an interview with Louise Ellis by Sharmila Desai on Ashtanga Yoga and Menopause
Thank you Louise for taking the time to talk to me about menopause and the Ashtanga yoga practice. As a woman the most useful information I have gathered from ladies holiday to fertility to motherhood has been from other women. Everyone needs rode models – wisdom from the heart – that nurtures, heals, invigorates, inspires as she moves through the different stages across life.
Since our early days when we were roommates in Mysore you were always that someone I turned to after practice to discuss life, family and the world spiritually around us. Discussing this topic together feels very fitting.
What are some basic signs of perimenopause and around what ages does this happen?
Some of the signs may be mood swings, changes in the length or character of menstrual periods sometimes heavy or very light periods. Sometimes when there are existing fibroid tumors, an increase or sudden appearance of PMS symptoms or irregular cycles may start when they were previously very regular. The hormones start to fluctuate. Hot flashes and weight gain not related to diet can also happen. The age where some of these might happen varies but late forties early fifties commonly.
How should we practice as we experience the first onset of irregularities?
At first I would advise just sticking to the practice while symptoms are not very intense. Not all women experience all symptoms and sometimes they can be managed easily enough – especially at the beginning since this is happening over a period of years. Secondly relating to the experience as a normal process and not a disease is key. It’s my belief that women need to to share more openly with each other. It seems to be the last big taboo subject since it connects directly with the fear of aging already so poorly dealt with culturally.
If and when a woman is going through very hard symptoms there may be loss of energy or strength. My advice and it applies to aging in general is to note that without judgment and do stick to a routine. It’s a specific skill or art to learn when it’s appropriate to do a shorter practice and when it’s not. In order to do that, listening to the body is key because the body gives much more clear signals then the ego/mind. We already have a practice of working with the body so once in actual practice it becomes much easier to perceive. Also avoid an adversative or clinging attitude if you can toward the process…..raga/dvesha. Clinging to the past images and struggling with that can lead to further dukha there.
How does having an ashtanga yoga practice make us more attuned to what is happening in the body at this time?
Well I think that it really helps that we are already working with the natural cycles and bio-rhythms such as the moon days. Additionally we are used to increase in body temperatures which helps us to regulate easier. Then there is the sweat and purification aspect which is also very helpful. Of course as with all deep hatha yoga practice, mental and physical awareness is greatly enhanced.
When does the shift move from perimenopause to menopause?
I believe that after one has not had a period in a year she is considered post menopausal. I considered it to be actual menopause when I started to skip periods every other month. As far as symptoms are concerned, I found the early fifties to be possibly the toughest time.
I found that in birth if I rode the waves of labor my body embraced the rite of passage it was naturally going through…if i resisted or feared their arrival it was harder to integrate myself. I am wondering if there is a similar approach of surrender to when hot flashes occur.
Yes I think that’s a good way to cope along with layering clothing:) There is the primary symptom and then how you choose to react to it. The attitude towards it. There is so much going on that we can’t control. We can investigate the attitude we are holding that fact in. All of this takes place at a time when we have had years of experience in this and that helps.
How do we approach our practice our practice during this chapter?
We need to sharpen discrimination as to what originates in the body and what is extra. You may feel a lack of energy for instance. If you get on the mat with complete acceptance and compassion you will know when it’s appropriate to honor the body and do a shorter practice. It’s really difficult to do that just from the level of mind so I recommend just get on the mat and see. There have been many times for me that once there I found it not to be centered in the body but coming from a belief that i was holding. When it actually is a body centered fatigue it should absolutely be respected. It’s so important and not to think that it’s always going to be that way…it won’t. The point is that it provides a good ground for developing discrimination.
Is perimenopause and menopause a linear experience?
No not at all. So many different things are happening on so many levels simultaneously . It’s also not constant but comes and goes.
How do we engage the energy – prayer, visualizations, ritual, mantra, supplements, looking within to seize this moment as an opportunity for growth?
Well for myself I combine mantra and devotional practices with and during the asana practice. For me this works well because I won’t be willing to give them up no matter what else is going on. I will do those regardless and since it involves the asana it keeps me from rationalizing reasons not to practice physically.
