Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Crashing fatigue. How to beat it with yoga backbends

Crashing fatigue, or overall weariness is often reported by women who are going through perimenopause.

Doctors may suggest hormone replacement therapy and may prescribe antidepressants and certain other medications to lower this troublesome symptom in perimenopausal women. And yet simple lifestyle changes can help get rid of fatigue without the use of prescription drugs.

Perimenopausal women should follow a healthy and light diet: frequent small meals can help maintain energy levels. Drinking plenty of water and healthy liquids like natural fruit juices, soups, herbal tea, etc. instead of coffee help maintain energy levels.

We know that regular exercise plays an important role in balancing hormone levels, and yet when you are exhausted, and all you want is an afternoon nap, it may be difficult to muster the energy to get off the sofa and drag yourself to the gym or a yoga class.

Despite my regular yoga practice, i too experience fatigue and very low blood pressure on certain days of the month, usually on the third and fourth week of my cycle, when estrogen levels plummet.

I noticed that gentle back bends offer immediate relief when my body refuses to hold more demanding poses. I perform an easy sequence of Cobra and Child pose, holding both for 3-5 slow breaths, and when my energy levels are restored, i alternate Upward-facing Dog and Downward-facing dog.

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
This pose stimulates the endocrine system, strengthens the spine, stretches chest and lungs, shoulders, and abdomen, stimulates abdominal organs, helps relieve stress and fatigue, opens the heart and lungs, soothes sciatica. Bhujangasana increases body heat and awakens kundalini.

Instructions: Lying on your stomach place your hands under your shoulders, fingers evenly spread and pointing forward. Slide your chest forward and up keeping your hands exactly where they were.
Roll your shoulders back and lift the chest higher, while keeping the low ribs on the floor. 
Keep your neck neutral, don’t crank it back. Breath naturally and hold the pose for 3 breaths first, then relax in child's pose and repeat. Increase the number of breaths only insofar as it is comfortable to do so. Stop if your face becomes flushed and your heart beat fast or irregular.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Age of Enlightenment

"Listen to your body". How many times have you heard a yoga teacher say it?
If you are approaching menopause or already menopausal, this is a great opportunity to follow that advice and tune in to the wisdom of your body.

Those who already practice and study Yoga may be familiar with the concept of Kundalini.
Kundalini is regarded as the root of all spiritual experiences. As a special kind of energy it is known in many ancient cultures, including Tibetan, Indian, Sumerian, Chinese, Irish, Aztec, Greek, though under different names. Kundalini is said to be hot, fast, powerful, and large. It exists within the earth, within all life, and within each person. Psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung called kundalini 'anima'.
It is usually represented as a serpent coiled at the base of the spine, but women's mystery stories locate it in the uterus.

As a long-time student of yoga, I couldn't help noticing the many similarities between menopausal symptoms and the well-known esoteric goal of "awakening of the kundalini."
Indian yogis spend lifetimes learning to activate, or wake up, their kundalini. This is also called "achieving enlightenment." When they succeed, a surge of super-heated energy goes up the spine, throughout the nerves, dilating blood vessels. As kundalini continues to travel up the spine, it changes the functioning of the endocrine, cardiovascular, and nervous systems. Not just in yogis, but in any woman who allows herself to become aware of it.

Menopause has often been described as a kind of enlightenment in many spiritual traditions and one of the best definitions of hot flashes that i have found is "kundalini training sessions".

At menopause you stop losing energy through regular monthly bleeding. If it sits in the pelvis for many years, it can dry out the vagina, erode the integrity of the hips, contribute to bladder weakness, and depress sexual desire.

But if the kundalini is guided (by thought or by hot flashes, for instance) up the spine, then it confers enlightenment. But not all at once.

As the kundalini rises, it must pass through six more energy gates/chakras. At each gate, symptoms relating to the chakra may occur. As may shamanic abilities that could cause the menopausal woman (or her family and friends) to think that she is going crazy. She has never been more sane. After kundalini awakens it becomes impossible to continue believing that external reality is the sole reality.

No wonder old women are honored and feared in many traditional societies.

If the energy centers triggered by kundalini are resistant to being activated, symptoms may get worse. Pain, bloating, indigestion, heart palpitations, thyroid malfunctions, headaches, and memory loss are all associated with resistance to the passage of kundalini.

