Kumhui, a sophisticated woman of forty, sits opposite a video camera on a sweltering Los Angeles day. Seven months pregnant, her calm demeanor conceals the struggle she went through to conceive, which included surgery to remove her fallopian tubes. Having exhausted every avenue Western medicine had to offer, Kumhui was determined to try anything in order to get pregnant. That was when she discovered Soulful Conceptions™ – The Complete Mind-Body Fertility Program and her pregnancy journey truly began.
Over twenty years in the making, Soulful Conceptions™ evolved out of one woman’s frustration with what Western medicine was lacking. It was the mid-nineties, and actress and yoga instructor Brenda Strong (Supergirl, 13 Reasons Why, The Leisure Class, Dallas, Desperate Housewives, etc.) was battling her own secondary infertility (inability to conceive/carry to term after previously having a baby). “When I started there was no fertility yoga. We were pretty much in the dark.” Like many women, Strong relied on her doctors’ expertise to solve the problem. “It’s a very private thing. When I started having my own issues, I realized that this is an epidemic.” Strong set to work, determined to understand the root cause of the issue she and so many women were experiencing. She delved into her yogic roots and incorporated a deep study of ancient medicines like Qigong and acupressure points. “It wasn’t until I experienced my own secondary infertility that I found there were ancient methodologies available to me through yoga and breath that I could incorporate to balance and open up access to my own reproductive hormones.”
Strong developed her own comprehensive mind-body program, incorporating what she called the ‘Four Fields of Fertility’ – thoughts, emotions, body and breath. Before long, Strong’s clients started getting pregnant. “They would say, ‘but I have a sister in Kansas and I have a cousin in New York and I have a friend in England’… I had to duplicate myself.” In the course of developing a teacher training program, she found Health Psychologist/Neuropsychologist, Dr. Deborah Anderson and Certified Yoga Therapist/ Pre & Post Natal Yoga Teacher, Wendy Obstler. These two fertility yoga experts are now sharing her legacy with a newly expanded version of the program, which includes yoga therapy, psychology/neuroscience and Ayurveda for Fertility. They also invited their colleague, Megan Murphy Rouse, a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner and Functional Medicine Nutritionist, to share her expertise in the Ayurvedic section of the program.
This program is truly a comprehensive mind-body tool-kit. In addition to yoga asana (poses), individuals learn breathing techniques (Breathe to Conceive© series), how to understand their emotions and better navigate them (in the Psychology and Neuroscience section), mindfulness and meditation practices, Ayurveda for fertility (the sister life-science to yoga, which includes lifestyle and nutrition components) and the Fertility Ball Method®. “We also had many other ‘gems of wisdom’ to share, and those are included in a Bonus Section part of the program,” adds Anderson.
What is the Fertility Ball Method® you might be asking? Designed by Strong, the Fertility Ball Method® activates the energy meridians of the body (a practice frequently used in acupuncture) to increase a healthy flow of blood to the pelvis and reproductive organs. Students learn to access their reproductive organs, feel where their ovaries are and manipulate their own abdominal tract to gain awareness of and release stress/tension inside the body.
One missing element in this day and age of miscarriages, hormone medications, failed IVFs and the social pressures associated with conceiving is the ability to handle stress. At its core, the Soulful Conceptions™ program is centered around enabling women to learn to activate the relaxation response, instead of the stress (fight-or-flight) response. Melissa, who suffered rounds of IVF and a miscarriage, recalls finally getting pregnant after entering the program. “My emotions were all over the place. It was very stressful… a very difficult time. Class became like therapy. It really did.” For some individuals, learning to manage and release stress is the answer to their struggles (i.e., the couples who suddenly find themselves pregnant after signing the adoption papers).
Jamie, a mother of two whose six year fertility journey included rounds of IUIs with gynecologists and fertility specialists, injections and numerous medications, recalls her mental state when trying to conceive: “I took every pill on the market… I took injections. I did whatever I could. I took a dance class. Getting pregnant was my second job.” Strong notes that the Soulful Conceptions program™, the only one of its kind, works alongside Western medicine, while allowing women to stop, focus on their breathing and relax, enabling them to receive what they need to enhance conception. “Conception is all about receiving,” Strong says. “Women are so stressed out about doctors visits, ovulating and timing that they forget the process of conception is allowing a spirit to enter the world. We are providing women with the opportunity to relax and receive. At the end of the day, no doctor can deny the benefits of this practice.”
The unspoken social pressures surrounding pregnancy place immeasurable stress on anyone trying to conceive. It is a given in our society that pregnancy is a natural process, with the bulk of the pressure laid upon the woman’s shoulders. Before entering the Soulful Conceptions™ class, Jamie grappled with the humiliation surrounding her struggles to conceive. “I didn’t understand why my body couldn’t do the one thing it was made to do. I felt very ashamed and I didn’t discuss it with anyone.” This unspoken shame as well as the inability for our society to discuss this all-too-common issue compounds a woman’s stress, further delaying the process of conception.
While developing the program, Strong observed the emotional shift in her clients from one of stress and urgency to one of harmony and relaxation. One key component, she notes, is the community aspect. “What I found was that women felt alone. And so in creating these programs where women could come together and share their stories, they felt empowered. They felt like they could take the next steps.” Occupational therapist, Erica Reid, seconds this sentiment. After working for years helping women with the physical aspect of trying to conceive, she notes that Soulful Conceptions™ is the only all-encompassing mind-body fertility program that can also be considered a safe-haven for women and couples trying to conceive. “One of the biggest benefits is to have a safe place to share this experience. This is the only comprehensive program out there that provides support in every area a woman needs to conceive.”
