What I Wish I had Known About Yoga and the Menopause

In my mid-forties, I felt superhuman for the first time in my life. I had taken up yoga quite seriously and was committed to an intense 90 minutes vinyasa flow practice five or six times a week. I was also attending weekend workshops and regular retreats as well as teacher training. I felt fit and healthy and loved the fact that I was able to keep up with or surpass women half my age. I was also reaching the peak of my career and my yoga practice gave me the mental clarity and energy to stay on top of my game in a demanding environment.

Unfortunately, none of this prepared me for a decade of menopause and the havoc it would wreak on my personal and professional life. Now ten years later and at the tail end of the change, I realise that I approached menopause in completely the wrong way and could have made things so much easier on myself if only I had recognised the need to slow down and accept that I was mortal. At times, I felt let down that my yoga practice was not supporting me better during this most challenging of times but what I understand now is that I was going about it the wrong way.

Between 2012 and 2018 there were days and sometimes weeks when I felt like I was barely able to function due to the tidal wave of symptoms -physical and mental-that I was experiencing. It started with heavy, painful periods that would go on for days and left me hunched over my desk at work secretly clutching a heat pad to my tummy during meetings. Anxiety, which I had never previously experienced, threatened to engulf me and I never felt completely relaxed. Depression, made worse by a move from sunny Bangkok to Berlin, where during some winters the sky is grey and gloomy for months, also featured prominently at times. My relationship with my husband suffered, I gained weight and at times I felt quite desperate and unable to cope. This went on for three or four years and I thought I had experienced the worst of it. Then in 2016, following a move to Hong Kong, night sweats began to completely turn my life upside down.

I had experienced mild hot flushes in the past but my sleep remained fairly stellar and I must admit that I was unsympathetic towards others who complained of the devastating impact of their hot flushes or night sweats. Suddenly, I found myself being dragged from the deepest sleep four or five times a night, feeling overwhelmingly hot and desperate to pee. Getting back to sleep was a challenge and I racked up a sleep deficiency of around 15-20 hours a week.

I had moved to Hong Kong for a new job, the most demanding of my life, and I had to be at the top of my game and cope with a gruelling schedule that began at 5am every morning and included a 90 minute daily commute. During the working day, the hectic schedule left no time for breaks. I was vision building, problem solving, firefighting, and taking responsibility for the emotional needs of hundreds of people in a highly charged environment. I was also spending weekends travelling to conferences, promoting my organisation and writing articles for industry publications. It was thrilling and stimulating but also exhausting. I carried on for three years like this, during which time I suffered two extremely painful and debilitating frozen shoulders that rendered me unable to exercise. I gained more weight and lost all the muscle tone I had spent ten years building. I began to experience significant joint pain in my knees and left hip. At times I could barely put one foot in front of the other without pain.

During this time, I carried on trying to live my life as I had in my forties and became frustrated when I wasn’t able to enjoy active holidays or continue with my high intensity yoga practice. Since arriving in Hong Kong, I had begun private yoga sessions at home once or twice a week. There were many days when I wasn’t able to manage more than lying on the mat gently stretching for an hour with my teacher. Despite being truly exhausted, I hadn’t woken up to the fact that this was what my body needed right now and was something that I should be seeking more of. Instead I felt a failure.

Ignorance of my body’s needs and a refusal to slow down caused everything to eventually come crashing down around me as described in How Yoga Helped Me Rethink My Life After Burnout. Over the last nine months since I became ill, with the help of Suza Francina’s book Yoga and the Wisdom of the Menopause, I have come to realise I brought a lot of my menopause problems upon myself. The warning signs were all there but I refused to see them. Francina has helped me to acknowledge what my body was trying to tell me all along, that menopause is a restorative time for women; a time to slow down and focus inward; a time to take the best care of ourselves.

