Many women today, whether because they prioritise their careers or meet their partner later in life, are starting their families later in life. In fact, the average age a woman gives birth in this country reached 30 for the first time ever last year. While post-35 – the age at which doctors warn fertility takes a nose dive – some women get pregnant easily; others find it difficult to conceive without (or even with) the use of medical intervention like IVF.
When you’re trying to get pregnant and it’s not happening, you start to examine aspects of your life that might be a factor blocking conception such as the amount of alcohol you drink or the number of hours you work in a stressed-out office environment. You might scrutinise how you exercise as studies have shown too much or too little can affect hormonal balance and the regularity of a woman’s cycle.
I should know – when trying to conceive six years ago, I went through a ‘bat shit crazy’ phase as my husband now likes to call it. I wanted a baby so badly that it was all I could think about and my moods swung wildly, culminating in one episode when I hurled a glass of wine across the kitchen table at my husband over the mildest of infractions. It was only when I let go of my deeply rooted desire, and practiced yoga and meditation daily, that I got pregnant.
Zita West is one of many fertility experts that recommends yoga to her patients who are having difficulty conceiving. ‘Any exercise that involves mindfulness, breathing techniques and meditative visualisation has many physical, emotional and mental benefits,’ she said, adding that yoga is a calming antidote to any woman consumed by an overwhelming desire for a baby, the resulting stress of which becomes an impediment to conception itself.
Yoga teaches us that suffering is caused by attachment. In this case it’s never more true than when trying to get pregnant month-in, month-out, buying stacks of ovulation kits, popping ovulation stimulating medication such as Clomid like tic tacs, and going through the slog of IVF treatment.
Did yoga help me conceive? I can’t say for sure, but it did help me calm down and keep things in perspective. I now have four children and when I was trying to conceive I practiced many aspects of yoga from postures to meditation to mantra to visualisation. Yoga helped me connect with, better know and understand my body; I believe this was a crucial factor in my fertility.
Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, a yoga teacher and author of Yoni Shakti: A Woman’s Guide to Power and Freedom Through Yoga and Tantra says women should get to get to know their cycles intimately – charting all aspects of their cycle from menstrual phase (when the uterine lining breaks down) to follicular phase (when the uterine lining thickens) to ovulation phase (when an egg is released) and to luteal phase (when the uterine lining continues to thicken and the egg implants).
It’s not only about being aware of what phase you are in, but also how you feel when you’re in it – you might feel powerful and strong in the follicular phase, your digestion might be poor in the ovulation phase and you might feel angry and sweat a lot in the luteal phase.
Your yoga practice should change either subtly or acutely to respond and support each phase of the menstrual cycle. ‘Women who are in tune with how they feel on any given point in their menstrual cycle will naturally choose a practice that supports and nourishes them on that day,’ said Dinsmore-Tuli. ‘Ultimately you want a practice that honors your menstrual cycle. Your menstrual health is your fertility. If your menstrual health is compromised, then you don’t stand a chance [of getting pregnant].’
Vanessa Covelo, 40 is currently trying to get pregnant for the first time. She practices Ashtanga Yoga six days a week. The computer programmer sometimes modifies her yoga practice according to where she is in her cycle, and never practices in the first two days of her period (in accordance with the Ashtanga yoga principle of taking a ‘Ladies Holiday’ from yoga practice – where women do not practice in the first few days of their period.)
‘I notice a massive difference (in my practice) between the two weeks before ovulation, when I’m feeling quite strong and energetic, and the two weeks after ovulation when I feel lethargic and as I get closer to my period, rather bloated.’ If the PMS gets bad, she modifies her yoga practice – easier postures and less time spent on the mat. But when she’s feeling strong, she goes full tilt, working with her ‘Shakti’ or feminine energies to express the power she feels through demanding arm balances, deep backbends and intense twists.
