Yoga and Infertility

one of my favorite views
(the ceiling at Strala Yoga; one of my favorite views)

It took me thirteen years to get pregnant. I don’t talk a lot about my infertility, because somewhere during those thirteen years, I decided to not let it define me or my life. I didn’t want to sit around at home pining for a child while allowing other opportunities to slip away. And I certainly didn’t want to be seen that way by the world; I didn’t want to be known for what I did not have–I wanted to be known for what I could do and what I’d done.

I mean, there were plenty of days in there where I would draw the curtains in my bedroom, crawl into my bed, and cry for hours on end, grieving a life I didn’t have. I would be very happy for my pregnant friends, but found baby showers unbearable, so I stopped going. And I’d be very happy for my pregnant friends, but simultaneously found their round pregnant bellies torturous. But for the most part, I kept my grief very private, for better and for worse, to the point where some people were very surprised to learn I wanted children.

We bought our home in Berkeley with the intention of having children, many children. Over the years, the extra bedrooms became guest rooms and and an office. Still, the aura of empty bedrooms never escaped me.

In some fit of optimism, I decided early on that the first child I’d hold in my arms was going to be my own, so for many many years I politely declined holding people’s babies. Eventually, I wondered if I should go ahead and hold a baby, because maybe I’d never get to hold my own. But by then, very few people offered up their babies to me. And the significance of the act had become quite large–whose baby? And what would that act signify? Would that mean I’d totally given up? And uh, yah. Awkward.

Yah, it got complicated.

At one point, I picked up my head and made a concerted effort to “do what people with kids cannot do.” That meant that when we were asked to move to New York City, we immediately (okay not immediately, but twenty-four hours later) said yes, we would. (Plus hello? New York!) We picked up and moved within two months, wending our way across the country (through a blizzard in Arizona!) in a MINI Cooper with two geriatric wiener dogs in the back. We lived a bicoastal life. We flew back and forth. These were things that people with kids could not do.

And then–we got pregnant.

I wrote a little essay late in my pregnancy on my infertility and its intersection with yoga for my friend and yoga instructor, Tara Stiles. I met her completely by chance at her yoga studio Strala Yoga. Yoga with Tara changed my life. Tara read this essay at a conference on infertility (Fertility Planit) at which she was a keynote speaker.

If you want to hear it, Tara’s presentation is up at MindBodyGreen; she begins reading my essay at the 24:30 mark.

The essay also speaks to my lifelong/ongoing body issues.

And here is my essay if you would prefer to read it:


I’ve lived in Berkeley since 1991, when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley–this is a land with no lack of incense, tie-dyed tshirts, and yoga studios. But I didn’t find yoga here; I found yoga while living in New York City twenty years later when a friend of mine and I in the most timid of manners, stepped into a RELAX class at Strala.

We just wanted to get moving. We were both writers who sat at desks all day. We would never describe ourselves as athletic or coordinated. We both hated exercise classes; I disliked them because I felt so self-conscious in a classroom setting, where my place in the spectrum (worst in class) would be so marked. But we thought it would be good to get more flexible. We picked the studio because in all frankness, it was conveniently located. In sum, we had no expectations.

But there we were, with a yoga instructor in Tara Stiles who would occasionally giggle to herself. And bring laughter into the room. So that I began to equate yoga with delight. Who welcomed us as if into her own home. Who didn’t make me feel like a failure because I struggled to hold Downward Dog those first weeks. It was okay. I went back the next week. And then the next. I upped my visits to two times a week, sometimes three over the next year.

What happened over the next year and a half at Strala Yoga was life-changing.

But in order to tell you what changed, I feel like I should tell you a little about my relationship with my body: I have had a painful relationship with my body–in fact, I wanted to divorce myself from my body. It had let me down in so many ways, I’d assumed it would always disappoint me with all manner of pain. I was not nice to my body, either–I starved it, I purged it, and I hurt myself in retaliation and in pursuit of control throughout my teenage years.

In my late 20s, I was diagnosed with PCOS, which unabbreviated is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. It was undiagnosed until a few years after my husband and I tried to conceive. When I saw my ovaries on the ultrasound, my first reaction was, “They look like a pomegranate cross section!” They were filled with dozens of unpopped eggs, cysts if you will. I cried when I found out–not because of grief, but because of relief, because I had found a name for what was wrong with my body. That I’d been chubby and sluggish and moody not out of lack of discipline, but because of a hormonal imbalance. That the root cause had been there all that time. I cried because I was angry that I’d gone undiagnosed all those years, and because the side effects of PCOS (easy weight gain, difficult weight loss) could have been mitigated. I had engaged in needless war with my body, and with myself.

