Achieving Vibrant Women’s Health with the 4 Pillars
When dis-ease is present for an extended period of time, we might forget what it’s like to feel good. We forget that a vibrant state of health is both natural and accessible. Many women today are living with some level of perpetual discomfort. They have resigned themselves to a baseline of subpar health, and this is reflected in the menstrual cycle and in menopause.
Cyclical symptoms like mood swings, cravings, tender breasts, bloating, cramps, exhaustion, and moodiness are so widespread that most women today don’t realize that it’s possible to have a moontime come and go with ease.
Imbalances that linger over time will reflect in the menopausal transition as well. Night sweats, mood swings, insomnia—these may be seen as inevitable experiences.
Many accept the symptoms of imbalance as something normal—as simply part of being a woman. But what’s normal isn’t necessarily what’s natural.
Menstrual and menopausal difficulties can be resolved naturally through the practice of Ayurveda. These sciences teach us that we can prevent and reverse dis-ease by maintaining the flow of prana, or life force, in the body, which in turn allows the mind to operate properly.
Ayurveda’s Four Pillars of Health
In my experience, maintaining prana is most easily achieved when Ayurveda’s four pillars of health form the foundation of everyday life.
- Sleep, including quality and quantity
- The management of energy, including sexual energy
When we nourish these areas of our lives, prana flows naturally and easily. When we neglect them, we inhibit the proper flow of prana, which gives rise to illness and the beginning of the disease process. For women, this can be reflected in the menstrual cycle, and later, in the transition through menopause.
I like to think of the four pillars as the legs of a table. Each is of equal importance. If we’re missing a leg, or if one leg is shorter than the others, we aren’t able to nourish ourselves from a place of stability. When we take care of these four pillars through the practices of Ayurveda, we come into balance and our health flourishes.
For women who tend to neglect themselves and do too much, this approach is particularly important.
Diet: Slow Down and Savor
What we eat and how we eat it is of primary importance in Ayurveda. Digestion impacts the hormonal balance of the body, so women who are experiencing menstrual difficulty or menopause will benefit from eating a moderate, balanced diet.
What We Eat
The balance of food on the plate matters. I recommend 60 percent augmenting foods and 40 percent extractive foods. Augmenting foods include whole grains and sweet vegetables like squash, carrots, sweet potato, and zucchini. These foods nourish the tissues, ease elimination, and ground vata dosha.
Extractive foods, including legumes and vegetables with the bitter, pungent, and astringent tastes, cleanse the body. Foods of this type extract metabolic toxins through the digestive process, help to maintain the body, and create a feeling of lightness. They can increase vata dosha and will cause vata imbalances like occasional constipation and feelings of anxiety if consumed in excess.
The 60/40 ratio of augmenting to extractive foods works well to support agni (the digestive fire), particularly when complemented by herbal formulas like Triphala, Vata Digest, Pitta Digest, and Kapha Digest. These formulas work on a subtle, energetic level and offer great support to the body while they work to strengthen digestion and elimination.
How We Eat
When bringing diet into balance, we must also consider how we eat. We cause digestive disturbance when we rush and when we’re not fully present to the experience at hand. Eating while driving or gobbling down food while sitting at the computer will cause indigestion and disturb the lining of the digestive tract.
While it may seem like a stretch, indigestion and a disturbed digestive tract will affect the hormone balance in the body and can lead to greater imbalances that will show in the menstrual cycle and during menopause. It truly does make a difference to bring presence and awareness to our foods and our meals.
Making adequate time and space for meals is key. Treat the process of eating with reverence rather than just another task on the to-do list.
Lifestyle: Embrace Moderation
An imbalanced lifestyle contributes to hormonal imbalance. In general, women try too hard to do it all, all of the time. I see women working too much, worrying too much, and working out too hard. Bodies are exhausted from all this activity and excessive effort.
A balanced lifestyle includes space for relaxation. Space for play. Space for loving and respectful relationships. It includes moderate, sattvic exercise. And above all it requires a commitment to conduct life at a moderate pace so that we move from one activity to the next with grace and ease—without rushing or fear.
