Mental Health at Menopause - Tips for staying sane!

This month saw Mental Health Awareness week and Wake up to the Menopause week on BBC Breakfast. As both subjects are passions of mine, I couldn’t decide which to write about. So I’m combining the two!

Around the time of the menopause one of the most common symptoms is increased anxiety. It is also true that if you have suffered from trauma and it is as yet unresolved, you are likely to find it rearing its ugly head at menopause.

I’ve mentioned the benefit of Ashwaghanda before but this adaptogenic herb is a wonder. An adaptogen is a herb that supports your body acclimate to stress. Stress is the root cause of anxiety so anything you can do to prevent or manage stress will also help.

Often at the transitional time of menopause, women are at their most busy; running a business or working long hours, managing family life, coping with elderly parents; all of which is stressful. Making time for yourself is the most important thing you can do. Women are notoriously bad at this. We feel guilty if we step away from our family. We feel that we SHOULD be there for everybody else, but this is stressful and you run the risk of compassion fatigue. Yes, it’s a thing!

Doing something that is relaxing, allows you to switch off mentally and that calms your nervous system will benefit. Literally step away from technology for a time.

Research shows that spending time in nature is fabulous for your mental well-being, so why not go for a brisk walk in the park or the countryside. Spending time with others, especially if they are understanding of what you are going through is extremely supportive. After all, a problem shared is a problem halved as they say. Find your tribe and regularly spend time with them.

If you are suffering from depression and finding it difficult to function, there are many things you can do. Rhodiola is another adaptogenic herb that can help with stress, anxiety and depression.

If you are taking ANY other medication, it is always worth speaking with your GP to make sure it is safe to take supplements. However, you might consider speaking with your GP anyway as according to Dr. Rosemary Leonard, author of Menopause - the Answers, anti-depressants can also suppress other menopausal symptoms.

Diet is important. What you eat can effect your mental health. Speak to a nutritional therapist if you need to but the two most important things to cut down on are alcohol and sugar. Alcohol may be your go to when you are stressed but the high you receive from the release of GABA is short lived. You go for another drink and another and soon find that you only feel that same high after a bottle.

Sweets, chocolate and carbohydrates are another choice when stressed but will spike your blood sugar levels and maybe even give you a high, but you will crash down very soon after and feel hungry again. At menopause we tend to gain weight around the middle which usually heightens your risk of cardiovascular disease. Plus the weight gain doesn’t help your self esteem if you are already suffering mentally.

From a yogic perspective, practicing daily will support your mental, physical and physiological well-being. Observe your energy levels and mental state and consider whether to practice some grounding techniques, strong poses or gentle stretches. There is something for every mood and even a breathing technique that cools your hot flushes. Pranayama is magical for mental well-being, as is chanting and meditation. Ten minutes of practice a day is better than one hour a week. If you come to a class, try and practice at home too. You are welcome to photograph my lesson plan to remind you of what you enjoyed.

Cardiovascular exercise really benefits you physically and mentally. I know it can be difficult to fit it in but ask your family to help. Perhaps they can cook for themselves once a week so that you can go to a class . You might take a ten minute walk before eating your lunch. Little and often is better than nothing at all and really boosts your mood.

The most important thing is NOT to suffer in silence. You are not alone. I am a great believer in choice so do your research, never dismiss advice, try something and if it doesn’t work, try something else; whether that is homeopathy, herbs, medication, yoga, meditation or counseling. What works for your best friend might not work for you, so keep an open mind.

Community, support and exercise will greatly benefit. Reach out to me or anyone else who might be able to help. If women are ill informed about menopause, men are going to be less so. TELL your partner and family what you need; it might be the only way you get your needs met.

Talk about the menopause. The more you do, the better educated future generations will be and the easier the transition will be for our daughters.

Go well . Namaste.

Anneliese

5 Ways to Well-being - Wisdom from Sussex Oakleaf

Ever since completing my training in Yoga Therapy for the Mind with The Minded Institute, I have considered myself to be cured of mental illness. But lately I have had to accept that I will never be fully cured of my particular mental illness. It is triggered by stress and even though I advocate that yoga and mindfulness practices are life-long when managing mental illness, stress has a way of blocking them out for me and like every human, I get overwhelmed by the stress and put those practices at the back of the list of jobs to be done. Because in my head, if I tick off all the other jobs that I believe to be causing the stress, I will cope better. But this is rarely the case.