The hormonal changes that occur with the depletion of oestrogen and progesterone are further complicated when the hormonal environment in our body is pumped full of cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline caused by stress. This renders our system less able to cope with impact of stress than it was in the past and the pressures of daily life and work are more likely to take a seriously toll upon us. Rather than reaching for the tools that have helped us manage stress in the past, including our vigorous yoga practice and high octane holidays, we need a new softer and more nourishing approach to support out wellbeing during this time.

Rather than 90 minute advanced flow sessions, what our body now needs is restorative practice and yoga nidra. Lying in a silent room propped up by bolsters and cushions may seem like giving in to old age but it will likely have a more invigorating effect on us the next day than will a more active practice. Likewise, therapeutic yoga, with the support of a skilled teacher, will serve us well as we overcome injuries and joint related problems. Yin yoga will attend to the needs of our soft tissues, crucial to helping us maintain our mobility. Pranayama and meditation calms the mind and helps prevent stress from becoming overwhelming but it also provides us with objectivity. A more regular practice may have helped me to see that I was running myself into the ground for the sake of things that were not that important, like career accolades.

I look back on the last 10 years and wonder how much easier things might have been if I had just slowed down. It is frustrating to know that, as a yoga teacher, I had so many wonderful tools at my disposal, tools that I taught to others but shunned for myself in favour of sticking with what had always served me. I wore my intense yoga practice like a badge of honour, proof of my continued youth and vitality, until I came to the point where I realised that along with other lifestyle choices, it was causing me more harm than good.

I am pleased to report that at 56, 5 years since my last period, I have almost come out the other end of menopause. I am finally sleeping a solid eight hours every night, I am less anxious, my body no longer constantly aches and I am restored to full fitness. I am not the woman that I was in my forties, nor would I want to be. The menopausal years were a humbling experience that served me in many ways, although I would not want to repeat them. I have learned a lot in a decade that I am grateful for. I understand now the importance of listening closely to my body and honouring its needs.I know that it is crucial to balance activity with rest and stimulation and challenge with relaxation. I try to build restorative yoga practices into my daily routine, including time for self-reflection. I am less stressed, care less about proving myself in the workplace and I am filled with excitement about the prospects of living a simpler life in retirement. The future ahead is bright but slower and I embrace and relish that prospect.

How Yoga Helped Me Rethink My Life After Burnout

In 2018 I began experiencing chest pain.   At first, it occurred only during meetings in my boss’s office. I put it down to anxiety and ignored it. In May 2019 though, it suddenly got worse. I was approaching my 55thbirthday, the same age my father was when he died of a heart attack. I decided to see a cardiologist and within a week I found myself in the cath lab being informed that, not only was I suffering from stress-related arterial spasms, causing the chest pain, but also despite my exemplarily healthy lifestyle, I had moderate to severe heart disease. I had held it together that week but when the cardiologist advised me too completely re-evaluate my life, I sobbed as I realised I had likely brought some of this on myself. The clogged arteries I knew were hereditary but the stress was entirely self-inflicted. The heart doc referred me to a GP who specialises in treating stressed-out executives and she diagnosed an occupational burnout, signed me off work, prescribed anti-depressants (which I did not take) and referred me to a clinical psychologist. For a few weeks that summer, the world tilted on its axis. I had never been ill before or spent a night in hospital. I was the strong and capable one who looked after everyone else. My husband was stunned, as were my colleagues and the house filled up with flowers and gifts as a constant stream of deliveries arrived. At first, I felt like a fraud, ridden with guilt at leaving my team to manage during such a busy time of the year but gradually I came to realise that I really wasn’t fit for work.

9 weeks of rest and reflection, with the support of a professional counsellor, helped me to see that the work life I had created for myself was no longer sustainable. I was to some extent broken and could not go back to the life I had been leading, with 11-hour work days and weekends spent presenting at conferences, writing articles and studying for a second Masters. Reluctantly, I decided to take early retirement in June 2020 but I was overwhelmed with anxiety about what that would mean financially and about letting go of everything that I had built professionally. 

