by Erin Schulte
Elizabeth Isenberg, a 37-year-old publicist in Los Angeles, had suffered three miscarriages in eight months, was cycling through hormone treatments, and was “depressed and down in the dumps” last year when her mother-in-law encouraged her to try a new tactic: fertility yoga.
“After all the doctor visits, being poked and prodded, you feel very disconnected from yourself,” Isenberg says. “Miscarriage is traumatic, and I had a lot of stress and confusion surrounding what was going to happen for me to have a baby. I was visiting this doctor and that doctor, and I was miserable.”
Isenberg enrolled in a four-week course called Strong Yoga 4 Fertility. “Yoga was so helpful in getting me back to experiencing my own body and connecting with myself, nurturing myself,” she says. “I felt a lot more relaxed and it calmed my mind to think more clearly about what I might do to make a family.”
Yoga has been hailed as an ameliorative for ailments including (but certainly not limited to) insomnia, heart disease, cancer, fatigue, depression, high blood pressure, carpal tunnel syndrome and anxiety. For women facing repeated hormone treatments, failed rounds of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), miscarriages and, ultimately, the fear of remaining childless, is there hope that they can downward dog their way to fertility?
In a word: maybe.
Yoga cannot be used as a stand-alone alternative to medical treatment. “If you have a blocked fallopian tube, I don’t care how much yoga you do, you’re going to need surgery to get pregnant,” says Brenda Strong, the creator of Strong Yoga 4 Fertility and the national spokesperson for The American Fertility Association (AFA), a national nonprofit organization that focuses on infertility prevention, helping people conceive or adopt, male reproductive health and LGBT family building.
But yoga can reduce stress, which in turn can aid fertility. Though the AFA says that it’s “unclear how much stress affects fertility,” studies have shown the two are linked.
Strong says chronic elevation of stress hormones can interfere with ovulation, hormone production and the uterine environment — all hurdles to conception and successful pregnancy. Reducing stress, meanwhile, may improve your chances. A study by the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health at Boston IVF showed that women who participated in a stress-management program before or during a second IVF cycle had a 160 percent greater pregnancy rate than women who did not.
And while yoga for fitness has been mainstream for years, it’s gaining acceptance in the medical community as well. Complementary therapies including yoga are increasingly being offered by fertility centers and major hospitals, like The Mind Body Program for Health and Fertility at Massachusetts General, the teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School.
Fertility specialists say alternative treatments like yoga may also help women conceive by equipping them to soldier through the stressful, expensive, and physically and emotionally wearing process of infertility treatment.
“Western medicine is not enough for a lot of people trying to build their families,” says Dr. Richard Grazi, the founder of Genesis Fertility & Reproductive Medicine in Brooklyn and director of Reproductive Endocrinology at Maimonides Medical Center. “The thing that often stands between infertility patients and success is persistence; they become so stressed out that they quit. You begin to look at other things: herbal medicines, acupuncture, yoga. Anything that can get a woman into better physical and mental health can be helpful in treatment.”
Strong (whose soothing voice would be instantly recognizable to fans of Desperate Housewives, on which she plays the omnipresent narrator, Mary Alice Young), created her particular brand of yoga during her own struggle with secondary infertility. It is unique, she says, in that it offers women instruction with an emphasis on poses and breathing that increase circulation to reproductive organs, balance hormones, reduce stress and calm the nervous system. It also avoids twisting or inverted poses that she says may negatively impact chances for conception.
Fertility yoga can be done at home, and Strong says she created her line of fertility yoga DVDs specifically so women living outside of urban areas where classes are available have options. But the supportive atmosphere of yoga classes specifically geared toward women experiencing fertility problems can provide additional stress relief.
“When I was in class, I could open up about it. I felt very nurtured by the other women, and it took a massive weight off my shoulders,” says Isenberg, whose mental shift during the month of yoga instruction helped her get away from the endless loop of hope-doctor-treatment-disappointment.
“I got off that mindset of ‘I have to have a baby,’ and realized if that didn’t happen, that could be OK, too,” she says. “That in turn helped me to relax, and relaxing helps you in every other way.”
Shortly after completing the fertility yoga classes, Isenberg conceived again. Her son, Ozzie, was born in August.
“I don’t know why or how people get pregnant, but yoga me feel better,” she says. “It was the best thing I did.”