When The Band and I lived in California, and after trying (unsuccessfully) for years to fall pregnant, we were told by two separate fertility specialists that it was never going to happen naturally and that IVF was the only option. We were devastated. We discussed it at length, and finally decided to go ahead. To cut a long story short, I had the Lupron in the fridge, ready to start injecting into my belly when, one morning, The Band (with a beautiful and timely wave of intuition) got cold feet about the whole thing. He just said that something didn’t feel right. So I didn’t inject, and thank heavens because a few weeks later we found out that I was pregnant.
Fast forward three years: we now have not one, but two miracle babies. We cannot believe our luck and we are continuously grateful for having been blessed so very comprehensively. They have even been given Xhosa names by our friends at Morgan Bay in the Eastern Cape: Danny is Sipho and Isla is NoSipho, both meaning gift. And that they truly are.
I know that I am one of the lucky ones who somehow defied medical evidence and went on to fall pregnant, carry to term and produce two perfect babies. Yet, it is our own experience of the whole process of trying to fall pregnant – the incredible rollercoaster of emotions that you unavoidably find yourself riding, the intense emotions of hope, the crippling disappointment at the end of each month when your period arrives once again, the elation (after one positive pregnancy test) and the absolute devastation (at the subsequent loss), and all sorts of feelings inbetween – has made me incredibly passionate and empathetic about those who are having their own difficulties. It has made me acutely sensitive to how so many people just take it for granted (myself included, initially) that if and when you make the decision to have a baby, it will just happen. It means that I flinch when I hear people nonchalantly chatting about how they will wait for a few months/years before they have their next baby because they want the age gap to be exactly 2 years (or whatever). And that they will not give birth towards the end of the year as it affects sport etc. So much is just assumed – it’s almost as if having children is seen as our God-given right.
Through my training as an infant massage instructor, I have heard so many stories about parents who have had similar experiences, and find that there is a growing warmth and compassion within my heart for all those who have struggled, are struggling, may struggle in the future. Having just finished a specialised module in pregnancy teachers’ training, I am very excited about really ramping up my prenatal classes and working with pregnant ladies, but I am also feeling inspired about showing those who are trying to fall pregnant, how amazingly beneficial yoga can be in this respect. I was immersing myself in my yoga practice when we were trying to fall pregnant, and I have no doubt that it was one of the things that helped me to just relax, let go and allow myself to surrender to whatever bigger plan was at work for me and my husband. Ironic that we were yet another couple who got to the point of utter desperation (we were actually vehemently warned to stop trying to fall pregnant, as if, by some miracle, fertilisation did take place, it would be guaranteed to be ectopic…) and only then, once we stopped worrying and stressing and trying so hard, the miracles started coming thick and fast.
So, I have been reading up about more and more would-be parents and how they are increasingly turning to yoga for a more natural approach, in an attempt to bypass the conventional infertility treatments that can cause so much emotional stress, financial strain and painful side effects. According to the authors of Six Steps to Increased Fertility (Simon & Schuster, 2000), 20 percent of couples in the U.S. are estimated to have fertility difficulties (those numbers may be underreported), and in 1999, the newsletter HealthFacts reported that the treatment of infertility is a $2 billion a year industry.
Judith Hanson Lasater (Ph.D., physical therapist and registered yoga teacher and journalist for Yoga Journal) makes an interesting point: that, ironically, yoga poses were traditionally used to decrease the sexual energy of practitioners, following the belief that one could transform sexual energy to make it more available for self-realization. Today, however, the reason that couple are starting to turn to yoga is to increase their chances of pregnancy by lowering stress levels, allowing the energy centered in the pelvis to flow freely, and opening up and softening the pelvic organs. Rather than paraphrasing Judith’s inspiring article on Yoga Journal (http://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/586) I quote from it below:
“According to Rahul Sachdev, M.D., a specialist in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey, incorporating the health-enhancing benefits of yoga with traditional and innovative medical intervention can relieve the stress associated with infertility, thus vastly increasing the chances for conception. “Women who are infertile, especially in the long term, are extremely stressed out,” explains Sachdev. “One study has shown that the stress levels of an infertile woman are actually similar to those of someone just told they have HIV.” Dr. Sachdev says he has no doubt that stress can lead to infertility. “What is controversial,” he adds, “is the question of whether or not stress relief creates fertility.”