Taking a week off afforded me the time to rest, recuperate and regroup; to prioritise my practices again and therefore my well-being. Consequently I found the space I required to set up strategies that should keep me on the straight and narrow.

I found wisdom from the young that week. The coordinator of the Sussex Oakleaf Youth Mental Health group that I volunteer for 'BeOk', constructed a list of 5 ways to well-being. These are:

Connecting. Learning.  Being Active. Noticing. Giving.

Connecting with family, friends, colleagues and community satisfies a human need of feeling valued and close to others. Connection can also be felt for some through religion, spirituality and nature. In the group we drew mind-maps of things that cultivated connection for us. Other than those mentioned above, examples were communication, reliance, sharing, trust, honesty, love, safety, grounding etc...

This was only the first step on our journey to exploring the 5 ways of well-being together. I find the intelligence, honesty and wisdom of these young men and women incredibly humbling.

Next on the list is Learning. During the BeOk sessions, we have discussed in the past how exams put too much pressure on those of us whose memories have been affected by mental health. But there is always something to learn that can be done just for the fun or fascination of it such as a new skill. Continued learning enhances self esteem and encourages social interaction. Setting goals can be a great way to achieve a sense of well-being.

Being Active is vital for health in general. Regular activity is associated with lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression and is essential for slowing age-related cognitive decline.

Noticing the things around you comes under the umbrella of mindfulness; simply being more present and attentive to whatever you are doing or whoever you are speaking to. Savoring the moment; eating lunch without looking at your phone for example, hearing the words another is saying are ways to help you appreciate the important things in life and in turn, to make positive choices based on your own values.

Giving time to others is incredibly rewarding and helps to create connections. Acts of kindness to a friend, neighbor, community group or charity are more likely to make you feel happy!

I have found that the best strategy for me to cultivate well-being is to be organised. I used to be more organic in the way my days evolved but I found it was too easy to be lazy. So I set myself daily goals, ticking off at least two of five ways to well-being. And it feels good!

Yoga, Pranayama or Mindfulness?

Is it exercise you are after? Yoga then. But if you are seeking a particular state of mind, which practice is going to give you the desired affect? Let me tell you about my experience of both yoga and mindfulness and then I will offer some facts.

At the time I first experienced a Scaravelli inspired yoga class, I was suffering from mental illness. I had been dissociated from parts of my body for many years. Tina, the teacher gave us time to explore and experience the gentle movement, the stronger poses, the challenges. So focussed was I on my body and breath that I felt a different person by the end of a class to the one who had arrived on the mat 90 minutes earlier.

When I practice now I am present to sensations in my body and deeply focussed on the movement of my breath within me; the flow of the breath, those moments when it feels right to move with the inhalation and with the exhalation. For the most part, my mind is quiet. And surely this is what we want isn't it? To quiet the mind. 

Well yes and no. Sure there are times when we just need a moment of peace; to escape the business of the mind. And for me, this was vital in the past. Movement enabled me to be with my body as it switched off any anxiety or suffering. It gave me pleasure to be able to feel my body and to be left with a feeling of such calmness. To be honest, it was probably the only time when I truly relaxed.

When I began training in Scaravelli inspired yoga however, I had to practice pranayama; breathing practices. This meant sitting still, being with my breath, being quiet. Pranayama was not for me. I wanted to leap of the mat. I felt vulnerable and afraid. I didn't like the sensations that arose. They made me super anxious and I almost redeveloped the dissociative patterns I felt I had been leaving behind. If someone else was guiding me, I could practice. In class the practice was short and relaxing but at home, alone, it was terrifying. 

How did I overcome this? I had to practice pranayama in order to teach it. So I integrated it into my yoga practice. I would begin moving gently; say in cat pose. Using Ujjayi with the asana I could tune in to the wave of the breath and begin to feel relaxed. Maybe I could sit for a few minutes after some movement and practice Ujjayi alone for a couple of minutes. Then I might do some more asana and try Kapalabhati. Further asana and perhaps I could sit for a brief period practicing Alternate Nostril Breathing or Viloma and so it went on. It was an asana, pranayama sandwich situation!

It was when I trained with the Minded Institute that the challenge of Pranayama became greatest for me. We were to practice pranayama every day. Initially this was horrendous and once again anxiety reared its ugly head. I hadn't realised that Kapalabhati stimulated the Sympathetic Nervous system. No wonder I hadn't enjoyed it before. But sandwiched between two pranayama that stimulated the Parasympathetic Nervous System; Ujjayi and Alternate Nostril Breathing and I began to cope. I even managed Khumbhaka which previously virtually brought on a panic attack!

