A Woman's Lifeline
Yoga has been a lifelong companion for Catherine de los Santos. She's loved movement since she was a child, and she started attending formal yoga classes at the University of Idaho at age 17. After learning more about the spiritual aspects of yoga in B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Yoga, she committed herself to a daily practice. At the time she had no idea that yoga would help her weather so many physical and emotional challenges. In her energetic 20s, when de los Santos started teaching yoga, asana practice helped her to calm herself. During her 30s, it boosted her confidence. When hot flashes hit in her 40s, various yogic practices helped her manage them. Now 55, de los Santos says that yoga has helped her get through menopause and the emotional upheavals that came when her parents died.
"I think the key is to not stop practicing. That's what I tell my students," says de los Santos, who owns and teaches at Darshana Yoga studio in Palo Alto, California. "Weaving your poses around your life is a good idea." In the pages that follow, four women in the midst of life's very different stages—adolescence, the childbearing years, perimenopause, and postmenopause—give examples of how to do just that.
"Yoga has important elements for all phases of a woman's life," says Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco and the founder of its Women's and Teens' Mood and Hormone Clinic. "During times of radical hormonal changes, women feel least inclined to practice yoga, but that's when we need it the most." Those changes in body chemistry can wreak havoc on your mood. But according to Brizendine, who wrote The Female Brain, there is good evidence that during a practice like yoga, your body releases chemicals into the bloodstream that bring you a sense of well-being and contentment.
A consistent yoga practice supports women physically, emotionally, and spiritually—but adapting your practice to meet your needs at each juncture is vital. While you can enjoy a challenging yoga regimen at any age, you'll get the most from a practice tailored to the present—in other words, customized for your stage in life and how you're feeling on any given day. Taking time to be aware of what's happening in your life, in your body, and with your emotions is the key to getting the most from what yoga can offer you, all through your life.
Setting Your Life in Motion
What's Happening Inside: The first stage of massive hormonal changes takes place during the turbulent years of adolescence, when the brain's neurochemical circuitry is getting established and both brain and body go through the undulating levels of estrogen and progesterone that make adolescent girls fertile. The fluctuating hormones of puberty can result in impulsive behavior, as the amygdala, a part of the limbic system involved with emotions, is infused with hormonal fuel. And the general hormonal flux can bring on buzzing energy, mood swings, and troubled skin as well as a new focus on communication, social connections, and sexuality. Girls are increasingly sensitive during this time and often unsure of how to deal with sexual attention from others. Yoga can help teens be more at peace with their bodies, according to yoga teacher and Yoga Journal contributing editor Carol Krucoff. "The practice of postures, breathing, and meditation helps achieve emotional equilibrium," she says, "allowing teens to truly hear the messages of their own heart and make choices that resonate with their personal values."
Starting a Practice: Christiane Northrup, a physician and the author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom, thinks adolescence "lends itself to a strenuous yoga practice"—a vigorous sequence of Sun Salutations and vinyasa flow to allow teens to channel their intense energy. But yoga for teens shouldn't be all jumping around, cautions Krucoff, who has seen firsthand how difficult it is for teens to be still in Savasana (Corpse Pose). "They've grown up texting while watching TV, IM'ing while listening to CDs," Krucoff says. "They are so wound up and stressed out, they don't know how to just be." Start off with a dynamic sequence to release energy, then quiet the body and mind with seated poses and forward bends.
Real Experience: As 19-year-old Lindsey Smith, who is the model on these pages, can attest, learning to watch the breath and stay in the moment can improve concentration, help teen girls interact with others more mindfully, and empower them with the tools to ride the emotional wave of their monthly cycle more smoothly. Mastering difficult poses can build self-esteem, and restorative poses can help with PMS.
Smith says yoga saved her during the "traumatic, emotional roller coaster" of her senior year of high school. The stress of applying to college was isolating. "I felt so alone. I was a mess," she recalls. Then she signed up for yoga classes offered through the PE program at her alternative high school. "With the first pose, my body thanked me. I built strength. My body and mind became more flexible, and stress melted off," says Smith, now a freshman at Stanford University. "Yoga was the emotional and physical healing I needed."
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Quiets an active mind and balances out mood swings common during adolescence.
Come onto your hands and knees with your knees directly below your hips and your hands underneath your shoulders. Spread your hands and press into your index fingers and thumbs. Turn your toes under, and, on an exhalation, lift your knees off the floor, lengthen your tailbone away from your pelvis, lift your sitting bones toward the ceiling, and begin to slowly straighten your legs. As you push the top of your thighs back and press into the floor with your hands, allow your heels to move toward the floor. Bring your head between your arms. Let your shoulder blades move away from your ears, and roll the upper thighs slightly inward. Stay here for 2 to 5 minutes.
