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During the pandemic, I became obsessed with my rowing machine. I figured sweating and stretching surely would help prevent a meltdown. Every day, I used an app to rank my workouts against those of others in my 50-to-59 age group. Then one morning, I opened the rankings to all ages. Shockingly, women in their 50s were putting everyone else to shame.
After reveling for a bit, I began to wonder: Why are 50-something women performing at such a high level? Could it simply be a generational thing? Or is it that when women hit 50—with child-rearing, career-climbing, and relationship-building largely behind them—fewer distractions allow us more time to focus on ourselves?
The answer is probably a little bit of both. But there’s one more phenomenon driving women in their 50s to row, sweat, and stretch like Olympic hopefuls: They’re approaching (or have already reached) The Big M. And while we’re conditioned to think that aging slows us down, my experience shows that we might just be revving up for the best years of our lives.
What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about menopause
Forty-one million women in the United States have reached menopause. That’s more than the population of California. And yet we barely talk about it. But I wanted to learn everything I could about this period of change, including whether yoga—which has always centered me during times of stress—could ease this transition.
Our culture notoriously marginalizes women past their childbearing years. Petra Coveney, a London-based yoga instructor and founder of Menopause Yoga, leads yoga-infused menopause workshops around the world and makes a point of showing her students how society devalues older, wiser women. “I ask participants to call out the words used in their culture to define women of a certain age. I hear ‘crone,’ ‘hag,’ ‘witch,’ ‘past her sell-by date,’” Coveney says.
Women unwittingly perpetuate these stereotypes. We spend so much of our time and energy caring for others, suppressing our needs, and silencing ourselves and each other that we, in effect, endorse our own neglect.
The rage tornado
Around the mid-40s, people who menstruate begin to experience a hormonal revolution every bit as intense as puberty: perimenopause, a years-long transition leading up to the main menopausal event (you’re not officially in menopause until you haven’t had a period for an entire year). Our bodies gradually produce less and less estrogen—the hormone that initiates sexual development, regulates the menstrual cycle, and plays a significant role in mediating psychological well-being—and the effect is dramatic.
Decreases in estrogen can lead to anxiety and depression, brain fog, memory loss, and weight gain—as well as emotional shifts that can come on fast and furious.
One hot afternoon in July, I was trying, and failing, to get dressed for my 50th birthday celebration. As I gazed in the mirror, my face looked puffy and droopy at the same time. I felt like I must have gained 50 pounds overnight. Clothes went on, clothes went off. Pants were tight in weird places. I even began hating my shoes.
Internally, I tried to reconcile the usual desire to look beautiful with the self-criticisms and self-doubts, plus a new interior voice that suggested breaking every mirror in the house and living my life in cashmere sweatpants.
When my husband dared to mention that we’d be late for our dinner reservation, I hurled my eyeglasses in gorgeous, unadulterated fury at the closest mirror. It felt terrific. Then someone who sounded a lot like 15-year-old me announced that she wasn’t leaving the house. Menopause, c’est moi.
There’s a word for the simmering fury I felt that night: “menorage.” Awakening from a decades-long estrogen haze, some women approaching menopause may find themselves questioning what they’ve been doing and why they’ve been doing it at all. We may wonder why we tacitly tolerated a certain manager or an hour-long commute or poorly designed software or an uncomfortable office chair. The absurdities of modern life can jump out in sharp relief, propelling us into new careers, new intellectual pursuits, and a radically new frame of mind.