Alternative Medicine- December 2002
Yoga’s Feminine Side – Could this ancient practice help you conceive? REMEMBER WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER and the objective was to not get pregnant? Well, times have changed. Starting a family is not as easy as it once was, at least for those of us in our thirties and forties. Experts say a woman’s ability to conceive declines measurably at age 35 and plummets nearly twice as fast by the time she hits 40. Many of us have waited to pursue our careers, find the perfect mate, achieve financial stability—and one day it’s too late.
In an effort to turn back the clock, many couples have been heading to doctors’ offices. With the explosion of highly technical therapies such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), gamete intra-fallopian transfer (GIFT), and other modifications of test-tube treatments, couples last year alone spent over a billion dollars in the pursuit of a baby. Yet results can be disappointing. The average success rate for IVF is about 19 percent; with GIFT, it’s 28 percent. Luckily, there may be a simple way to improve the odds. A growing body of evidence is beginning to support the idea that stress plays a critical role in preventing conception. (And these days, who isn’t wound a bit too tight?) A study published in Fertility and Sterility found that among women trying in vitro fertilization, those with high levels of stress produced fewer eggs—and therefore had fewer embryos that could be transferred into their wombs—than their more relaxed counterparts.
Alice Domar, director of the Mind/Body Center for Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School, has demonstrated even more direct evidence of the payoff of stress relief. Fifteen years ago, she divided 110 women who had tried to get pregnant for one to two years into three groups. The first was an infertility support group; the second concentrated on relaxation therapies including yoga and meditation; the third was given fertility medication alone. After a year, only 20 percent of the women on medication alone became pregnant compared to about half the women in both types of support groups.
No one quite understands the physiology involved, but Domar’s research suggests that stress can delay menstrual cycles and create abnormal levels of the pituitary hormone prolactin, which is responsible for ovulation. And the process feeds on itself. The more stressed you are, the harder it may be to conceive, which in turn makes you more stressed. Domar found that infertile women are significantly more depressed than their fertile counterparts, with depression and anxiety levels equivalent to women with heart disease, cancer, or HIV-positive status.
Of course, there are many ways to break the cycle, from meditation to therapy to curling up in a comfy chair with a good book. But if you’re looking for something that combines emotional release with a satisfying physical workout, yoga is a natural choice.
Several years ago I struggled with my own infertility issues, and as a yoga instructor, this ancient practice was a logical place for me to turn. With its deep breathing techniques and asanas, or poses, yoga conditions the body from the inside out, calming the nervous system, slowing the heart rate, stretching and toning the muscles. Yogic breathing also helps strengthen the diaphragm to increase lung capacity and improve circulation, thereby distributing oxygen and nutrients throughout the system.
And this is just the Western view of yoga’s benefits. From an Eastern perspective, yoga relaxes by a different, more “holistic” route. Traditional Chinese medicine, for instance, holds that blockages or imbalances between the masculine (yang) and feminine (yin) energies in the body can be the root causes of ill health—or in this case, stress-induced discomforts and dysfunctions.
Yoga is based on this same concept of enhancing the flow of energy through energy channels, which are part of what yogis call the “chakra” system. The word chakra literally translates as wheel or disk. It refers to the sphere ofbioenergetic activity that emanates from the major nerve ganglia branching forward from the spinal column. A chakra is a center of activity that receives, assimilates, and expresses energy.
Seven of these wheels are stacked in a column that spans from the base of the spine to the top of the head and roughly corresponds to major glandular and nervous system groupings. That’s why neuroendocrine health—the chemical signals from the brain that maintain the body’s delicate hormonal balance—can be influenced by the practice of yoga. The second chakra is of utmost importance for sexual health. Located around the lower abdomen and groin, this energy center rules the reproductive organs, and relates to movement, sensation, pleasure, sexuality and, theoretically, fertility. Anodea Judith, author of Eastern Body, Western Mind, has a healing practice utilizing the chakra system for therapeutic purposes. She believes that if there is an energy blockage, excess, or deficiency in the second chakra, the imbalance can affect physical function, and she suggests poses to “rebalance” the area.
Four years ago, I incorporated this idea into my own research on stress and fertility and began teaching what I call a more “feminine” type of yoga at the West Coast branch of the Mind/Body Institute in Los Angeles. It combines deep relaxation poses and poses designed to enhance reproductive health. The conception success rate in the graduate group has been almost 50 percent. For the women who were also undergoing medical treatments, I found that my yoga program made it easier for them to tolerate the stress and discomfort that’s often involved in the process.
I’ve included a mini-version of that program, the sidebar “Six steps to well-being,” which you can do in your own home as often as you like (it takes about 20 minutes).There’s no guarantee it will help you conceive, but it will certainly let you take a critical first step: relaxing your body and mind so you can improve your chances. One thing’s for sure: If you do get pregnant, yoga will help you relax through the nine months of pregnancy— and a lifetime of being a mom.