You probably know that yoga has been scientifically proven to ease many types of health problems, including muscle soreness. A new study has discovered that yet another group of people might benefit from the calming practice—postmenopausal women who are suffering from common symptoms such as sleeplessness, stress and depression.
To find out more about how this natural therapy might help, we spoke to the study author, Helena Hachul, MD, PhD, a gynecologist and a professor at the Universidade Federal de São Paulo and a researcher at the Sleep Institute in São Paulo, Brazil. Her research is the first to look carefully at the effects of yoga on postmenopausal symptoms in a controlled and randomized study. It was published in the February 2012 issue of Menopause.
Study participants were 44 women ages 50 to 65 years old. They all had experienced menopause (the one-year anniversary of their final periods), and all had been diagnosed with insomnia, were not using hormone replacement drugs and had never tried yoga. Researchers recorded their sleep patterns before and at the end of the four-month study, and participants completed questionnaires on common complaints associated with menopause, including stress, depression, insomnia and overall quality of life.
During the study, the women were divided into three groups: A control group of 15 that wasn’t asked to do anything special…14 women who were stretched by a physical therapist twice a week for an hour…and 15 women who took yoga classes, also twice a week for an hour.
During the stretching sessions, a physical therapist stretched the same muscles that most yoga poses tend to stretch—the front and back of legs, the arms, hips, upper and lower back and chest. In the yoga group, the techniques used were poses based on Kundalini Yoga (Yoga of Awareness) that involves sequences of poses, deep breathing and meditation.
The results: The control group reported little difference at the end of the study, while the stretched group reported at least some improvements in all criteria. However, only the yoga group’s end scores were significantly better than their starting scores. For example, they reported far less severity of insomnia (31%), depression (27%) and stress (36%), and they reported a 27% increase in their quality of life, compared with when they began.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT YOGA?
When I asked why yoga showed the most significant results, compared with the stretching and the control groups, Dr. Hachul told me that the main difference is yoga’s emphasis on awareness. Yoga is more effective at easing multiple types of menopausal symptoms, she said, because it calms your body and your mind by forcing you to focus on your pose and your breath and therefore forget about whatever physical or mental pain you’re experiencing. Another theory is that yoga is more of a true exercise than merely stretching, as it improves stamina, strength and overall fitness. What’s especially interesting is that the positive effects that yoga had in the moment appeared to carry over into everyday life, even when the women weren’t performing the exercises and meditations.
It’s easy and inexpensive to try a yoga class or two, and if you can’t find any beginner’s classes in your area that focus on Kundalini yoga (DVDs are sold online), Dr. Hachul said, it makes sense to start with Hatha yoga, a widely available type that is also performed at a slow, easy pace. Your goal, she said, is to work your way up to practicing yoga at least three times a week for at least 30 minutes at a time.
Some women suffer from menopausal symptoms long after menopause. If something as simple as yoga can bring relief, and with no dangerous side effects, it’s a godsend—and that’s not a stretch!