Tag Brenda Strong

Tag Brenda Strong

Living a Life of Grace: An Interview with Brenda Strong

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Living a life of grace often feels unattainable to women and men who are grappling with infertility.

As the reality sets in that this assumed milestone may not happen easily, hope and excitement are often replaced with stress, anxiety, shame and self-doubt. Having grappled with fertility challenges herself, The American Fertility Association’s National Spokesperson and Co-Chair of the Honorary Board, Brenda Strong, felt called to do what she could to support individuals going through this experience as well as to educate those committed to serving them. A long-time yogi as well as an actress, Strong founded Strong Yoga® 4Fertility, in an effort to bring yoga’s healing message to those who are trying to conceive. Here, Strong educates us on what yoga can do for those dealing with fertility issues and also shares some interesting information about an upcoming retreat geared towards both patients and professionals.

AFA: You have been pivotal to the work of The AFA for many years and share the frustration we all feel about that unyielding statistic of one in eight couples experiencing infertility, despite all of our collective efforts. Can we ever do enough to help people overcome infertility? What do you suggest men and women do when they first realize that the road may be harder than expected?

Brenda: We certainly can try to educate so that the choices they make are informed by the experiences of others who have gone before them. Hopefully that will save them some time and trouble. The AFA is a wonderful resource for that.

We also want to make sure that the trials that they face don’t break their spirit, but strengthen their ability to face the journey ahead. The hard part is that there is not one answer that fits all scenarios because everyone’s fertility story is uniquely their own. What I often suggest to couples whom are starting down this road is to take a deep breath and know that if they truly want to become parents, that there is a baby in their future – they may just not know the how or when it is coming. The key is 100% commitment to the journey and 100% detachment to the results. That’s hard. That’s why Yoga is such a valuable tool for couples experiencing fertility challenges. It often gives them a way to control their emotional response to circumstances that feel out of their control. They learn to control their stress, breathe into the discomfort, and open their bodies to take back their power in situations that often leave them feeling powerless. This helps them relax into the uncertainty, connect to the present moment and embrace the journey one step at a time. The hardest part is the not knowing. I think people who face these challenges are some of the most courageous I’ve ever met.

AFA: What was the personal journey that brought you to yoga?

Brenda: Wow. That is such a long story. But the truth is, as a young actress in my 20’s, I was looking for the most efficient way to keep my instrument in shape. I have always loved to work out but it left me feeling less than satisfied. There was a disconnect between my body and my mind in a traditional gym setting, and when I went to my first yoga class, I was amazed at how good I felt afterward. Every part of me got a work out, not just my cardiovascular and musculature systems, but my nervous system overall. The focus of attention it required, the awareness and connection of my body with my breath transformed it from a “work out” to a “work in”. Everything from the inside out was getting attention: my organs, my digestive tract, my lungs, my heart, my circulatory system, and yes, my reproductive system. Not that I knew that at the time, but I knew I felt whole. Yoga is an ancient healing system for addressing imbalances in the body, including our hormones.

Little did I know the journey it would take me on, in my 30’s, when I became pregnant, I started to teach yoga and when I went through my fertility challenges, I used it as a prescription to heal myself and taught others what I had found in my research. I have been teaching my Strong Yoga 4Fertility method for almost 14 years now and am so grateful to be able to share it with others who can benefit by this work. Thousands of women and couples worldwide have been helped through this program.

AFA: How can it help people on the conception journey?

Brenda: Aside from what I’ve already mentioned about helping them to face the uncertain future, it helps them to reduce their stress and get back in touch with their bodies in a positive way. Fertility challenges can cause stress equivalent to a cancer diagnosis or someone dealing with HIV. We know chronic stress is a main culprit in creating dis-ease in our bodies, which can include the reproductive organs’ optimal functioning. Strong YogaÒ 4Fertiity helps to increase blood flow and circulation into the area of the reproductive organs, increases nutrients, rids the body of toxins and elicits the relaxation response; all of which help the organs function better. Additionally, our yoga for fertility practice uses the Strong Yoga® Fertility Ball Method, which is unique to any other fertility yoga practice. The fertility ball method targets acupressure points for fertility and is a way for women to empower themselves to: stimulate circulation/blood flow; massage internal organs; help regulate gynecological function; detoxify and cleanse; decrease stress; and soften connective tissue/fascia in the pelvic region and belly. Plus, it helps to elicit the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the relaxation response, so it feels great!

