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.