Cavelo’s not pregnant yet, but she’s optimistic that her yoga practice combined with her alkaline diet, regular acupuncture, better sleep and sabbatical from work will do the trick. ‘The yoga practice keeps me very fit, and being healthy plays an important factor in fertility,’ Covelo said. ‘The spiritual aspect of practice keeps my stress levels in check. And for the last ten years, I’ve kept to a healthy, mostly vegetarian diet, and drunk limited amounts of alcohol — all of this no doubt as a consequences of getting further my yoga studies.’
Some teachers suggest a restorative yoga practice in the time after ovulation so that the body – emotionally and physically – expresses receptivity, which helps create a positive environment for a sperm and an egg to join. Restorative classes, offered at many yoga studios in London and around the country, are characterised by passive, long-held postures supported by props like bolsters and blankets so that the body and mind completely surrender and ultimately sink into an alert relaxation.
Geeta Iyengar, yoga teacher and author of Yoga: A Gem for Women 5 advises practicing certain postures to boost the reproductive system. She advocates poses such as shoulderstand to stimulate the thyroid gland and keep the body’s reproductive hormones balanced. Other postures the renowned yoga teacher recommends for fertility are bridge, bound angle and wide-angle pose.
There has been no research done linking yoga to fertility. Dinsmore-Tuli believes this is because there is no funding for research that does not involve drugs sold by big pharmaceutical companies. But look at any yoga teacher training program for anecdotal proof practicing yoga helps fertility. The proportion of women falling pregnant while on these extended courses is high. When I did my teacher training at London’s Triyoga several years ago, more than 20 percent of women got pregnant on the 18-month course. This doesn’t even take into account those who weren’t trying, or past menopause.
If you are going to use yoga as a fertility aid, there are still many precautions to take when practicing it. Hot yoga, for instance, won’t do many favors for a woman seeking to get pregnant, most yoga teachers and fertility experts say.
The hot yoga trend is exploding now, with yoga studios cranking up the heat to 38 degrees to promote muscle flexibility and cardiovascular endurance. Any external heat source is going to warm the body both on the inside and the outside, which despite the lack of concrete evidence most fertility experts and yoga teachers caution against – especially in the two weeks after ovulation in order to optimise conditions for the egg to implant in the uterus.
The theory — again, unsupported by study but widely agreed in yoga circles — is that when you exercise in heat the blood flow moves toward the organs that need it (the cardiovascular system) and away from the ones that don’t (the reproductive ones.)
Hot yoga, more than any other school of yoga, aids weight loss. But this isn’t necessarily a good thing when it comes to getting pregnant. Fertility experts Boston IVF say normal menstrual function requires at least 22 percent body fat. A seed grows in fertile soil – it’s better to be well-rested with a good muscle-fat ratio.
Then there are the ‘bandhas’. These are muscular contractions you make in different parts of the body that seal energy into it. There are three bandhas commonly taught in a yoga class, but only two pertain to a woman seeking to have a baby: Uddiyana Bandha (the drawing in of the abdominal wall diagonally up and back toward the spine) and Mula Bandha (the drawing inwards and upwards of the vaginal walls toward the cervix.) The bandhas support breathing, create room for movement, and introduce a sense of lightness to one’s practice. But fertility experts advise employing them with caution if you’re trying to conceive, especially if one is having difficulty doing so. Keep the belly soft, especially in the two weeks after ovulation.
‘Practice yoga as if you are pregnant,’ said Anna Wise, a pregnancy yoga teacher and co-author of a forthcoming book on Ashtanga Yoga and pregnancy. ‘If you are in doubt about what you are doing, why take the risk? If what you are doing is safe to support a pregnancy, then it would also be safe to support a pregnancy to come about. Soften your practice. Don’t create heat or contract (the abdominal region). Just back off a bit.’
There are so many schools of yoga – Iyengar, Yin, Scarivelli, Vinyasa Flow , Anusara … what’s important is to find a teacher who herself (or himself) understands the importance of connecting to your menstrual cycle and crafting a yoga practice that is in tune with it. In the absence of any scientific research into yoga and fertility, there is no stock answer. Listen to your body’s needs and respond accordingly whether that’s a strong practice full of handstands (as long as you’re used to doing them), or a gentle one lying back covered by a fleece blanket.