| | By Susan Davis
A few years back, a friend of mine who teaches yoga in Alameda brought me to a Berkeley yoga class. The class was too advanced for me (my friend hadn’t realized what a beginner I was), so I spent a fair amount of time watching or doing modified versions of what the more advanced students were practicing. This was fine—in fact, it turned out to be quite inspirational. That’s because many of the women in the class were 10, 20, even 30 years older than I was. And as I watched them bend, stretch, breathe, and smile, I discovered a new vision of what healthy, female aging could look like. It could look like grace, I realized, deep serenity, and, a very balanced kind of health.
This isn’t always how we picture women in the perimenopausal and menopausal years, when fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone can lead to insomnia, hot flashes, erratic menstrual periods, and night sweats, plus fatigue, mood swings, and anxiety. Emotionally, women may be grieving the loss of their fertility, their roles as mothers, the death of their parents, and the fact that they are aging in ways that are startling, even unpleasant. And spiritually, depending on a woman’s inclinations, menopause can be a period of a heightened focus on mortality and a painful awareness that she hasn’t lived the life she envisioned when she was younger.
Yoga, advocates of the ancient practice say, offers ways to ease this difficult transition. “It helps you learn to age gracefully and take care of all the areas of your health,” says Heather Haxo Phillips, an instructor of Iyengar yoga and co-owner of Adeline Yoga Studio in Berkeley. “It is deep anti-aging work. We can eat a lot of those anti-oxidant blueberries—and we should—but this is the true anti-aging work. This is being good to yourself.”
As a foundation of aging healthily, yoga, at its most basic, helps women develop strength, balance, and flexibility, all key to preventing conditions common to aging, including osteoporosis, stiffness, muscle atrophy, and a propensity to falls. Building a stronger core, as many yoga positions do, can also help stabilize the back and firm the abdomen. And several studies—including one published in the March 2012 issue of Menopause—have shown that practicing yoga can lessen the severity of insomnia that plagues so many women during perimenopause and menopause.
Certain positions, yoga instructors say, can also help with other specific symptoms of perimenopause (the period before menopause, which is formally defined as starting when you haven’t had a period for a full year, and can last several years). Forward bends, for instance, can help cool hot flashes and night sweats by calming your nerves and promoting relaxation, says Suzanne Drolet, who teaches yoga in Alameda, Oakland, Walnut Creek, and San Francisco. And inversions, like downward facing dog, standing forward bend, and supported shoulder stand “can help even out hormonal fluctuations, because those positions act on the thyroid and pituitary glands,” she says. “These postures can also help soothe the nervous system which may help reduce hot flashes, insomnia and emotional swings.” (Shoulder stands should only be practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher.)
And that troublesome weight gain that so often accompanies perimenopause? “If a woman can tolerate more vigorous yoga, we recommend that,” Phillips says. “A more vigorous session can also help with the sluggishness and fatigue that comes during this time of life. But it’s really the calming influence of yoga that can help a woman lose weight, because I think we all know the best way to gain weight is to be stressed out. Being in a class that results in deep relaxation can help us avoid reaching for the sugar and flour that throws us out of balance and makes us put on pounds.”
Yoga doesn’t provide instant access to the fountain of youth but being flexible, having good posture, and feeling relaxed is its own kind of beauty. “Learning to honor yourself and who you are,” Drolet says, “rather than what society says is beautiful, is a radical act.”
For many women, perimenopause can be marked by mood swings, irritability, depression, and anxiety. To counter that, yoga, which emphasizes increasing well-being and quality of life, “helps you reduce stress and tension,” Drolet says.
Yoga’s emphasis on developing a moment-by-moment awareness also helps older women, Drolet says. “Even when a posture is uncomfortable, we see it as an opportunity to promote awareness, focus on the breath, and be in the moment, as opposed to thinking about how it was the other day or how it should be.” That can go a long way towards noticing what triggers menopausal symptoms, too—be they physical (like hot flashes) or emotional (like depression).
“The practice is all about cultivating mindfulness and that’s something you can take off the yoga mat,” Drolet says. “You learn to make thoughtful choices in your daily life. It can be small things, like not eating spicy foods because you know they contribute to your hot flashes, or bigger things, like taking a few moments before you react to something someone says so that you respond in a calmer way. You develop a new vantage point.”
Adds Phillips, “It’s an ancient philosophy about how to take care of not just yourself but the people around you. It’s hard to be of much use to others, to be generous and share thoughts and ideas, if you don’t feel good.”
Restorative poses (so-called because they promote deep calm and restfulness) can help ease insomnia and anxiety—so much so that some instructors recommend doing even just one a day during the perimenopausal and menopausal years. This can be as simple as legs up the wall, in which you lie on the floor with your lower back supported by rolled-up blankets or a bolster and your legs resting straight up against a wall. And balance poses (such as the one-legged, standing tree pose) help to ground the “flighty, irritable mind,” Drolet says. “It’s all about cultivating relaxation, creating calm. These poses help still the frantic brain.”
This isn’t just New Age talk, by the way. In a 2008 study of 120 women aged 40-55, researchers found that women who practiced yoga for eight weeks reported experiencing fewer hot flashes and mood problems than those who just stretched and did strengthening exercises. Another study, this one from 2011, found that women who practiced yoga for three months reported easing a wide range of menopausal symptoms.
Given that perimenopause is a period of great change, it’s easy to feel anxious about—even resistant to—what’s happening in the moment. Women may be longing for earlier times (when they looked younger, felt fitter, or their children were more affectionate) or worrying about the future (when they might look older, fall ill, or be lonely). But much of yoga’s focus is understanding that change is constant and what matters is the present.
“It’s all about cultivating an attitude of acceptance and increasing the quality of our life,” Drolet says. “If a position was comfortable yesterday, and it causes you pain today, the challenge is to be able to accept that and adjust to it, rather than striving. It’s all about learning to cope with uncomfortable change.”
But yoga also affirms what is “unchanging in women,” Drolet adds. She’s referring to “that essential part of us, our spirit, our innate being. In yoga, we can take comfort in the fact that changing conditions are a way for us to realize our true nature, that we are perfect as we are, here and now, in this part of our journey.”
For some women, of course, the idea of starting yoga in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s may itself be uncomfortable. But yoga is a practice for all abilities, yoga teachers agree. “Yoga is meant for everyone,” Phillips says, “including those with stiff bodies. Many women come to our studio unable to do what they used to do. But in our classes we have women well into their 80s.”
How to get started? The first step, Phillips notes, is committing to a class for an hour. “People would have less fear if they understood the potential,” Phillips says. “Knowing it can change the quality of your life makes that first class worth the risk. I have seen so many people transformed by this practice, not just physically but also in the quality of their daily lives and relationships.”
Since taking that class in Berkeley years ago with my friend, I’ve continued my own yoga practice and also entered perimenopause. I still feel new to the practice of yoga but it has become like an old friend—something I turn to because I know it stretches my body, mind, and spirit to feel better.
And perimenopause, I’ve slowly come to realize, is just another transition, one that, like pregnancy and the post-partum months, needs attention. Yoga helps with the physical symptoms of that—the insomnia, hot flashes, and fatigue. But it’s also helping me find a deeper sense of who I am, which, as Drolet says, is itself a “radical act” in a culture suffused with images of youth and beauty, and an emphasis, still, on the looks—rather than the hearts and minds—of women.
Susan Davis, a senior editor with WebMD Magazine, twists, stretches, and stands on one leg at a time in the sunny island town of Alameda.
Photo by Yuri Arcurs.