'Desperate Housewives' Actress Uses Yoga to Help Women Facing Fertility Issues
The narrating character, voiced and played by award-winning actress Brenda Strong, has been waxing poetic on the not-so-perfect lives of her former friends on "Desperate Housewives" since the ABC show's inception in 2004.
Viewers know Mary Alice as the ghostly neighbor who spills secrets from beyond the grave, after struggling with infertility, adopting a child and committing suicide.
Ironically, infertility has played a pivotal role in Strong's off-screen life, as well. It was through her own struggles with trying to conceive a second child that she discovered yoga and its capacity to help women heal from within. Studies, including recent research from the University of Oxford, suggest yoga, meditation and other practices that help ease high levels of stress can significantly help couples struggling with infertility.
In 2005, Strong launched Yoga4Fertility.com. She teaches at the Mind Body Institute at UCLA, and is the first national spokesperson for the American Fertility Association, serving on its board. She also is a co-founder of ProjectBaby.com, for which she writes a regular blog on infertility.
Strong lives with her husband, Tom Henri, and 16-year-old son, Zak Henri, in Los Angeles.
ParentDish caught up with the actress recently to discuss her role in bringing hope and healing to women and men facing fertility challenges. In the United States, one out of every 10 couples is infertile, according to the American Fertility Association.
ParentDish: Your own struggle trying to conceive inspired your unique yoga fertility program. Can you tell us a little bit about your personal experience and why you felt compelled to help other couples?
Brenda Strong: My unique yoga program developed when I underwent secondary infertility. I had lost a lot of weight for a film role and found I had stopped ovulating. My son was about 2 at the time, and I began to use the yoga postures I knew as a yoga teacher to bring my hormones back into balance.
As I began to do research on myself, I developed a series of poses that stimulated healthy blood flow to my reproductive organs, nourished my endocrine glands for hormonal balancing and worked with lowering my own stress. I discovered many other women were going through unexplained infertility, as well, but no one was talking about it out in the open.
There was a stigma of shame and failure that I and many others were experiencing and I began to realize that not only would the physical postures and breathing help women on their journey to conception, but yogic philosophy was a perfect companion to help women heal themselves emotionally, as well. I began shortly after that to teach at the Mind Body Institute at UCLA and developed a following.
PD: Describe the benefits of yoga for infertility treatment.
BS: Actually, I prefer to refer to it as "Yoga4Fertility," because that states it in the positive. When you are going through reproductive difficulties, you are constantly faced with what's wrong, so it's nice to focus on the positive. In addition, I found regular yoga classes, while good for overall health, relaxation and toning, didn't target a woman's particular needs for healthy conception, and, in some cases, could actually be detrimental to her chances to conceive. (For example: hot yoga, power yoga, etc.) I wanted to create a program that women could trust that would help them get their bodies ready and support them on their journey.
PD: As one of the pioneers in helping couples with fertility challenges, tell us about the women/couples who come to you.
BS: By the time women find me, they are usually desperate and emotionally distraught. They often times have undergone several failed cycles with their doctor or had multiple miscarriages and are in a lot of physical and emotional pain. On occasion, I will get a few who are only interested in working with their bodies naturally with yoga and acupuncture and aren't up against the biological clock, but they are not the norm. By the time my students have found me, they are in need of a lifesaver.
PD: What are some of the unique challenges for couples facing fertility issues during the holidays?
BS: The holidays are filled with family events, and often times family, even though they love us, can be unknowingly insensitive. We are exposed to our sibling's children or friend's babies and feel the ache and pull of what is missing when we have these encounters. Being nurturing to one another and being grateful for what is working can often get us through this stressful period.
PD: What happens through Yoga4fertility?
BS: Women are able to achieve a sense of empowerment over their process. They establish a cooperative and conscious relationship with their bodies and they seem to release emotional angst, stress and anxiety and find a deeper sense of peace with the process. They also are able to retain a connection to their partners through the partner yoga, which establishes a level of support and intimacy that isn't about sex, but connection and relationship. Whatever the outcome is, they are able to find a healthier mindset and their bodies are stronger and more balanced in preparation for pregnancy.
PD: What is Project Baby?
BS: Project Baby is a website that I have a blog on. It was established by a couple that successfully had two children after a horrific battle, in which Amy almost lost her life. She realized that all the websites she would go on at the time she was dealing with infertility contributed to her fear and anxiety and she wanted to create a site for women that was positive, peaceful and had a sense of humor so that women could laugh and not be so devastated by the process like she was.
PD: Any experiences where women in your yoga classes have recognized Mary Alice's voice?
BS: Early on, when I was teaching yoga after I got the role of Mary Alice, certain people would show up at my yoga studio just to hear my voice. But, at the time, I think my class was hard enough that the novelty wore off, and if they weren't really serious or in it for the right reason, they wouldn't come back. It was my loyal students who had the hard time adjusting after they saw the show because they would be in final resting pose with their eyes closed and I would be leading them into relaxation and they couldn't help but hear Mary Alice.
PD: What's next?
BS: I am developing more products like the Fertility Ball to support women. And I'm looking to be involved with a women's wellness television program and get the word out through the American Fertility Association to college campuses to young men and women to plan earlier than later for the family they want "down the road" so they can make empowered and informed choices about their future.
PD: If you could tell women facing fertility issues one thing to help them, what advice/inspiration would you give them?
BS: Get checked by a reproductive endocrinologist. Get your partner checked and make sure you know exactly what is happening so that you aren't racing against the biological clock.
PD: Tell us about some of the women who have gone through the program.
BS: I have been blessed with some of the most courageous and compassionate students. They teach me daily about what is important and, when they are successful, I am incredibly moved by how grateful and appreciative they are of the work that they have done with me. I truly feel honored to help these women and couples rise from their greatest pain to the most joyful moment when their journey to becoming parents is complete.
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