Yoga has been a lifelong companion for Catherine de los Santos (shown at left in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, or One-Legged King Pigeon Pose). 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."