meditation & infertility

Yoga’s stress relief: an aid for infertility?

Kimberley Soranno, a 39-year-old Brooklynite undergoing an in vitro fertilization cycle as part of her quest to become pregnant, had gone to her share of yoga classes, but never one like that held on a recent Tuesday night in a reception area of the New York University Fertility Center. There were no deep twists or headstands; just easy “restorative” poses as the teacher, Tracy Toon Spencer, guided the participants — most of them women struggling to conceive — to let go of their worries.

“Verbally, she brings you to a relaxation place in your mind,” Mrs. Soranno said, adding, “It’s great to do the poses, get energy out and feel strong. But the most important part for me was the connection to the other women.”

Besides taxing the mind, body and wallet, infertility can be lonely. Support groups have long existed for infertile couples, but in recent years, so-called “yoga for fertility” classes have become increasingly popular. They are the latest in a succession of holistic approaches to fertility treatment that have included acupuncture and mind-body programs (whose effectiveness for infertility patients is backed by research); massage (which doesn’t have specific data to support it); and Chinese herbs (which some say may be detrimental).

No study has proved that yoga has increased pregnancy rates in infertility patients. But students of yoga-for-fertility classes say that the coping skills they learn help reduce…

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stress on and off the mat. For many, it’s a support group in motion (or lotus).

“As important as the yoga postures was the idea that women could come out of the closet with their infertility and be supported in a group,” said Tami Quinn, the founder, with Beth Heller, of Pulling Down the Moon, a company with holistic fertility centers in Chicago and the Washington area. “If you say come to my support group, women going through infertility are like, ‘I don’t need some hokey support group’ or ‘I’m not that bad.’ But with yoga they are getting support and they don’t even realize it.”

Holly Dougherty, 42, didn’t want to talk about her drug-infused slog through fertility treatment that began seven years ago. “I didn’t tell anyone,” said Ms. Dougherty, with the exception of her parents.

This changed after she started going to yoga-for-fertility classes taught by Ms. Spencer at World Yoga Center in Manhattan in 2005. The gentle poses helped take her mind off her setbacks, and each week, she found the community that she hadn’t realized she needed.

“Being able to open up in a safe environment with support and encouragement of others on the journey, everyone became each other’s cheerleader,” said Ms. Dougherty, now a mother of two who still socializes with students from Ms. Spencer’s class. “I learned to become so open about it.”

SMOKING, alcohol, caffeine and some medications can hurt fertility, as can being overweight or underweight, said Dr. William Schoolcraft, a medical director of the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, whose main branch is in Lone Tree. As for improving one’s chances with massage, diet or yoga? “That’s where the data gets murkier,” he said.

“We will never promise that you will get pregnant by doing yoga,” Ms. Quinn said. “We can tell you many women who have done yoga have gotten pregnant. But there’s no clinical data supporting the fact that yoga increases conception rates. The last thing we would want to do is give false hope.”

Stress, however, has been shown to reduce the probability of conception. Alice Domar, who has a Ph.D. in health psychology and is the director of mind-body services at the Harvard-affiliated center Boston IVF, said of yoga: “It’s a very effective relaxation technique, and a great way to get women in the door to get support. It’s a way to get them to like their bodies again.”

A handful of prominent medical centers have partnered with yoga teachers to offer classes. Pulling Down the Moon now holds its $210 six-week Yoga for Fertility programs at Fertility Centers of Illinois in Chicago (since 2002), and Shady Grove Fertility in the Washington area (since 2008.)

Recently, Dr. Domar, a psychologist whose research has shown that participation in a mind-body program can positively affect fertility, joined with Ms. Quinn and Ms. Heller to take wellness programs, including yoga and acupuncture, to infertility clinics nationwide. They have formed a new company, Integrative Care for Fertility: A Domar Center, and plan to open seven branches this year.

