Struggling to conceive can be one of the most stressful periods of a couple's lives. The pandemic has only exacerbated this stress for many. While it is hard to accurately determine the impact of the virus on fertility rates, it is clear that birth rates plummeted in the US and across much of Europe during 2020 and early 2021, and there’s even some research that suggests a potential link between COVID-19 infection and increased male infertility.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, infertile couples have had to cope with the changing guidelines and regulations affecting their treatments, which doubled up the rollercoaster of emotions they were already experiencing and that were linked to their infertility," says Dr Vassiliki Simoglou, counseling psychologist at Thrive, whose doctoral research in the University of Paris focused on infertility and IVF. "They have also had to address their fears and anxieties relating to contracting the virus, when considering to begin treatments or not."
But against this complex backdrop, the advice given to couples hoping to conceive a baby either naturally or with IVF remains simple. “Couples are advised to take care of themselves so that their body is ready for when the time comes to try for a baby," says Maria Banti, Clinical Embryologist & Lab Director at Orchid Fertility Clinic. "Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with healthy diet and exercise is very important. Also, mental health is very important as the IVF process itself is associated with increased anxiety, depression and stress."
This is where some experts believe the ancient practice of yoga can come into play…
How can yoga help with infertility?
Several studies show that practicing yoga – even as little as 45 minutes of yoga per week – can help women to relax and improve a couple’s chances of conceiving.
“Yoga is known to provide immense benefits in terms of well-being and fitness, both of which are vital to ensure one’s health and fertility,” says Dr. Pankaj Shrivastav, Director of Conceive Gynecology & Fertility Hospital.
“Yoga poses, like any form of fitness, enhances blood flow and circulation through improving the body’s flexibility. Better perfusion to the reproductive tracts can improve fertility quite significantly.
“Yoga is also known to fight off obesity and is hugely beneficial in keeping hormonal imbalances like PCOS at bay or controlled.
The de-stressing impact of Yoga for couples who are trying to conceive has also never been more relevant than in a post-pandemic world:
“Additionally, when used in conjunction with fertility treatments yoga can lower stress, and allows couple to sleep and feel better through what can often be an overwhelming journey,” says Dr Shrivastav. “I also recommend Yoga to women who are anxious to stay fit during their treatment process.”
What is the evidence that yoga can help me get pregnant?
It’s well documented that stress harms your chances of getting pregnant, and one of the most recent and largest controlled studies in the US found that just six weeks of the ancient practice can significantly lower anxiety levels.
The study, by Fertility Centre of Illinois and Rush University Medical Centre, monitored a group of 103 IVF patients over a six-week period, 54 of whom were invited to take part in weekly 45-minute sessions of Vinyasa-style yoga, compared to a control group of 49. The results showed that anxiety scores were reduced by 20 per cent in the yoga group versus two per cent in the control group, and reducing stress is strongly linked with improved chances of conception.
But perhaps the strongest evidence of impact of stress reduction leading to improvement in fertility comes from a study by Alice Domar, PhD, of Harvard Medical School. She created a fertility program at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and later opened the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health.
In 2000, Domar conducted the study on a control group and found that 55 per cent of infertile patients were able to conceive and later give birth within one year of participating in her 10-session program, which included introduction to yoga and meditation, along with other relaxation techniques and acupuncture. In a control group, just 20 per cent of participants were able to have babies.
Meanwhile, a 2003 study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility found that yoga and meditation are helpful adjuncts to fertility treatments because, if nothing else, they make women more in tune with their bodies. When a woman learns how to attain physical relaxation, she feels better about her body and begins to treat it with more respect. This results in healthier lifestyle choices as well as a greater sensitivity to symptoms and body processes.
Dr Shrivastav agrees that yoga is the perfect accompaniment to other fertility treatment. “Unfortunately, due to lack of evidence based studies we do not recommend a patient to rely solely on Yoga for improving fertility.
"Yoga on its own cannot open up blocked tubes," continues Dr Shrivastav. "It cannot restore normal sperm count in a man who has no sperm or very few sperm in his sample. However, when practiced in conjunction to fertility treatments, there are benefits to practicing Yoga such as reduced stress level, better flow of hormones and loosening of muscles, which ultimately improves your chances of conceiving.”
Yoga poses that can help you to conceive
There are several poses and Yoga Asanas that are known to boost fertility, says Dr Shrivastav. “Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) is often taught to women preparing to conceive because it is calming and brings energy to the pelvis.
“Many instructors also recommend Supta Baddha Konsana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose), a restorative hip opener, as well as Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), both of which are relaxing.
“Positive visualizations, heart openers, and poses that foster self-nurturing can help women cope with stress and anxiety. Here are some poses that are often taught with the intention of overcoming infertility, increasing flexibility and boosting overall fitness:
Paschimottanasana (Seated forward bend):
The Paschimottanasana stimulates the ovaries and uterus. The forward bend stretches the muscles at the lower back, hips and hamstrings.
Hastapadasana (Standing forward bend):
In Hastapadasana you have to bend forward touching the hand to the feet. It stretches all the important muscles of the back and this will improve the blood supply to the pelvic region and nervous system. This bend helps relieve stress from the abdomen region and make the spinal cord more flexible.
Janu Shirasana (One-Legged Forward Bend):
Janu Shirasana is useful during pregnancy as it will strengthen your lower back muscles. When properly executed, this yoga pose is very relaxing and releases tension from the lower back. It effectively stretches the calves and the hamstrings, making them very supple.
Baddha Konasana (Butterfly Pose):
The Baddha Konasana improves the flexibility in your hip regions, as it stretches the inner thighs, genital and knees. It helps release any toxins and negative energy in the areas of hip and groin.
Balasna (Child’s Pose):
In this pose, the muscles of hips, thighs and ankles are stretched and strengthened. It calms the brain and helps relieve stress and fatigue.
Bhramari Pranayama (Bee breath):
The Bee breath instantly relieves the body of tension, anger and anxiety. The chances of conception are better with a more relaxed body and mind.
This is a tough yogic pose. This asana requires you to lift your pelvic region up while keeping your buttock muscles firm. When the pelvic area is thrust upwards, both the energy and blood flow get circulated to the uterus and ovaries.
This is an important asana that strengthens your back muscles while stimulating hormone production in the uterus. Lie on your stomach. Later, lift your upper body portion by putting your weight on your hands. Raise the upper body and look up.
Shavasana (Yogic sleep):
Shavasana or corpse pose is helpful to induce a conscious yogic sleep called Yoga Nidra. It aids in attaining equilibrium in the body and mind. This pose is very simple yet powerful amongst other fertility yoga poses for women."