Yoga, menopause and me
Four women describe their own experiences
Charlotte Fleming, 41, Stafford
Yoga has transformed me in all manner of ways…there is a sentence I never thought I would say when I was encouraged to give it a try 18 months ago! I’ve been a cynic most of my life about the whole ‘meditation and breathing thing’; I was also an ex-Pilates attendee. Now I go to yoga every week and wish I could fit in more classes.
So here is how I got there: my body, mind and unfortunately, soul, were changed forever in 2010 when I underwent a total hysterectomy at 31. I thought I had made the best decision after 16 years of chronic pain and multiple surgeries. How I was wrong. I wasn’t really told or given much information on how being thrown into an early menopause would affect me.
Yes, I’m on HRT, and most people think that’s it, all sorted and fixed. But in the last four years, I’ve struggled with unspoken menopause symptoms: tiredness but an inability to sleep, aches in my bones, especially my lower back, and it turns out I’ve got the early stages of osteoporosis. Then there’s the anxiety, low moods, my concentration wasn’t the same, brain fog made me feel I was losing my marbles, plus weight gain, which of course leads to no sex drive (dare I say the words ‘vaginal dryness’ — the one symptom most women won’t admit to, let alone tell their husbands, friends or even a GP to get treatment!).
After losing nearly three stone in weight I was encouraged by a friend to start going to the gym and try yoga as I’d been complaining that I was unfit and my back pain was at its crippling worst. I initially thought it won’t last, but at least I’d get to spend time with my friend.
I joined the gym and started my first yoga session. I remember coming away after feeling lifted and elated. I can’t explain why really; it was as if I’d been carrying around this fog stopping me from being me. The breathing exercises helped me focus the mind and I use them a lot now for either clearing my head to get to sleep, or when my anxiety flares up. I also know how to warm up and cool down correctly for exercising, alleviating any muscular strains. I now have a strong core and it’s toning up my body a treat. I now do yoga in the gym or at home; for me, a good session of numerous poses is as good a workout as doing running or cycling. Before, I never thought yoga would make me sweat, laugh, cry (only occasionally!), or even get out of breath.
Menopause is a condition. For lots of women it goes unnoticed, or women just think that they are feeling the way they are as part of getting ‘old’ and do nothing about finding ways for menopause to fit into their life; not you trying to adjust your life around it. I absolutely recommend yoga, it’s one exercise that’s for all ages, all shapes and sizes. No matter what the reason for doing it, yoga can and will benefit your mind, body and spirit.”
Karen Russell, 61, senior yoga teacher and sports yoga specialist in London
I was extremely lucky to experience a menopause totally free of the debilitating symptoms some women I know have endured for varying lengths of time.
I can’t say definitely that it’s due to practicing yoga for so many years, but I am convinced that it helped. I’m sure that the rhythm of regular practice helps to control mood swings; I didn’t experience any, neither did I have a single hot flush. It may be that I was just very lucky. When I look at friends of a similar age, it tends to be those who have always exercised, whether that exercise includes a yoga practice or not, who have had an easier time during peri and full menopause.
However, no matter what sort of exercise one does, nothing can change the fact that the rate of muscle loss accelerates considerably after the menopause. Sadly, no amount of chaturangas will obliterate those bat-wing triceps! It will help, but I firmly believe that women need weight training too, or preferably a combination of weights, body weight and functional movement training, plus yoga of course. We have to be prepared to put the time in: maintaining muscle mass, replacing lost eyelashes and chasing disappearing eyebrows with a pencil, dye, or whatever, takes serious commitment!”
Claudia Brown, 47, Stafford
Have you heard of the zombie idea? An idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die? This is true about HRT and the various myths about the menopause such as it only happens to you when you are 51! I like to think I’m pretty well educated. But I’d never heard the word perimenopause until I was about 41 and some women in the office were talking about it. “Perry who?” was my reaction. My own perimenopause started when I was 44. A healthy, fit, 44-year-old yoga teacher and I started peeing my pants when I had an unexpected sneeze or cough… and then the sweating started. Then the brain fog. Then the facial hair. I looked like a 15-year-old boy trying to grow his first beard!
I spoke to the nurse at my GP practice who totally wrote off my suggestions because I was too young at 44. As I’ve now done my own extensive research, I’ve found that this is nonsense. I then spoke to my GP who was a lot more amenable as I’d gone armed with a list of symptoms that were textbook menopause. She, quite rightly, insisted on having my well-behaved but long-standing thyroid condition investigated before going any further down the menopause track.
