Ayurveda, the natural medicine of India, regards menopause as a “dark gate.”
A woman passing through this gate is at risk of standing too long at a threshold that is very exposed to the wind. Energetically, Ayurvedic medicine, like traditional Chinese medicine, regards wind as toxic. Excess air is an imbalance of the “vata dosha,” a particular problem at menopause. Physically and emotionally, a woman who does not pass swiftly through the dark gate may suffer the depleting effects of depression, anxiety attacks, and night-time wakefulness.
Excess vata may be brought into balance with the use of massage, herbs, oils, and incense. The women on my mother’s side – – north Indian Punjabis – – start drinking a special tea early in their forties, to fortify themselves against the negative vatic effects of menopause. Black cardamom pods and gingerroot are boiled, then simmered, then strained for a delicious, nourishing tea that is sipped all day long.
As an additional tonic, the herb “ashwaganda” is taken in powdered form, with a teaspoon of iron-rich, melted “gur,” a sort of molasses. (“Ashwa,” a Sanskrit word, means “kora” in Hindi and “bitter” in English. In general, bitter foods benefit excess vata.) In my practice, I might offer a cup of this tea to a client before a massage treatment begins.
As soon as the client arrives, I start to heat specific oils in a jar that I place in a crockpot. In the summer, I use almond oil; in winter, mustard seed oil is more protective against over-abundant vata. (However, I have discovered that mustard seed oil is sometimes too pungent for clients returning to work after a massage – – for these clients, a very light olive oil is more appropriate.)
In addition to these oils, an Ayurvedic treatment may include the application of various herbs as pastes to parts of the body considered most vulnerable to being invaded by wind energy. In India, these pastes would be left to dry on the ears, mouth and throat – – with the directive not to wash them off until tomorrow morning’s bath! For American clients, this is a bit extreme.
Thus, in my practice, I use my herbs – – most commonly, arjuna and comfrey root – – as a decoction I keep very warm in a crockpot next to my massage table. During a massage, I soak towels in this earthy, slightly bitter tea, then apply the towels to the face and throat and upper chest. If my client is experiencing any anxiety-related digestive disorder, I also make an application of fresh aloe to the abdomen. When it has dried, I wipe it off with a warm, herb-soaked towel. For those clients who experience their anxiety in a more mentally constrictive way, I complete a massage by anointing the forehead and sub-occipitals with neroli, an essential oil that swiftly generates a feeling of well-being.
Finally, Ayurveda is also concerned with the way in which an individual re-integrates with her environment. The qualities of friendship, especially that of sharing food with a friend, are thought to be very restful for a woman experiencing excess vata during menopause. Keeping this in mind, a self-care suggestion for such a client would be to cook a dish that calms vata, such as rice with saffron, and to share it with friends. Or, more simply, a practitioner might offer a bowl of this rice to a client as they rest after a massage.
My mother recently arrived from India to visit in me in Colorado for the summer. She is reading this article over my shoulder as I type it into the computer, and she just said: “Don’t forget to tell them about the sandal!” By sandal, she doesn’t mean a type of footwear, but, rather, sandalwood incense. She’s right. Sandalwood reduces vata and raises the spirits. I don’t like to burn incense during a massage, but perhaps, in the future, I’ll hand a stick of sandal to a client as she leaves. Later, at home, breathing in the fragrant, protective smoke, may she pass, let’s imagine, with greater ease through her “dark gate.”