In 2009, the New York University Fertility Center in Manhattan brought in two yoga instructors to help patients. “We really do push it,” Dr. Frederick Licciardi, a founding partner of the center, said of its wellness programs that include mind-body work and acupuncture along with yoga. “We put it up front. We know they are doing it anyway. We want to show we are supportive that they are doing it.”

Some infertility clinics advise patients not to do vigorous exercise like running for fear of twisting their drug-stimulated enlarged ovaries. (This excruciating condition, called torsion, is rare, but surgery is often required if it happens with the possibility of losing the ovary, said Dr. Brian Kaplan, a partner at the Fertility Centers of Illinois, who advises his patients to limit exercise while taking stimulating drugs.)

But Dr. Domar, the executive director of a namesake center for mind-body health in Waltham, Mass., has found that some women are loath to give up their daily anxiety-relieving run during infertility treatments, or are “freaked out about gaining weight on fertility drugs.” In some cases, yoga is her bargaining chip. She tells those patients, “you can do hatha yoga and stay fit and toned, and give up your run.”

Ms. Spencer explained in an e-mail that for many patients, “There is a feeling of walking on eggshells and also that one false move may throw off the chances of success.” A class like hers lets them move and blow off steam, students said. “It’s like a can of worms,” she said in an interview. “You can’t stop women from talking to one another.”

But the relief can be quiet as well. Elaine Keating-Brown, 38, an elementary-school teacher in Manhattan who is in her last trimester after in vitro fertilization, found the yoga classes she took with Laura O’Brien, then at N.Y.U., helped her silence a tireless negative voice in her head. Her fertility-related worries felt endless, from “What happens if it doesn’t work?” to “financially, it’s not exactly cheap,” Mrs. Keating-Brown said.

But “once you’re in the yoga room, you haven’t got all that anymore,” she said, “you’re concentrating on you, and put those thoughts aside, put your body in a good place, and come out of class feeling a real feeling of relaxation and it’s going to be O.K. If it isn’t, it isn’t.”

Lori, a 32-year-old management consultant who asked that only her first name be used for privacy, lived with “the chatter in the back of her mind” so constantly after losing twins and suffering two miscarriages that she named that voice Constance in a yoga class she took at Pulling Down the Moon. After learning meditation techniques in class, Lori, the mother of a newborn, said she could observe, but not succumb to her negative thoughts. “I’m aware I feel that way,” she can tell herself when an anxious thought surfaces, “but I’m not going to let it overwhelm me right now.”

Ms. O’Brien summed up the infertility roller coaster this way: “You have to get screened all the time. You have to take certain drugs. You’re at the mercy of everyone telling you what to do and when to do it.” Now teaching $72 four-week fertility and flexibility workshops at Devotion Yoga in Hoboken, N.J., Ms. O’Brien added that loss of control is challenging, “especially for people in this part of the country, if they have a goal and work hard, they get it.”

“This throws that whole mentality out of whack,” she said. But yoga, she contended, helps type-A’s to learn that “you cannot control what’s happening to your body, but you can control how you feel about it.”

In 1998, when Brenda Strong first starting teaching fertility-focused yoga at the Mind Body Institute in Southern California, she said, “people were so ashamed and so isolated because no one else was talking about it.” In her classes, she facilitates conversation among yogis. “In yoga, suffering is caused by attachment to a result or by resistance,” said Ms. Strong, the actress who is the narrator on “Desperate Housewives” and herself has struggled with infertility. “There’s nothing that brings up these two things more: you’re attached to wanting to get pregnant and you’re resistant to the fact that you can’t.”

Medical acceptance of yoga as a stress reliever for infertility patients is slowly growing. In 1990, when Dr. Domar first published research advocating a role for stress reduction in infertility treatment, “I wasn’t just laughed at by physicians,” she said. “I was laughed at by Resolve, the national infertility organization. They all said I was perpetuating a myth of ‘Just relax, and you’ll get pregnant.’ ” At the last meeting for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Dr. Domar, now on the national board of Resolve, gave multiple talks, including one about how to help the mind and body work together in infertile couples.

