Cultivating Fertility Through Yoga
Whether because they have delayed starting a family in favor of a career, have given themselves more time to seek the right partner, or had difficulties conceiving, these days many women are having babies later and later in life.
Waiting until later is not necessarily a bad thing. A report from Sweden concludes that having a child a bit later in life can actually contribute to greater health and education for that child. In addition, women who delay motherhood to explore education or career development may find that they’ve developed a stronger sense of their own identity before entering parenthood.
But with delay comes the looming possibility of infertility. In such a case, yoga may be able to help. Since studies have now found a connection between pregnancy rates and would-be mothers’ stress levels, stress-reducing yoga, used in concert with conventional medical treatments, may increase the chances of conception.
Stress-reducing yoga, used in concert with conventional medical treatments, may increase the chances of conception.
Our normal, everyday lives are filled with stressors—from frightening news cycles to being stuck in traffic—and increased levels of stress can decrease fertility, as 2010 and 2011 studies have shown. And some of the behaviors we may use to mitigate stress (for example, drinking or smoking) can also have negative impacts on conception. A lack of sexual activity (which would obviously create problems in conceiving a baby!) is another manifestation of stress. While we cannot always prevent stressful situations, we can learn how to cope with them in a healthier manner.
Yoga gives us a way to do that, as it has been shown to effectively reduce stress. In fact, a 2010 research review suggests that yoga is as effective or more effective than exercise at regulating the sympathetic nervous system. Also, since yoga seeks to foster a state of mind/body harmony, it can empower practitioners with techniques for coping with stress.
The core components of any yoga class are physical postures (asanas) designed to stretch and reduce tension in the body (that often results from mental stress); pranayama techniques to control the breathing (and thus the nerves and the mind—because our breathing is in many ways a physical expression of what is happening in our nervous system); and meditative practices that encourage students to be in the present moment (thereby quieting the internal dialogue that can contribute to dis-ease). Focusing inward during meditation and observing our habitual patterns also gives us the opportunity to recognize and change those patterns, thereby reducing the effects on our bodies of some daily stressors—including the effects on conception. In one study, participation in a mind/body program designed to reduce stress while undergoing IVF treatments had a measurable effect on conception success rates; women in the study who participated in the mind/body program conceived at a 32% higher rate than those who did not.
Yoga is a wonderful mind/body program. And restorative yoga is particularly effective at reducing stress, helping to relieve tension by supporting the body with props and pillows. This allows us to comfortably settle into the postures and relax, rather than actively engaging our muscles in order to hold a pose.
What is Involved in Fertility Yoga?
The goal in efforts to improve fertility is to create optimal health throughout the body, especially in the uterus and pelvic tissues, which then leads to a more conducive environment for conception. Yoga can help with that.
Fertility yoga generally consists of a slow flow, with emphasis on restorative postures that reduce stress and encourage deep relaxation. Fertility yoga classes are not hot power flow classes, which focus on building heat and getting you to sweat. For the same reasons pregnant women are told to avoid saunas and hot tubs, women who may become pregnant might want to think twice about practicing such intense styles for a time. While yoga practice conducted in a hot room (92°) has not been shown to increase the average body temperature more than yoga conducted in cooler conditions (70°), one hot yoga participant out of the 20 in a recent study did reach a core body temperature of 102.4°—not risky for the average individual, but still higher than the 102.2° limit recommended by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for women in the first trimester. ACOG does recommend that pregnant women conduct any prolonged exercise in an air-conditioned environment, making sure to stay hydrated during exercise (more difficult in hot yoga classes that induce more sweating).
What are the goals of fertility yoga?
1. Reducing stress by deepening and controlling the breath (pranayama).
The breath is a physical manifestation of the nervous system. When we’re anxious, our breathing speeds up and becomes shallow. We can, however, control our breathing to control our nerves. Rapid, fast breathing leads to sympathetic nervous system activation, whereas deep abdominal breathing promotes the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, or the Relaxation Response.
2. Stretching and opening the pelvis, lower back, hips, groins, chest, and shoulders.
Yoga recognizes the interconnectedness of mind and body—acknowledging that each of us is not merely a mind in a body, but instead a ”mindbody.” You can witness this in your own experience: Tension in the body feels physically uncomfortable and leads to increased mental stress. Conversely, releasing physical tension helps to promote mental stability. Women struggling with infertility may be especially prone to tension and stress, and undergoing medical treatments such as IVF can leave one feeling disconnected from the body (and in some cases, even angry with it), which leads to additional tension. Using asana to work through physical tension can help women cope with the mental and emotional stress of infertility.
3. Learning healthy emotional and cognitive skills to better navigate the ups and downs of everyday life and the journey to parenthood.
Yoga is more than simply a series of physical postures. Fertility yoga utilizes the practices of concentration and meditation (dharana and dhyana), visualization, yogic philosophy (such as the yamas and niyamas), and mindful self-awareness (pratyahara and svadhyaya) to help us slow down and find ways to live more fully and in greater comfort. Managing stress involves not just releasing physical and mental tension, but also being able to sit with intense emotions, process them, and understand their underlying causes. Such self-reflection helps would-be moms stay connected to who they truly are, rather than feeling that infertility has taken over their lives (a not uncommon feeling when undergoing fertility treatments).
4. Creating a sense of community, helping women to feel less isolated and more supported in their journey.
Infertility is, sadly, a journey that many women travel alone. Our culture does not speak of it very often, and when we do, it is often with shame or grief. A woman’s isolation can also grow as others around her are successful in conceiving while she continues to struggle. This can lead to increased feelings of depression and anxiety, which in turn increase the stress and cortisol levels.
Fertility-focused yoga classes offer emotional support for a woman experiencing challenges with fertility. Classes can provide a sense of community and support, decreasing the feelings of isolation and depression so common in those dealing with infertility. Fertility yoga provides a community of empathy in which everyone understands what a would-be mom is going through.
When we have waited to conceive, there can be a great deal of pressure when we finally begin trying. Feelings such as “The clock is ticking” and “I’m running out of time” are all too real. But it is important to realize the effect this additional pressure can have on our success conceiving. Women experiencing fertility challenges often hear “Just relax and you’ll get pregnant!” but this is too simplistic a directive. The effect of stress on our bodies is complex, and it may take concerted effort to reduce it. Focusing only on the medical options or proper timing often ignores the impact of stress and the practices we ourselves can undertake to reduce it.
Women experiencing fertility challenges often hear “Just relax and you’ll get pregnant!”, but this is too simplistic a directive.
We have the power to change difficult circumstances—and we must begin where we are. That means slowing down. It means allowing ourselves to feel even uncomfortable feelings and learning not to run from them.
Yoga and meditation are not just relaxation techniques, and the mindfulness practices have benefits far beyond that of taking a nap. The ability to stop and reflect allows us to see the ways in which we may be exacerbating our own stress. This will almost inevitably help us to be more grounded and more centered—as people and as parents.