With one in six couples affected by infertility, there is great interest in how yoga can help fertilty. While yoga alone may not guarantee parenthood, it can smooth the sometimes rough road to conception and increase the success of medical interventions.
According to Dr Alice Domar, a world-renowned pioneer of mind-body research and executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health, yoga is effective as part of a holistic strategy. “We don’t know the effectiveness of different approaches such as meditation or yoga alone. What we do know is that when you have a comprehensive mind-body program that includes yoga, relaxation techniques, lifestyle changes and cognitive approaches, pregnancy rates rise significantly,” she says.
Melinda Rushe, a mother of two-year-old twin boys, credits much of her conception success to her yoga practice. A yoga teacher at Qi Natural Therapies & Yoga in Sydney, Rushe realised her dream of having children after a long and somewhat enlightening journey that included five rounds of ovulation induction and eight cycles of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) over the course of four years.
“One of the brilliant things about yoga is that it provides therapeutic tools to bring you back into balance,” says Rushe. “You can use all of that ancient wisdom in a modern day context, and it really helps.”
Yoga is much more than muscle deep, and in the case of fertility, works to open the etheric body to rectify both energetic and physical imbalances that may impede impregnation. “A woman will be more fertile and conceive with greater ease if the body is in balance,” says Lisa Masters, a fertility yoga specialist at Sydney’s The Yoga House. “Our women’s health classes are aimed at improving energy levels, blood quality, tone and flexibility to the abdomen to regulate hormonal control and hence menstrual cycles,” she says.
The classes focus on correcting distortion and twisting in the hips, legs and spine. “We find that these imbalances decrease blood quality and flow to the uterus, which is the cause for most of the common structural, functional, emotional and psychological problems I see in women having trouble conceiving,” explains Masters.
“Yoga provides therapeutic tools to bring you back into balance.”
Chiropractor Paul Doney, an anatomy lecturer for Yoga Synergy in Sydney, has worked with the female reproductive system for over a decade. He has observed similar problems impacting fertility, including a strong forward-tilt of the pelvis and rigidity of the pelvis and lumbar spine.
“Difficulty conceiving is also often associated with adhesions in the pelvic region, commonly due to endometriosis or corrective surgery to remove cysts from the uterus and ovaries,” says Doney, who generally treats these conditions with myofascial release, a gentle blend of stretching and massage.
Yoga Can Help Fertility
While trying to conceive, it is advised to practise yoga that emphasises a gentle sense of compassion and softness toward oneself, with a focus on restorative, opening postures to release physical and psychological tension. Recommended yoga poses include Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Upavistha Konasana (Wide Angle Seated Pose) and Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), also known as Cobbler’s Pose.
“Traditional and supine [reclining] Cobbler’s Pose opens the hips and softens the connective tissue in the pelvis, which positively impacts the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries, and helps balance inconsistencies such as amenorrhoea,” explains yoga teacher Brenda Strong. A well-known LA-based actress, Strong struggled with secondary infertility herself and was inspired to create a range of yoga DVDs and products under the name Strong Yoga 4Women. She advocates partner yoga to help the process of conception, see Open your heart, below.
Simon Borg-Olivier, co-director of Yoga Synergy, suggests a practice with equal emphasis on the awareness of how comfortably one holds the postures as well as the structural alignment and technique of executing it. For example, when holding a pose, check that you can breathe naturally with your diaphragm moving into your abdomen.
According to Borg-Olivier, thereproductive system can be seriously disrupted by the common misconception of drawing the navel strongly toward the spine throughout a yoga practice.
“Some people have been holding their abdomen inappropriately tense the whole time; always pulled in and held tight, which increases the intra-abdominal pressure and will repel blood and movement from the internal organs. Pulling the navel to the spine also inhibits the correct functioning of the diaphragm, which is an important nervous system regulator of the reproductive system,” he explains.
“A lot of endocrine glands, including the reproductive organs, require an increase and decrease in physical pressure to secrete their hormones. Because some of these glands are locked into the pelvic area, it is the intra-abdominal pressure and correct breathing that will make a big difference,” he says. “It’s OK to increase pressure around that region, but you must decrease it as well. Engage, let it go. Engage, let it go.”
The breath can also be used as a visualisation tool. Borg-Olivier says it is helpful to consciously breathe into the affected areas of reproduction, such as the genitals, to relax and expand those areas and nourish them with air and blood.
In The Flow
Chinese medicine recognises that the body’s meridians (energetic channels) regulate corresponding bodily functions, and when the flow of qi (life force) is inhibited, reproductive organs may malfunction as a result. Chinese medicine addresses meridian blockages with a number of methods, including acupuncture. This ancient practice became a saving grace for Melinda Rushe when she enlisted acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist, Ngaio Richards, who helped her successfully conceive in conjunction with treatments at Sydney IVF.
“Acupuncture identifies three main meridians which regulate and control the urogenital region, or ‘Lower Jiao’; the spleen, liver and kidneys,” says Richards. “These meridians connect at the toes, travel up the inner calves and thighs to penetrate the Lower Jiao, before connecting with corresponding organs and areas of the body.
“True contentment comes from accepting what is.”“Chinese medicine teaches us the kidneys are the source of all Yin and Yang energies; relating to things like life cycles, sperm, eggs, libido and fear, to name a few. The spleen is the anti-gravity force within us that when strengthened supports organs such as the uterus and bladder. It also produces blood, which we need plenty of to make and hold babies. The liver controls free-flow of energies, and if it becomes stuck we may be emotionally labile,” explains Richards.