On March 17, Resolve will host a tele-seminar on “Yoga for Fertility” led by Jill Petigara, who teaches in the Philadelphia area. “A lot of people want to boil it down to ‘If you relax, it will happen,’ ” Ms. Petigara, a former in vitro fertilization patient who adopted a son, wrote in an e-mail. “I absolutely feel that yoga can have a very positive impact on infertility, but infertility is a lot more than ‘just relaxing.’ ”

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Couples having fertility troubles might try acupuncture and meditation

Mercury News, San Jose, California: A new program at Stanford University uses “mind-body medicine” techniques such as acupuncture and meditation to boost couples’ chances of becoming pregnant.

Backed by studies that show the negative effect of high stress on fertility rates, Stanford’s clinic is one of a growing number that combine relaxation techniques to help distraught couples. Kaiser-San Francisco, Harvard and UCLA have similar programs.

In a Harvard program, 55 percent of previously infertile women who used the techniques got pregnant, compared with 20 percent of those who didn’t.

Researchers say they don’t yet know how nontraditional methods such as art therapy and support groups can turn frustrated couples into parents.

“All the relaxation techniques in the world are not going to unblock tubes, or reverse the effects aging has had on eggs, or undo the damage endometriosis has had,” said Alice Domar, director of the Mind/Body Center for Women’s Health at Boston IVF. “But you can learn skills that may increase your chances of getting pregnant, that will get you healthier and will get you happier.”

The generally 10-week-long programs can cost participants several hundred dollars. Experts warn that they are not intended to replace medical treatments.

Original article no longer available…

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Meditation as medication (CBS News)

The Saturday Early Show, CBS: More and more people are turning to alternative or non-traditional methods to treat medical conditions.

One such technique, meditation, is gaining popularity as a legitimate medical therapy.

Meditation is the practice of focusing your attention and mind on something that makes your feel calm and relaxed and gives you clarity about your life, says medical contributor Dr. Mallika Marshall.

For thousands of years, people have recognized that meditation has wonderful health and psychological benefits.

The medical community is becoming much more accepting of meditation as a legitimate treatment for many different medical problems, such as anxiety, stress and depression. It’s being used treat all kinds of chronic pain. People are using meditation to try to quit smoking. It’s also being used for alcohol and drug addiction. And the National Institutes of Health is even recommending meditation for high blood pressure. Studies have show also that it can help women who suffer from PMS, menopausal hot flashes and even infertility.

Meditation helps your enter a relaxation state that can lower your heart rate, your blood pressure, slow down your breathing and relax your muscles. Some experts have compared it to a “reset button” for your body.

Meditation is something that most people can safely try on their own, though there are many techniques out there — so you may want to read up on different ways to meditate.

Here is a basic meditation technique to get started. Sit or lie in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Simply focus on your breathing, focusing all your attention on sensation of air moving in and out of your body. The other thing you can do is repeat a single word or phrase either silently or by whispering. Do this for about 20 minutes every day if you can.

In the beginning, your mind will wander and come back to the present, but don’t despair, simply refocus your mind and try again.

Since meditation involves sitting quietly for a period of time and simply breathing, it may be difficult for people who have breathing problems or can’t stay still. People with certain conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or psychosis may not be able to concentrate. And don’t forgo traditional medical treatments in favor or just doing meditation. It should be used to complement any other treatments your doctor has recommended for you.

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Quiet the mind, heal the body

Hilary E. MacGregor, LA Times: Inside a church community room, beginning meditators close their eyes, straighten their spines in their folding metal chairs and try to rein in, for just 10 minutes, the thoughts that race like wild horses through their minds.

A woman in the back row yawns. The woman next to her fidgets. Another student sneaks a peek.

