Bernadette Parsons has a simple prescription for post-menopausal women who suffer from a belief that the best is over and they will never feel desirable again: yoga. Bernie discovered yoga at 53, now she’s 65 and living a life she could not have imagined a decade ago.
“A woman’s body is an incredible miracle,” Bernie told me from Munich, where she is teaching Bikram Yoga for three months. “Embrace your beauty whatever shape or size or colour – whatever issues the body has – embrace it all. This is the only vessel we have for carrying us around in the world and its beauty comes from within.”
And Bernie is not the only who loves her body – sex, she says, is one of yoga’s great gifts to women.
“Yoga increased my libido,” she says. “My husband is ten years younger than me and still virile. He says to me “you’ll live forever!” He still desires and cherishes me in that way, and he knows it is yoga that keeps me young. So, do it for your sex drive – do it for your partner!”
Bernie was living in Sydney and at her lowest ebb when she found yoga. Life had dropped her in a pit several times before: she had been abandoned to single motherhood, twice; beaten by men; forced to survive with little money – but at mid-life she found the latest blow particularly hard. Twelve years later she lives between her home in Yorkshire, her motor home in Barcelona – or wherever she and husband Jeremy have decided to stop for a while – and her second home in Munich where she goes to teach yoga for weeks or months at a time, on and off every year.
“It’s such a gift to be able to do this,” she says, “it’s such a life! Not the life I was imagining for myself at 53!”
Two events pitched her into crisis in her early 50’s. First, she was asked to work from home by remote desktop, leaving behind an office of young people and a team she loved working with. “So my world – my social world – just crashed!” she said.
Second, she had a near-death experience in her kayak. An experienced paddler, Bernie went out one day, alone, with a storm brewing. “It was January 2nd,” she said, “I put on my life jacket and then I did something I never do, I strapped myself in.” The kayak capsized. “Normally I would do a 360 degree turn and roll right up,” she said. “This time I couldn’t. I’m hanging upside down in my kayak, I couldn’t release my belt. I thought ‘I cannot die like this, never to feel Jeremy’s hand again, never to see my beautiful sons, never to be able to take my last breath’ – I couldn’t release, I couldn’t get my head above water and then, I can’t explain it, that belt released. I didn’t touch it, it just released.”
Another lone canoeist saw her in distress and paddled towards her. “He asked me to get onto his canoe but I said no, if I don’t get straight back in this kayak I’ll be too afraid to ever do it again – but I asked him to stay close alongside me.” After that, she says, “the blinkers came off. I knew I had to change something. I had to be more aware of my life, it had to have more meaning and quality. I was always doing, but not for me.”
Bernie was walking to her hairdresser a few days later when she wandered past a yoga studio and thought perhaps she needed to learn meditation or something. “My hairdresser said, no, you don’t need that yoga, you need to go to Bikram hot yoga where you sweat your ass off – it will change your life. And you know, it did.” She went to teacher training and has since taught in Hull and Brighton and all over London in the UK, she has taught in Australia, in Scotland, France and for the last seven years, teaches regularly in Germany.
Thanks to yoga, Bernie says: “I feel younger, I’m more energetic – I have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) but guess what? My lung capacity is 110%! Just from pranayama breathing, stretching the intercostal muscles . . . A friend challenged me to walk the Yorkshire Three Peaks, which are around 2,500 feet above sea level, three of them in one day, and we did it in 13 hours. I walk the hills of Barcelona every year. I’ve walked the pyramids in Mexico – I could never have done any of it without my yoga.
“My bones are good, there’s no brittleness there – I’ve fallen down stairs and not broken anything. I don’t suffer from osteoporosis, I don’t suffer from arthritis, all my varicose veins have gone. I’ve got muscles on my muscles!”
Bernie looks both lean and strong and has an indominable smile under a smart mop of white hair – that is sometimes spikey, sometimes crowned with a tiara and sometimes green. “People say why are you always smiling Bernadette? Because, why not? I say the most beautiful curve on your body is your smile. You release endorphins when you smile. We die just once, but we can live every single moment of life and enrich it – so don’t just exist. What we do is a reflection of who we are and when you give, you get back a thousand-fold. I am inundated with love and generosity here – I can’t begin to tell you. People give me little things. They bring in bowls of soup or they bring in chai tea because they know I love it or a bar of chocolate, a bunch of flowers or a piece of soap. The Bavarians are just amazing people. When you give out, it comes back.”
She says all of life can be – as the well-worn phrase from the Bikram Yoga script says – like an open-eye meditation.
“Meditation comes in many shapes and forms for many different people. I’m talking to you, I’m meditating. I go down the street to get groceries, I’m meditating – because I’m connected in my mind and my body. It’s an alertness, an awareness, it’s not about being closed inside, it’s about having the eyes wide open so you can actually see what’s around you rather than being closed in.
“Yoga also manifests itself in so many different ways. Everything can be yoga when it’s the union between you and your mind through the breath. I love the meditation when you just sit and breathe, I enjoy that, I enjoy all forms of meditation and have great respect for all other types of yoga, but Bikram is my yoga and it’s the one yoga that I come to whenever I need a form of healing.”
Bernie echoes another of Bikram’s many aphorisms: “You’re never too old, never too bad, never too late and never too sick to start from the scratch once again.”
“I have a friend who walks all bent over,” Bernie said, “and I say come on, come to yoga with me and she says oh no, no, I can’t do that. I’m not flexible. But I say yoga is not about being flexible. Just show up and see what happens. The body wants to work magic but the mind will play havoc with it. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I walk around and I see people who have every single worry on their back. Women especially. Women of 50 think life is over but it’s NOT! It’s just beginning. It’s the absolute beginning.”