Living a Life of Grace: An Interview with Brenda Strong
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?
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.