Then the body and mind are supported and can function in the way that they are designed. We can stay balanced, think clearly, and enjoy consistent enthusiasm for life.
Herbs for Balance
Herbs can assist us greatly in the process of calibrating our lifestyle. Herbal formulas such as Stress Ease and Tranquil Mind are particularly helpful for calming the mind and body so that we can relax and reap the value of a body at rest.
And especially valuable when seeking hormonal balance, the herbal formulas Women’s Support and Women’s Natural Transition support women at any stage of life, whether just embarking on their cycle or as their cycle comes to a close.
Practices for Balance
Simple meditative practices cannot be underestimated, as they are incredibly powerful in aligning the body, mind, and spirit, and they are an effective way to cultivate prana. (There are many styles of meditation; Empty Bowl Meditation can be a good starting place.)
Pausing three times daily for twelve slow, conscious, deep breaths is an incredibly powerful practice for moving prana, shifting into a lower gear, and allowing the body’s natural healing to take place. So is smiling.
Making space to honor nature’s rhythms will also help to reset the body. At Hale Pule we practice agnihotra, a simple fire ceremony and meditation that marks sunrise and sunset. We find that this practice softens our hearts and tunes us to the pulse of nature and the sweetness of life.
Sleep: Welcome in Quality Rest
The quantity and quality of sleep are both important. Many women do not get enough sleep and think that they are getting away with it. But inadequate sleep will negatively impact the doshas and how we conduct our waking lives.
Signs of imbalanced dosha will show up in our sleep patterns. Waking up consistently between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. and having difficulty going back to sleep is a sign of excess vata, which is also what compels us to take on too much and finish too little.
Excess pitta dosha can also impact our sleep patterns. Too much work, hot spicy foods, alcohol, caffeine, or refined sugar means the body will have difficulty relaxing. Those with high pitta dosha often wake up at midnight, unable to stop thinking, and then rely on stimulants throughout the day to counteract the fatigue of a restless night’s sleep.
Without enough good quality sleep, it’s as if one of the legs of the table is broken. It feels like everything is going to slide off of the table.
To improve the quality of rest, massaging Sleep Easy Oil on the forehead and bottoms of the feet helps with going to sleep and staying asleep, and it can help bring balance to pitta and vata. Also, covering the top of the head, ears, and sides of the neck with a soft towel or shawl is very helpful for sleep and calming vata dosha.
Creating a nourishing bedtime routine can further ground vata and calm and soothe pitta. Make space to unwind and relax and nourish the whole self, to let go of the events of the day and what awaits tomorrow.
Energy: Consciously Protect and Tune In
Most people think of the management of energy, or brahmacharya, as related to the conservation of sexual energy. Indeed, this is the case, but I consider it to be about how we manage our energy in general, including our sexual energy.
There are many ways in which we mismanage our energetic resources—through our careless thoughts and our habitual actions, for example. If we are continually thinking and not present in life, it drains our energy. If we are involved in too much sexual activity, it drains our energy. If we talk too much, it drains our energy.
And so brahmacharya is about waking up to what’s going on. It’s about becoming aware of how we are conducting and conserving our energy, our prana.
By working with our prana consciously on a daily basis, even for just a few minutes each day, we will come to know ourselves better. We can tune into our pranic flow through the practices of conscious breathing, pranayama, and meditation.
These practices guide us to take care of our inner world, which will keep us going in the direction of the union of our body, mind, and spirit.
This is when we feel whole and present in life. It’s when our menstruation comes easily on a regular cycle with the moon, without pain, cravings, or moodiness. It’s when we can transition into and through menopause with grace and ease, without our worlds shifting out of alignment.
Ayurveda acknowledges that our energy goes where we put our attention. Our ability to focus our energy allows our prana to flow more easily and freely, which keeps the body and mind in tip-top shape.
The Remedy Is Within
The remedy for menstrual and menopausal imbalance isn’t buried somewhere in social media or found by checking one more item off of the to-do list. It’s already within us—waiting to be revealed when we slow down, take pause, and listen.
When we live in accordance with the four pillars of health, we come to know ourselves in the truest sense, as a spiritual being having a human experience.