(as defined by Sarah)
Body Literacy*: the wisdom that comes from apprenticing ourselves to the nature of being human and living in a body. Living a life that integrates an intellectual knowledge of the body with a kinesthetic awareness and experience of it.
Fertility Awareness: Body Literacy specific to the sexual and reproductive system. A lifestyle and body of knowledge that revolves around awareness of our hormonal cycle, fertility and sexuality
Fertility Awareness Method: A daily cycle charting practice that involves observation of fertility bio-markers and other signs of health
Fertility Awareness Based Methods: an umbrella term encompassing all variations of cycle charting practices available
Natural Family Planning: A term generally associated with religious variations of cycle tracking practices.
Sympto-Thermal Method: An FABM based on daily observations of our cervical fluid and basal body temperature.
*Please note the term Body Literacy was originally coined by Laura Wershler of the Society for Menstrual Research. You can read her definition here*
Tracking our Cycles
We are cyclical beings. For those of us with female physiology, our emotional and physical realities naturally shift and sway just as the tides of the sea rise and fall. Our cycles are one such wave we experience the ebb and flow of for a good share of our lives. We are literally and figuratively lunar bodies, following the pull of the full and new moons (whether your cycle is regular or not) We are fortunate to have continually changing body signals that indicate the times of our fertility, the times we are capable of conceiving a child or not. By listening to our bodies, charting these signs and having a basic sense of our hormonal systems we can know on any given day if we are fertile or infertile. We can watch our cyclical wave of fertility and learn to trust it, enjoy it and celebrate it. To me, this is true sexual liberation, true sovereignty. It is a birthright we have been separated from through a cultural era of disconnection with our sexuality and our power. Thank goodness… the times are changing.
I use the term ‘Body Literacy’ to describe a body of education which fosters an understanding of our nature and our place in the greater nature of things. Honoring our sexual energy as our source energy and the origin of our life force, becoming ‘body literate’ aligns with a growing body of awareness practices such as ‘eco-literacy’, ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘trauma informed’ or well… ‘woke’. The term Fertility Awareness has also evolved in my teachings to being described as a lifestyle choice and a way of life; one that honors our ever changing bodies, our cyclical nature and the vastness of our emotional/spiritual/physical interplay. Within this realm there also exists the actual practice, aka the Fertility Awareness Method’ or in my practice, ‘Cycle Mapping’. There are many different variations on cycle tracking practices. Specifically, the ‘Fertility Awareness Method’ refers to many forms taught in the USA that are not associated with a religion or spiritual path. The version of this practice that I teach evolved over many years of teaching and listening to my clients/students and refining the terminology and practice to best serve them. I also take very seriously the importance of teaching an evidence based method and thus make certain what I offer is aligned with the rules for contraception utilized in the German study mentioned below and the rigorous guidelines of our professional organization.
At their core, these practices involve tracking bio-markers and charting this data on a chart. This informs women what hormones are activating the various parts of their cycles and the benefits, challenges, signs and signals these hormones offer us. It is a way of learning and keeping track of these changes and using this information to care for our hormonal health, optimize our fertility and to consciously choose when and if we would like to be pregnant. When used correctly and according to evidence-based practices, FAM is also an extremely effective form of natural birth control. For contraception purposes, what sets FAM’s apart from apps, devices and the old-fashioned rhythm method is that they are based on a daily determination of fertility, not on past cycles. This is vital to understanding and taking advantage of their high effectiveness.
Integrating a cycle tracking practice into one’s life involves an initial commitment of learning (several hours of intensive study and several months of ‘practice’) and from there entails only a few moments a day on-going attention. It is an inexpensive life-long gift of self-awareness that every woman deserves. The practice is based on the recognition of 3 main signs of fertility; cervical fluid changes, cervical position changes and basal body temperature. Charting these as well as secondary fertility signs can help you make a decision each day as to whether you are fertile or not.
Contraception: By applying the rules of the method this practice has been shown to be between 99.4 and 99.6% effective for contraception. Please read about the study in the section below.
Conception: By learning the charting practice and seeking an FA counselor to assess your cycle charts over time, it is easy to identify whether the key aspects of hormonal health necessary for a smooth and easy conception are present. You will also gain an understanding of the optimal timing for conception in your given circumstances. Obstacles to infertility can often be identified and correct referrals made to avoid having to turn towards high-tech fertility procedures.