Shelley, a striking blonde in her forties, recalls discovering the Soulful Conceptions™ class after four failed IUIs. “It became a very humbling experience when I realized that it’s not in my control 100%. That’s where the community and going through the classes actually helped. You can talk to people who are going through the same thing.” Shelley pauses as Wyatt, one of her five year-old identical twin boys, runs into the room and drapes himself over her knee. She chuckles, blissfully aware that everything she went through to conceive was worth it.
This program is safe for all levels of yoga experience and for those who are trying to conceive naturally or working with fertility specialists. The Soulful Conceptions™ master instructors understand the rigors of the medical procedures their fertility clients are undergoing, including the physical safety requirements of those women going through any of the ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology) processes. “On the first day of class I was very nervous, apprehensive… I had no idea what to expect,” Kumhui says. She pauses, reaching for a tissue. “When I met Wendy she exuded this warmth… she made me feel very welcomed. Any apprehension, any fear that I had went away as soon as I entered her class.” Katie, now the mom of one after her own many-year journey, gushes over Obstler and Anderson’s ability to create a safe space for their clients. Grieving after two miscarriages, she was looking for connection and solace, which she discovered in one of Obstler’s blog posts. “I thought, there’s someone actually teaching this and I can go and do it with other people? This is such a vulnerable journey and I trust them implicitly.”
Shelley, a single mom by choice, entered the Soulful Conceptions™ class with the intention of doing it all by herself. On her first day in class she met Melissa, who quickly became her best friend. “I realized that having a child literally takes a village.” Shelley and Melissa not only became fast friends, but conceived and delivered their boys around the same time. The two laugh when discussing their shared parenting tips and play dates. “Everyone is so stuck on this idea of a nuclear family. A mother, father, children… but family comes together in all kinds of ways, none better than the other. The Soulful Conceptions™ program made me realize that I wasn’t in this alone.”
The fertility process can be a debilitating one for many women and couples. Often forced to endure hormone injections, procedures and numerous doctors visits, the experience can quickly feel like a part time job – adding stress that in turn, inhibits reproduction. Dr. Guy Ringler, a reproductive endocrinologist and fertility specialist with California Fertility Partners, agrees that the Soulful Conceptions™ program picks up where Western medicine may be lacking. “Often our focus on the science and details can make the patient feel helpless. Just the fact of being unable to conceive is stressful. Studies have shown that yoga and acupressure can decrease stress levels and anxiety levels, which are associated with infertility. By reducing levels of stress and anxiety we can increase pregnancy rates perhaps by increasing blood flow.”
Dr. Dao, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine and a licensed acupuncturist who specializes in reproductive medicine and fertility frequently refers his clients to the Soulful Conceptions™ program. “Stress plays a huge role in reducing fertility potential. It makes the body tense, freezes circulation, causes adrenal hormones to kick up, in turn dampening other hormones. This program teaches the participant how to breathe, bring their attention and focus into their womb, enhancing endocrine and hormone function. My patients who have entered this program find that it enhances their acupressure therapy very synergistically, empowering them in the process.”
“The growing body of research in this area does demonstrate a link between increased physiologic markers of stress (e.g., elevated adrenaline and cortisol levels, decreased blood flow to the ovaries) and decreased fertility”, adds Anderson, who also brings her expertise in psychology and neuropsychology to this work. “Further, the data supports that early intervention has a buffering effect. Ideally, we would love it if all women were learning these tools and techniques even before they started trying to conceive – but we’re here and ready to work with them no matter where they are in the process.”
The Happy Patients are the ones who get Pregnant
Dr. Ringler’s embryologist mentioned this once and it stuck with him. “Emotions are highly tied in to the process of conception. Some patients come in so happy and so grateful. And some patients… you can feel their stress. We need the patients to feel receptive, to feel ready, to be relaxed. If yoga can get people in touch with their happiness, then that might make the pregnancy more receptive.”
The Soulful Conceptions™ Program provides other lasting benefits, including a deeper sense of self-awareness regarding thought and emotional patterns, education about diet and lifestyle, the impact of environmental toxins on fertility, and many other tools that they can carry with them well into motherhood. Obstler explains, “In our work, we strive to shift the focus from baby-making to mama-making. The practices we teach in our program are designed to not only enhance fertility, but serve a bigger purpose really – which is to help these women (and their partners) be healthier people and parents throughout their lifetime (including finding more joy and peace along this journey).”
After suffering through six failed IUI’s, thirty-eight year old Jeanne was told that a donor egg was the only way she would ever get pregnant, only to take the Soulful Conceptions™ class and conceive naturally at forty-one. Jeanne stops, recalling what she went through to conceive. She takes a deep breath. “The two and a half years I took trying to conceive won’t ever magically go away… they are deep wounds. But after going through the program, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t thank my son for being here and for letting me be his mother. Hey – I made that little guy. I’ve got magic over there. I’ve got magic in my arms.”
Nearing the end of the interview, Kumhui pauses. “Since the program, I try to live a more clean, toxic-free lifestyle. It’s prepared me for a healthier life for my family and my baby – who is coming soon.” She breaks into an intoxicating laugh, knowing the true benefit will enter her life soon enough.