The menopause retreat. It’s a new trend. Where once fiftysomething women were made to feel as if we should be brushed under the carpet, now we are being feted as the hot new health and beauty consumers.
From hormone balance juice detoxes in West Sussex to luxury ‘change of life’ weeks in Spain, there’s been a boom in retreats specially tailored to women of a certain age. The latest is run by former New Age PR guru Lynne Franks: an ‘intimate’ three-day, non-residential programme entitled The Power of Seven: Celebrating The Wise Woman.
It takes place at Lynne’s beautiful 16th-century home in Somerset and goes well into the night, not finishing until 9pm on the first two days. As the brochure reads, it’s for the woman who is ‘entering a new phase of her womanhood’ and/or is ‘ready to embrace the Wise Woman within’.
C’est moi! For I am 57 and hit the menopause two years ago. Hardcore insomnia, hot flushes, thickening waist, a pervasive sense of doom — I had the works until I dosed myself up on HRT. Last year I even wrote a book about it entitled The Hot Topic: A Life-changing Look At The Change Of Life.
Christa D’Souza shared her experience of Lynne Franks (pictured) The Power of Seven: Celebrating The Wise Woman retreat
Like Lynne, I truly believe this third stage of our life is when we have the chance to come into our own and be the women we were meant to be, unencumbered by the roller-coaster hormones of our reproductive years. So it is I find myself driving into the village of Wincanton on a sunny Wednesday morning, feeling a mixture of anticipation and, it has to be said, anxiety.
This is partly down to the five-shot Americano I got on the A303 after Lynne’s warning that there will be no coffee on the premises.
Then there was the bit on the schedule about ‘5 Rhythms’ dancing. I know Lynne is very much into that sort of thing. She is the inspiration for Edina in Absolutely Fabulous, after all. But still. Interpretative dancing. Must I?
I arrive at midday in time for lunch, set in the large, flagstone-floored kitchen, a delicious all-organic, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free feast of oven-roasted root vegetables and quinoa risotto — or ‘quinotto’ — with Mallorcan lemon. And, for afters, a raw avocado-lime tart with cardamom, coconut, fresh berries and mint.
All our food is being prepared by nutritionist and detox expert Ursula Peer, a beautiful Austrian, who looks in her early 30s, but is, in fact, in her late 40s. Her menopause-beating tip? Eat orange food and ease up on the red wine which exacerbates hot flushes.
Also part of Team Lynne is yoga teacher and sacred healer Claire Farman, who specialises in something called Potentised Gem Medicine. Without any sort of examination, she recommends turquoise for me ‘which works on the throat centre so we can find our true voice’.
Christa D’Souza (pictured) says she felt inspired to consider trying the breathing sessions
It sounds too irritatingly Ab Fab for words. However, during Claire’s afternoon destress breathing session, when I find out she is actually in her early 50s with a 22-year-old daughter (I swear, I assumed she was in her late 20s when she walked in with her long, blonde plait and boyish figure) I decide it might be something worth trying once I get back home.
The best ambassadress of all is, of course, Lynne Franks herself, looking ever the High Priestess with her red hair, feather extensions and electric blue ensemble.
Though a year shy of 70, she has the skin of a woman decades younger, part of which she attributes to her infrared box — literally a box heated using infrared radiation, which she zips herself up in for 20 minutes every morning to sweat out all the toxins.
I secretly also attribute it to her robust sex life. She was married to Paul Howie, by whom she has two grown-up children, Joshua and Jessica, but since her divorce at the age of 44 she has not been short of admirers. That’s the thing about New Age types, in my experience. They do tend to have a lot of sex.
The average age women go through the menopause in the UK
She introduces me to the other six ‘Wise Women’ with whom I’ll be spending the next three days. An interior decorator; a Bafta-nominated film producer; an events coordinator; an ex-headmistress; a Tory fundraiser slash company director and an actress slash PR executive turned, get this, Viking re-enactor.
All of us are between the ages of 45 and 60 and are either going through or have recently had the menopause. Interestingly, each of us is absolutely potty about dogs.
Leading us up to her cosy, mint-coloured living room, which is decorated with statues of Buddha and all sorts of crystals radiating positive energy, Lynne hands us each a hessian bag containing a vial of essential oil, a notebook and some worksheets.
By next spring the retreat will move next door to the former pub she is converting, complete with bedrooms, vegan cafe and boutique. (Wincanton, watch out, in other words.)
Lynne (pictured) has been running motivational workshops for women for 12 years
As a tireless advocate of women’s rights and one who has been running motivational workshops for women for 12 years — at her former home in Deia, Mallorca, in India, in Africa, even let loose on execs at HSBC and McDonald’s — Lynne knows what she’s talking about.
She is keen to point out how, unlike other retreats geared towards the older woman, this one is not about balancing our hormones or eradicating hot flushes.
It is more to ‘encourage and support other women to nurture and heal themselves, which is where it all begins, so they have the confidence and clarity to support others and start the next creative stage of their lives’.
And although there may be yoga and super healthy food, this retreat is most certainly not about wandering around in a bathrobe from treatment to treatment in a semi-conscious haze.
Far from it. It’s about kick-starting us into action.
This isn’t about treatments in a bathrobe. Lynne wants to kickstart us into action. But still – Interpretative dancing? Must I?
‘It’s time to learn to celebrate ourselves rather than view menopause as the start to winding down as our mothers and grandmothers did,’ she says in her maternal yet strangely brusque way.