Finally I could use Ujjayi during my Yoga practice and sit at the end for pranayama without any uncomfortable feelings and this made me feel great! What do I mean by that? Well, calm, relaxed, still, balanced, grounded, stable. But how was my mind? Well, it still chattered. It was still critical at times and frequently very busy.

I found that in spite of a daily yoga practice I could not switch off the guilt or the shame or the worry or anxiety, particularly around money or that constantly going over a situation I felt I had not dealt with well. Sound familiar?

Now I practiced mindfulness during this time, but in short bursts and not consistently. The practices I had learned with the Minded Institute were and are fabulous for the short term; to alleviate symptoms.

I began to practice Mindfulness as a stand alone practice, on and off. More off than on! I need discipline; a reason for doing something even if it does make me feel better. I wrote a mindfulness journal on Facebook which helps apart from the fact that rather than truly being with my experience I was considering how I might put it into words!

In 2016 I trained with Clear Mind Institute in Mindfulness for Yoga. In other words I learned and practiced the Mindfulness techniques used in a Mindfulness Based Intervention programme (MBI) but only to the degree that I could teach them within a yoga class; not as an actual MBI.

It wasn't until this point that I realised the true potential that a daily Mindfulness practice can unlock. I would consider my yoga journey to have been remarkably healing. However it was the mindfulness that really allowed me to unlock my true self. I had to learn to sit with the uncomfortable. And whereas previously I would leap off the mat and run away from it; now I could remain with it. I could widen that container of experience to be with the side of myself that I did not like. To learn to recognise when that side of me arose and to do something about it. To silence the critical mind. To let go of guilt, shame and worry.

Now I am not going to pretend to be perfect. None of us are. I find myself believing that I have too much to do and cannot afford the time to sit for 30 - 45 minutes a day. But boy do I notice a difference when I don't practice! 

When I maintain a regular mindfulness practice, I am calm. I can deal with difficult situations. I can cope with stress in a rational manner. I can even pause before I speak which is a huge leap forward for me. Although I still can't do this consistently with my family. What is it about family? They are the hardest to be mindful around because they know which buttons to push. But over time and with practice, even this will be easier. Even I will be able to pause, remain calm and consider the right way of speaking my mind.

Mindfulness has been the cherry on the cake for me. Yoga is a lifestyle now. I cannot live without it but nor can I live without Mindfulness. I really need it in my daily life whereas I don't feel terrible if I haven't practiced yoga for a few days. So Yoga, Pranayama or Mindfulness? Well it has to be all three. I couldn't have made this transition without the journey. Sometimes we do need to quiet the mind. Sometimes we do need to make physical changes to the way the body feels and we can practice yoga with mindful awareness. But in order to change the way WE feel, the SELF; it has to be mindfulness. When I maintain a daily mindfulness practice I feel I am my true self. And I like myself!

Yoga mats contributing to pollution...

In a Facebook post about my real sadness and guilt over the condition of our seas, I wrote the following:

"Intrigued by this article because of its reference to mental health, I was surprised to discover its power over my conscience. Something I am passionate about at present is the pollution of our oceans from plastic. I recently heard that glitter is contributing to the pollution because it gets so easily into our water system. At my sister's sparkly themed wedding recently, we were all splashing glitter on our faces, caught up in the celebration and fun of the occasion. It wasn't until the following morning in the shower, when my heart sank as the sparkles ran down the drain. I felt dreadful. During mindfulness Level 2 training the following day, I was reminded just how difficult it is to switch off auto pilot. Sometimes, we just don't think.

Now this article speaks about the fact that PVC yoga mats when washed, release plastic into the water. I just purchased new mats for my studio so again, my heart sank.

In the meantime, on a positive note, another sister found a reference to a yoga mat made of wool! The downside is it costs £220 and you can't wash it. You can only air it in the sun... What to do? If I had 3 times the number of clients, I could restock my studio with sustainable equipment and give my mats to the homeless. Or, if all my clients purchased their own eco mat, I wouldn't have to use mine so often and would therefore not have to wash them so frequently either."

And so it continues...

The article I referred to also discusses how yoga, as a route to mindfulness can support us to make better choices. Clearly I was not being mindful on the day of the wedding, but as Cathy-Mae, my mindfulness teacher explained, 'we are not mindful all of the time' (we are human after all). The route to mindfulness is through the moment to moment awareness of breath and bodily sensations we experience during our class. This can be taken off the mat in order that we learn to pause before we act or react.