To come out, bend your knees and sit back onto your heels and move into Balasana (Child's Pose).
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose)
Increases confidence and teaches surrender during turbulent times.
Lie on your back with your knees bent. Bring your hands on the floor next to your ears, elbows facing up, fingers pointing toward your toes, and hands spread wide. On an exhalation, lift your tailbone toward the ceiling and bring your buttocks off the floor. Take 3 deep breaths. From here, press into your hands, firm your shoulder blades onto your back, and come onto the crown of your head. Your arms should still be parallel to each other. Take 3 deep breaths. Next, press your hands and feet firmly into the floor, and on an exhalation lift your head off the floor and straighten your arms, coming into the full backbend. Lengthen the tailbone toward the back of the knees and turn the upper thighs slightly in. Once again firm your shoulder blades onto your back. Stay for 3 to 10 breaths and slowly lower down. Repeat three times.
Plank Pose With Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock)
Builds a strong core, essential throughout life.
From Down Dog, bring your torso forward and down so it makes a straight line from the crown of your head to your feet. Make sure your hands are on the ground directly below your shoulders. Spread your weight equally into all fingers. Straighten your legs and make sure that the middle of your body doesn't sag toward the floor. Press strongly into the floor with your hands, let your shoulder blades move down your back, press the front of your thighs toward the ceiling, and imagine the energy moving out through the crown of your head. Smile softly as you look down at the floor to keep your jaw relaxed. Stay here for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. To increase the intensity, engage Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock). Inhale deeply for 7 counts, hold the breath for 4 counts, and then exhale until the lungs are completely empty. Hold the breath out as you pull your navel toward your spine. After a count of 4, inhale gently and repeat the cycle two more times. To come out, press back onto your heels into Child's Pose.
What's Happening Inside: Between your early 20s and around 35, PMS peaks and complex life issues (settling on a career, finding a life partner, creating a home) add pressures and emotional twists and turns. On a daily basis, you have to adapt to a new mix of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. The upside is that you're more flexible and accommodating, says Dr. Sara Gottfried, a physician who specializes in integrative women's medicine and is a certified yoga teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. The downside is increased emotional sensitivity, anxiety, and moodiness. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol peak around this time, too. Women who have children experience other dramatic changes. "Pregnancy and postpartum are the largest fluctuations of hormones in a woman's entire life, which can bring about body, breast and fat tissue, and muscle changes," Brizendine says. Then there's the emotional result of hormonal changes that happen during this time regardless of whether you have kids: Revved-up oxytocin (the bonding love hormone) can elicit your inner nurturer, but increased testosterone can make you feel aggressive or upset.
Adapting Your Practice: Gottfried finds that ovulation— when estrogen and luteinizing hormone levels surge—is a time of great creativity and power. She recommends Sun Salutations, energizing backbends, and inversions during ovulation. Around menses, restorative poses can ease cramps and stabilize mood swings. Self-care throughout this time is vital, she says.
San Francisco yoga teacher Jane Austin says her practice helps her manage the stress of this busy phase of life. "It's not just about poses; it makes me a better mother," says Austin, who finds yoga so vital to her well-being that she'll unroll her mat at 9 p.m. if she hasn't had a chance to practice earlier in the day. "Sure, I can put both feet behind my head, but does that really matter if I yell at my kids?"
And now's the time to take up meditation. "Studies show that 20 minutes of meditation twice a day lowers blood pressure, decreases anxiety, improves sleep and memory—things you need in your 30s because you tend to be climbing up the ladder, building a home, and often taking care of others," says Northrup.
Real Experience: Ute Kirchegaessner, 32, says she loved yoga when she first started practicing at age 26. But before long, she found her body was tired and her back aching. "I was doing too much," she says, not just in her practice, but in her life. Kirchegaessner cut back a bit on her yoga and all her rushing around. "I kept practicing but went slower, with more attention to my breath, thoughts, and sensations. My back pain disappeared and I felt grounded." When she found herself four months pregnant at the start of an Ashtanga teacher training she had signed up for months earlier, she had to opt for a gentler practice than she'd originally envisioned. It was a great preparation for the demands of motherhood: "I step back even more now, choosing a home practice to stretch and relax. But it's yoga!"
Bakasana (Crane Pose)
Helps maintain core strength, arm strength, and balance.
