Guest post by Kristi Jasberg Robinson
You’ve seen them on TV, or the covers of magazines or DVDs in local stores: lithe, sinewy fitness models, their bodies contorted into seemingly biology-defying yoga poses. If you’re anything like me, you’ve looked at them with both admiration and envy, muttering to yourself, I wish I could do that. If only I wasn’t stuck in this PCOS body!
Well, I’m here to assure you that yoga is for every body. In fact, yoga is one of the most beneficial forms of exercise for the bodies, minds, and spirits of women with PCOS! I say this as someone who – close to 20 years after being diagnosed with PCOS and over a decade after trying yoga for the first time – has learned that her own magnificently plus-sized, apple-shaped PCOS body has gifted her with a strong yoga practice and equipped her to become a yoga teacher-in-training!
My own journey with PCOS officially began in the mid-1990s. I had known intuitively since my mid-teens that there was something wrong with my body, with my lack of regular cycles and inability to lose the stubborn fat around my midsection regardless of how hard I dieted or exercised. However, it wasn’t until the age of 23 – following significant weight gain after college and a month straight of bleeding after an entire year of missed periods – that a compassionate doctor with knowledge of women’s health issues listened to me describe my symptoms, looked at my body type, and said, “I think I know exactly what is going on with you. You have PCOS!” Sure enough, a simple blood test to measure my FSH and LH levels confirmed the diagnosis. Filled with relief that I could put a name to this disorder, and armed with her recommendations to start taking oral contraceptives and follow a regimen of low-carb eating and lots of exercise, I started on the path of healing my body.
That path was anything but straight and smooth. Conventional PCOS wisdom at that time was to work out long and hard for best results. I’d throw myself into a vigorous workout regimen and lose weight – then get burned out, slack off, and gain it all back, sometimes with more. I struggled against depression, which I attributed to life circumstances, having no idea at the time that it could be a symptom of PCOS. Then I moved out of state and began law school, sending my stress levels skyrocketing and my self-care out the window!
By 2002, as I neared the end of law school, my friends and I joined a gym to help improve our fitness and blow off steam. “You have to try yoga,” one of my buddies exclaimed. “I love yoga. It’s the greatest!” Despite feeling intimidated, she persuaded me to go to a class with her – and much to my surprise, I hated every minute it! It required strength and flexibility that I didn’t have, and I couldn’t keep up with the instructor or all of the skinny, spandex-clad pretzel girls surrounding me. “I am not a yoga person,” I laughed. “Back to the treadmill and weight machines for me!”
About four years later – now practicing law and dating the man I would soon marry – I found myself again struggling with my weight, struggling to fight depression and stress, and struggling against lower back pain. The doctor that I saw for my back pain prescribed physical therapy, and suggested yoga to stretch and strengthen my core. Yoga, ugh! I groaned, but found a reasonably-priced beginner class at my local YMCA and begrudgingly signed up. And what a difference from my first yoga experience! The teacher patiently explained every asana, or pose, as she guided the class gently from a set of seated postures to a flow of standing poses and back down to the floor to stretch and rest. I left the class feeling invigorated, yet peaceful and serene – almost as if I was floating on air – and connected to my body in a way that was new and unfamiliar. It was wonderful! And after just a few more classes, my lower back pain was gone!
Upon relocating after our marriage, I found a terrific yoga studio literally around the corner from our house, and started attending classes there. Soon I found myself talking to the teacher/owner about my fertility issues and my hope that yoga could somehow help. “Most people have never heard of it, but I have something called PCOS,” I told her. “Actually, I have PCOS too!” she replied, to my amazement! She shared with me that yoga had done more to improve her PCOS symptoms than years of working out and working as a personal trainer had ever done, including helping her to lose 50 pounds and to conceive her daughter.
That was all the encouragement I needed to dedicate myself to a yoga practice. The results have been profound: I am physically stronger and more flexible than ever; I have learned to ease my stress through yogic breathing techniques called pranayama; I have lost weight; I have markedly improved hormone levels and other blood test results; I have developed a true love for a form of exercise that can be done at any age, in any physical condition; I have almost completed my yoga teacher training certification, so that I can share the gifts of yoga with other women like me, including my cysters; I have made wonderful friends.
I am more in tune with, connected to, and trusting of my body than ever before, and have shocked myself and others with what my body is capable of doing; I am happier and more peaceful. Best of all – I am now five months pregnant!! Many factors and much hard work contributed to make that happen, but I am convinced that yoga played a significant role in healing some of the damage that PCOS had wreaked on my body and making it a life-giving and nurturing vessel by which to conceive and bring a new being into the world.
So why are yoga and PCOS a perfect combination?