And so I had renewed hope. I exercised. I ran. But you see, when I worked out, I was like a fainting goat. I’d still run and want to pass out. Any strenuous weight lifting (it wasn’t that I couldn’t lift heavy stuff–I’d put my mind into it, and push through the pain), and I’d go home with a migraine. I did stadium stairs and I’d vomit fourteen times in an hour session. My personal trainer high fived me for pushing through the pain each time.

I love backpacking. I’ve backpacked the Lost Coast, and I’ve backpacked throughout the Sierra Nevadas at altitude. My friends and I got used to the fact that I got altitude sickness before everyone else, and that I’d just puke up the mountain.

And then I had a stroke in December 2006 at the age of 33 due to a PFO, which is a Patent Foramen Ovale, a hole in the center of my heart; as a fetus, we breathe through our mother’s blood, and so we have no use for our lungs. The blood flows from one side of the heart to the other, skipping our lungs, through a hole in the central wall. When we start breathing air, that hole is supposed to close and route blood to our lungs, but in about 20% of us, it remains open to varying degrees. A small percentage of us have migraines due to that hole, and an even smaller percentage can have a stroke. On December 31, 2006, I threw a clot into my brain and had a left thalamic stroke, one that left me with a fifteen minute short term memory.

Doctors closed the hole in my heart a few months later. I was restricted from exercising until I healed. I was Dory the Fish in Finding Nemo. I couldn’t read anything other than People Magazine for months. I couldn’t read a novel for a year. I couldn’t write fiction for nearly two years.

And when my heart was ready a year later, I began running again, in earnest. I could run. I could breathe. I couldn’t believe the freedom.

There was still a lot of healing left to do–doctors are amazing, but after my stroke, I learned that medicine can only go so far; that last mile is a lonely road that doctors often do not take alongside you. My neurologist told me as his parting words, “You’ve come a long way. You’re lucky to be alive. But this is as far as I can take you.” He was a wonderful neurologist who said this with the greatest of empathy. But it was the truth. This was as far as *he* could take me. The rest was up to me. And I pushed forward. I wrote everyday, hoping to regain my ability to write. And I did.

But you see, it wasn’t until Strala and Tara that I finished healing, when everything came together, my mind my body, that last mile. My relationship between my mind and body. That I realized there shouldn’t be pain in wellness. There should be ease. That this new ability to breathe could connect my mind with my body. That every breath could heal.

I spent a year not running. I thought, “What if I just do yoga? What if I really just enjoy myself and my body? What if I slow down?”

To reiterate, there was still a lot of healing left to do, stuff I didn’t even expect to have healed–my husband and I were still struggling to have a child. I’d taken progesterone, taken fertility medications, lost weight, taken metformin therapy. It had been a thirteen-year-long road, one not without its share of “let’s give up for awhile,” and “let’s try this or that again,” and “I guess our life would be fine if we didn’t have a kid”-conversations. I was approaching forty, and the door was closing.

In the meantime, I was going to Strala. In the beginning, I trembled during Warrior two, but I’d take a deep breath, think of water, think my body was floating in water, and take a deep breath, exhale, transition to reverse Warrior two, breathe, exhale, back to Warrior two, forward to Triangle. Breathe. Easy. Slow. Breathe. Tara Stiles’ voice was in my head. Ease. Easy. Breathe. Slow.

I was going to Strala. Mostly RELAX but some STRONG. For me, yoga wasn’t about doing inversions or balancing on one arm. It was about ninety minutes with myself.

I was going to Strala. I did crow. I couldn’t believe that when the time came, I could balance my body with my shins on my arms. It took a breath, not force, to do so.

I was going to Strala. Where people like Michael Taylor say things like, “Move like you like yourself.” I had begun to like myself. The war with my body had finally ceased.

I was going to Strala. Where change was happening every single minute. Without pain. Without struggle.

A work acquaintance of mine once told me, “Christine if it were easy to be fit, everyone would be fit. Working out is supposed to be hard and painful.” At the time I nodded. But today, I’d shake my head. It doesn’t have to be that way.

I happened to drop fifteen more pounds over the course of my year at Strala. When I wasn’t in NYC and I was in Berkeley, I popped in Tara Stiles’ DVDs, and did yoga at home. I happened to start eating better–not that I didn’t eat my share of junk food, but I found myself having a few bites of chocolate and then stopping when I had my fill. So many things “happened to happen” with yoga that it can’t be a coincidence.