“My mind still wanders,” Jeremy Morelock, 33, says of the Buddhist meditation class he has attended for three months in search of stress relief and spiritual growth. “I have these imaginary conversations with people, and then I think, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa … concentrate!’ “

Regular meditation practice is supposed to quiet the mind and allow the body to tap into its own innate healing mechanisms. Yogis and monks have preached the powers of meditation for thousands of years, and the counterculture generation of the ’60s embraced transcendental meditation — a still-thriving form of internal mantra-chanting — as a method to alter consciousness.

But many people today are taking up meditation for reasons that have little or nothing to do with spiritual enlightenment and a lot to do with improving their health. Scientists are using MRI and other advanced technologies to study the physiological changes that occur in meditating Buddhist monks. These researchers are starting to demonstrate, with the type of laboratory science that can influence even skeptical physicians, what those who engage in this ancient practice have believed for many centuries: Meditation works.

A growing body of research has shown that meditation has clear benefits. Now, doctors and other health-care professionals are recommending meditation as a way to treat a variety of ills, from depression to high blood pressure and hyperactivity. In some cases, meditation — or as it’s sometimes called, “relaxation techniques” — is prescribed when other treatments, such as prescription drugs, haven’t worked, or as a complement to drug therapy. Recent research has shown that meditation can help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as reduce pain and enhance the body’s immune system.

Meditation is free, accessible and portable. It has no negative side effects — a fact that makes doctors feel comfortable recommending it. Meditation requires only that you be able to sit quietly for 10 minutes or more, while focusing on your breath or a word or phrase. Anyone can do it. And while millions of Americans already are meditating in some fashion, many more would likely benefit.

“I believe that meditation is the most important thing a person can do for their health,” said Dr. David Simon, medical director and chief executive of the Chopra Center at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., the wellness clinic founded by New Age author and physician, Dr. Deepak Chopra. “The most powerful pharmacy on Earth is not Savon or Rite Aid, but the human body,” Simon said.

With so much evidence, why aren’t more people doing it?

As with many lifestyle changes, most notably diet and exercise, getting started and sticking with meditation can be difficult. Meditation takes time and discipline. Desperately seeking health or sanity, many stressed-out people yearn for some quiet time amid the chaotic frenzy of their daily lives. Finding 10 uninterrupted minutes and a quiet place to sit down and shut your eyes can be a stumbling block. It’s problematic to zone out in a cubicle at work, or at a restaurant during lunch. And home life can be hectic in these wired and wireless times.

No one knows for sure how many of those who begin meditating continue the practice. Gen Kelsang Lekma, a Buddhist nun who has taught meditation for a decade in Los Angeles, said the dropout rate is fairly high: Only about half the students who begin a typical 13-class series will complete it, she estimates, and perhaps two out of 10 students who begin meditating will still be doing so after a couple of years.

Students abandon the practice for a variety of reasons, Lekma said. Some don’t like it or can’t get the hang of it, and others lack the discipline to practice it regularly, usually daily. Some students are attracted to meditation out of a desire to learn something about Buddhist philosophy, but eventually lose interest.

How a person comes to meditation may also have an impact on his or her willingness to stick with it. For example, an increasing number of physicians are recommending meditation as a form of therapy to patients with heart disease, high blood pressure and even infertility. Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard University professor and president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass., said that in his clinical experience, about 60% to 70% of those who begin a meditation-type practice primarily for medical reasons (sometimes at the recommendation of their doctor) adopt the teachings.

Proponents of the practice — from Buddhists to cardiologists — are trying to help more people work meditation into their daily lives. So what are the most effective approaches for starting meditation and ensuring you’ll stick with it?

The first step is to make the commitment, experts said. Learn about why it works physiologically and how it might benefit your health.

Published more than 25 years ago, Benson’s pioneering book, “The Relaxation Response,” showed how 10 minutes of meditative technique a day could increase concentration and counteract the harmful effects of stress, such as high blood pressure and strokes.