I invite you to educate yourself on eco yoga mats and to purchase your own. You can simply spray the surface of your mat with an environmentally friendly cleaner from time to time rather than putting it in the washing machine and I will not therefore have to wash the studio mats so often either. Below are links to a range of mats.

But let's not stop there!

If you travel to yoga, why not ask the others in your class about lift sharing. Can you spare an extra few minutes to wait for one another or go out of your way by 5 minutes? Wearing extra layers to class would enable me to turn the heating down and save energy. Maybe you could wear wrist warmers for when we lie on the floor... If you have any other ideas, please leave a comment. I'd love to hear your views.

If we all do a little bit, we are helping to lessen the effect on nature and instead, we get to enjoy the wonders of the world for generations to come.

Here are some links to purchasing an Eco yoga mat. Please note that I made the mistake of practicing on my rubber mat outside; it began to melt which literally meant I stuck to it and it stuck to me (pretty stupid of me really). They are also heavy so the Manduka Pro-Lite might be better for carrying to and from class. I prefer the Manduka range for sustainability, plus they have a lifetime guarantee. Be informed and make your choice. Let's make Birchwood Yoga more sustainable!

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Here is a link to Yogamatters who stock a whole range of Eco mats ranging from £28 to £70
https://www.yogamatters.com

And here are some other innovative eco mats:
https://fifthbreath.com/product/practice-mat/ £220!
https://liforme.com/liforme-yoga-mat.html £100

What's the buzz? Bhramari Pranayama.

Bhramari, also known as buzzing or humming breath is a wonderful, soothing pranayama practice. Bhramari is a Sanskrit word derived from bhramar, which means “humming black bee.”

By generating a soft buzz or hum we elongate the exhalation. By now you will know that elongating the exhalation puts our bodies into parasympathetic nervous system dominance; meaning we are able to rest and digest and feel calm.

How to practice

Sit comfortably with your spine elongated. When first practicing bhramari, making an actual buzzing sound helps; 'bzzz'. You might then try softening the buzz into a hum by gently closing the lips half way along the buzzing breath so that they are softly resting together but with a space between the teeth. This gives you the impression of how the hum can be created in your final practice by keeping a space between the teeth, the jaw relaxed and the lips lightly touching. Try to control the exhalation; maintaining a steady, smooth, even and continuous sound and energy. Each inhalation should be taken slowly and steadily between rounds rather than being sucked in.

You can play with the pitch and volume. My preference is for a deep sound in which I find the vibrational quality is enhanced, whilst a higher pitch takes the vibration into the skull but for some reason offends my ear! We are all different, so have a play and see what you prefer. You can even practice silently by imagining that you are creating the hum.

Mudras

This beautiful practice can be done using hand mudras or gestures. The bhramara mudra requires one to fold the index finger into the base of the thumb and to rest the tip of the thumb onto the edge of the middle finger nail. In this mudra, that hands can be rested on the belly and the base of the throat or chest which can enable one to feel the vibrational quality of the breath.

Bhramara Mudra

Bhramara Mudra

A second mudra suggests placing the index fingers in the ears; lightly closing the cartilaginous flap at the base of the ear, rather than inserting them into the actual ear canal. The thumbs can rest against the lower jaw and the elbows rest downwards for comfort. This shuts out sounds from outside of ourselves. It deepens the sound within and really enhances the vibration in the head. This mudra can cultivate a deeply relaxing and comforting practice.

A third position is called Shanmukhi mudra and is used to reduce sensory input. This can be challenging and less comfortable, particularly if you feel vulnerable in any way. The thumbs are pressing the cartilaginous flap in the ears this time, the eyes are closed with the index finger resting on the upper orbit of the eye and the middle finger on the lower orbit (the orbit referring to the orbital bone surrounding the eye). The ring fingers rest between the nose and the top lip and the little fingers under the lower lip.

Shanmukhi mudra

Shanmukhi mudra

Benefits

As practicing bhramari shifts the autonomic nervous system into parasympathetic dominance, the practice reduces stress, anxiety and anxious depression in particular. The sound helps to shut out mental stimulation, switching off the ruminating mind. A lower pitch can be more calming or a silent practice that can be done at any time; even on your commute to work or in the office when you are feeling stressed!

When the sinuses are blocked, the vibrations from bhramari help to clear the head. It can help to create a higher pitched sound for this.

If suffering from insomnia, practicing at night using shanmukhi mudra and a lower pitch can be useful.