- Holding weight-bearing poses builds muscle. In turn, increased muscle mass helps to combat insulin resistance – one of the keys to PCOS management.
- An active yoga practice can increase heart rate, providing a cardiovascular workout and leading to weight loss.
- Third, certain asanas and pranayama exercises promote hormonal balance and deep relaxation, helping to bring the adrenal and cortisol levels of stressed-out PCOS minds and bodies in check, and assisting in healing from chronic inflammation.
- Yoga philosophy and Ayurveda, or traditional Indian medicine, similarly describe certain poses as stimulating energy systems within the body that may be stagnant in women with PCOS as a means to bring the body into balance.
A 2012 study showed that 12 weeks of a 1 hour a day holistic yoga program in adolescents with PCOS was significantly better than a conventional physical exercise program in reducing anxiety symptoms, reducing mFG score for hirsutism, improving menstrual frequency, improving glucose, lipid, and insulin values, including insulin resistance values. (1,2,3)
Yet yoga’s benefits for women with PCOS are not limited to the body alone. One of the definitions of “yoga” is “to unite” – and modern yoga practice unites body, mind, breath, and spirit. In contrast with mindlessly putting in time on a machine at the gym, yoga practice makes one mindful of what one is doing in one’s body, increasing one’s body awareness and helping to make one more loving and accepting of its capabilities and limitations on a day-by-day basis. That awareness in turn builds confidence and self-caring, both in yoga class and in the rest of life. Further, breath is an integral part of every asana. The simple act of breathing one’s way through a challenging pose provides a lesson for using the breath to manage stressful situations at work, in relationships, at home, with one’s health or fertility. Of course, the better we cysters can manage our physiological responses to stress, the more balanced our hormones will be!
Finally, much can be said about yoga as a spiritual practice, most of which is outside the scope of this article – but on its most simple, fundamental level, yoga teaches us to let go of whatever is going on outside of the room, to center ourselves and to turn inward in a positive way as we move in and out of poses, in the hope that we can then bring the benefits we gain from yoga practice to our outer world. And for myself, yoga has only enhanced my very traditional Judeo-Christian faith.
How does one go about starting a yoga practice? While there are many instructional books, magazines, DVDs and even streaming videos available, my best suggestion is to first find a class with a certified, experienced instructor who will take the time to teach you proper form and modify poses for your experience, fitness level, and safety. An intimate class at a small studio might be better for this purpose than a large class in a gym-type setting, though this is not exclusively the case. If you have a less-than-good experience with one teacher, try another! Classes may also be available in a variety of settings other than studios and fitness facilities: at churches or local community centers, affiliated with hospitals or medical practices, or even in private homes. If the cost of classes appears prohibitive, ask about alternatives. For example, some yoga studios will offer reduced-cost or free classes on a need basis, while others will provide free or donation-based classes taught by yoga teachers-in-training.
Most importantly, explore various types of yoga to find one that you enjoy and will keep doing. There are more styles of yoga than I can count, but here are just a few:
- Hatha yoga is the most common style offered in the United States, and provides a balanced, well-rounded fitness experience.
- Vinyasa yoga links together sequences of poses in a flowing style, often providing great aerobic benefits.
- Iyengar yoga places strong focus on proper form and the use of props to support and align the body in each asana.
- Bikram or hot yoga conducts a set series of poses in a heated room to promote flexibility and the release of toxins through sweat.
- Gentle or restorative yoga helps to release stress and recover from other forms of strenuous activity.
- Prenatal yoga stretches, strengthens, and lengthens the muscles and ligaments to create space in the body for a growing baby and to prepare for childbirth.
- Yin yoga encourages the holding of poses for sustained periods of time, promoting circulation and flexibility in connective tissues and joints.
- Chair yoga is a modified seated practice appropriate for the elderly, those with mobility issues, and even those sitting at a desk in an office all day!
Hybrids of yoga and other forms of exercise, such as weight training or core work, can be found – as can yoga classes specifically tailored for plus-sized bodies, set in pools, accompanied by alternative music or other soundtracks, or with your partner, child, or dog!
I hope this article will encourage you to give yoga a try. As a fellow cyster, I assure you that making yoga a part of your comprehensive PCOS management will bring wonderful benefits your overall health and well-being. Yoga is truly for every body – even our own maligned but marvelous PCOS bodies – and is a gift for which you will thank yourself every time you practice.
Kristi Jasberg Robinson is a “cyster” and a veteran of the PCOS Diva Private Coaching Program. She is also a court executive, wife and expectant mom, and yoga enthusiast. She will soon receive a 200-hour level yoga teacher training certification through her practice and study at Dragonfly Yoga Studio in Doylestown, PA. She looks forward to sharing the gift of yoga with other women with PCOS, plus-size bodies and high-stress lives.