Thursday, September 23, 2010

Part 1: Struggling with Infertility: Can Yoga Help?

This week is a guest post from a physical therapy colleague, fellow women's health advocate, and PYT practitioner, Lisa B. Minn.  She has been a physical therapist for over a decade and during that time she has "come to be impressed by the effectiveness of a holistic approach to health care."  

Welcome Lisa B. Minn, and her post on fertility and yoga:

I met Ginger last year when she was in San Francisco teaching a course I attended on medical therapeutic yoga for the spine. I am so glad she has given me the opportunity to write about yoga for fertility - because I know, firsthand, how helpful yoga can be in the journey to motherhood.

I have learned that yoga is a valuable tool for navigating the rocky waters of infertility - from a completely unexpected diagnosis of hypothyroidism to demoralizing labels including “advanced maternal age.”  I am still waiting for that one “good egg,” and in the meantime, I am making the most of my journey.

Making babies is big business. Just try entering ‘how to become pregnant’ or ‘infertility’ into a Google search and see what comes up. Everyone has a system, a trademarked technique, a patented program that will help you become pregnant in four easy steps. You’ll see ads for supplements, books, and fertility centers. One source says that acupuncture is the answer. Another claims that ice cream is the surprising secret.

The truth is much more murky. Fertility is a complex expression of hormones, environment, and timing.

One suggestion you may discover in your search for fertility solutions is yoga.  Can yoga really make you fertile? If someone suggests that their particular brand of yoga will lead to a little bundle of joy - be very skeptical.

Yoga can do a lot of good for the fertility challenged.  But there are some things it can’t overcome.  It can’t unblock tubes scarred by severe endometriosis, it can’t cure hypothyroidism, and it won’t help you grow more eggs or replace damaged DNA.

What yoga can do is
  • Reduce stress.  Studies have shown that stress management programs that include yoga and meditation can increase the odds of pregnancy.1
  • Certain postures or asana may improve blood flow to the pelvic organs, which in turn may help to thicken the endometrial lining and allow it to be more receptive to a healthy embryo.  Although there is no scientific evidence that this actually happens, it is a reasonable theory. We do know that people who hold excessive tension in the muscles of the pelvic floor and abdomen can restrict the blood flow and lymph fluid. Yoga can teach you to relax those muscles to improve the function of the reproductive organs.
  • Improve general health.  Yoga is known to improve overall health and well being as evidenced by decreased blood pressure and reduced amounts of the stress hormone cortisol. Recently, new evidence has emerged that a regular practice of yoga may help to minimize signs of inflammation in the body.
However the most compelling reason for women struggling with fertility issues to do yoga is simply to care for themselves.
  • Practice asana in a way that is consistent with your diagnosis, with the phase of your cycle, and the stage of your treatment. 

  • Reflect on the “golden rule” guidelines known as yamas and niyamas and how they are relevant to your journey. 

  • Practice meditation in order to develop the mental strength and insight to stay sane during extreme highs and lows of fertility pursuits, the dreaded two week wait, and the monthly cycles of hope and fear. Each woman has unique strengths and challenges and so developing a personalized program will provide the greatest benefits.
For some women at some times, that means a more rigorous yoga class to get the blood flowing and confidence boosted.  However sometimes a session of long-hold stretches of the hip muscles or backbends may be needed. Further, there are other times when supported forward bends are needed to ease pain, both physical and spiritual.  Listen to your body and let yoga be, not a means to an end, but a way to give yourself exactly what you need in the moment.

A good resource for finding a therapist who can safely prescribe the right yoga for you, according to your individual needs and your medical diagnosis is through Professional Yoga Therapy.  PYT therapists are uniquely trained to consider all the needs and challenges of women struggling with the physical and spiritual challenges of women with reduced fertility.

Next week I’ll share some specific recommendations of yoga practices that women undergoing fertility treatments will benefit from and that can be performed safely at any time of the month.

Ginger Recommends


1 See this article in Yoga Journal, written by Judith Lasater, for more extensive detail about the connection between stress and fertility:

2 A summary of research published in February 2010:

Lisa B. Minn is a licensed physical therapist and yoga enthusiast.  She has been incorporating aspects of Yoga and Pilates into her physical therapy practice since 2001 and became a certified yoga instructor in 2004.  Her experience ranges from working with athletes at West Point and Georgetown to instructing elderly and wheelchair-bound clients in the fundamentals of  Yoga.  Lisa has conducted several lectures and workshops across the US, as well as in Honduras and Peru, where she volunteered her services. Lisa currently resides in Sausalito, California, where she lives and works. She is the author of the blog The Pragmatic Yogi and can be reached at her website, Lisa B. Minn.

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