When menopausal symptoms are understood as energy movement (or lack of it), women feel more at ease. Instead of feeling victimized by her body, the menopausal woman can use her symptoms as a way to pinpoint areas that need special nourishment. Quiet time alone in nature, sitting in a comfortable yoga pose listening to soothing music, and meditation allow thoughts and feelings to arise and open the way for the flow of kundalini.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Yoga and the Wisdom of Menopause" - Review

I have recently finished reading "Yoga and the Wisdom of Menopause" by Suza Francina, a book i strongly recommend to any woman approaching the midlife passage.
Suza Francina, a registered yoga therapist, certified Iyengar teacher, and author of several yoga books, provides how-to practice guidance, useful and important information about menopause, fascinating stories of spiritual awakening and bodily awareness from a dozen menopausal women she interviewed for her book (mainly yoga teachers).

"Yoga can help us move joyfully into the second half of our lives," she writes, and her enthusiasm invites the reader to partake in the wisdom.

Topics discussed are hormonal balance, fatigue, hot flahes, pelvic health, osteoporosis, breast cancer, and heart disease.
The yoga poses suggested to relieve side effects of menopause are clearly described and illustrated with photographs.

Menopause is regarded by Francina and others as an opportunity for the fullest blossoming of a woman's power, wisdom and creativity. More psychic energy becomes available to us than at any time since puberty. To embrace this opportunity we need to make time for ourselves, take care and nurture our new self while is breaking the shell of its egg.

Yoga helps us to change our perspective on this mid-life transition, encourages us to broaden our vision of who we are, prepares our body and mind for it, and alleviates the discomfort that any transformation entails.

I found Francina's book very inspiring and useful as a reference - i often go back to some chapters that are relevant to me.

Perhaps a new edition should include a chapter on Pranayama (breathing techniques) and one on guided Meditation, which are just as important as Asana (yoga poses).

Restorative poses

Restorative yoga is sometimes called the yoga of non-doing or un-doing.

The practice focuses on effortlessness and ease, using well-placed blankets, bolsters, yoga straps, and chairs to safely support the body in various postures.

Women who start practicing yoga at a time when body, mind and spirit are undergoing a transformation, may feel anxious, frustrated or insecure at first. Especially if they join a group class that doesn't cater for their needs.
Joining a very athletic group of yoga students when your joints are stiff, your balance is elusive, your blood pressure is like a yo-yo, a couple of sleepless nights and profuse sweating have sapped your energy, can put you off yoga altogether.

Do not despair. Look for an experienced teacher who understands your needs, book a private lesson if you can afford it, or join a gentle yoga class, one that focuses on restorative yoga poses, Pranayama and meditation. If you cannot find a suitable class where you live, there are plenty of good videos on youtube.

You can start by practicing at home, all you need are comfortable clothes, a mat or a rug, some blankets or a bolster, a block, and a well-ventilated room where you will not be interrupted or distracted.

After a long stay in restorative poses, you will feel and look like you’ve had a massage. 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 keep your abdomen soft, your chest open and your breath flowing.

Melissa West has a good video on youtube that is ideal for those who have never tried yoga or are looking for restorative poses

Rites of passage

Many traditional cultures have rites of passage. Although they vary greatly in intensity, specific form, and social meaning, rites of passage primarily serve the purpose of resolving life-crises; they provide a mechanism to deal with the tension experienced by both individuals and social groups during ambiguous occasions including, but not limited to, birth, puberty, marriage and death.
By facilitating these transitions, rites of passage hold considerable emotional importance for both the individual and society. To take on a new social identity, the individual must negotiate a status passage that is often difficult.

Although rites of passage are used to accomplish a wide variety of different social transitions, the European comparative sociologist Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957) delineated in "Les rites de passage" a structure for transformative ritual practices he considered universal and common to all cultures. Van Gennep found that they typically involve a tripartite structure involving three sequential stages. During rites of SEPARATION, initiates are removed physically from the social group. TRANSITION or liminality rites accentuate the often-profound changes an initiate undergoes. The debutant undertaking transition typically experiences a condition of liminality, a marginal status that is socially in-between the former status and an uncertain future. Often during the liminal stage, the human body is itself the object of ritual process. A young person, for example, may be required to undergo painful surgical procedures such as body piercing, scarification, tattoos, etc. The healed wounds permanently signify the status change. The third stage is that of INCORPORATION or reaggregation. This phase involves the reintegration of the transformed individual into the social group, albeit in a new capacity. Van Gennep underscored that this tripartite pattern of human transitions mimics the pattern of nature and the cosmos, a continuous sequence of BIRTH, BEING, REBIRTH.

Even in our secular society we still observe many rites of passage (birth, marriage, legal age, academic achievements, death) and those who belong to an organised religion may mark the moment boys and girls enter adulthood and thus become responsible for their actions (i can think of the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah and the Catholic Confirmation).