The answer to that question seems to be a resounding “yes” for couples who took part in a program supervised by Sachdev at St. Peter’s Medical Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which was based on the ongoing programs at the Mind-Body Institute at Harvard University created by Herbert Benson, M.D., researcher and author of The Relaxation Response (Wholecare, 2000). The program incorporated stress reduction practices like yoga and meditation, emotional support such as group discussions and sharing, and changes in diet, including cutting down on caffeine, alcohol, fats, and sugar.
The results were remarkable: Couples had a 50 percent fertility rate within one year of finishing the program. What made the results even more astounding is that regardless of the cause of the woman’s inability to conceive, whether it was unexplained infertility or low sperm counts, participants were helped in encouragingly high numbers.
Other recent evidence echoes the positive effects of yoga for infertile women. In 2000, Harvard Medical School researcher Alice Domar, Ph.D., published the results of a study in Fertility and Sterility (Vol. 73, No. 4) that showed women who participated in her program, which included relaxation and yoga, were almost three times more likely to get pregnant than women who didn’t. In Domar’s 10-week mind-body workshop, 184 infertile women who had been trying to get pregnant for one to two years were put into a cognitive behavioral group. This group received methods for emotional expression, nutrition and exercise information, and relaxation training—including yoga, meditation, muscle relaxation, and imagery. Interestingly, the group also learned cognitive restructuring, identifying recurrent negative thoughts, such as “I will never have a baby” and changing that thought to “I am doing everything I can to get pregnant.” The results: 55 percent of the women in the group using yoga and other techniques got pregnant within a year, in contrast with 20 percent of the women in the control group who conceived in that same time period.
According to Roger Cole, Ph.D., physiologist and yoga teacher, stressful emotions activate the sympathetic nervous system, causing the adrenal glands to release epinephrine into the bloodstream. Many strong emotions like fear and anger, which are actually other names for stress, can cause the body to produce more cortisol and fewer sex hormones. All of these changes are part of the “fight or flight” response, which prepares the body for emergency action but also interferes with its ability to repair itself and digest and assimilate food, and increases the chances of infertility.
One of the most powerful effects of epinephrine is that it constricts blood vessels. Dr. Sachdev says this constriction may also occur in the uterus, thus interfering with conception. This coincides with the yogic idea of apana, the downward moving prana, or energy, which for women is centered in the pelvis. Allowing apana to flow freely could be the key for reproduction to occur. Yoga poses like Salamba Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Supported Bridge Pose, done with the sacrum on a bolster and the knees bent) and Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose) help to gently stimulate apana energy, as well as increase micro-circulation in the reproductive tract.
In addition to allowing apana to move more freely, certain asanas help to soften and “make space” in the pelvis and let go of tension in the abdomen. Women in Salamba Baddha Konasana (Supported Bound Angle Pose) and Savasana (Corpse Pose) should pay special attention to the belly and pelvic region. On the inhalation, they can imagine that the belly is soft and infused with energy; on the exhalation, they can imagine that all impediments to conception are leaving with the breath.
Alice Domar recommends yoga to the participants in her study not only to relax but also to establish a more loving connection with a body they may feel angry at for failing them. Domar also recommends partner yoga because it allows a couple to be physical together in a nonsexual way, since sex often becomes emotionally charged and linked with failure.
The good news is that improving the general health of the whole person, such as getting proper nutrition, sleeping more, cultivating healthy relationships, and keeping a positive body image will greatly increase the chances of fertility. The better news is that couples who successfully use these tools to bring new life into the world often find a whole new lifestyle emerging—one that not only helps them have a baby but that also helps them become less stressed and more patient parents. “I don’t know if yoga is the reason I got pregnant, but it helped us let go of our tension and frustration so much,” Maria says. “We are really grateful we found it.” Maria has also continued her practice after the birth of her child. “It helps my feelings of stress and of being overwhelmed by being a part-time mom and trying to work part-time at home. I can’t imagine my life without it now.”
I echo Maria’s sentiment: I don’t know if it was yoga, letting go, taking the pressure off, a combination of all the above or simply divine intervention, but with such compelling reasons as to how yoga could help with infertility (and with all the normal benefits that it brings), it seems like one of those situations where you have absolutely nothing to lose and an entire world to gain.