When I was 14 years old I was pretty good at Art & English so my Dad sent me off to talk to our advertising exec neighbour and show him my portfolio. I had ambitions of writing ads for a living. This very senior figure in the Ad world said to me “Linda, you’re a nice girl. Advertising is a man’s world, I’d avoid it if I were you”
That pretty much sealed the deal. Tell a teenager ‘NO’ and her ego will say ‘actually you sexist old fart, that’ll be a YES’.
So began my early years suppression of that ‘girl’ label and de-valuing anything about being a women.
I did indeed have a successful CBK (career before kids) as a ‘creative’ in advertising and then in TV, working at Sky in the UK and Foxtel in Australia. With the yang energy of youth I managed to push through and keep up with the then boys club mentality of the industry; working until the wee hours, drinking far too much, going to the gym for high energy work outs.
One corporate away day stands out in my memory. After a rousing talk from our ideas facilitator, we were tasked with a drawing exercise to focus on our ‘Why’. I found myself drawing spirals and ferns and sea shells and having a distinct feeling that something inside of me was desperate to be heard. I was mortified when we shared our work and literally everyone else in the room had drawn icons or words to inspire the network’s new branding. I suddenly had a profound sense of displacement.
Fast forward a few years; I married an Englishman and had two babies just 14 months apart, both premature and my son born with a neuro-muscular disorder. It was a difficult time and crushing to realise that the career by which I had defined myself for 12 years was no longer feasible for me. Things have changed now, but at the time, being a mother and TV life were like oil and water.
Given my career choice and the way I shunned anything ‘icky’ and ‘girly’, it’s rather ironic that I had always yearned to be a mum. But here I was with two wee babies and I felt I was failing at the starting line. Sensing the dark place I was in, my Mum came over from NZ to Sydney to help. She sent me off to the hairdressers for some time out and it was there, sitting in the chair, half listening to the chatter that I had a life defining epiphany.
Through my mental fog I heard my hairdresser mention a yoga teacher training course that she was on. Every fibre of my body was suddenly alert. I asked her to stop and tell me again. As she told me about her Yoga training in Manly and about an Ashram retreat centre north of Sydney she’d visited, I heard a voice in my head clearly say “This is your rope out of here.” The clouds parted. I was going to re-train as a Yoga Teacher!
I had been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for about 10 years before this, but I actually don’t think I breathed that whole time. I was tight, taught and competitive. It was not the style of yoga that a highly strung, out of balance Vatta dosha type like me needed, but of course I was ‘good’ at making shapes.
As a 35th birthday gift to myself, I went to the satyananda Ashram my hairdresser had mentioned for a weekend retreat. I was high as a kite at the prospect of my first night away from the children and some time to replenish! At the end of the first day of satyananda style yoga and meditation practices (very slow compared to ashtanga), I asked the teacher when we were going to start the ‘real’ yoga. She laughed so hard she nearly cried and begged me to let her share what I’d said with the others. I’ve now been training and teaching for 13 years and smile with fondness at that embarrassing memory!
As I write at the start of 2021, in the midst of our 3rd Covid lockdown here in England, I look back with deep gratitude at how fortunate I was to do my initial Yoga teacher training at Qi Yoga Manly in 2007 with a terrific cohort of trainees. I was also incredibly fortunate to be taught by some of Australia’s best teachers and have ready access to a stream of workshops with the likes of Donna Farhi and Judith Hanson Lasater, who first introduced me to the tenet of my teaching to this day, “the pelvis is the centre of our being.”
Bit by bit a shell was being cracked open and I was starting to embrace that part of me that was all spiral and soften the hard edges – the divine feminine was rising up…. ….And then of course falling down again, as spirals do.
The Universe had more lessons afoot for me and as is often the case, she annoyingly decided that rather than simply send me a book or a podcast on Santosha (acceptance), she’d ‘gift’ me more experiential knowledge!! It came in the form of the unexpected pregnancy and birth of my third child in 2011.
A condensed synopsis; I went into labour at 24wks (yup) and after medical intervention, was put on strict bedrest for four months to save the pregnancy. Seriously, the hardest ‘stillness’ practice ever for a person like me. But I did do it. I only got up to go to the loo and had one quick shower a week. Other than that, I lay on my left side, pelvis up, heart down until my cervical suture was taken out at 37 weeks. Because of atrophied muscles from no movement, at 31 weeks when I got up too quickly for the loo, my pubic bone ripped apart. Devastatingly, that sudden action caused full Pubic Symphysis Diastases. OOOUCH!
I used every one of the yoga tools I now teach to birth naturally with that condition, despite dealing with a highly pressurised medical situation and a level of pain beyond imagination with the split pelvis. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but the thing I’m most proud of. Yoga tools made it possible.