Returning to work was hard, I tired easily and the slightest stress brought on chest pain. Despite this, it was hard to give up the extra-curricular work, withdraw from conferences and turn down exciting new consultancy offers that I had worked hard for. At the office, my team were incredibly supportive but my role carries huge responsibility, which brings significant stress on almost a daily basis.  Four weeks following my return, I suffered a panic attack at work. I thought I was having a heart attack, which was very scary for both myself and my colleagues.  It was at this point that I realised I had no choice but to walk away from it all the following summer.  My real concern was how to get through the year without reaching another crisis. At this point I was offered the wonderful opportunity to work from home two days per week. This was a game-changer, a life-saver-maybe literally- which I grabbed with both hands. Finally, I had the chance to restore my balance by removing myself from the crazy, demanding environment that I work in for two days each week and instead spend time in my pyjamas, working undisturbed, avoiding the long commute and letting someone else take the strain. 

So how does yoga come into all of this? Well maybe not how you would think. Yes of course my asana practice supported me, as it has done during all of the bad times over the last 12 years, including the death of my mother in 2010. But it is instead yoga philosophy that is helping me to begin a process of healing and re-evaluating my life. Through the teachings of Patanjali, I have been able to reflect on how and why things went wrong and consider, with optimism, how I might shape the new life that lies ahead of me. 

Through counselling and self-reflection over the last 6 months, I can see how my entire adult life has been influenced by what Patanjali calls the kleshas, the roots of all human suffering, discussed in How Yoga Can Free us from Suffering. The Yoga Sutra sets out how we have a distorted view of reality (avdiyha), where we are not able to see the world for what it really is. We over-identify with the ego (asmita) and  invest heavily in an identify that we create for ourselves, but this is a false-self rather than the true essence of who we really are. The false-self is driven by desire for and attachment to the things that make us feel good (raga) and aversion towards the things that make us feel bad (dvesa). The pursuit of the things we desire and avoidance of the things we dislike becomes the focus for our lives but also the cause of our suffering. 

Patanjali’s view of the human condition is supported by evolutionary psychology, as discussed in Yoga as A Cure for the Human Condition.  As a survival mechanism, humans are hardwired to compete with but also to seek the acceptance of others. We, therefore, relentlessly pursue things that will make us feel powerful and admired, rather than small and alone and this leads to a preoccupation with the desire for status and material possessions. The acquisition of status and possessions also activates the brain’s reward system and the release of dopamine, which brings us pleasure. This pleasure is, however, biologically short-lived, leaving us to strive to experience the pleasure feeling over and over again by constantly pursuing the things that make us feel good. 

When I was seventeen and on the threshold of adulthood, I was highly skeptical that a life focused upon the pursuit of a better job to fund the purchase of a better house and a better car, would bring me happiness. Was I naïve or wise beyond my years? As with most adults, over the decades that followed, I became drawn into the trap set for me by my own biology and society’s expectations, pursuing a career and financial success as the main goal in life. Through reflection over recent months, I have come to acknowledge that, the more success I have experienced the more I have pursued. Reaching the top of my profession, has not rendered me satisfied but has caused me to reach further and work harder. The success I experienced in the last four years, in particular, had sent me into overdrive in pursuit of more admiration and status.  This brought me to a point, in the summer of 2019, where I was pushing myself beyond what I could handle, causing everything to come crashing down. 

Rather than lamenting what I have lost, I now see a new opportunity to live a life that is no longer driven by the kleshas. Instead of focusing upon feeding the ego and being driven by desires and aversions, through the pursuit of status and possessions or other short-term pleasures, I have a chance to achieve real peace of mind. According to Patanjali (sutra 1:33), this is gained through the cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy and indifference to pleasure and pain. For me, the Yoga Sutra now provides a road map to a simpler life, a life where, while there will be less money and less applause, there will be more time; time for reflection and time for others. Through this simple-life approach, I can focus upon supporting the wellbeing of those around me and in turn experience equanimity and a new level of personal happiness.