And yet, unlike many traditional societies, we have no rite of passage to mark the moment a woman enters the menopause. Germaine Greer writes in her book The Change: "Women need to devise their own Rite of Passage, a celebration of what could be regarded as the restoration of a woman to herself". In a society which often regards ageing as useless, it is no wonder many women see Menopause as fearful and confusing. We need to be conscious of our own strengths, self worth and wisdom.

Menopause is not a disorder but, like puberty, is a period of physical and emotional metamorphosis which affects all women (menopause is often described as puberty in reverse). Recognizing its great importance in a woman's life and celebrating the beginning of a new creative and wise phase of our life rather than passing it under silence would be a good start.

Seeking the company of other women who are experiencing the same metamorphosis, finding positive role models (or becoming one), getting in touch with our Spiritual self, learning to trust our intuitions (our inner vision becomes stronger at this time of life) embarking on a life enriching journey back to our deeper self, metaphorically shedding old skin we don't need anymore are some of the paths that are available to us.

It is through letting go that we can finally give birth to new forms and move forward. Cutting through old binding patterns allows us to let go of the old and give birth to the new or unexpressed parts of ourselves.

During peri-menopause we start to confront the changes in our body and transformations in our lifestyle, many of us realize that our old identity is indeed dying. We discard all that is no longer necessary in our lives, our relationships, worldly possessions, and life structures that have fulfilled their purpose in our development as women but no longer serve our growth. Change is the process that allows us to continue living. To not change is to stagnate and die. It is important for us to listen to our body, mind and soul.

A regular yoga practice helped me dispel fear, mastering new poses restored trust in both my physical and mental strength. The gift of Yoga really took on a more profound meaning as i relied on it to cope with the tension of transformation. It provided an avenue for me to accept the necessary change that would be responsible for my future happiness in life.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wide-legged Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana)

This is a great pose to calm the mind, while actively stretching and strengthening the muscles in your inner and back legs. It also stretches the spine relieving mild back pain.

Never force yourself into this pose, let gravity do the job :-)
Be careful if you suffer from lower back pain, especially if this is the result of over-stretching muscles in that area.
If you aren't able to easily touch the crown of your head to the floor in the last stage of this forward bend, you can support your head on a block padded with a folded blanket, or a pile of cushions.

While your legs are challenged to be strong, steady, and well rooted, the heart and head are soothed and calmed. It's therefore no surprise that this asana is often used as a balm for frayed or anxious nerves.

This pose is an inversion, and shares many of the health benefits of inverted poses: our head clears with the increased blood supply, improving our mental stability and concentration, defeating lethargy and a tired body.

 Inverted poses also balance the hormones of the body, bringing a fresh supply of blood to the thyroid and parathyroid glands, the pituitary and pineal glands. Anti-gravity clears toxins from the tissues, cleansing and nourishing, and improves circulation.  Because the heart must pump stronger, they also have an aerobic affect.

A word of caution, it is not recommended to practice inversions while suffering from headaches.

INSTRUCTIONS: Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) take your feet apart (anywhere from 3 to 4 1/2 feet depending on your height).
Rest your hands on your hips. Make sure your inner feet are parallel to each other.
Lift your inner arches by drawing up on the inner ankles, and press the outer edges of your feet and ball of the big toe firmly into the floor. Engage the thigh muscles by drawing them up.
Before bending forward (folding from the hips, never the waist) inhale and stretch your torso and arms upward. Your chest will feel expansive, your heart uplifted, and your front spine long.
Maintain this feeling as you exhale and bend forward.
If you can comfortably reach your hands down to the floor while still keeping your front spine long and supple, place both hands onto the ground directly beneath your shoulders, with fingers facing forward.
If the ground is too far away, place two blocks or a chair on the floor in front of you and rest your hands there.
Bend your elbows and let your head reach effortlessly for the space between your hands.
To come out of the pose, place your hands on your hips and then root strongly through your feet, as your tail swoops toward the ground and your heart lifts to bring you to standing on an exhalation.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Take care of your knees

As we age our joints become stiffer and less flexible. Fluid in the joints may decrease, and the cartilage may begin to rub together and erode. Hip and knee joints in particular begin to lose joint cartilage.

A gentle form of yoga practiced after a good warm up, is perfectly safe, but some yoga postures are not recommended.

An Indian orthopedic, Dr Ashok Rajgopal, recently revealed that he has performed knee replacement surgery on a number of leading yoga gurus. His warnings are a serious challenge to those who say yoga, which is now a multi-million dollar global industry, can ward off the effects of ageing and leave devotees feeling fitter, stronger and at peace with the world.