Whilst there is no scientific evidence, bhramari is thought to help stimulate the thyroid especially if practiced in conjunction with jalandhara bhanda (throat lock) as this directs the vibrations to the throat. Try a medium pitched sound.

During pregnancy, Bhramari can be a wonderfully soothing breath. One client I had practiced often during her pregnancy so that when her baby was born, she could use it to sooth the baby; no doubt because the baby had also benefited from the vibrations within the womb.

When practicing a particularly challenging stretch, bhramari can help to relax the body and therefore soften the stretch. I find it particularly beneficial during king pigeon but it is not advisable to practice bhramari when lying on your back.

If this is your first exploration of Bhramari, I recommed 5 to 10 rounds initially, building this up to 10 to 15 minutes per day; particularly if you wish to use it to good effect. Have a play and enjoy!

Namaste.

NATURA APIS by J.R.R. Tolkein

The night is still young and our drinks are yet long,
The fire's burning bright and here brave is the throng,
So now I will sing you a sooth little song
Of the busy brown bee - with a ding and a dong.

Mindfulness? Easy? No!

Recently I achieved Level 1 in Mindulness with the Clear Mind Institute (CMI). This gives me the title of a Mindfulness Yoga Teacher which enables me to integrate some of the practices into my yoga classes. In January 2017 I will be offering a Therapeutic Yoga class which will do just that. We will include mindful movement,  breathing practices and formal mindfulness practices.

What's mindful movement I hear you ask? Well it's yoga but with really focused attention on the sensations of movement. We slow things down to notice. Mindful movement included in the Mindfulness Based Stress Relief (MBSR) course is based on research; the movements practiced are considered safe for all. However in the therapeutic yoga class we will include other movements as this is not a short course but an ongoing lesson.

I personally have been practicing mindfulness now for three years. I began with a Mindful Living course based on the MBSR course. I then practiced during the Yoga Therapy for the Mind training after which I found an online course through www.soundstrue.com. This amazing course with the fabulous Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield took me to a new level of practice. It was the first time this course had been run. We had online mentoring in groups which opened my mind to ways of communicating with my yoga therapy clients.

I found the formal sitting practices immensely challenging. When I first began yoga I was unable to sit for pranayama without feeling threatened and panicky. So the steady movement of yoga helped me immensely. In my yoga practice it is possible to slow things down so much that one develops such self awareness moment by moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn's famous definition of mindfulness is “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Well yoga certainly offered the opportunity to do just that. However looking back, I didn't experience the same sense of calm and serenity, the change in my being or my behaviour that formal practice did.

I wanted to continue along the mindfulness path and delve deeper, so this year I undertook the first British Wheel of Yoga Mindfulness Module with Cathy-Mae Karelse of CMI followed by a conversion course to Level 1. I now practice nearly every day and feel enormous benefits from it. My mind has slowed down. I am able to pause before reacting (well most of the time; there are always some people who know how to press my buttons but I am getting better at pausing even with them). I am so much better at taking care of my needs. And I have many more moments in my day when I just notice.

The hardest thing for me along this journey has been finding a regular time to practice. I initially practiced straight after lunch but found it too easy to say 'Nah, I'm too busy'. At the moment I practice as soon as I wake up. I sleep in a pretty cold room so I don't feel like getting out of bed. Sometimes I fall back to sleep, I probably needed to and I will try to fit a shorter practice in during the day. But often I don't and I get up feeling better prepared for the day ahead.

I plan to continue training with CMI.

Research on mindfulness-based interventions is growing and now includes neuroimaging studies and more sophisticated research designs.

Effects include:

  • Reductions in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, stress and pain.
  • Increased immunological response, reduced blood pressure and cortisol.
  • Increased psychological well-being and enhanced cognitive functioning.

(Halzel, Lazar et al, 2011)

Invest in nature. Invest in yourself.

birchwood yoga studio

 

I don't know about you, but I always feel better after a walk in the countryside, both physically and mentally; particularly when surrounded by such stunning colours as we have been blessed with this autumn. This was one of the reasons why I chose to situate my studio amongst nature.
Birchwood Yoga studio is nestled into a copse from where it has a beautiful view of trees and flowers changing with the seasons and a multitude of wildlife that comes and goes. During the day the birdsong is delightful and at night we are often serenaded by tawny owls. I was interested to read in this article that much research has been carried out to discover whether there is any scientific basis for the sense of wellbeing that nature offers us and was delighted to discover that there is! Practicing yoga at Birchwood Yoga studio may be better for your mental health than you realised!