Come into a squatting position with your feet a few inches apart and your knees wider than your hips. As you lean your torso between your thighs, bring your hands to the floor with your elbows bent. Snuggle your inner thighs against the side of your torso, and bring your shins into your armpits. Keeping the elbows bent, slowly begin to raise the heels off the floor but leave the toes down as you move the torso further forward. Take 3 deep breaths. On an exhalation, lift the toes off the floor one foot at a time, balancing your entire body on your hands. Stay here for 20 seconds. Next, squeeze your legs against your arms and straighten the arms. To come out, bend the elbows. Lower the torso, release the legs, and come back into a squatting position.
Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II)
Helps the body find balance between effort and ease and between the sympathetic (activating) and parasympathetic (relaxing) nervous systems.
Stand with your feet about 4 feet apart with your right foot turned slightly in and your left foot at a 90-degree angle. Bring your arms out to the sides and parallel to the floor. As you exhale, bend your left knee over your left ankle and look beyond your left fingers. If you can, bring the thigh parallel to the floor. Relax your face and jaw. As you breathe, keep the front of the body active (activating the sympathetic nervous system) while relaxing the back of the body (activating the parasympathetic nervous system), to create a balance between the two states. Stay for 5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose)
Allows time out from work and caretaking, helps restore the body, and calms the mind.
Put a folded blanket or a bolster about 6 inches away from a wall. Sit sideways on the support, with the right side of your body against the wall. On an exhalation, slowly lower yourself down onto the bolster as you swing your legs up the wall. Adjust yourself so that your sitting bones drop down slightly between the support and the wall, the back body rests on the bolster, and the shoulders rest on the floor. Bring your arms into a position that supports the opening of the front of your chest, whether they're extending out to the sides or reaching overhead along the floor. Keep your legs engaged, relax your face and jaw, and breathe deeply. Stay here 5 to 15 minutes. To come out, slide off the support, turn to the side, and stay here for a few breaths before sitting up.
Riding the Roller Coaster
What's Happening Inside: Technically, menopause lasts only 24 hours—it's the day 12 months after your final period, Brizendine says. But the transition leading up to that significant day can last 10 years. The perimenopause passage usually happens sometime between the ages of 42 and 55, when you go from normal menses to none at all. During this stage, you experience an erratic cycling of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone that can lead to insomnia, hot flashes, fatigue, PMS, depression, irritability, anxiety, and low libido. "You'd gotten used to your menstrual cycle, and all of a sudden your hormone chemistry changes dramatically," Brizendine explains.
Adapting Your Practice: Studies show that conscious breathing is a great option for managing perimenopausal symptoms. Simple pranayama with a 5-second inhalation and 5-second exhalation for 15 minutes twice a day can cut hot flashes by 44 percent, according to a study in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society. And this is a time to pay close attention to your physical and emotional states and see how your practice affects them. Inversions can relieve stress and insomnia; twists can relieve fatigue and depression; forward bends help ease irritability and anxiety. Many women find that their practice, once aggressive and fast-paced, mellows into one of longer-held, sustained poses.
Real Experience: "Perimenopause can take you into physical and emotional upheaval," says physician and yoga teacher Sara Gottfried, our model here. Her perimenopause started after the birth of her second child, at age 38. "I have mood swings, and my night sweats worsen with my Ashtanga practice, so I do a more Ana-Forrest-meets-Angela-Farmer style of yoga." Her center of gravity has changed, and she enjoys arm balances and inversions more now. "My practice is informed by my hormones and emotional context. In my 20s and most of my 30s, I was flexible and on task. Now I focus on survival and regulating my mood, so that I don't rage at my family. I prevent rage with forward bends and inversions. I prevent depression with backbends and pranayama."
Helps relieve stress, mild depression, and menopausal symptoms.
Fold at least two blankets into rectangles and stack them. Put a sticky mat over them to avoid slipping. Lie on the blankets with your legs outstretched, your shoulders supported, and your head on the floor. Bring your arms alongside your body, palms facing down. On an exhalation, bring the knees to the chest and take a few deep breaths. Then press into the floor with your hands and raise the hips off the floor, bringing the arms to your back with the fingertips facing up. With your hands supporting your back, slowly raise your torso so that it comes perpendicular to the floor. Draw your elbows toward each other as you walk your hands on your back toward the floor. As you inhale, lift your bent knees toward the ceiling, bringing your thighs in line with your torso. Lift through the balls of your feet, soften the throat and eyes, and let the shoulder blades move toward your sacrum. Press the backs of your upper arms and the tops of your shoulders actively into the floor, and focus on lifting the spine away from it. Gaze softly at your chest. Stay for 1 minute. To come out, bend your knees to your chest, leave your head on the floor, and roll slowly onto your back.
Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose)
Helps with emotional calming during time of intense hormonal shifts.