We also teach Partner Yoga in a supportive and exploratory way, with the goal of increasing non-sexual intimacy, playfulness and reconnecting as a team. When conception becomes more “medical” with multiple doctor exams, procedures and timed intercourse it can cause significant stress to a relationship and make the subject of sex and sexuality very frustrating.

AFA: What is your personal toolbox for serenity and how do you work with others to create their own?

Brenda:

Serenity is a by-product of self-compassion and acceptance. We may not be happy about our circumstances, but by learning to accept that this is ‘where we are at this moment in time’ allows us to have some serenity and receive what’s coming next. In Yoga we are taught through practice that resistance and attachments cause suffering. That’s not to say there won’t be discomfort in the process, but instead of avoiding it or pushing against it, we lean in to it as our teacher. We use tools like meditation, journaling, positive affirmations, and breathing techniques in addition to yoga poses to release the feelings that can often feel overwhelming. Once you realize that you are not your feelings, you have a safe space to allow all your feelings to be there. The body becomes the gateway and opens up once we turn our awareness inward.

AFA: Let’s talk a little bit about the disconnect that people often experience from their bodies as well as from their partners during infertility. Can yoga help with that?

Brenda: When your body “fails you”, many disconnect out of anger, shame and fear. Yoga helps women reconnect to their own bodies and teaches them to listen to their intuition, which they may have lost a connection to along the way. On a physical level, The Fertility Ball is an empowering tool for women because they can actively connect to their own reproductive organs. We store a lot of feelings in our fascia and other connective tissue and when we are able to release some of these areas that are blocked, it can release vaults of feeling, allowing us to feel more intimate with ourselves, and others. It’s so gratifying to watch couples come in to a workshop one way and leave transformed. Because of the financial, emotional and physical strain on a couple, many couples lose their connection and intimacy becomes compromised. Sex no longer is a way to release tension-it creates tension. There are schedules to follow, medicines to take and often times, invasive procedures that replace sex with no guarantee that the outcome of a cycle will produce the desired result.

So we bring their bodies together through breath and movement, which returns them to a sense of intimacy and pleasure, without it having to be about sex. This facilitates a deeper sense of support and connection so that they can face together whatever is coming next. Humor is reintroduced to the relationship. So often men feel powerless to help and in a strange way, with partner yoga, they can DO something to make their wives feel their support in a non-verbal way. This calms everyone down and opens their hearts to each other again. We often find couples can stay in a fertility journey longer and work with their doctors until they are successful, because they’ve learned coping mechanisms that allow them to stay more relaxed and not give up. That is gratifying.

AFA: You have an important event coming up this summer in Monterey which will focus on body, breath, and emotions and their impact on stress and conception. Can someone just lie on a beautiful beach and get the same result?

Brenda: Not really. A vacation can provide relaxation, but without tools to manage the ongoing stress of the fertility journey, it will only be a temporary fix. We are not just teaching relaxation, we are giving them invaluable tools to help them heal themselves. In addition, they will have techniques and products to take home that will keep them on a positive path physically and emotionally. Our website also provides these couples a safe community for ongoing communication so that they don’t feel isolated on their journey.

AFA: Tell us about the Four Fields of Fertility.

Brenda: Our Four Fields of Fertility workshop teaches couples how our thoughts, emotions, body and breath are all connected. They begin to feel empowered and not victimized by their circumstances. Understanding this has a huge impact on how well they are able to cope with their situation. We teach mind/body techniques that enable them to access their parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxation response.) Additionally, we teach fertility nutrition, environmental impacts, partner yoga, and acupressure using the Fertility Ball Method. We also teach our Breathe to Conceive breathing exercises that they can do during the two week wait or even during procedures to optimize their ability to conceive.