Considered by many to be the father of meditation in this country, Benson uses the phrase “relaxation response” to refer broadly to various meditation-type techniques — including prayer, qi gong, yoga and tai chi — that quiet the brain. The practices also counter the “fight-or-flight” response, which is triggered in stressful situations, and the accompanying secretion of norepinephrine, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland that, along with epinephrine, increases metabolism, blood pressure, mental activity and heart rate.

Newcomers need to stick with meditation long enough to make it a habit. Taking a meditation class or attending a meditation retreat can be a shortcut to feeling the positive effects of meditation faster and establishing a routine, experts said.

“Most people find it very difficult to begin a meditation practice on their own,” said Lekma, 37, resident teacher at the Echo Park Buddhist temple. “When you meditate with others, you get some kind of group dynamic going. When you get some people who are experienced, you kind of feed off it.”

Experts caution, however, that meditation won’t produce the immediate “hit,” such as reduced stress or increased energy, that a workout in the gym or other brisk exercise will do. Meditation takes time to learn, and even people who have been doing it for years still have times when their minds wander.

“The first few times you feel like an idiot doing it,” said Dr. Lee Lipsenthal, medical director of the Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease and Lifestyle Advantage in Sausalito, Calif., who has meditated for 20 years and recommends meditation, along with diet and exercise changes, to patients with heart disease. “You are feeling anxious, your head is spinning, you are thinking you could be doing X, Y and Z, until you get the hang of it. That takes nearly six weeks of daily practice.”

Experts also stress the importance of new students choosing a meditation technique that conforms to their own belief system. This should make it easier to stick to the discipline over the long run. For a Catholic, it could be saying Hail Marys. For a Jew, it could be davening. For others, it could mean simply repeating a mantra-type phrase like “peace, love.” Finally, it is important to be patient and start slowly. Lekma, the Buddhist nun, suggests starting with tiny steps, such as a single weekly session with others, followed by a small personal commitment that you could stick to — for example, five to 10 minutes a day.

“People come in with a lot of enthusiasm, but have unrealistic expectations,” Lekma said. “Instead of taking very small steps they say, ‘I want to run a marathon.’ First you have to run half a block.”

A study recently conducted at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles showed how quickly those small steps can make a difference. The study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and presented at the American Heart Assn. scientific sessions in Orlando, Fla., in November, found that patients with coronary heart disease who practiced transcendental meditation for the first time showed a significant improvement in their blood pressure and insulin resistance (pre-diabetes).

The 16-week study, conducted by Dr. Bairey Merz, of Cedars-Sinai, with Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, is the first to demonstrate this blood pressure effect in heart patients. Meditation was able to produce a benefit roughly equivalent to the use of one type of blood pressure medication, the researchers found.

Mario Farnier, 53, a biomedical researcher, was recovering from a 1999 heart attack when he was admitted to the hospital last August with chest pains and underwent an angioplasty procedure. He enrolled in the meditation study and, by the study’s end, had improved enough that his doctors were able to cut one of his medications by half.

“I must say, I felt good at the time of the study,” Farnier said. He continued meditating with others until the group study ended, but has found it more difficult to continue a regular practice on his own. He still meditates occasionally, shutting his office door for quiet, but finds it harder to make time to meditate than for the regular running workouts he has done for decades. “The more you think you need it, the less time you have to do it,” he said. “If the pressure is there I can’t do it. I say I’ll do it later, but by the end of the day I never do it.”

Most beginners say they continue to need help to carry on the practice. At a crowded Wednesday night meditation class at the Khandakapala Buddhist Center in Los Angeles, Dave Hernandez, a self-employed artist, sat cross-legged on a burgundy cushion and worked to tame his restless mind. “I tried meditating on my own,” he said. “But it’s just like a rocket ship taking off when you are meditating with other people. It’s really high. That high place is just harder to get to when you are on your own.”

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