Understanding the functions of these areas helps one appreciate the importance of their optimum and uninhibited condition. For example, if a man’s qi flow becomes obstructed, he may suffer low sperm motility. If a woman’s qi isn’t flowing with ease, she may become emotionally volatile and her menstruation cycle may become erratic.
Just as free-flow of energy represents a healthy body, so too does the regularity of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Yoga and Chinese medicine strongly correlate in their understanding of the need for menstruation to flow unimpeded with gravity, hence the recommendation to avoid using tampons or practise inversions and deep rotations while menstruating.
We’ve all heard it: where the mind goes, the energy flows. Understanding the necessity to productively utilise your energy, it is little wonder that people often say “just relax and it will happen”. This may be easier said than done when faced with disappointment, doubt and despair, but is certainly worth a shot, as consistently elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol presents one of the biggest barricades to conception.
Reproductive and stress hormones share a close relationship with the endocrine system, which means that constantly elevated cortisol can send the body from fight-and-flight to a complete freeze. Dr Sarah Berga of Emory University in Atlanta, US, recently conducted a study that worked on repairing the reproductive health of women suffering from anovulatory amenorrhoea, a condition in which ovulation and menstruation are absent. All women initially displayed high levels of cortisol, however following a mind-body regimen, 87.5 per cent recorded lowered levels and in turn regained healthy cycles that enhanced their capability to conceive.
“Reducing a stressful lifestyle is one of the first things my students find gives them a sense of empowerment and overall wellbeing, and quite often the uncertain journey ahead can be met with a sense of relative ease,” says Brenda Strong, who includes an “outside/in” meditation in her programs to cultivate acceptance of life’s changing nature.
“There is a part of us that can observe the changes that are outside of our control, and by observing these changes from the stillness that resides deep within us all, we can begin to feel not so powerless. So many of us have that inner dialogue of ‘when I have this, then I will be happy’. Yoga contends that happiness is fleeting and that true contentment, santosha, comes from accepting what is.”
This notion transforms the fertility journey, allowing you to open-mindedly work toward your goal without attachment or envy, and create a more positive mantra which removes you from that overwhelming sense of victimisation that cries “why me?” or perhaps, “why not me?”
“There is a lot of negative self-talk around IVF and infertility, but yoga allows you to create positive visualisations and affirmations,” says Rushe, who now predominantly teaches stress-relief classes. “My advice to people battling infertility is to be kind to yourself—ahimsa. Be open to different Eastern practices, as you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Taking time out to relax and rejuvenate is also imperative, so lay your legs up the wall in Viparita Karani and allow the pose to softly lighten the load, so you can embrace the moment with new-found faith and optimism.
Open Your Heart
Conception is a shared journey, so it’s important to nourish your partnership as much as your mind and body. Yoga teacher Brenda Strong encourages couples to reconnect in physical and emotional ways that don’t involve sex. She recommends partner yoga, which can be refreshing and light-hearted, such as this Sukhasana (Easy Pose) practice to open the heart and hips.
Conception is a shared journey, so it’s important to nourish your partnership as much as your mind and body.
Sit in Sukhasana, with the legs crossed, and your back pressed against your partner’s. Have your hands resting comfortably on your knees. Close your eyes and notice the warmth of contact with your partner’s back. Feel your thighs, hips and tailbone release. Begin to synchronise your breath with your partner’s; inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of six. Become one with your breath and observe it; pausing gently between the inhale and exhale.
The inhale represents the feminine aspect: receptive, drawing in prana, or life force, filling the void. The exhale represents the masculine aspect: active, a creative force manifesting out into the world.
Extend your elbows back and interlock them with your partner’s, your elbows on the outside. Breathe in deeply, and as you exhale, tilt forward with your partner’s back giving weight. Extend forward as far as comfortable and, relaxing the head and neck, hold the pose. Synchronise your breaths and have the intention of melting any tension around the heart and hips. Release and repeat for your partner, with your elbows on the inside.
Tap Into Your Qi
Meridian tapping, a practice of Qigong, which is part of the school of Chinese medicine, is said to have a profound impact on fertility by improving the flow of qi (life force). Rebecca Quin, a ChiBall master trainer in Victoria, suggests the following daily exercise.
Using cupped hands or soft fists, tap from the centre of the chest and along the front of the arm to the palm and fingers, and then tap along the back of the arm from the fingers to the face. Repeat this 2 times, and then repeat on the second side.
Using fingertips, tap your face, then using cupped hands or soft fists, tap down the front of the body, down both legs to the feet. Tap from the feet, up the inside of the legs and front of the body to the face. Repeat this 2 times.
In the same way, tap from your face, down one side of the body to the foot, then tap up the inside of the leg to the chest. Repeat this 2 times, and then repeat on the second side.
Tap from the back of the head down the back of the body to the heels and little toe, then tap from the sole of the foot up the inside of the legs and up the chest to the collarbones.
Repeat this 2 times.
Using fingertips, tap on your face, and then massage your ears. Vigorously comb your fingers through your hair to stimulate the many meridian points in this area.
Chinese herbal remedies are a non-invasive way to address imbalances pertaining to fertility. According to acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist Ngaio Richards, a prescription requires very clear diagnosis in terms of Chinese medical theory. However, some general formulas available over the counter can be safely used to balance your menstruation cycle. These include:
Dang Gui. Use with caution, as it can increase blood loss, and so should not be taken during menstruation by women suffering heavy periods.
Ba Zhen Tang. Take immediately after menstruation and cease before ovulation.
Xiao Yao Wan. Take after ovulation and before your next period.
Diana Timmins is a freelance writer and hatha vinyasa teacher based on the South Coast of NSW.