Some women experience incontinence – I imagine the practice and developing bandhas helps in its prevention. Is this related to earlier pregnancies/birth? Yes I think the problem when it exists is a pre existing one and definitely bandhas are very important. Women should really work with this diligently after pregnancy and childbirth.
Could you describe your personal experience through perimenopause and menopause? How was it connected to your ladies holiday and births? what is the thread between the three chapters if at all?
In my mid to late forties I noticed the onset of PMS symptoms which I had never ever experienced in my life prior and actually had dismissed as whining in others. Also I had an ovarian cyst around that time, very painful, but went away. The doctors said that it was not related to anything to do with peri menopause but my intuition was that there definitely was a connection. They also said there were uterine fibroids which since not causing heavy bleeding could be left alone and would most likely disappear with menopause. This was true.
My cycles continued to be absolutely regular but there was a gradual lightening of the flow and duration through yearly fifties. I had the weight gain not too extreme but very noticeable to me and difficult. Even total fasting for a few days had no effect. I also felt very emotionally unstable at times. I had the hot flashes mildly but it wasn’t much of an issue for me. So this went on until I started to miss every other period but still very regular cycles every other month.
Eventually, I started to regain my energy. My weight went back to normal around that time. I felt better mentally and emotionally. The periods stopped coming at age 56 . So physically not too bad but then I felt a sort of grieving process which completely surprised me for a few weeks. I had had my family and all of that so it took me aback. I realized though peeling back the layers that the root fear was one of dissolution and death. Big surprise again as I thought I had already dealt with this. I had but this is at the deep level. In any case it was what needed to happen for me to go into that in a deeper way. I’m grateful for it now and it didn’t last long, that phase.Though very strongly recommended I chose not to further interfere with hormones in keeping with my feeling that it’s a natural transition not a disease process.
I think the thread is that if we can stay open to change it’s a teacher. Lifetimes are a very long procession on a scale hard for our minds to grasp. If we leave the current life with just a small amount more wisdom and freedom then we entered it it’s a life well lived. I would really like to stress that in the postmenopausal years I have felt great – energetically free, Whatever happens remember impermanence. Step back relax and broaden the view.
How do we understand the metamorphosis during this time from a yoga philosophy perspective?
Fearlessness is the quality of yoga so we develop and cultivate that. The wisdom of Dhumavati can be embraced at this point. We can appeal to all of the wisdom aspects of the Divine Mother to great effect here. For those for whom this sort of devotion doesn’t resonate they can turn to the many non dual forms of practice but the common thread here is turning towards and not away from the fears that are arising. This is the perfect time of life to turn toward Maha Kali, Shani Deva, Shiva etc as All forms of Time in the big sense.
As practitioners of yoga many of us are familiar with these forms and practices but any type of mediation or practice true to the heart works. It may or may not involve specific ritual. though I am partial to them myself. The form it takes will depend on the karma of the individual. It may take forms which have a connection to well known wisdom traditions or not. It makes no difference what the habit momentum (karma) is. There is just a broadening of the view so to speak.
How do we nourish ourselves naturally – diet, environment, yoga and meditation?
Meditation and practice are the mirrors showing us where we are stuck. What we are believing at a given time and how we hold those beliefs. I think diet is very individual but my practical advice is avoid over eating especially if you have a pattern with that. One thing that would have helped me was to be assured that any weight gain which is not related to diet will normalize when the process is basically complete. if you don’t realize that it’s easy to suffer unnecessarily.
What does menopause spiritually represent?
Well so much really. Even if we have a positive attitude about aging intellectually and philosophically, such a huge marker of entering the last phase of the current life can be profound on a visceral level. It has the double issue of being connected to both sexuality and aging. It calls into question some primary identity structures.I see it as a chance to continue the inner processes of learning to embrace groundlessness and impermanence that hopefully are already underway through life experience and spiritual practice.
Louise Ellis is a Certified Ashtanga yoga teacher and director of the Ashtanga Center in Rishikesh, India.
Embracing Impermanence is an interview that belongs to Sharmila Desai’s ongoing research work in Ashtanga yoga and biorhythms across a woman’s life.
Louise with a group of women she taught in Estonia, Europe.