An answer to ending infertility, miscarriages?
Laura Brown never believed she'd go a month without suffering debilitating menstrual cramps.
Then 13 years ago, her frustration led her to a massage table, where a San Francisco naturopath applied soft, sweeping strokes around her abdomen and pelvis, using a technique rooted in the traditional practice of the Maya people of Belize. Brown, then 19, found herself transformed.
"When I got up off the table, I felt an immediate shift in my body," she said.
The naturopath explained to Brown that the technique -- officially called the Arvigo Technique of Maya Abdominal Therapy -- is designed to increase the flow of blood, lymph and what traditional Chinese medicine calls chi energy to tissues and ligaments in the pelvic area. The massage also uses gentle manipulation to move the uterus and other organs into proper alignment.
The massage, Brown learned, did more than just reduce her menstrual pain - it promised to help other women in other ways. It could also ease the symptoms of endometriosis and menopause and, most remarkably, help women conceive and to enjoy easier pregnancies, even prevent C-sections.
"The way she explained it to me, it all made sense," said Brown, who decided to train in the Arvigo technique to offer it to others.
Brown's transformation is common among women who believe the alternative health treatment deserves widespread acceptance. The Arvigo method, said women interviewed for this story, has enabled them to address a variety of reproductive health issues, including infertility and repeat miscarriages.
"It was the turning point in my journey," explains Laura Hoover of San Francisco, who says a practitioner pinpointed the uterine fibroids -- benign tumors a doctor had missed -- that likely caused her three miscarriages. She's now the mother of a 6-month-old daughter.
The technique is named for Rosita Arvigo, an herbalist and doctor of naprapathy (the study of connective tissues) from Chicago. Arvigo developed it while living in Belize in the 1980s and apprenticing with famed Maya shaman Don Elijio Panti. At its core, the technique views the uterus as a woman's "center of being."
"If (the uterus) is out of balance," Panti says, "then her entire life, emotionally, physically and spiritually, will be out of balance."
But the therapy can go beyond women-specific needs. Practitioners Bryn Truitt-Chavez in Los Gatos and Kate McCarthy in Albany, use it on both genders for digestive problems. Arvigo massage also can help men, they said, to relieve "congestion" in and around the prostate gland that leads to decreased sperm count or impotence.
"It's very human centered," Truitt-Chavez notes.
Like other alternative healing techniques, Maya massage hasn't generated reams of scientific studies. Still, mainstream health care providers recognize that different styles of massage offer a variety of benefits, from easing pain, muscle tension and emotional stress to boosting immune function and an overall sense of wellness, says Denise Bowden, an acupuncturist at UC San Francisco's Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.
The benefits for women's health come from its focus on helping them to better understand a part of the body - and on a function - that tend to get short shrift in Western medicine, says Bowden, who regularly refers female clients to Arvigo practitioners like Brown.
Indeed, this area of the body often remains mysterious to women, many of whom may not be aware of the extent to which their wombs can "wander" and cause them trouble, as midwives of Belize like to say.
Arvigo practitioners take particular pride in educating women about their anatomy, including the fact that the uterus is not a fixed organ. Rather, the pear-shaped sack, held in a centered, mostly upright position by muscles and ligaments, must be able to move and stretch to accommodate a growing fetus.
"It's like a hammock," Bowden explains. But this mobility leads to less optimal function if the uterus gets stuck in a position that's too far forward or back, or tilted to one side or the other.
Pregnancy, childbirth and surgery can dislodge a uterus, but so can day-to-day activities like running on hard surfaces, lifting heavy objects or spending too much time at a desk or driving in a car, Arvigo practitioners say. Time and gravity can also weaken pelvic muscles and ligaments in older women, causing the uterus to press on the bladder or become prolapsed and slip into the vagina.
There is no definitive answer on if and how a displaced uterus impedes fertility, says Bria Larson, an Arvigo practitioner in San Francisco. One theory is that sperm may have a less direct path to reach the fallopian tubes. Another holds that a displaced uterus doesn't get the optimal blood flow needed to provide a receptive landing spot for a fertilized egg.
Whatever the reason, the Arvigo Institute, the New Hampshire-based headquarters of Arvigo teaching, claims that 30 percent of women who undergo Maya massage conceive after a succession of treatments.
Kimberly, of San Francisco, says a session with Larson made a big difference. At 37, Kimberly had one son, 18 months, but worried she was running out of time to have more children. After trying for six months to get pregnant a second time and after visits with different doctors and fertility experts, she started to gear up for in vitro fertilization.
On the advice of her acupuncturist, she gave Maya massage a shot before she sank tens of thousands of dollars into IVF, a treatment that doesn't guarantee results.
"I was skeptical," Kimberly admits, who asked that her real name not be used because her in-laws don't know about her fertility struggles. And when she left the first appointment, she wasn't convinced it would help, even though she found it relaxing.
But three days later, she was suddenly able to move her torso in ways she hadn't since having a C-section with her son. Nineteen days later, she learned she was pregnant. "I don't know exactly what (Larson) did, all I know is that she did something."
Unfortunately, she suffered a miscarriage at about seven weeks, with her doctors telling her that she's at an increased risk of miscarriage at her age. Still, she'll continue to try Maya massage and other alternative treatments before reconsidering IVF in 2017.
Hoover is also convinced her session with Larson made all the difference. In her case, Larson pinpointed a likely cause for her miscarriages that had eluded a previous doctor.
The doctor had told her that her fibroids were too small to be a problem. But while massaging in the area around Hoover's uterus, Larson felt something alarming.
""She said, 'your uterus is crazy large,'"prompting Hoover to get a second opinion. A new ob-gyn discovered 17 fibroids, the largest the size of a baseball, and eventually had them removed. "With the fibroids gone, sure enough, I got pregnant in October of last year," she said.
If nothing else, women who undergo Mayan massage appreciate its practical and philosophical emphasis on reproductive health.
"In our culture, we don't think much about that part of our bodies or how those organs work," says Bowden. She adds that her female clients have all reported positive experiences following their Maya massage sessions. "Clinically, I've seen good outcomes."
The Arvigo method also emphasizes "self-care," two to three minutes of daily self-administered abdominal massage.
Ultimately, sessions with a practitioner, along with self-care, are designed to give women the tools to nurture their own health and celebrate their femininity, says Brown. "Something changes for them, things are more open for them," she says. "It's like a core, a foundation calling in your power."
Maya massage for a woman's "center"
Practitioners of the Arvigo Technique of Maya Abdominal Therapy believe that the uterus is a woman's "center of being." When out of alignment, they say, it can lead to a range of problems the therapy tries to correct. Those issues include:
- Painful or irregular periods, along with PMS, mood disorders, headache or migraines and low back pain
- Painful intercourse
- Varicose veins
- Frequent urination, incontinence, bladder and vaginal infections
- More serious, chronic conditions like endometriosis, uterine fibroids and uterine polyps
- Difficulty getting pregnant and repeat miscarriages
- Difficult menopause
For more information, including a list of Bay Area practitioners, visit the website for the Arvigo Institute at https://arvigotherapy.com.