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Yoga on the wild frontier of perimenopause

My body is changing and my yoga practice is like exploring an unknown roadWhat if you woke up one morning and found yourself in a different body, like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis? That’s how perimenopause feels to me.

My body is changing so quickly I don’t know the body I’m in anymore. In some ways it is like puberty, but with the frightening self-awareness of age and experience.

I have been practicing yoga for more than twenty years. There have always been times when I felt like a beginner; those times were usually when I was exploring something more advanced or new to me. But now I feel like I am discovering what my body can – and cannot – do as if I have never done yoga before.

Achy joints

At the end of the day, whether my practice was restorative or vinyasa, I feel it in my joints. Often it is my hips doing the complaining, but it might be my shoulders, or my knees. On some days it is my hands or feet. I have a hard time getting comfortable enough to go to sleep. The feeling is less satisfying than the soreness that accompanied stretching and strengthening muscles in new ways when I was first learning asanas. I feel restless and frustrated by these aches.

Hand, meet wall

Balance poses, like tree and half moon, used to be my favorites. I would spend hours putting together long sequences of poses, moving from one to the other while balanced on one foot. Then, one day, I started losing my balance. To practice these asanas now means falling out often, or using the wall as a prop.

Two drishtis

Those who see me in person know that I started wearing glasses everywhere two years ago. My eyes have always had difficulty working together, but now I have developed severe double vision that cannot be corrected by contact lenses. Even with my glasses, if my eyes are tired or relax too much (which never happens in a yoga class, right?) I see two of everything. Focusing on one point is especially challenging, because I’m never sure which of the things thing I’m looking at is “real,” and which is the double.

Brain fog

I have the attention span of a goldfish. When I…

 

What was I saying?

And so on

I’ve been a bit grumpy about all of this, but I am finally moving towards acceptance. After all, what is my yoga practice for if not to feel deeply into my body as it is now? I am moving into new territory, and it is up to me to draw the map.

That means that my practice is, again, that of a beginner. I must see what helps and what hurts. I need to discover my new edge and let go of what now takes me past it. Even with two decades of experience, I don’t have the answers. If your body is changing – due to menopause, pregnancy, injury, a joint replacement, diet – neither you nor I know how your practice needs to be. But you are welcome to join me on the wild frontier to find out through experience.

What you really need to know before your first yoga class (hint: it’s not what to wear)

What's so great about yoga? You have to keep practicing to find out.

What’s so great about yoga? You have to keep practicing to find out.

From what I’ve observed during my six years of teaching yoga, it’s not hard to get someone to try yoga for the first time. It’s getting him or her back for the second round that’s the challenge. Because most yoga teachers, myself included, can’t take the time during a multi-level class to fully explain to newcomers what to expect, here is what you really need to know before your first yoga class.

The first time you try yoga, it will most likely feel very awkward. Just standing with bare feet on a sticky mat feels weird. Getting your body into the same shape as the instructor’s will seem impossible. You might feel uncoordinated, unbalanced, ungraceful and totally inflexible. The next day, you might be sore in places you didn’t know you had muscles. And, if you can’t set all those feelings aside, you might never try yoga again.

Yoga is not an instant cure-all. A yoga practice can make your body stronger, more flexible and healthier, but it won’t happen overnight. One time is never enough. The only way yoga can work is if you keep practicing.

The trick is to get through that first class without letting your critical ego get in the way. Your body is going to think yoga is great and that it wants to do more. The muscles, although they might be sore, will have really enjoyed the stretching. It’s your mind that will shut down your desire for more yoga. Your mind likes to carry on about anything it can, so it will chatter away, telling you that you didn’t look good in the poses, that you aren’t flexible enough to do these kinds of things, or that you need to lose 25 pounds before you try again.

The problem with the mind is that it always wants to be the center of attention. It looks for things to think about so it never has to be quiet. Yoga takes your attention away from the mind and directs it to the body. The mind fights back by dragging you outside yourself. It worries about what other people think and tries to convince you it knows what’s going on in other people’s heads. Once it does, you feel self-conscious and inadequate, because you can never live up to the expectations you have imagined other people have for you.

The truth is nobody else in your yoga class, besides the teacher whose job it is to make sure you are doing the poses safely, cares what you look like on your mat. Other beginners are suffering the same insecurities you are, and more experienced practitioners are usually thrilled when someone new tries this practice that they love. Once the class is underway, all those with experience are focusing on their own bodies and probably won’t even look at you. Many go through their practice with their eyes closed. They are not watching you to see if you mess up.

While laughter is certainly not off-limits in yoga class, and is, in fact, a welcome release when the class is getting too intense, nobody will laugh at you for being a beginner. Yoga students sometimes laugh at themselves when they struggle to balance in tree pose or mess up their rights and lefts and end up facing the wrong way. Laughter is a wonderful, heart-opening practice when it comes from love and camaraderie. Yoga students may laugh together, but they don’t laugh at each other, despite what your ego may tell you.

Practicing yoga is also an exercise in humility. Unlike sports, you are not going to get much recognition for doing yoga, no matter how well you do it. You can practice yoga for 20 years and you will never get a trophy, or even a ribbon. You are unlikely to have your journey to yoga greatness documented by a gaggle of photographers. On your mat, it’s just you against……you. Nobody wins. No sports page coverage.

Putting all the ego stuff aside is what makes yoga different than just stretching exercises and, in the end, is what brings people back to the mat. When you learn to ignore all the stuff the mind is going on about, it shuts up. You get to have a few moments of quiet and you discover what yoga really is.

Yogascittavrittinirodhah

Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.

That’s what it comes down to. The whole time you’re on your mat, struggling awkwardly into poses, fighting off critical thoughts – while toning and strengthening your body, of course – all you’re trying to do is have a moment of silence.

Once you discover the silence, you’ll keep coming back to your mat. The next time you practice, you can be pretty sure you’ll be right back to struggling with your ego, trying to find the silence again. But over time the poses will feel a little less awkward. You may be a bit more balanced. You may feel a touch more coordinated. You will begin to move with grace. And you may discover that you are more flexible than you thought.

All because you didn’t let the first class be the last class.