands of postures and one can choose to suit needs or modify to deal with injuries and illnesses.
In both the medical world and the world of alternative medicine, Yogic practices are recommended for not only healthier lifestyle but also to assist with diseases such as cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes and, a major contributor of illness, stress.
Yoga and Menopause
Menopause is a natural biological process that all women face. The monthly period ceases and the body experiences changes associated with changes in the hormonal levels.
It usually occurs between the ages of 40 to 60 however symptoms can start earlier. The hormonal, physical and physiological changes vary from woman to woman and can be as mild as unnoticeable, to as severe as creating mental and physical illness.
One might argue that menopause is not an illness however the symptoms of menopause can and do contribute to a variety of serious and life threatening health issues.
Menopausal women are at higher risk for heart disease due to the reduction in estrogen production, greater bone loss, and the diseases associated with stress.
There are a variety of medications that are commonly prescribed for menopausal symptoms however I have found that when given the choice of taking a pain killer for a headache, or performing a yogic breathing exercise such as kapalabhati, to deal with my discomfort, my preference is to choose the natural and less harmful way.
It is a known fact that the medications prescribed often have side effects.
Compared to other sources of illness and disease, research into menopause has really just taken off. The medical world usually have prescribed medication to deal with the symptoms: Painkillers and other chemical treatments, typically Hormone Replacement therapy (HRT) are usually a short term remedy but can have long term side effects. Pain killers can be addictive and create stomach problems and HRT has been associated with breast cancer, and may have unpleasant side effects such as nausea.
Living a healthy lifestyle, regular exercise and a wholesome diet might not ‘cure’ menopause since it is a natural stage of a woman’s life, however Yoga practices will better equip the body and mind to deal with changes of this stage of life.
As the symptoms of menopause are interrelated, so the practice of yoga is interrelated to provide relief for these symptoms. So now we can look closer at the most frequently experienced symptoms of menopause, the risks associated, and the way that Yoga can help
Headaches associated with menopause are as a result from tight and contracted muscles in the head neck and shoulders. Although there may be several causes to headaches – for example stress or allergic reactions- it is with the relief of headaches that Yoga can help. Employing Yoga techniques for relaxation and meditation will reduce stress without risks. Neck and shoulder rolls, yogic breathing and relaxation techniques will all assist with pain and produce a reduction in stress.
Hot Flashes: Hot flashes are caused by abrupt changes in the body’s internal thermostat. Hot flashes are thought to be the result of fluctuating estrogen levels, a diet of spicy foods, caffeine and smoking. These unexpected and uncomfortable heat surges and sweating definitely do create stress! For most women, it is not only discomfort but an embarrassment. Since hot flashes are generally more frequent at night, sleeplessness and fatigue are also of concern.
Although there is no known remedy, medical practitioners will often prescribe HRT in the hope that this will reduce hot flashes. Sleeping aids with their well known risks are a common remedy and, recent research has shown that pain killers so quickly offered as a remedy, actually contribute to sweating!
Deep breathing, meditation, yogic postures and dietary change are key practices for dealing with hot flashes.
Inverted postures, such as the bridge or dolphin, are recommended to increase efficient blood flow to the neck and head and to cool the system.
Deep Breathing and meditation will produce the state of mind to deal with these bodily changes
Dietary changes can contribute: abstinence from hot and savory foods, meat and an adherence to pure forms of food have been proven to assist with regulation of body temperatures.
Weakened and brittle bones are a natural progression as we age, and women are more prone due to rapid calcium depletion during menopause. Once there is depletion, the body will take calcium from the bones, resulting in weak and brittle bones. Once this begins, there is an increased risk of accidents, broken bones and muscular pain.
Regular routines of yoga postures promote healthy bones, joints and muscles and increase circulation. Several of the postures are designed to stimulate and promote healthy glandular function (plough and shoulder stand)
Weight bearing postures stimulate bone development, strength and flexibility.
Regular practice of balancing and coordination Postures reduce the risk of accidents.
Anxiety / Helplessness / Sleeplessness all these symptoms of menopause can have a very disruptive effect on day to day existence and create high levels of stress.
They are not “in the mind” but the results of fluctuating hormones.
Racing heart beats, panic attacks, lack of concentration, irritability, exhaustion are all very real for menopausal women. Yoga postures activate the nervous system, regulate the glandular functions and restore a sense of balance and harmony to the system. The Sun Salutation series incorporates all of the simplest postures in a flow that not only creates harmony, but involves whole body action.
Deep Yogic breathing, staged relaxation, and meditation, lighten the mood and assistwith insomnia.
With respect to dietary changes, abstinence from processed foods, chemically altered foods, alcohol, smoking and meats, produces a healthy body.
A healthy body produces a healthier mind and a healthier mind will be better equipped to deal with symptoms.
There is no proven ‘cure’ or remedy for the symptoms of menopause however Yoga’s practices not only assist with dealing with these symptoms, they produce a frame of mind whereby one learns acceptance of this stage in of life. This has been my personal experience.
Asha Saith is training to become a Yoga teacher. She will be teaching in Trinidad, West Indies.
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