GUEST POST: DR. JEAN BYRNE
Yoga is a wonderful way to prepare the body for pregnancy. It helps reduce stress, balance hormones and overall can help us feel well in body, mind and spirit.
Yet sometimes no matter how much yoga we do, or how healthy we are, we still may find ourselves struggling with infertility. Infertility can be explained – there is a clear reason, or unexplained – there is no clear reason. Infertility is the failure to become pregnant after 12 months of unprotected intercourse when no other issues are present (and you are in your twenties or early thirties). We can further understand infertility as Primary (inability to have a first child) or Secondary Infertility (failure to conceive following a previous pregnancy). For a more nuanced discussion of what infertility is please do read this info sheet.
For any women menstruating, in her early thirties or younger and otherwise well, if you do not conceive in the first 12 months of regular intercourse, then before you read any further, hop on the phone to you doctor and make an appointment. If you do want a family, and time is not on your side, it is better to see if there are any obvious issues that might be addressed.
For those who have already begun the process of fertility treatments it is time to reflect on how our yoga practice can support and nurture us during this process.
Even though there are a myriad of benefits from exercise, especially in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and maximising chances of natural pregnancy, once we begin IVF we may wish to consider undertaking moderate, rather than high-intensity exercise. It is also worthwhile to mention that while exercise keeps us healthy, too much high-intensity exercise in the years prior to IVF may not be helpful to outcomes either. This study explains that women who reported exercising 4 hours or more per week for 1–9 years were 40% less likely to have a live birth and were almost three times more likely to experience cycle cancellation and twice as likely to have an implantation failure or pregnancy loss than women who did not report exercise.
Recent research suggests that high-intensity exercise levels during IVF also do not assist contribute to successful outcomes.
For those of you who love restorative or Yin style restorative practices, as long as you follow the relevant pregnancy modifications during your practice there is little reason to change what you are doing. Certainly, there are many reasons to continue practicing in this way as the body and mind will be nourished and the stress associated with IVF will be positively impacted by your practice.
However, if you are practicing high-intensity yoga such as Ashtanga, Power, Vinyasa, or hot yoga such as Bikram, it might be a good idea to reassess what you are practicing and how your practice might be modified during IVF or other fertility treatments. While the research is far from clear in this area, a Danish study suggests lean women who change their exercise routine from high intensity to medium intensity slightly improve their chances of natural pregnancy. While we can’t know absolutely the implications of high-intensity yoga or exercise during fertility treatments, it makes sense to pull back a little. It is important to remember your body is working hard to produce eggs and make a baby!
It can be difficult to change your exercise routine in this way and move from high-intensity yoga to a more moderate intensity of yoga practice. However, the beauty of yoga is that it can be adapted throughout the life cycle in different ways to support and nourish you, no matter what you are going through. It is also important to remember, the change in intensity is not forever. Hopefully, you will soon be pregnant and can return to your high-intensity exercise when you feel ready postnatally, or if you do not conceive, well, fertility treatments can’t continue forever, so you will eventually be able to return to your previous levels of physical activity.
My overall advice for women practicing yoga and undergoing fertility treatments is to find the space in which your practice becomes softer, medium to low intensity, and nourishing for you. IVF is very stressful and can bring lots of joy or heartache. Having our head in the right place, so to speak, can help us on this journey.
Further, women are likely to self-blame if they have a failed IVF cycle, or are unable to conceive for whatever reason. We don’t want to look back and wonder if yoga was a contributing factor to your lack of IVF success. The following suggestions are to help guide you through this difficult time, however they do not replace the advice of your health care provider or your experienced yoga teacher. Practicing with a teacher during this time can help you learn step by step how to transform your practice into a less dynamic, but soft and nourishing practice.
Advice on Yoga Practice During IVF or Fertility Treatments
In the months leading into your IVF cycles if you have a normal BMI consider beginning to scale back on high intensity yoga practices. Start to be more gentle and less forceful, reduce the amount you are sweating, try to keep a steady and even breath during your practice. This is a good opportunity to tune in to your body. You may notice the effects of your cycle, become attuned to when you ovulate. Also a nourishing stress reduction practice will help you feel more amorous! Particularly if you have been trying to conceive for a long time, stress reduction techniques can help.
Be sure once you begin a cycle to be doing very gentle pregnancy appropriate yoga. The hope is that you will have a successful pregnancy from your treatment, so begin preparing now.
Include meditation and even visualisation daily to help with your stress levels. Developing a soft pranayama or mindfulness practice will also help you have the self control to stay away from ‘Dr Google’ (if you have been through IVF you know what I am talking about!).
Once you start injecting, honour the intensity of this process – have a ritual – a nice cup of tea, a delicious juice. Inject in a quiet space. Use your practice to help you remain centred. By now the physicality of your practice has lessened greatly. Vinyasas are few and far between, but you can opt for longer holds in less strenuous positions and move between the positions with the breath. Already you have dropped all twisting postures, inversions, postures which require jumping or unstable movements, intense forward or backbending.
Egg Removal: Be sure to allow yourself some time to practice meditation or pranayama on the morning of your retrieval. Doing this in the hospital bed while you are waiting is a great way to go! Be sure to spend some days resting before any physical activity.
Embryo Transfer: If you are lucky enough to reach this point, again practice pranayama or meditation on the morning of transfer to keep your nerves in check. Realise this will be an emotional time. Refrain from any physical yoga in the days following, but maintain a seated or lying meditation/relaxation practice.
The 2 week wait: I imagine it is torture! My IVF cycles failed before transfer, so I can’t share from personal experience. However, my recommendation is restorative yoga with pregnancy modifications. This is very gentle, passive stretching, breathing and lots of relaxation!
6 weeks: Pregnant! Congratulations. Be sure to find a wonderful Pregnancy Yoga class with an experienced teacher to attend.
6 weeks: Not Pregnant. It’s devastating. But you have done everything you can, nourished your body and mind, and ultimately there is no more you could have done. Be kind to yourself, and respect the changes the IVF cycle have put your body through. Slowly return to your practice in a paced and gentle way.
Yoga can be a wonderful way to support the body and mind during IVF. Be sure to seek the advice of your healthcare provider before taking up new forms of exercise, and for advice on if and when you should practice yoga. Even without asanas the other limbs of yoga can nurture us on this journey.
About Jean Byrne:
Dr. Jean Byrne is co-owner of the Yoga Space in Perth, a Senior Member of Yoga Australia, Authorised Ashtanga Yoga teacher and on the Yoga Australia Council of Advisors. She has a PhD in Yoga Philosophy and teaches Mysore classes in Perth, Australia. Find out more about her Instagram @jeanbyrnephd Web: www.yogaspace.com.au