Before giving birth, I read books about pregnancy, I researched birth, and I cared for my body and baby with good nutrition and prenatal yoga. After my daughter Wren was born I had little energy left for learning about postnatal time in any depth.
My body and my heart brought forth this beautiful little being who I fiercely love, but that experience also birthed this unfamiliar person called ‘Mom’. This feeling of not-knowing myself is part of what is so hard about being postnatal - I’m stuck in this vague transitional state without a compass. From this experience, the search for information and answers to my many questions led me to discover that postnatal resources do exist and are even starting to grow (even though woman have been doing yoga and having babies for thousands of years!)
Perinatal trainer and educator, Lara Kohn Thompson of Bend and Bloom Yoga and Kula Yoga Project, describes the first three months after birth as fundamental to a woman’s recovery. The body changes dramatically in the first 6-8 weeks and a woman needs plenty of rest. She says the body is “like origami, folding back in. A woman learns how to re-inhabit her structure.”
During a woman’s pregnancy, her uterus and organs shift, her ligaments lengthen, and the blood and water volume increase in her body. In the postnatal period, her body must shed the extras and pull back together. Issues can arise and extend well beyond the first three months, and it seems like women are just expected to tolerate them.
After having a baby, coming back to a yoga practice can be frustrating and defeating if you don’t have someone to guide you along the way. There wasn’t any postnatal yoga when Mia Borgatta, who is a nurse, doula, and co-founder of Lila Yoga and Wellness, gave birth to her daughter. She would take her new baby along to her Ashtanga practice.
Now postnatal classes come in different configurations, the most popular is the Mom/Baby class. Some teachers integrate the babies into the practice, but Borgatta doesn’t. She teaches a fairly vigorous class she calls “Mom-centric,” where mothers are encouraged to feed or attend to the babies when needed. She also encourages a sense of community. Talking with one another and sharing birth stories is so important, years as a nurse has taught Borgatta how to listen. The downtown mom’s group Bowery Babes -with over 1000 members-credit their experience in pre- and postnatal yoga at Lila Wellness with their beginning.
Mary Barnes, creator of The Barnes Method and Yoga for Two, teaches a unique class called Momma Core, which focuses on strength building and therapeutics for specific ailments, like sore wrists, which come from repetitive motions like lifting your baby, or breastfeeding with improper positioning. Strictly postnatal classes like this one, sans bébé, are hard to find. Mary also offers a 20-hour postnatal certification, which is equally rare.
The most personalized option for new moms is to work one-on-one in private sessions. Kohn Thompson offers individualized physical care focusing on healthy posture, specifically in the home environment. She also reaches women in her workshop series Vive Les Femmes, which digs deeper into women-centered topics like the pelvic floor and the balance between motherhood and womanhood in the early postnatal time.
Whether you bring your baby to class or not, postnatal classes are designed for balance. While the body is healing in the first three months after birth, Kohn Thompson suggests gentle exercises to re-awaken and repair, increasing core strength. She also recommends restorative yoga to boost moms’ energy and confidence.
Pelvic floor, Diastasis, and Breath
During pregnancy, deep or unsupported back bending can be an omen of the diastasis to come. The split in the abdominal wall where the two sides of the rectus abdominus (your six-pack muscles) meet can be caused by the pressure of a baby pushing out against the abdomen coupled with bad posture, or strain on the belly. It is very common and most women don’t even know they have one!
Kohn Thompson says the earlier the better to begin exercises to repair a diastasis. Gentle exercises can help the diastasis heal and any strain on the abdominals needs to be avoided. No crunches or deep back bending, especially for breastfeeding women whose ligaments and tendons remain soft.
Pelvic floor repair is focused on toning and functionality to encourage both strength and elasticity. The repair work must be done in a holistic way, says Kohn Thompson, connecting the strengthening of the pelvic floor and the abdominal muscles with good posture in yoga asana and in the daily routine.
Barnes says the yogic way to repair the diastasis and pelvic floor is to follow the pattern of the breath, like we do for Mula and Uddiyana Bandha. She focuses on Ujjayi breath, a slow bellows-breath, and Kapalabhati to reconnect the Bandhas, retrain the diaphragm, and activate the transverse abdominals. Attention to the breath also has a positive effect on the nervous system.
To Thy Body Be True
Luckily for women like myself, these postnatal classes exist, but there are still gaps in the experience. There is information missing, including answers to important questions we may not even know how to ask.
I didn’t know what to do following the physically and emotionally traumatic birth of my daughter. On the advice of my midwife I did kegels while breastfeeding, and after four months I went to my first Mom/Baby class. On one level it felt great to be around other mothers, but at times talk of sleep training would put me over the edge.
Some days, the asana was just right, some days it was exhausting. Most of the time I wanted more, unsure if it was right for my body. I returned to my regular yoga classes with a bit of fear and trepidation: what is that pain in my lower left abdomen? Should I be practicing Up-Dog? As I became increasingly busy, I opted for private sessions to rehab my diastasis and to have an hour devoted to healing.
Each woman’s experience is as unique as her body and we must trust our yoga and ourselves to respond. “Any yoga system that does not include all members of society, young and old, healthy and the sick, and all phases of womanhood is not an ethical system,” says Iyengar teacher Bobby Clennell and author of ‘The Woman’s Yoga Book,’ “Yoga should be adapted to bring a proper balance to all people and all circumstances.” I shared my body with my daughter for nine months, but I am forever postnatal. I think it is reasonable to take some time to get to know what that means.