Health: Tracking these signs over time will offer wonderful insight into the balance and health of your reproductive system. Learning how hormones change and create the signs our bodies give us and what ‘optimal’ looks and feels like, we can regain health sovereignty and collaborate with our healthcare providers towards a path of health and well-being.
Clinically: These cycle tracking practices also have a significant potential in a clinical setting. For many years I have taught physicians and health-care providers how to apply the data found in cycle charts and utilize this to understand more clearly a woman’s health. Coined as ‘the fifth vital sign’ cycle patterns are a brilliant tool for collaborative and empowering health care.
Intimacy: Maybe most profoundly, making the choice to listen and respond to our sexual energy/fertility and its’ mysterious and powerful ways promotes a sexual and sensual awareness that aides in making more informed choices in our relationships and sets the foundations for increased intimacy, self-love. And that, is life- changing.
Congratulations for having the natural curiosity and wisdom to seek more connection to your body and the beauty of life!
Body Literacy, Eco Literacy
We are at a crucial time in human history where our acts as a species are having an undeniably destructive affect on the planet that sustains us. We can no longer afford to sit and wait. It is time to act and create the changes that will restore health and balance to our planet. I believe that as we learn to listen deeply to our bodies, to respect and revere how life moves through us, we can tap into the source of our greatest power and thus gain more access to our purpose here on earth for this short and precious life.
It is clear that the way we have treated our planet is also the way we have (culturally) treated women for way too long; with disrespect, as a commodity of endless resources. The time has come to reconcile the yin and yang, or ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ within each of us and to find our individual service, our personal activism.
As we connect with our sexuality we inevitably are tapping into our creative force as humans and how we share this force with our loved ones. To heal this within ourselves can be profound. Our sexuality is part of the greater web of our endocrine/hormonal system, which is inextricably tied to the rhythms of nature. As we learn to care for our hormonal health, we benefit by also listening more deeply to nature; to the seasons, the weather, the cycles and rhythms… to what is growing around us and to our communities. Connecting this way within and without creates the pathways for profound change.
Growing up in modern American culture we learn only very basic information about our bodies and how they work. Born in bodies with female physiology, we are often taught very little about our reproductive cycles and how our hormones affect our physical and emotional realities. My belief is that this information is vital in having a healthy relationship with oneself and with a sexual partner. Body Literacy practices are one way of gaining insight into these beautiful and intricate ways. Knowing your body and watching the tides of your fertility is extremely rewarding and empowering.
Using Cycle Mapping while in a relationship gives you the power of having your reproductive choices in your own hands; not relying on chemicals, devices, doctors or pharmaceutical companies. Cycle Mapping can be used as a natural form of birth control that has no side effects. It allows you the opportunity to consciously choose when and if you want to be a parent.
In a time when increasing environmental illness abounds and our earth has suffered greatly from the mistakes of our culture, we have an opportunity with every choice we make and every product we buy to shift towards a sustainable future. Using a non-chemical form of birth control is just one small gift we can offer our planet.
Are these methods effective?
The most recent statistics are found in the Spring 2007 issue of Human Reproduction Today, a leading journal in the field. The study, performed in Germany, found by using the rules of the Fertility Awareness Method (particularly the ‘Sensi-Plan method as taught by instructors in the study) to be EQUALLY AS EFFECTIVE as oral contraceptives. That is, 99.4-99.6% effective in preventing pregnancy when used correctly.
These studies also include a ‘user effectiveness rate’, which takes into account our human error, rather than simply the fault of the method. In the case of FAM, these errors would include practitioners taking risks, not following the given rules and not charting effectively. It would also include teaching errors. In the study cited above, the user effectiveness rating is 98.2% The user effectiveness of this method compares well to other methods of birth control where the user has responsibilities in it’s use, such as condoms, diaphragms and oral contraceptives. However, it is much higher than previous results for user effectiveness, which is likely due to the high level of education and counsel that the participants received. Personal counsel in learning the method has been shown to be one of the more important factors in a successful practice.
The practice that I teach, and many others in the United States and elsewhere is nearly identical to the practice used in this study, though it does not include one calculation rule used. There are no studies demonstrating the effectiveness of the method as typically taught here in the states. All students I work with are instructed as to the differences between the various methods, how to practice the method with this calculation rule to have an ‘evidence based’ practice and ultimately can chose the variation of the practice that feels best for them.