AFA: The event will also offer professionals the opportunity to become Strong Yoga 4Fertility Certified. Why is this important to you and what should they expect to learn?

Brenda: We give experienced Yoga teachers and medical professionals with yoga training the opportunity to learn our methods so that the quality and consistency of instruction is the same, whether you take a Four Fields of Fertility workshop in Maine or California, Boston or San Francisco. Our teacher trainings are taught by our 4 instructors, all of whom are part of my Strong Yoga 4Women team. They each are SY4F certified and are also specialists in the fields of Yoga Therapy, Psychology, and Reproductive Medicine, plus myself who is a 500 hr E-RYT.

Level One of Strong Yoga 4Fertility certification process focuses on mind/body techniques including the Strong Yoga Fertility Ball Method and Partner Yoga. Level Two of SY4F covers reproductive medical education (basic conception, typical procedures and the physical protocols) and how to help support the patients by knowing what poses are unadvisable based on their course of treatment. Ideally, we would love to have SY4F teachers in every city to help support reproductive clinics and patients alike.

AFA: Brenda, can yoga change the world? Can it help people cope with pregnancy and parenting after infertility? If so, how?

Brenda: That is ambitious thought! It can certainly make the world a better place to be for each person who learns the practice of Yoga, because of your increased awareness and health.

Fear is pervasive in fertility issues and that can carry over into pregnancy if you don’t have tools to cope with your fear. My DVD Strong Yoga 4Pregnancy was created for couples who have gone through fertility challenges so that they can learn to let go of that fear once they are pregnant or at least manage it. Pregnancy can be more comfortable and less stressful with Yoga, and I found that Yoga enabled me to have an easier labor because of my body awareness and breath control.

Certainly, those who practice Yoga, who have undergone fertility challenges, are able to have stronger coping mechanisms when they become parents. Because they learned these techniques to address the stress of infertility, they can be more aware and capable of handling the stress of parenthood.

The key is to understand that we can use these techniques everywhere, and to carry them forward into our lives. We learn not to be afraid of life and how to embrace all of it- not just what we think is “going to make us happy”. We learn that being vulnerable is actually life affirming and that creativity comes from this wellspring of vulnerability. Learning to be content with “what is” is a spiritual practice that can make all of life deeply satisfying. If we learn these things, we will be better parents, teachers and students of life.

AFA: You personally are clearly committed to moving the world forward in a positive way. Who would you be without yoga?

Brenda: Who knows?! (Laughter) I can only say that it has helped me during some of the hardest and most painful experiences in my life to have more compassion for myself, to forgive myself, and not to be too harsh of a judge. As a famous yogi once said, “Life is painful, suffering is optional.” Life is too short to not move forward in a positive way.

To view this original article by The American Fertility Association, click here.

Celebrity Baby Scoop

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Brenda Strong, known for role as the deceased Mary Alice Young on Desperate Housewives, is also an accomplished yoga practitioner and teacher for over 23 years. Brenda, who struggled with infertility, created Strong Yoga4Fertility to support women on their life journey through reproductive difficulties, relationships, pregnancy and yes, even menopause. The mother-of-one sat down with Celebrity Baby Scoop for a glimpse into her mysterious role on Desperate Housewives and a frank discussion on infertility and overall wellness.

CBS: Do you enjoy working on Desperate Housewives?

BS: “I LOVE it!!! I feel like I am the luckiest person on the planet. I love working on a show that is consistently written so well, and continues to get critical and audience acclaim. I am so grateful to be able to do what I love for a living, and still have the assemblance of a ‘normal’ life.

My schedule allows me to continue to be there for my family and do charity work for the organizations that I am involved with like Events of the Heart for women’s heart disease, and The American Fertility Association of which I’m a board member and National Spokesperson.”

CBS: How often do you work on the show?