Luckily for me, the endocrinologist was very definite that I was perimenopausal so my GP gave me all the information leaflets about lifestyle suggestions and natural approaches. The thing was, I was already doing it all! As a yoga teacher, I already lead a healthy lifestyle (apart from the odd bag of chocolate buttons and a cheeky cocktail!). The herbal remedies weren’t cheap and they weren’t helping.
I began my own research and was amazed at the lack of information on the perimenopause. The first really helpful information I found was actually in one of my yoga texts: ‘Yoni Shakti’ by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli. I started talking about it in my classes and it was and continues to be amazing. It was like opening Pandora’s Box: my students began sharing their stories, tips and experiences. Women began taking their tops off if they had a hot sweat. There was horror story after horror story about health professionals who were dismissive, disinterested or uninformed. I’ve been really lucky to have a supportive GP who has listened to me and supported me in taking the decision to try HRT. I’d got to the point where I was so forgetful, confused and irritable that I didn’t like myself anymore; how my husband put up with me I’ll never know (and I was plucking my beard on a daily basis!).
I told my doctor to hit me up with the good stuff and I’ve never looked back.
The more I began to read, the more I began to notice in the media. TV personalities wre talking about their menopause journeys: Davinia McCall, Lorraine Kelly, Carol Voderman and even Hollywood star Gwyneth Paltrow, who has just launched the wittily titled ‘Madame Ovary’ supplement range.
But I must stress here a few things. I am an advocate of a woman choosing her own path when it comes to how she copes with this time in her life. For me, HRT has been the best choice, and it’s a decision I made after spending a lot of time researching all my options. Also, very importantly, there were no health reasons why I shouldn’t take it. I totally understand that this is not the case for a number of women.
I’ve been amazed at the ‘HRT shaming’ on some of the social media sites about people saying that women shouldn’t take HRT because it causes breast cancer, is dangerous, is made of horse urine, and other myths that that will not go away. I’ve also found Liz Earle’s new book, ‘The Good Menopause Guide’ really useful. She tackles the myths about HRT as well as providing advice on skin, hair and nutrition, balancing hormones, osteoporosis and how to boost energy and self-esteem. When it comes to yoga, I think, for me, it’s a case of just do the yoga! I don’t think that there are two or three poses which are going to magically reduce the sweats or the brain fog, but a steady and consistent practice reaps rewards.”
Sammy Carter, 49, yoga teacher, Carlisle, Cumbria
I was already practicing yoga when the menopause started, so it’s hard to say whether I was suffering less symptoms than others because of my yoga practice, or whether I was just one of the lucky ones who’s symptoms were manageable. However, a couple of years into my menopause I decided to train to become a yoga teacher and as a consequence started to practice more.
Within a couple of weeks I noticed I was feeling really good: my physical symptoms, like the hot flushes, were less frequent, and my general mood improved. I was feeling happy. I also noticed how my mood quickly spiralled down if I was unable to do yoga. Within a week or so I would feel all the symptoms ramping back up.
For me yoga was the key to my sense of wellbeing, physically and mentally. So I took another course, this time in Yin yoga. This is a deep meditative practice that helps to maintain healthy joint mobility, so perfect for the older, or more philosophical yogi. Many of the postures are seated and held for 3-5 minutes, so you are still, and connecting with your breath.
As rocket scientist Yin Yoga master Bernie Clark says: “We don’t use our body to get into a pose, we use the pose to get into our body.” The aim is to go within and reconnect with the very root of our own being; to rediscover ourselves, or even reinvent ourselves (as the menopause, male or female, invites us into our next stage of life.) When you feel that connection on a regular basis, whether it’s daily or weekly, it grounds you and helps you to stay strong through the big upheavals — whether that’s the menopause, moving house, or losing a loved one. Yoga will always be there to bring me back to that deep connection, a place of inner strength from where anything is possible.”
The Menopause Manual - The new book by GP and menopause specialist Dr Louise Newson. The Menopause manual is available from www.haynes.com priced at £12.99.
OTHER SOURCES OF INFORMATION
The British Menopause Society thebms.org.uk
Women’s Health Concern womens-health-concern.org
British Acupuncture Council acupuncture.org.uk
British reflexology Association britreflex.co.uk
Complementary Medical Association the-cma.org.uk
International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists ifparoma.org
National Institute of Medical Herbalists nimh.org.uk
Society of Homeopaths homeopathy-soh.org
Liz Earle Wellbeing lizearlewellbeing.com/category/live-well/the-menopause
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence Guidance nice.org.uk/guidance/qs143/resources/menopausepdf-75545477829061
First published in November 2009, OM Yoga magazine has become the most popular yoga title in the UK. Available from all major supermarkets, independents and newsstands across the UK. Also available on all digital platforms.