Initially unable to walk post birth, I was diligent with research and rehabilitation. With learned wisdom from both Judith Lasater and American biomechanics expert Katy Bowman, I created my own programme (that I now teach other post natal mums) and over time healed completely without surgery. That birth and the recovery from it led me to undertake the inaugural IYTA Pre & Post natal diploma with the very first cohort of teachers in 2012. To learn beside such wise women from across Australia was truly a life enriching and pivotal growth time.
I finally appreciated that Women are tribal by nature. We dissipate stress through connecting with and supporting each other. That ‘man in a skirt’ shell had finally cracked completely open and a new version of Linda was happily stepping out.
After 14 years in Sydney and a few months after graduating from the IYTA course, in 2013 my expanding family moved an hour from London to the market town of Farnham, and that’s where YogaMums was born.
Initially organising and teaching some Luna Rosa full moon yoga gatherings (that Daniel Rickwood started in Sydney), I then began teaching weekly yoga classes in a large, light filled hall in central Farnham the year after we arrived.
I specialised in preparing pregnant mums for birth and teaching post natal recovery yoga. My husband and I started and are still teaching our popular YogaBirthing For Couples birth prep workshops together.
But as is often the case, the women I attracted to my regular Women’s Health classes are of a similar age to me, and as we entered peri-menopause, my focus on and understanding of this significant life transition increased. Linda Stephens Wellbeing has grown up to encompass YogaMums and is the place from which I now serve peri-post menopausal women.
What happens to the pelvic floor in birth resurfaces when a woman enters the peri menopausal years, where oestrogen levels drop and the pelvic muscle fibres lose their elasticity. Consequentially, all that I’ve learnt about the menopause directly feeds in to to how I prepare women for birthing and their post birth recovery AND visa versa.
I had my next ‘Life Lesson’ exactly 7 years after the previous one. (They’re appearing like clockwork!)
I won’t go into the details here, but suffice to say it had to do with the previous traumatic births, unknowingly losing that pelvic muscle fibre elasticity in peri menopause and double bouncing my kids on the trampoline. Hmmmm. Even though I was a women’s health yoga teacher, I didn’t really understand the significance of depleted hormones and the significant role oestrogen plays in our mental and physical health wellbeing and in particular, pelvic muscle integrity.
But I wasn’t the only one. Peri menopause is still little understood in the medical world. From around 45-48yrs I saw various GP’s with peri menopause symptoms ranging from anxiety and heart palpitations, insomnia, foggy brain, memory loss and extreme fatigue to severe IBS and more. Over those years I was simply and incorrectly advised to go on anti depressants. ‘Peri menopause’ was mostly dismissed as I was ‘too young’.
Around the same time my husband Mike seemed annoyingly fit and healthy, in fact, he ran his first marathon in 2018 in Brighton. Two weeks afterwards, out of the blue, he had a heart attack. Of course, hindsight gives one 20/20 vision, but at the time I felt I was fine handling the emotions of this family crises and was pushing through my own exhaustion with ‘superwoman’ Yang energy. I hear all of you shaking your heads, you know where this is going! I’d absorbed an unhelpful belief that I needed to quickly expand my business and take financial burden off him.
To this end, I finally completely burnt out after a severe vertigo attack in April 2019 and had a very frightening nervous breakdown. It was like my plug had been pulled from the socket, there was simply no charge left at all and I remember my nerves felt ‘burnt’ like an electrical circuit had fused. I had to stop teaching, stop everything, I couldn’t get out of bed. I’m extremely lucky that Mike (who started training as a counsellor after his heart attack) had the wherewithal and emotional intelligence to stop me from completely free falling.
I know many women don’t have access to someone who can hold this safe space for them. Even though 100% of women will go through peri menopause and 80% will experience sometimes debilitating symptoms, our world has a long way to go in supporting this significant transition for 51% of the world’s population.
At that crises point I had to embrace the yoga concept of Santosha. Total acceptance of What Is. Here was me on my knees, unable to think straight or with any energy to help myself, and forced to accept that I may well lose my business, my reputation, and ultimately, my sense of self. In actual fact, it was the ego that died (again) that moment I stopped clinging to my past definition of ‘self’ and surrendered to accepting the help I needed in that broken moment in time.
I leaned in, accepted help, and allowed myself to be completely vulnerable. With the support of some amazing female mentors and therapists who had knowledge and ability to help beyond the current medical realm, I gave my body total rest and reset my frazzled brain.