BS: “I work on average at least 2-3 days a week when I’m not on camera. I usually have one day of ADR for the final recording for the voice over on Fridays and then a day of prep at home. I also lay down the template for the upcoming episode and do a table read for the new episode on a separate day.”

CBS: Do you ever get to work with the other gals on Wisteria Lane?

BS: “I see them once a week for the table reads of the script and at charity events, award shows and when I work on camera. We have a great working relationship.

CBS: Will you ever appear, visually, on the show again?

BS: “I always hope that Mary Alice will be seen more. That is always in the hands of Marc Cherry and our writers. Bringing Mary Alice back is meaningful because she was so much a part of Season One and the launch of the show and still is involved on an emotional level through the narration. It’s always powerful for the audience when she returns to Wisteria Lane because it helps reground the cast in the history of their friendships and connections to each other through her loss.

She is only in flashbacks though which makes it challenging to write when you have an ongoing story line that moves you forward. The 100th episode was a perfect example of a stand alone episode that allowed us to return to Wisteria Lane and have the past inform the future. I would love it if we could do more of those types of episodes, they stand on their own so beautifully.”

CBS: You are a yoga expert and have created 3 DVDs called Strong Yoga4Women to help empower women through their struggles with fertility. Is your method a holistic look at the mind, body and spirit? If so, how does this apply to fertility issues?

BS: “My philosophy is that yoga is good for every age and stage of a woman’s life because it promotes awareness and health in a holistic way. Particularly when it comes to being in touch with your body, being aware that your thoughts affect how you feel emotionally and physically is a holistic view that we are a multifaceted organism constantly ‘at cause’ in our own health.

Strong Yoga4Fertility was something I created based on my own research and work with the graduates of The Mind Body Institute program that I’ve taught at UCLA since 1998. I had undergone secondary infertility and understood all too well on an emotional and physical level the toll that was being taken from these women and couples.

In my research, I found that certain yoga poses were helpful in calming the mind and nervous system and assisting the balance of hormones and bringing increased circulation to the pelvis, and addressing the intense stress couples go through when trying to conceive.

Teaching the body to relax through using yoga and the breath, allows women to receive whatever the fertility journey brings them, often with surprising results. If the goal is solely baby focused, every month that you aren’t pregnant, is going to feel like failure. Teaching women to focus on getting healthy and more balanced is key to releasing some of the stress around getting pregnant. When the goal becomes your own health, vitality and empowerment, you understand that it’s an ongoing journey that will prepare you to be a better parent whenever that time comes. My students started getting pregnant more easily after that.

My three-DVD package is an approach on how to balance Mind, Body and Spirit while undergoing something as emotionally, physically and financially as taxing as infertility treatments. The intent is to empower them on their journey so that they can cope consciously with what is happening moment to moment.

1. Strong Yoga4Fertility teaches women how to access their parasympathetic nervous systems (the relaxation response) while detoxifying their bodies, removing adhesions and tension internally and increasing blood circulation and well-being.

2. Strong Yoga4Partners teaches couples how to maintain intimacy and connection to one another by using yoga as a metaphor for the dynamics of a relationship.

3. Strong Yoga4Pregnancy is the celebration of a woman’s changing body, helping her to modify her yoga for each trimester.

Knowing how precious pregnancy is post fertility struggles, I’ve allowed for special attention to calming fears, labor preparation and included testimonials from women who got pregnant using Strong Yoga4Fertility.

CBS: Why do you think so many couples struggle with fertility?

BS: “There are many factors. It’s difficult to generalize, but statistics seem to attribute 30-40% to male issues and 30 to 40% to female issues, and 15 to 20% is simply unexplained.”

CBS: Have the infertility rates increased in recent years?

BS: “Infertility rates are rising and studies show that in 2010 it will be the highest it has been in recent years. Each case is unique to the individual, but infertility rates may in some part be affected by a number of influences: Advanced age, overall weight, unhealthy eating and exercise habits, overall stress, STDs, thyroid issues, and environmental toxins that interrupt and disrupt hormonal balance among others.”

