How does the time-tested, holistic science of Ayurveda approach menopause? And how can we prepare and play an active role in our wellness during this new phase of our life? To learn more about menopause, and the vata-stage of life, we chit-chaat with Danielle Hanna. An Ayurveda Practitioner and yoga teacher who dedicates her holistic practice, and research to supporting women during this transitional time. Read on… to learn more from the owner of Living Arts Ayurveda in Portland, Oregon
Q & A with Danielle Hanna M.A., CAP
What is menopause?
Simply speaking, natural menopause is the cessation of menstruation for a whole year. For many, there are years and even decades of time in transition often referred to as perimenopause. It is during this time that the natural aging process shifts the body from the reproductive years into a whole new cycle of life. This shift, from an Ayurvedic perspective, moves us from the drive and dynamic energy of pitta, a time in our lives that span roughly early adulthood into our 50’s. Characterized by the energy of fire and water, the pitta time of life is one of transformation. Our energy is often focused on our work in the world, perhaps the acquisition of material desires like homes and comforts of material life and an interest in accomplishment. The mantra is often in doing.
As the crossover moves into menopause, Ayurveda tells of another change. From the 50’s (or so) on, vata dominates. The energy of ether and air, this time of life becomes a gathering of life’s wisdom. The light and subtle qualities of ether and air give rise to a time of natural intuitive understanding and clarity. This light is reflective, casting a gaze towards deeper, more inward understandings of a life lived full of experience. This combination promotes a greater sense of oneself and the deeper meanings of our reality. The mantra during this time is in the being.
Ayurveda advises that this time of life is the natural aging process. And as with other transitions and shifts, making changes in our daily rhythms is essential so that the mind, body, and spirit are in harmony with oneself.
In general, when does menopause begin and when does it end?
In general, the onset of natural menopause could be from the 40’s and well into the 50’s, although there are always exceptions. Ayurveda tells us that the more healthy time for menopause is after 50. Natural menopause ends after menopause has been established, although, in my opinion, it is not a hard-fast line.
We’ve been hearing about perimenopause lately, how does it differ from menopause?
Natural perimenopause can be a long period of time with interspersed symptoms that may go up and down in intensity. I think of perimenopause as the body’s way of letting us know that the natural aging process is beginning to occur. Early signs can vary quite a bit and are largely related to one’s natural constitution, or prakriti and elemental balance.
Some shifts you may experience:
- Changes in sleep habits or patterns. Either having a hard time getting to falling to sleep or waking up multiple times a night are common complaints.
- Changes in body temperature. While hot flashes are often associated with menopause, it is not uncommon to feel cold, or a combination of the two.
- Eating habit shifts. Have you eaten a certain way for your entire life until this point but are beginning to notice that tomatoes, wine, caffeine or ……. (fill in the blank) affects your differently?
- Energy levels change. Do you notice that the bandwidth you have had and relied on for years not there anymore?
- A change in your cycle. Periods may begin to wax or wane and may change in quality and quantity too.
This is just a shortlist of changes that may come about through the natural transition of perimenopause into menopause, but certainly not all of them. For some, the changes may be very subtle and irregular, but for others, this change can come on fast.
Will all women experience the same menopausal symptoms?
No, the pathways are many, though the destination is the same. While this might seem a little corny, it’s really so true. Each person goes through menopause uniquely. With this in mind, there are symptoms that tend to have some commonality:
- Hot flashes
- insomnia or trouble falling asleep
- weight shifts
- vaginal dryness
- body and bone dryness
How we have lived our lives in our earlier years and the decisions and choices we make during perimenopause and before can dramatically affect and impact menopause.
For some women, menopause is not as apparent of a shift than for others, why is this?
Just as each person has their own unique fingerprint or signature in the world, menopause also shows up uniquely. Ayurveda explains that we are all one of kind, a perfectly mixed creation of elements formed to create our own nature. While our nature or our constitution is so important and will have a bearing on how we experience life, it is also through the decisions we make on the daily, diet & lifestyle, that will have a dramatic impact on how the natural transition of menopause plays out.
For example, if during your life you have been on the run, eating fast food, burning the candle at both ends and not paying much attention to your natural rhythm, and, during the years of transitions, adjustments do not happen, chances are by the time menopause happens, there could be some difficult shifts. Conversely, if awareness is brought in and simple diet & lifestyle habits introduced (especially in perimenopause and even before), the transitions are often so much more manageable.
I really love what Dr. Claudia Welch says in her book, “Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life”. “Starting to think about menopause only when it hits is a little like trying to dig a well only when you get thirsty. Better to dig little by little so the water is available when you need it”.
In your experience, how has a holistic medical system like Ayurveda supported your menopausal clients?
Ayurveda is amazing for supporting life, especially in the realms of transitions into menopause. In our modern, fast-paced world, it is very common to feel stressed, overworked and overburdened. While Ayurveda cannot take the work or stress away, Ayurveda can give us tools to better support our health and balance by addressing diet & lifestyle habits that are most aligned with our natural constitution AND can nourish, replenish and nurture the mind, body, and spirit. The tenets of Ayurveda tell us that mind, body, and spirit are linked and connected. Tending to these different bodies, with regular attention, is an important part of everyday balance. Seeing the person as a whole and knowing that the bodies know and want to be well is the truth. This is our natural state and an important distinction of holistic health, specifically Ayurveda. This is a boon of many holistic medical modalities because when we frame our health from this vantage, we change our relationship to it. We move away from fear and worry and the out of control monkey mind spins that often rule. This has a dramatic impact on our health and our ability to heal. In menopause, we are poised to sit in the Seat of our Life-to reflect and cultivate a deeper, highly individualized discernment. Using Ayurveda to take care of the bodies really helps to elevate this capacity and can support us more fully in achieving the 4 goals of life. It is said that health is the foundation of these goals. One of my teachers, and my doctor, Vaidya Yash Mannur says” Health is the mulum (foundation) to achieve the four goals of life. Health is the prerequisite for all aspects of life”. Here are these goals along with her words around the meanings:
- Artha- money and prosperity. The outer material objects acquired in life which help us to feel comfort and ease.
