Infertility: How Yoga Can Help
Conceiving a baby seems like it should be the easiest thing in the world. After all, the reproductive system is part of our basic human make-up. Perhaps that is all the more reason why many women and couples feel frustration and even emotional trauma when a pregnancy doesn’t happen exactly as planned.
There are a number of issues that can contribute to infertility; advanced maternal age, hormonal imbalances and low sperm count to name a few. Sometimes the cause is unknown and the diagnosis is aptly referred to as “unexplained infertility.” The reality is that no matter the particular reason a woman or couple may be struggling to have a baby, one thing is certain: stress is unhealthy for the reproductive system.
A woman may be dealing with fertility issues connected to advanced maternal age, for example. But if the woman is feeling stress in response to the fertility issues at hand, the anxiety itself can exacerbate her inability to become pregnant and create even more of an infertility issue.
Many women undergo expensive and time-consuming treatments such as IVF or IUI in hopes of conceiving. Even though the success rate of these procedures is often good, the financial and emotional burden of the treatments can wear heavily on the hopeful mother-to-be, rendering lower success rates.
Simply, if we are more relaxed, our chances of conceiving are higher. To understand why that is, we must first look at how we are wired biologically.
Fight or FlightStress is a physiological response, an ancient survival mechanism humans have used for millions of years. The stress response system involves a complex cascade of hormones and bodily changes that prehistorically helped us to think and move quickly when confronted by an aggressive animal or other life-threatening situation. Over millions of years, society has changed drastically but our stress system has changed very little. In today’s world, most of our anxiety comes from things that are far from life threatening: work, relationships, traffic, even joyful events like marriage. Yet our bodies respond to these stressors as if we were staring into the jaws of death.
To further understand exactly how anxiety can be so detrimental to fertility, it is helpful to have a basic idea of exactly what happens to the body physiologically. When we begin to stress-out, a part of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system sends the body into what is called the fight or flight response. In this state, hormones rush into the bloodstream causing a number of bodily changes to take place. One change is the shunting of more blood to the brain and muscles so that we may either take on the stressful situation (fight), or run from it (flight). This extra blood that is delivered to the brain and muscles is pulled from several bodily systems that are less important to imminent survival, one being the reproductive system. Without blood and essential nutrients, our reproductive system cannot do its primary job: make a healthy baby.
In ancient times, emergency situations were usually resolved quickly. A fight with another animal, for instance, could be over within minutes. Today, however, people’s bodies are apt to stay in the mode of “emergency situation” for much longer periods of time. Anxiety surrounding work, relationships, finances or trying to become pregnant is considered “normal” and may last months or even years causing the body to adapt to life in the fight or flight mode. This long-term exposure to stress is detrimental to organ systems—sometimes reaching beyond impaired function and into serious complications. The goal in efficiently reducing stress levels is to be able to consciously move out of fight or flight into what is called the rest and digest response.
In this non-emergency state, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, bringing us into homeostasis, or natural balance, where systems such as reproduction and digestion function normally. It is from this place of well-being and safety that our bodies and minds not only relax, but are free to heal any physical or emotional illness caused by stressful living.
Chakra Earthsong, a Holistic Nutritional Consultant in Ojai, California, sees anxiety as a sign of the times. “In today's fast-paced culture, women are faced with increasingly high stress levels that often impact emotional and physical wellness and one of main things affected in women can be healthy reproduction.”
Rest & DigestSo, how can we efficiently move ourselves from stress into relaxation? One answer lies in the practice of Therapeutic Yoga. Therapeutic yoga teaches us how to efficiently move out of “fight or flight” syndrome and into “rest and digest.” Many of the postures not only soothe the body and mind but also physically stimulate the reproductive organs by very gently stretching and pressurizing the organs themselves.
Western doctors often suggest yoga as a way to help decrease anxiety while trying to conceive. Sarah Lowenthal, a Family Physician in Oakland, California, is a yoga practitioner herself and believes strongly in the powers of yoga. “Stress reduction and body awareness techniques allow a woman’s body to relax into its natural rhythms,” says Lowenthal. Both Earthsong and Lowenthal recommend yoga for patients who are trying to conceive as well as their patients’ partners!
Therapeutic yoga is incredibly user-friendly. Anyone can practice it, even if she/he has no yoga experience. The postures can be practiced at home, but the calmness that is gained through doing the postures may be called upon anytime there is a need to “de-stress” (including during fertility treatments such as IVF).
When practicing the following postures, make sure you have at least 15 minutes when you can achieve solitude. (No phones, TVs or other attention-grabbing noises.) If you like, play your favorite relaxing music, light candles, etc... In other words, create a space for yourself in which relaxation is encouraged. If you don’t have a yoga bolster on hand, you may use couch pillows or several neatly folded blankets or towels.
As you practice the postures see if you can focus on the sensation of your breath rather than getting caught up in habitual thought patterns. When you find yourself spiraling off into stress, gently bring yourself back to the present moment and the sensation of your breath. You may want to place your hands on your low belly to help keep your attention focused on your reproductive system. Be gentle with yourself.
Directions:Place the bolster horizontally in front of you. Sit behind the bolster and bring both legs over it so that the backs of the knees are resting on the bolster. Gently lie back. Bring your hands to your belly (shown) or rest with arms to the sides of the body.
Benefits:Very relaxing, opens the heart meridian, releases heaviness in the chest, a wonderful place to practice peaceful breathing and bring loving focus into the reproductive organs.
Option:Place a rolled blanket under the cervical spine for neck support.
Supported Reclined Angle Pose