The entire process of conceiving, carrying, and delivering a baby can be incredibly daunting. Every pregnancy is different. A woman could have an easy time conceiving and carrying her first child and then spend years trying to conceive a second and vice versa. My story is that I had two miscarriages between my first and second child. Amongst a sea of other stories (some shared at the MOST inappropriate times) there is the one everyone hears about conception after adoption presumably because the woman relaxed her determination. I can only imagine how enraging that must sound to a woman who is struggling with fertility. Basically, being told to “relax” , stop “trying so hard” “give your mind a break and just “let nature take it’s course”. *Note to self*, if your type “A” friend is struggling to get pregnant and she has succeeded in every other area of her life by being fiercely hard working and committed, she is not going to absorb those suggestions gracefully. In fact, she may try harder just to prove you wrong. And she is certainly not going to relax. But I do have some suggestions for you and/or that friend about how yoga can help whether you are thinking about ttc (trying to conceive) for the first time or like me, you have your own unique story. Yoga can be a powerful tool in creating the right environment to conceive a baby, maintain a healthy mind and body during pregnancy, as well as prepare you and your baby for one of the most physically and mentally demanding challenges of your life – delivering and becoming a Mama!
Yoga and Fertility
There are a zillion books on the topic of fertility and I will be honest, I have not read one of them. My journey began with a relatively short struggle to conceive our first child and then a couple years into his life, we conceived 3 times back to back (2 miscarriages followed by joyful arrival of baby boy #2). My yoga practice was far less regular when we were ttc the first time around but there were a number of variables that could have interfered including my husband’s undetected thyroid condition. The other three pregnancies happened during the time I was working on a yoga teacher certification so I was far more committed to a regular practice. That being said, I would not dare make the claim that yoga can cure infertility or get you pregnant but it does set the stage beautifully. And by this I mean that yoga has a calming affect on the body overall but it can also nourish the reproductive organs. I have used it since I was young as a tool to reduce stress and anxiety which is often heightened when one is ttc. There are postures that stretch and relax the muscles and connective tissue of the hips, groin, and lower back which can improve blood flow in the pelvic region. On a personal note, the last three times I conceived I did a headstand after having sex. It may or may not have had an impact on the chances of conception but if I were trying to get pregnant again I sure as hell would get in some kind of inversion. It doesn’t have to be headstand, could be shoulder stand or even downward facing dog. We’re not talking about voodoo here, ladies, this is physics. And just the combination of stretching and breathing in yoga can help to reduce cortisol, a stress hormone that can interfere with reproductivity. In fact, yoga is a breathing and meditation practice above all. The simple use of the breath to quiet the mind and focus the awareness on the inner self in combination with the physical release you enjoy from the Asana (physical postures) can ease the mind and body into a more optimal place for your fertility journey.
Yoga and Healthy Pregnancy (for Mama and Baby)
Once you do conceive, yoga can help support a healthy pregnancy for you and your baby. I teach prenatal yoga and hear far too often that women are afraid to start anything new or exercise at all during pregnancy. And let me preface by saying that women who are considered high risk should adhere to their OB or Midwife’s guidelines. But in a healthy situation it is my feeling based on personal experience that pregnancy is one of the most important times in your life to stay physically fit and limber. You wouldn’t run a marathon without training so why would you face one of life’s most physically challenging situations without preparation? However, in early pregnancy before the embryo has securely attached to the uterine wall, I do think that it is important to take it slow (don’t stop, just slow down). Going for long walks, eating whatever you can stomach, and napping as often as possible. Unfortunately, miscarriage is common during the first trimester so you could take it slow and still miscarry.
As I mentioned earlier, I had two early miscarriages – one when I had continued a pretty advanced yoga practice and one when I took it easy. I clearly remember the day that I put my yoga mat down and approached a teacher I had practiced with regularly to tell her I was 6 weeks pregnant (you should always inform your teacher if you are pregnant). She hugged me as she whispered in my ear, “I’m happy for you, now roll up your mat and go take a long beautiful walk”. I left the building in tears because I was crushed but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew she was right. Your body is expending so much energy that it is critical for you listen to it when you are tired and just let that little embryo find it’s place to settle in your uterus. I know it’s hard to do but it’s not that long of a time and the slight risk that you could disrupt this process in any way is not worth it. Believe me, it is not necessarily rational but I still question whether something I did or didn’t do had anything to do with my miscarriages.
But once you have cleared that first trimester and you are feeling better, find a safe exercise program for you and your growing baby. And if you’ve never tried yoga before I think prenatal yoga is wonderful for beginners, if you have the right instructor, because you can learn the alignment and the importance of breathing in a setting that is more gentle. I also feel that yoga is so much about community and the community of other pregnant women allows you to feel more accepted, open, and validated when you are going through some pretty bizarre changes. It’s comforting to share the process with someone other than your partner and other expecting women can relate. As you advance through your pregnancy, yoga can help you to gain some physical control when you are on a hormonal roller coaster. It improves blood circulation which increases the oxygen supply to the baby, it relaxes the body, strengthens and stretches the muscles to help create more space, and uses certain exercises to open and tone the pelvic floor to help prepare for labor and birth. In my prenatal classes I teach stamina exercises that increase strength but also become pain coping strategies which can come in pretty handy during labor and delivery. Meditation and spiritual aspects of yoga such as visualization tools can also be profoundly helpful in the delivery room. I try to introduce positive affirmations such as “healthy Mom, healthy pregnancy, healthy baby”. Positive thoughts and attitudes can be so powerful through pregnancy, labor and delivery.
Yoga and a Speedy Delivery
I hesitate to share my two labor and delivery experiences with pregnant women because mine were so quick and I know that speedy delivery is not often the case. But I do think that a regular prenatal yoga practice helped me dramatically in the delivery room. Medical professionals in labor and delivery have said that they can tell when a woman has practiced yoga. The delivery nurse that was present during the birth of my second baby knew that I practiced yoga and before she left for the day she came to tell me that she was going to sign up for yoga as soon as she got home. Whether you end up with an unplanned C-section, you deliver naturally and pain med free, or vaginally with an epidural – prenatal yoga will be an asset. It can help with the connection to your baby in utero, through labor and delivery, but also with the postnatal physical healing process and it can even help with acceptance of the birth that didn’t go as you had planned.
Yoga’s emphasis on breath and body awareness is paramount as you work with your baby to transition from womb to world. Strength and flexibility are an asset but so is the ability to use the exhale to soften and surrender to the natural process. The mind body connection is HUGE here because the larger the gap (not that gap!), the harder it’s going to be on you and baby. And don’t get me wrong – speedy does not always mean easy. I had two vaginal deliveries but totally different experiences, one with induction and epidural and the other 100% natural. It is not called labor for nothin Ladies, it is fucking hard as hell! And when it does come so quickly (with no stitches I might add), it’s pretty intense. I’ve always felt weird sharing that I didn’t have stitches because of what it suggests about my vagina. But all joking aside, if I ever did it again (pregnancy that is, not sex), I would make sure that yoga was a daily practice. If not for all of the reasons I have stated above, just for overall balance during your hormonal roller coaster. Your partner will make sure you make that yoga class because on the nights you do practice, the pleasantness factor is relatively high and you may even feel sexy and calm enough to have lovely pregnancy sex which some partners really enjoy!