Last year, I was between my second and third IVF (in vitro fertilization) cycles when I decided it was time to get back to yoga.
Once a day, I rolled out a black mat in my living room to practice Yin yoga, a form of deep stretch where poses are held for as long as five minutes. Though I have two yoga teaching certifications, this was my first time practicing in more than a year. I hadn’t stepped on my mat since my initial consultation with a reproductive endocrinologist who I hoped would help me conceive.
In the year that followed that first meeting, my husband and I traversed cycles of hope and disappointment more than once. IVF is hard — on your body, on your emotions — and nothing really prepares you for it. For me, one of the most unexpected parts was feeling estranged from my body.
IVF requires you to inject hormones — essentially asking your body to mature many eggs in advance of ovulation, in the hopes of getting a viable and healthy one (or more) that will fertilize. But in my 40s, I knew I had already expended my most viable, healthy eggs, so the injections had the effect of distancing me from my body.
I felt as though I was making an 11th-hour plea of my reproductive system, way too late — and my youthful body, and what that felt like, registered as a blank in my imagination, a memory I could envision but not recover viscerally, let alone revisit, repeat, relive, or have back.
I kept thinking of a photograph of my college and post-college friends and I at an Italian restaurant in downtown Brooklyn. I remembered getting dressed for that evening, which was my 31st birthday, and pairing red pants from Ann Taylor with a silk black T-shirt with a zig-zag pattern of orange, blue, yellow, and green thread running through the fabric.
I remembered how quickly I dressed for that evening, and how intuitive it was to express myself with my clothing and carriage in a way where I felt good about myself. At the time, I didn’t have to think about how to do that — I had a natural confidence in my sexuality and self-expression that can be second nature in your 20s and early 30s.
My friends and I were modern dancers at the time, and in good shape. Ten years later, and in the midst of IVF, that time resonated as distinctly ended. That body seemed discrete and separate from the body I had in my 40s. I was not testing myself in the same way physically, having turned to writing, true, but this feeling of being separated from my body, even feeling some in-the-shadows disappointment with it.
That feeling of betrayal by my body led to some physical changes that, at first, I assumed were part and parcel of the aging process. One evening, my husband and I took my brother-in-law to dinner in honor of his birthday. As it happened, my husband had gone to school with the host at the restaurant, and after their initial hellos, his friend turned to me kindly and said, “Is this your mom?”
That was enough to get my attention. After some deep self-reflection, I realized that the aging process wasn’t responsible for me looking and feeling older, tired, and out of shape. My thought process was. In my mind, I felt defeated, and my body began to show signs of that.
This quote from Ron Breazeale struck a chord: “In the same way as the body affects the mind, the mind is capable of immense effects on the body.”
I began to make changes in my thinking. As I did, my physicality — my strength, ability, and sense of attractiveness — changed within a matter of weeks, if not days. And as my husband and I prepared for our third cycle of IVF, I felt strong.
That third IVF cycle would be our last. It was unsuccessful. But two things occurred both during and immediately after that allowed me to completely reset my thinking about my body, and to create a more supportive and positive relationship with it, despite the outcome.
The first thing happened a few days before my third egg retrieval. I fell and sustained a concussion. As such, I wasn’t able to have anesthesia during the egg retrieval. At my IVF orientation a year earlier, I had asked about foregoing anesthesia, and the doctor shuddered: “A needle pierces the vaginal wall to suction the egg from the ovary,” she said. “It’s been done, and can be done, if it’s important to you.”
As it turned out, I had no choice. On the day of the retrieval, the nurse in the operating room was Laura, who had taken my blood several times during morning monitoring to record hormone levels. She stationed herself by my right side, and began gently rubbing my shoulder. The doctor asked if I was ready. I was.
The needle was affixed to the side of the ultrasound wand, and I felt it penetrate my ovary, as a mild cramp or low-grade ache. My hand was clenched underneath the blanket, and Laura reached for it instinctively several times, and, each time, returned to gently rubbing my shoulder.
Though I didn’t realize I felt like crying, I felt tears slide down my cheek. I slipped my hand from underneath the blanket and took hold of Laura’s. She pressed my abdomen — in the same gentle way she was rubbing my shoulder. The doctor removed the wand.
Laura patted my shoulder. “Thank you so much,” I said. Her presence was an act of care and generosity I could not have predicted I would need, nor could have asked for directly. The doctor appeared and also squeezed my shoulder. “Superhero!” he said.
I was caught off guard by their kindness — the idea of being cared for in this gentle, gracious way felt disconcerting. They were showing me compassion at a time when I was unable to offer myself any. I recognized that because this was an elective procedure, and one where I felt I was trying to have now what I could have had earlier — a child — I did not expect or feel entitled to compassion.
The second insight came a few months later. With IVF still freshly in the past, a good friend invited me to visit her in Germany. Negotiating the passage from the airport in Berlin to the bus to the tram to the hotel sparked nostalgia. With the hormones no longer part of my system, I felt my body, once again, existed more or less on my terms.
I covered Berlin on foot, averaging 10 miles per day, testing my stamina. I felt capable in a way I had not for a long time, and began to see myself as healing from a disappointment, as opposed to as a permanently disappointed person.
My fundamental ability to heal was not finite, I realized, even if the number of eggs in my body was.
What felt like new and permanent conditions aligned with aging — less strength, some weight gain, less pleasure in presenting myself — were, more accurately, direct effects of the sorrow and distraction I was negotiating at that particular time.
Once I could separate the temporary from the permanent, the momentary pain and confusion IVF had stirred from the longer trajectory of inhabiting a body that is fundamentally resilient, I could see my body as strong and potential again — even as ageless.
It was my emotional life that had predicated my feelings of aging. My actual body had been resilient, and proved to be unbreakable when I turned to it with renewed belief in its energy and potential.
Back at home, I resumed my Yin yoga practice. I noticed my body regain its familiar shape and size, and, though the disappointments surrounding IVF have taken longer to sort, I notice I can affect my exploration of them by shifting my thought process to create boundaries between my feelings and their inherent power, and the holistic vision of myself, where my feelings are temporary conditions — not permanent, defining attributes.
Day by day, I stepped onto my black mat and reconnected with my body. And my body answered back — returning to a place where it could be pliable, dynamic, and youthful, both in my imagining and in reality.
Amy Beth Wright is a freelance writer and writing professor based in Brooklyn. Read more of her work at amybethwrites.com.