To read the study cited in it’s entirety, please go HERE.
To read a SHORT study compilation of Fertility Awareness Based Methods, go HERE.
Facts & Myths
Oh so many stories come and gone in regards to using this practice as contraception. Sadly, the myths have prevented the vast wealth of wisdom that our body and this practice offers us. As well as being ancient and sacred knowledge, Fertility Awareness is also a science. It is based on well researched and documented evidence from endocrinologists, doctors and scientists. Besides, we’re talking about the oldest piece of human medicine there is, creation, and the cycles that rule it. This information lives in our bodies. It is time to reclaim these truths and let them serve us all in becoming more of who we are here to be!
Below I have written questions that will help to prevent the spread of misinformation about FA. Please help to share the truth!
Question: Is FAM the same as the Rhythm Method?
Answer: NO! Absolutely not. The Rhythm Method is based on a woman’s past cycles and assumes they will remain the same month after month. This is not the case. The Rhythm Method is only 70-80% effective in preventing pregnancy. FAM is based on a day to day observation and assessment of your fertility and is much more complex and therefore effective.
Question: If I have irregular cycles can I use FAM?
Answer: YES. In fact, learning to chart your cycles will most likely lead you to discover WHY your cycles are irregular and give you the tools to regulate them. Even if your cycles are variant in length, the FAM is easily practiced and equally effective, because it is based on a day to day assessment of your fertile signs.
Question: Can I use FAM while I’m breastfeeding?
Answer: YES you can. It is much easier to practice FAM if you have learned it prior to conception, but it can be learned postpartum as well and is highly effective during this time if special tips and considerations are used.
Question: “But my friend charted her cycles and she got pregnant, why should I think this will work?”
Answer: A number of second-hand stories have come my way about conceptions while practicing FA, but NONE so far to students that have taken a workshop or worked with a certified educator. “Charting your cycle” or “Knowing your cycle” is different than practicing a FAM. YES- there are accidental pregnancies with FAM, comparable to any method of contraception (see effectiveness paragraph above). If you are having penetrative intercourse you run the risk of pregnancy, period. But the rumors of this practice being ineffective mostly stem from misuse of the term “Fertility Awareness Method.” Most people in this category were actually practicing the Rhythm Method or not charting effectively. If you hear someone say they conceived while using the Fertility Awareness Method… PLEASE- tell them to come and see me WITH their charts (for free) and we can see what happened.
Question: Can I use condoms or another barrier method and safely avoid pregnancy during my “fertile window”?
Answer: I believe in offering a ‘spectrum of contraceptive options’, a tool bag of possibility that provides each person or couple a set of options that works for them. At the core of this is cycle awareness, knowing on which days conception is even possible and thus needs to be avoided if one is not seeking pregnancy. Beyond that I work to develop a personal plan for each practitioner that includes other methods in addition to FA, including barrier methods, sexual practices, herbs and ‘emergency’ plans. It is important to keep in mind however that when using another method during the fertile time you would then be taking on the effectiveness of that practice, rather than the very high effectiveness of the FAM. Using a barrier method during your fertile time CHANGES the effectiveness, depending on the method chosen. Though an FA educator can guide you as to what other methods will work best for you, it’s also important to realize that having sex during your fertile time is risky, period. We know for a fact that 100% of pregnancies occur while having intercourse during our (approximately) 6-9 day fertile window each cycle…think about that!
Question: How can FAM help me to conceive?
Answer: Charting your cycle will show you when your most fertile time is and you can plan accordingly. You will also be able to determine if your hormones are working together in a way that will best support a healthy pregnancy. There are several key markers that we look for in a chart that will identify that optimal conditions are present for a smooth conception. In addition, once you have conceived, your charts can actually confirm that you are indeed pregnant.
To close, here is an excerpt from Toni Weschler’s website, www.tcoyf.com…
“It is unfortunate that the Fertility Awareness Method is even referred to as a method, because in reality, it should be seen as a fundamental life skill that all women should learn, just as they are now taught basic feminine hygiene. This is because the practical knowledge women glean from charting their cycles will aid them from puberty to menopause, and all life phases in between. While this vital information has been slow to disperse into the mainstream, the good news is that things are finally starting to change. A grassroots movement has begun to spread among women everywhere, which I would like to think is reforming women’s health one fertility chart at a time.”