As they say, crises creates opportunity. Once I was out of the bleakest weeks, I researched far and wide, reading and listening to everything I could about peri menopause. I made big changes to my lifestyle (already 13 yrs women’s health specialist yoga teacher but this training helped me at a whole new level). Importantly, I created boundaries around self care and had a huge paradigm shift in acceptance of this ‘new’ (and ultimately exciting) stage of my life.
In the summer of 2019, 4 months after that nervous breakdown, I shocked myself and my whole family by winning a dance off competition against people half my age, in front of thousands of people at the WILDERNESS music festival. The extraordinary power of the human body to re-balance and heal itself when given the right tools to do so!!
Within 4 months I had gone from the lowest ebb of my life (and I have been through a LOT of stuff to compete with ‘lowest ebb’ status) to literally being in my bliss and experiencing a major highlight of my life. Being able to trust my body again and doing something so utterly out of the ordinary. I’d never danced on a stage before!
It was the best feeling ever and from that moment, I have been on a mission to empower other women with menopause knowledge and wellbeing practices plus connections to helpful and factual resources.
I’ve led two women’s health Yoga retreats to Marrakesh now. On the last one we were fortunate to have an HRT specialist GP there, a women’s heath nutritionist and also a highly respected pelvic floor physio. Together we held a collaborative menopause workshop which felt so ‘right’ and was a beautifully transformative afternoon everyone. Again, that feeling of the power of the tribe, of a problem shared being a problem halved.
An hour into our flight back to England after the retreat, we learned that the Moroccan borders had just been closed due to Covid Lockdown.
It was such a crazy, but weirdly energised time at the start. We were all in this together. We were rallying and doing what we could to help. Two days after arriving home, I taught my first yoga class via Zoom. Luckily I’d already set up an online booking system for my weekly classes, 1:1’s and workshops and Zoom integrated into the system I already had. Those early months were exhilarating but tough. We all tried very hard to adapt and looking back, I’m proud of how I jumped straight to Zoom teaching, not missing a single class and supporting a local NHS #feedingthefrontline initiative with discounted classes and charity yoga events for the community.
Then ‘it got real’ around June and we realised that ‘the new normal’ was here to stay. The small businesses that had been working for little return had to re-group. I adjusted prices, put on different classes and put huge energy into trying to attract zoom-wary students; buying a new laptop & microphone, having my studio internet hardwired, upgrading my booking system, admin support, website development, emails, tech support, online presence etc etc in the process (can you see the Superwoman out of balance vatta girl creeping back in!?)
During the 2020 lockdown I also completed the 3rd Age post grad diploma with Burrell Education, global leaders in women’s health. I now had the formal education firmly under my belt to move more into the peri menopausal teaching arena. I also created two fully online digital courses based on the in-person mentorships I’d been teaching: Calm & Empowered, The Pelvic Floor Restore course for Midlife Women and also YogaBirthing Bootcamp for pregnant women. I’ve got another course for Post Natal Recovery in the pipeline too.
This 3rd Lockdown in 2021, I’m immersed in qualifying as an ICF accredited life coach with the global women’s empowerment movement One Of Many. I recognise that so many of the physical issues I see in classes are a manifestation of mental and emotional ‘stuff’. Being ‘held’ in a safe space by wise women helped me on my own recovery journey from burn out. I’d like to be able to offer a much more holistic wellbeing offering to other peri menopausal women in turn, and this seems like a natural next step to doing so.
By Spring I’m on track to tie everything together with the launch of the Linda Stephens Women’s Wellbeing Membership Site (name tbc!) I’m designing this to be a festival like hub of women’s health information and yoga practices. A one stop shop with a library of healing and strengthening yoga, live masterclasses, peri-menopause talks and interviews with women’s health professionals and access to local women’s health therapists and more!
My own journey has shown me that we need nothing short of a grass roots revolution when it comes to claiming power around women’s health (and the services that can support us too).
Knowledge is Power, Practice (in Yoga known as ‘Tapas’) is Actualisation. We need to equip ourselves with knowledge and practices then spread the word to female friends everywhere! Our patriarchal world is changing more rapidly now thank goodness. I feel part of a seismic shift towards embracing the rising divine feminine energy.
So, here I am. Half a lifetime on from being the embodiment of ‘a man in a skirt’ I’m embracing all that is beautiful about being a woman in the 2020’s. Reflecting on those spirals I drew at that TV corporate event, I feel like I’ve come full circle.
Life certainly is a journey. It’s like travelling down a river with all it’s twists and turns, turbulence and clear stillness. There’s a certain sweet freedom in surrendering to the ride.
**If you can relate to my journey and want to work with me, do get in touch. I hope to meet you within the membership site coming soon. Watch this space!