 According to Dr Rajgopal, "the extreme stretching exercises at the heart of the discipline cause severe stress on joints, leading to arthritis." He has seen a higher incidence of joint and bone ailments among yoga followers.

"Extreme postures like acute deep knee bends are definitely harmful to them in terms of the abnormal stresses, and damage to cartilages. Anatomy is key when you are teaching yoga because everybody has a different body and build. We have to be very careful how we could keep up from one posture to another without injuring them. Everything has to be done according to what your body can handle. With proper alignments and training one can avoid these injuries," he said.

Poses that can damage our knees are: Virasana (Hero Pose) Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose), Padmasana (Lotus Pose). Our knees were never designed to bend at the angle shown in the picture (Supta Virasana) and if you have strong and therefore short and tight quads - sporty people do- this pose is bad for both knees and lower back.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Weight gain during the menopause. Why I recommend gentle yoga

I practice a gentle form of yoga and must say it is very effective to keep my body healthy and my mind calm. I am not looking for the fountain of youth, i just want to age gracefully and be able to keep doing what i am passionate about. Looking like a 25 year old at 50 was never one of my affirmation mantras :-)

On the other hand, i have a few acquaintances who are true yoga junkies and believe that yoga is all about burning excess calories: they attend Power yoga and Fast Vinyasa classes every day, go running at 6:00 am and..... look older than me. Why? The answer is very simple: very intense aerobic exercise, the kind of exercise that makes your heart rate increase beyond what is comfortable for your body and leaves you gasping for air .

If your breathing becomes irregular, you are no longer following any sound yogic principles.
Yoga was never intended to make your breathing irregular and make your heart race.
If anything, traditionally yogi have always tried to slow down their heart rate through meditation and controlled breathing.

The intense yoga workout that many people swear by is a Western aberration, invented by people who want to burn more calories than your body is designed to burn naturally.

A vegetarian Yogic diet is based on fresh ingredients, and portions are small. Eating more than your body needs is regarded as a form of greed that is bad for both your health and the planet. People who eat moderately do not need to burn extra calories!

Burning these extra calories through an intensive workout is also extremely unhealthy. Just take a look at professional athletes. Their skin looks old, their bodies do not age gracefully, and most of them die relatively young. All that excessive internal combustion can't be good for you!

When your burn calories, the oxygen molecule undergoes a change, is stripped of an electron, which means there are free radicals floating in the body. Free radicals do damage: they react intensely with other molecules of the body and leave destruction behind them.

I live in China, where people believe that we should conserve our energy (Ch'i) rather than dissipate it. It sounds logical. As we age our metabolism slows down for a reason, and we should limit our calories intake, instead of burning them on some internal pyre! That’s why Tai Ch'i is regarded as a better activity for the elderly than any intense aerobic activity.

A Chinese acquaintance is 85, does Tai Ch'i every day and looks a lot younger than some 60 y/o Western guys who push themselves too hard in order to stay fit…I bet he never jogged, run or signed up for a fast Vinyasa class!

My recommendation for keeping weight gain at bay is very simple: watch what you eat, stick to fresh, unprocessed, wholesome food, preferably adopt a vegetarian diet, eat moderately.

If you are putting on weight, it means you are eating too much for your metabolism.
If you eat for comfort, then maybe it's time to take a look at the underlying psychological causes that make you reach for the food your body doesn't need.
Meditation is a very effective way of balancing your mind, much more so than an intensive yoga workout that depletes your body of energy and doesn't allow you to break the vicious circle of accumulating fat and burning it. An unbalanced mind and an unhealthy body go hand in hand.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Janu Sirsasana, Head-to-Knee Pose

This is a great pose to stretch your body when you get out of bed and start the day on a positive note.
I also find it very effective after a long day, when my body is tired but the mind is still over-active.
It calms the brain and helps relieve mild depression.
It also stretches the spine, shoulders, hamstrings, and groins. It stimulates the liver and kidneys, relieves anxiety, fatigue, headache.
It's therapeutic for high blood pressure, insomnia, and sinusitis.

You should hinge from the hips, not the waist. Make sure that the spine is long and straight, as you don't want to exacerbate the curve of your spine. If you can't comfortably reach the extended-leg foot, sit on a folded blanket, or use a strap. 

Don't sacrifice comfort in an attempt to bring your head to the knee. Rest your head on a chair and a cushion and you will still get all the benefits of this pose.