CBS: Do your DVDs help men as well as women in their struggles with fertility?

BS: “Yes. A surprising number of men have responded to the DVD, in spite of the fact that it is primarily focused for women. The Yoga4Partners as well as the Yoga4Pregnancy DVD’s include both men and women in the process.”

CBS: What is the greatest misconception surrounding fertility and infertility?

BS: “I caution anyone thinking that they may want a family someday to get checked early by a reproductive endocrinologist to make sure that everything is in order and create a plan. Even if you aren’t ready now, having all the information will allow you to make more informed choices for the future. Having a baby at an advanced age is not as easy as it always looks!”

CBS: You suffered a miscarriage and struggled with fertility yourself. What helped you to conceive and your now-15-year-old son, Zak?

BS: “I practiced yoga and meditation prior to conceiving Zak and did acupuncture and herbs during my pregnancy.”

CBS: Did you practice yoga during your pregnancy?

BS: “I actually went through my Yoga Teacher Training while I was pregnant, which was an amazing gift to us both.”

CBS: Did this help strengthen your mind, body and spirit during your pregnancy?

BS: “Absolutely. Studies have shown that what the mom does directly impacts the child physiologically, so I feel that both of us benefited in mind body and spirit from my yoga practice during the pregnancy.”

CBS: You are the spokesperson for the American Fertility Association. Tell us about your role at AFA.

BS: “My role with The AFA is two-fold. I am their spokesperson, so I help to represent them in the press and bring awareness to their many wonderful services and programs. I also serve on their Board, helping shape policies and contribute in any way I can.”

CBS: What is the mission and the message of the organization?

BS: “The AFA’s purpose is to educate the public about reproductive disease, and support families during struggles with infertility and adoption.”

CBS: What are some ways that we can support our sisters and friends going through infertility? What should we say? What shouldn’t we say?

BS: “It is such a sensitive time, and the emotions are running so high, the best thing to do is to listen and be compassionate. It is a very private and often isolating experience and can be laced with shame and feelings of depression and failure.

The worst thing you can say to them is ‘just relax’- trust me, they are doing the best they can. If they can be around other women who are going through reproductive difficulties, either in a yoga for fertility class or a support group focused on fertility, this can be extremely supportive. (Please take a look at the websites for The AFA, The Mind Body Institute or Resolve).

CBS: Do you feel many couples rush into IVF before trying natural methods to increase their chances of fertility?

BS: “I doubt that anyone rushes into IVF (Unless they have waited too long or there are physical reasons that make it the only option). Most reproductive endocrinologists will support a very gradual approach that is less invasive first, like a supported natural cycle or IUI before ever recommending IVF.

However, I do think that many people are unaware that the more natural methods of acupuncture and yoga can help to increase their chances of conceiving either on their own or in support of their doctors protocol.”

CBS: What is your feeling on hormonally-controlled fertility options versus more natural methods?

BS: “I feel it’s a very personal decision. They are both trying to achieve the same result, but it depends on how much time you have on your fertility clock. If there is less time, then the more controlled version will achieve faster results, but can also be hard on the body. If you have more time, opting for more natural methods will allow the bodies natural healing ability to kick in and balance the hormones through acupuncture, herbs and yoga.

They are both viable approaches, however, I always recommend that you consult with a fertility specialist to get a good picture of where you are and what choices are available to you. I have seen success with both approaches and yoga actually supports both beautifully.”

CBS: If you are working on any other projects or with any charities, please feel free to discuss.

BS: “My personal mission is to help women to wellness. Women are the heart of every family, the choices they make impact the entire family unit, the community and the world.

To that purpose, I also serve on the Board of Events of the Heart, an organization committed to raising awareness about women’s heart disease through the art of story. Our goal is to reach a million women this year and inspire them to get themselves and their sisters, mothers and friends checked.

We recently performed these stories at the Women’s Conference in Long Beach and it was a huge success. At the heart of every woman there is a story…what’s yours? Tell us your story here.”