Start by sitting on the floor with your legs outstretched in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Bend the left leg and bring the sole of the left foot to the inner right thigh. Twist the trunk to the left as you stretch the right arm toward the extended right leg, reaching toward the inner side of the right foot. Bring the left arm overhead and reach toward the right foot, coming into a side stretch. Bring your bottom elbow toward the floor and your top biceps alongside your ear. On the exhalation, gently twist your torso toward the ceiling, bringing your head between your arms. On each exhalation, rotate your torso a bit more toward the ceiling. Stay here for 30 seconds or so. To come out, release your hands and come back to Staff Pose. Then repeat on the other side.
Marichyasana (Marichi's Twist)
Can help manage perimenopausal symptoms like mild depression, hot flashes, and anxiety.
Sit on the floor with your legs outstretched. Bend your left knee and place the sole of the foot flat on the floor with the left heel as close to the left sitting bone as possible. As you twist your torso to the right, bring the left shoulder forward until the left armpit touches the left shin. Leave the arm where it is and unwind the twist and face forward. On an exhalation, turn the left arm around the left shin and thigh, bend the left elbow, and bring the left forearm behind the back at waist level. On an exhalation, swing the right hand behind your back and clasp both hands together. As you exhale, extend your torso forward and lower it toward the extended leg. Relax the shoulders. Stay for 1 minute. To come out, release the arms and extend the left leg. Repeat on the other side.
What's Happening Inside: After menopause, you experience a drop in both estrogen and oxytocin (the love hormone). The decline of estrogen means postmenopausal bones can become brittle and joints can become stiff. The upside of this stage is that you're done with the hormonal fluctuations that may have wreaked havoc on your emotional life. "Most women are elated that they are now free of the monthly changes, and they feel a renewed zest for life," Brizendine says. For many, this comes at a time when the steep climb up the career ladder and the intensely demanding years of caring for children are over, and you can enjoy more time caring for yourself.
Adapting Your Practice: Weight-bearing poses may help keep your bones strong and improve joint function. And a consistent asana practice can help maintain your range of motion and flexibility, but keep in mind that as your body changes, you might need to modify poses and use more props. Many women naturally gravitate toward quieter practices like meditation and pranayama in this phase of life. "We have given our lives to so many others for so long that now it's just about coming home," Northrup says. "The aging process doesn't need to be about deterioration. That has always been a message of yoga."
Real Experience: Many yoginis are able to maintain athletic and dynamic practices well into their 60s. At 55, de los Santos, the model on these pages, teaches at least 12 classes a week, and she enjoys practicing advanced poses, like drop backs, (dropping back from a standing position into a full backbend). She can do the same poses she did in her 20s, but after a lifetime of yoga, she's keenly aware that that isn't what really matters. "I know from experience that at any age or shape you can transform mind, body, and heart," she says. She loves calming poses like Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) during times of stress. And when she can't practice, she still cultivates yoga by being aware and appreciative. "I can honestly say that I feel bliss and happiness every day."
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose at the Wall with Two Blocks)
Helps prevent low back pain, common at this time of life.
Place a block vertically against the wall and another one next to you. Lie on your back facing a wall with your knees bent and your arms outstretched at your sides, palms up. Roll your shoulders back and away from your head, expanding your chest. Raise your hips and chest up and support your back with your hands. Keep your head and shoulders flat on the floor, and lift your spine as high as you can so that one block fits under the fleshy part of your buttocks. Now stretch one leg at a time and place each heel on the block against the wall. Release your arms so that your hands reach just beyond the block under your buttocks. Breathe. Hold for 1 minute. To come out, bend your knees and bring your feet to the floor. Remove the block from under your sacrum and slowly roll down onto your back. Hug your knees to your chest.
Modified Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose)
Keeps joints supple and promotes relaxation.
Sit on a bolster with two-thirds of it behind you and one-third in front of you. Lean backward so that your shoulders are off the bolster and on your mat, your midback is supported, and your hips are elevated on the bolster. Place your heels together and drop the knees gently away from each other and toward the floor. If the angle is too severe, support your shoulders with one to two blankets. Stay for 10 to 20 breaths. To come out, slowly bring your knees together and roll onto your side.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
May help keep bones strong and builds confidence as you age.
Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Shift your weight onto your right foot and bend your left knee, bringing the left heel up to the inner right thigh. Press the heel into the thigh with toes pointing toward the floor. Bring your hands together in front of your heart. Press down into both heels and rise from the arches of your feet. Look down and make sure the center of your pelvis is over your right foot. Stay for 1 minute. To come out, release the leg to the floor and come back into Mountain Pose. Repeat on the other side.