‘We still have the freedom to reinvent ourselves to be and do anything we want. It is by telling our stories to others, being heard and hearing theirs, that we realise just how amazing we are and how much more we still have to give.
‘Grandmothers are doing incredible projects all over the world and we need to acknowledge this instead of thinking that it is all over.’
Each of us, she explains, has an archetypal (and interchangeable) role within the group — Medicine Woman, Story Teller, Seed Sower, Alchemist, Space Weaver, Sky Dancer and Wisdom Keeper.
These seven roles, she says, are based on indigenous people and ancient rituals, but apply to the modern world, and are what it takes to build a successful community or business.
The number is crucial. ‘When a pod of seven women come together, magic happens. We can change our lives and we can change the world.’
Christa (pictured left) says the experience of concocting her own body oils during the retreat reminded her of her childhood
To the accompaniment of one of Lynne’s favourite songs, A Hundred Thousand Angels by Lucinda Drayton, we then get down to some writing.
‘Who Am I?’ is one of the questions, and instinctively I bag Story Teller, while the interior decorator bags Space Weaver.
At my feet as I write is Noodle, Lynne’s adorable black lab. Now and then a white cat called Louis pops its head in.
It’s so relaxing and womb-like here, I confess that by the time our nutritious dinner arrives at 7pm, I am almost asleep.
Day Two, and I wake up too late for Claire’s 8am yoga class, which Lynne is not pleased about. (Though warm and maternal, she is the sort of person who makes me stick my hand up when I want to go to the loo.)
Are women more supportive of each other when the menopause kicks in? Do I feel this surge of creativity and energy?
She hopes none of us slept with our mobiles in our room (darn it again, mine was under my pillow) and that we didn’t succumb to a sneaky coffee (triple darn), which, in traditional Chinese medicine, screws up our Jing and steals our precious Chi.
Did any of us wash our hair this morning? And if we did, did we notice how much sodium lauryl sulphate, a common detergent, was in our shampoo?
At our age, all those products that have been going on to our skin over the decades are starting to dangerously accumulate. (Did we know the skin is 12 times more absorbent than our guts?)
Later in the day we get a chance to be professionally made up by ‘no make-up’ make-up artist Jo Raphael aka ‘Mama Jo’, whose work has appeared on the pages of Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle.
We also concoct our own body oils with skincare expert and former west coast director of Aveda, Angie Brooker. It’s fun tinkering about with make-up and essential oils.
I make one out of lemongrass and mandarin which smells just like barley sugar.
Fleetingly I am reminded of the best parties I went to as a little girl, where we played sweet shops with Dolly Mixtures and pear drops. We must never lose a sense of play however old we are.
Lynne (pictured) is running the retreats alongside nutritionist Ursula Peer again in March
The best part, though, is the pre-dinner ‘Creative Journeying’ session. We all sit together in this safe, man-free space, workshopping what we want to do with the rest of our lives with High Priestess Franks, as it were, adjudicating. It all comes tumbling out, and then some.
The interior decorator wants to incorporate spiritual sanctuaries or ‘women caves’ into her practice; the film producer is hell-bent on tackling human trafficking; the events coordinator wants to create ‘magic’ schools for children; the ex-head wants to be a ‘soul coach’; the Tory fundraiser wants more spirituality into politics; the Viking re-enactor wants to make dance part of the school curriculum.
Then there is me, a features journalist and self-help author whose heartfelt desire, borne out of recent harsh experience, is to find better care for teenagers with serious drug issues. Each of us, in our own way, as we hit this last third of our lives, is keen to take a slightly different path, putting the skills, experience and contacts we’ve spent years honing to, dare I say it, better use.
In my book I quote the eminent anthropologist Margaret Mead, who once famously said: ‘There is no more creative force than the menopausal woman with zest.’ I feel this menopausal zest coursing through the room as we chat.
When we finally finish, however, I feel a genuine, sisterhoody connection with my fellow alchemists, storytellers and space weavers
When I wake up on the last day, I have half a mind to pretend I had a breakdown on the A303, so I don’t have to do the interpretative dancing, but the thought of Lynne’s withering reaction causes me to reconsider.
I arrive in time for a cacao ceremony, a sacred shamanic practice that originates from the Ashaninka tribes of the Peruvian Amazon and is now, according to Lynne, a thing among groovy East London types.
Raw cacao (used to make chocolate) has special spiritual powers used for centuries to impart a natural high and connect to the soul.
Nutritionist Ursula Peer has made us a big pot to get us in the mood before, gulp, dancing. As we all stand around in circle, I take a premature sip.
It’s delicious, like a very, very rich hot chocolate, but I am swiftly reprimanded by Lynne, who says the point is that we have to do it all at the same time.
And then . . . the dancing. Not all the cacao in the world is going to make me dance like I’m not being watched. I spend most of the session bent over double, swaying from side to side, pretending to be a broken tree so I don’t have to look into anybody else’s eyes.
What my children would make of this tableau simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
When we finally finish, however, I feel a genuine, sisterhoody connection with my fellow alchemists, storytellers and space weavers.
Is seven a magic number?
Are women more supportive of each other when the menopause kicks in? Do I feel this surge of creativity and energy?
Did God have something in mind for us other than having children and looking pretty? I think maybe She did.
LYNNE FRANKS’ next Celebrating the Wise Woman retreat with nutritionist and chef Ursula Peer is from March 7–10 in Somerset and costs £735. Power Of Seven one-day workshops will also be available for £225. Go to lynnefranks.com for more information.