And my backpacking didn’t suffer, either, because I happened to become more aerobically fit–last Fall, I found myself jogging up Sierra trails that I’d previously struggled to walk.

I happened to be happier. I happened to be more confident.

And this Spring, I happened to become pregnant.

I didn’t go into pregnancy without risks; I had had chronic high blood pressure for a number of years and was at risk for pre-eclampsia. The first thing doctors did was take me off blood pressure medications I’d been taking for ten years. I was a little worried.

Everyday during my pregnancy, I took my blood pressure. It never went above 125/84. And on the days (and the day or two after) I did yoga, my blood pressure stayed at or below 115/75.

I happened to no longer need blood pressure medication. Without medications and with yoga, I happened to no longer have blood pressure as high as 160/120.

Yoga kept me and my kid safe throughout gestation. I happened to not have morning sickness. I happened to have a completely textbook pregnancy.

I’m now 38 weeks pregnant, a milestone I never ever thought I would reach. At this point in pregnancy, I’m uncomfortable, but healthy, thanks to yoga. I did RELAX classes on DVD with a few modifications–no rocking on my belly–(download it online!) until the end of week 32, which in layman’s speak is 8ish months.

I did everything I could to get pregnant over the course of 13 years. I know deep in my heart that it was yoga that happened to be the variable of change. It was yoga that brought my body into balance–and I could see things become regular in a way that hadn’t been before.

I’m not scared of labor, because I am going to go into it with the Strala Yoga philosophy of breathing and moving with ease. Because I now have faith in my body. And this–this is how Strala Yoga changed my life.

I will miss Tara Stiles & Strala!
(I am totes pregnant in the above photo with Tara. P was born in January. And yes, the birth/labor experience ended up being Amazing, thanks to yoga lessons and the support of my husband and my birth doula).

And here’s Tara with P!
tara and p

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9 Comments

Filed under Life, Pregnancy, The Personal

9 responses to “Yoga and Infertility

  1. I really enjoyed your post. Congrats to you and your journey into motherhood! I like how you tied mind, body and soul into your article. I’ve tried yoga many times and cannot seem to get into, especially the connection between mind and body. I’ve always been more of an aerobic exercise queen, but I’m more inspired to try yoga again. Best to you.

  2. What a great story & essay. So nice to read. I had a molar pregnancy 2 yrs ago & have been trying for a baby for the last year w/ no luck. I’m going to a fertility clinic, but isn’t working yet.
    I’m interested in more info of your knowledge of poly cystic ovaries. My fertility clinic says I have this, but is NOT concerned. Says its not why I’m not preggo. Also, since my molar pregnancy I’ve gained10lbs I can’t get off no matter how I eat or exercise. Any input would be appreciated.
    A huge congrats on your little bundle of joy!!!

    • Hi Suzanne–I’m sorry about your molar pregnancy–that must’ve been so daunting and scary. I’m not a medical professional, but if you have PCOS, it is highly likely (I’d even go as far as saying most definitely) the cause of your infertility. It is, I think, fairly common knowledge that PCOS affects fertility (because those cysts are Unpopped Eggs due to a hormonal imbalance that makes it so we don’t release eggs). I’m surprised they’re not at all concerned.

      HOWEVER, many many women with PCOS do go on to become pregnant (I kept being told this–and I sort of roll my eyes because it did take me 13 years to become pregnant after fixing my health issues and then being able to get fit). You may need some intervention, like with metformin therapy (way not as scary as it sounds–it means taking diabetes pills to mitigate insulin resistance, if you have insulin resistance due to PCOS–insulin resistance is one of the factors in the weight gain/resistance to weight loss related to PCOS), or letrazole/clomid to get those eggs popping.

      I *highly* recommend that you go over to http://soulcysters.com/ to get more data and join their online community. I learned tons and benefited from the site in the early months of my learning about my PCOS diagnosis.

  3. K

    I love this post. It made me so happy and also reminded me how brave and awesome you are. Also it makes me want to give yoga another chance.

  4. Wow, I didn’t realize how long and hard your journey into motherhood has been. I’m voraciously reading your past posts on infertility. I have friends in that boat and I so want to sympathize and be sensitive to their situation. Thanks for writing openly about it all. And though I haven’t struggled with infertility, I too totally hate smug moms. Always have, always will. Bitches.

  5. This is beautiful, Christine.

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  8. Pingback: Stroke Essay | Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

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