- Kama-activities and enjoyment which include joy and beauty and the sensory experience.
- Dharma-our code of conduct, guidelines, and purpose of life.
- Moksha-liberation and non-attachment. This is what gives us our full expression in life.
By following these goals, we can stay close in. Close into our heart which helps keep us aligned to our truest self which in-turn, helps support our deepest harmony and balance.
And while the first three goals are very important, Ayurveda considers moksha of the greatest importance. During the time of menopause, it is often the first time we might have to consider the path of liberation and our fullest expression. To have this perspective and overview through a system of medicine is so beneficial. Ayurveda is a complete system, it is
“The Science of Life”, from one end to the other.
What are the benefits of preparing the mind-body for this stage of our lives? Can it aid in easing the process
There are so many benefits to being proactive and preventative, not only in perimenopause/menopause but also in life as well! I think what’s important to consider is the incredible transformation that happens during this time. With all of this change going on inside, it is equally important to make changes on the outside as well.
Perhaps it’s in the amount of time we offer to ourselves in self-care or maybe it’s with the way we spend time during our days or even in the company we keep. Whatever they are, these changes may be a long time coming or long over-do, but I’ve found in my own life that change takes time. Sustainable and long term shifts in foundations of diet & lifestyle are not all easy, but often highly impactful towards our health and a greater sense of balance.
The best part about this type of mindset is that the focus becomes so much more about the journey and less about a destination. In this type of awareness, there is so much opportunity to notice and bring about an even greater sense of joy, happiness, and connection. It is in this deepened understanding that the mind, body & spirit find a beautiful braided harmony that weaves to create the woven basket of our life.
Should we be making changes to our diet, lifestyles when in menopause, if are some general recommendations and why?
While Ayurveda is highly personalized, each one of us very unique, here are three general guidelines and recommendations I find beneficial for most:
- As often as possible eat freshly made, organic and locally sourced foods.
This not only helps our environment and the Earth, but it also supports a healthy, clean diet full of food that will nurture, sustain and harmonize healthy dhatus (tissue), manas (mind) and atma (spirit). When these systems of body, mind & spirit are harmonized and functioning well, hormonal health is too!
- Eat good quality fats, regularly.
While I cannot say that every single person should follow this, I do believe that we are an under-fat nourished country. For so many years we have heard all the bad things that fat can do. BUT, fat can do many good things too, especially when it is a good quality fat like ghee, coconut oil or olive oil. It can provide needed lipid hydration and support to the organs and tissues. It can hydrate from the INSIDE out and it can provide immediate support to the nervous system and brain function. Good fat, in moderation, is often a good thing.
- Avoid caffeine as much as possible.
I do not believe in an all or nothing approach, for the most part. But there are some things that impact directly at the source of what we are trying to nourish and regular caffeine consumption is one of them! One of my teachers said something years ago that still rings in my heart “ Nothing is good, nothing is bad. Everything is good, everything is bad”. For me it is a strong reminder of the importance of living in moderation.
For women currently experiencing menopause, what are some general guidelines you recommend?
One of the things that makes Ayurveda so amazing and wise, is that it suggests that each one of us is very unique and so while one size does not fit all, I do find a few things that are very beneficial if you are in the natural transitions of menopause.
The most important thing you can do is take active steps towards managing stress. This is essential in supporting symptoms and concerns commonly associated with menopause. And the best way to do it is with regular, daily practice. The amount of time is less important. What really matters is that you are consistent and regular.
- Frame each day with a little time for quiet connection and reflection.
Take 5-30 minutes to meditate and/or belly breath and nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) which you can learn from a good yoga teacher or Ayurvedic Practitioner. Immediately this lays the line and pathways towards calming and soothing your nervous system and provides an opportunity to check in with yourself.
- Make sure you are getting regular time in nature.
Take a walk in a city park or under the canopy of ancient trees, just connect with nature regularly. The smells and sights of nature have a huge impact on our ability to regulate our nervous system and hormone balance. Samkhya philosophy which is the ancient philosophical system of Yoga & Ayurveda tells the story of how consciousness turns into matter and how our organs of perception are formed. It is believed that our senses inform our perception which creates our reality. So, when you look at a beautiful tree, smell a spring flower and hear the sounds of birds, you are nourishing yourself through the sense organs. This translates to a well-supported change in the mind, body & spirit and is incredible for the regulatory response.
- Spend time with people you enjoy.
It is very important that our environment and daily lives have time each day with folks that support and nourish our very heart and spirit. When we actively create a web of health holistically, everything counts! So when filling your social and even professional calendar, consider the people you are interacting with and how you feel in their company. Seek out connections that are aligned and connected to your highest Self, I am certain you will notice the difference.
Danielle Hanna is a certified Ayurvedic Practitioner, yoga teacher, mom, artist, nature lover, and owner of Living Arts Ayurveda in Portland, Oregon. She practices from her urban garden, a healing and heart space named Rose. Rose is an intentional environment dedicated to the practices of holistic health and living in accordance with the elements. She extends her sincere gratitude and appreciation to her teachers and guides that have taught and shared these practices with deep understanding, skill, devotion, and reverence–Baba Hari Dass, the community at the Mt. Madonna Institute and most notable, Vaidya Yash Mannur. Image courtesy of Danielle Hanna.