Written by Ana Davis
Previously published on Australian Yoga Life magazine July 2007 Issue no.18. Visit Australian Yoga Life at www.ayl.com.au. This article is best viewed in PDF format as the original contains images – PDF Article: The Yoga of Motherhood.
Most people know the importance of yoga during pregnancy, but there is less awareness of how yoga can enhance the mother’s physical and mental wellbeing once the baby is born. In this brief guide for new and experienced yogis, Ana Davis explores how yoga can help provide a fresh perspective on the challenges of new motherhood.
In the sleep deprived haze of new motherhood, I felt that I had lost my former life. The endless tasks involved in caring for my newborn saw me say goodbye to my precious daily yoga practice. As a yoga teacher and long time practitioner, this was a big adjustment.
It was only when I came to see the journey of motherhood as the ultimate act of devotional yoga, that I was able to surrender and release any feelings of resentment about the irreversible changes to the landscape of my daily routines.
Instead of looking at the clock and wishing I could be on my yoga mat while I patted my baby to sleep for sometimes up to an hour, I found I needed to make a conscious decision to soften into the moment and make this my yoga. “This is my yoga”, I said, as a silent mantra to myself, “He is my yoga.” This moment by moment experience of holding my baby close afforded me the opportunity to breathe deeply and feel the warmth from my heart and solar plexus centres permeating into his soft little body.
Centring and connection
With this shift in my thinking about the ‘yoga of motherhood’, I was also able to accept that my asana (posture) practice needed to be shaped around my baby centred chores. Flexibility was the key. Instead of fighting against my limited time, I utilised every spare moment to get back on the yoga mat while my baby slept or was being minded by someone else. The beauty of yoga as a way of promoting mind-body wellness for busy new mums is that we can do it at home, in our living room. It’s an ideal postnatal form of exercise as it is gentle and broad enough in its repertoire so that it can be sensitively adapted to the changing needs of each woman. It is also safe and beneficial even for an absolute beginner.
I discovered that a lot could be achieved in a mere 20 or 30 minutes home practice: a complete and rounded practice that left me feeling refreshed, nourished and ready to return to the demands of mothering and running a yoga studio.
Conversely, Sydney yoga teacher Alexis Stewart didn’t practice any yoga at all for the first six months after the birth of her son. She found that, as a consequence, she crashed mentally, physically and emotionally. “The worst of it was that I didn’t feel like ‘myself’ and yet I couldn’t remember how it was that I used to feel,” reflects Alexis. “I just knew that I didn’t feel like ‘me’.”
In the years since, Alexis has observed the many benefits that new mothers in her classes, experienced and novices alike, have received. She believes that new mums often lose their connection with the present moment because they are so busy and exhausted and get lost amidst their chores. “So yoga is a time to slow the whole show down,” Alexis says. “By being in their bodies and watching their breath, they are brought into the present moment of ‘being’. It is ‘being’ that the soul craves, and the more we are able to be, the more balanced we feel.”
Many women are introduced to yoga for the first time when they attend pregnancy classes or, for an increasing number, their entrée into the joys and rewards of yoga may be through attending a Mums ‘n’ Bubs yoga class. Perhaps this is because these unique classes are baby friendly, allowing the mum to bring her baby to class.
Jayne Hughes, one of the mothers in the Mums ‘n’ Bubs yoga classes at Bondi Bliss Yoga Studio, found postnatal yoga a godsend. She enjoyed the sense of community offered by yoga classes designed especially for new mums and their babies.
“I loved the special time and space these postnatal classes created for us in the early days and also the wonderful mums and bubs I’ve met through the classes,” Jayne recalls.
A valuable skill that many of the mothers in these classes learn is how to relax – even amidst the cacophony of noises of a room full of babies. As Jayne found, this was a practical skill she was able to then apply within the context of her busy home life.
“I was able to give myself short relaxation sessions despite everything going on around me – dirty nappies, housework etc. – to relax and turn off and find my own quiet space”, says Jayne.
What Byron Bay mum, Renee Adams-Cook enjoys about attending postnatal yoga classes is that she feels like she is doing something for herself. “The classes are not too strenuous for a new mum, but at the same time, I still feel like I’m doing exercise and getting the benefits,” Renee says.
An overwrought new mother may be resistant to doing anything that might take her away from her many baby related obligations. However, in my experience, as well as that of many of my students and colleagues, yoga can actually help her care for her baby better.
If the mother practices yoga techniques that nurture her, then it only increases her energy and vitality to keep on giving back to her child. As Jayne Hughes says, “The classes helped me to keep my own mental health in sight as an important element of mothering, particularly in those early days.”
Nurturing and restoration
In the first six weeks or so after childbirth, a woman’s yoga practice needs to be gentle and nurturing. Pranayama (breathing techniques), relaxation and supported restorative postures will form the basis of her practice. These practices will help her rest and rejuvenate on a deep level. This very gentle approach to postnatal yoga makes it ideal for the first time practitioner to experience how yoga can help in the healing process.
There is no need for the mother to rush onto the gym treadmill or back to her favourite Ashtanga class in an attempt to lose the baby weight. In fact, strong exercise, if performed too early or rigorously, can be counter productive and can contribute towards injury and even burn-out.
Instead, she can take this opportunity to practice the yogic concept of ahimsa. Ahimsa or nonviolence means not only cultivating gentleness towards others but also compassion towards oneself. This is where restorative yoga poses come to the fore: deeply restful postures with plenty of support, from bolsters, cushions, blankets or blocks. Judith Lasater’s classic book Relax & Renew is a great way to acquaint you with these poses.
Perth based yoga teacher and mum, Kiah Hamersley found she experienced gentle back bending and shoulder opening effects from the pose Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining bound angle pose) over a bolster. “I loved it for the the calm, measured breathing it seemed to induce and the opportunity it gave me to put the eye bag on and rest,” says Kiah. “I think I even went to sleep in the pose (legs supported on pillows) when I did it in bed! Which may sound bizarre but it really helped me get into a deep sleep quickly.”
One of my own favourites after the birth of my son, Marley, two years ago, was Supta Virasana (Reclining hero pose) supported on a bolster, to passively stretch my quadriceps and psoas. As is common, these had become tight from the lower back being moved into exaggerated lumbar lordosis (swayed lower back) in the latter months of pregnancy. I also found this pose beneficial for its gentle stretching and opening of the abdominal area that had been so cramped from sharing the space with the baby in utero.
After bleeding stops, the restorative pose, Viparita Karani (Legs up the wall pose) with the bottom supported on a folded blanket or bolster, is a wonderful pose that can be practiced on its own at any time to receive the benefits of an inversion as well as facilitating deep breathing. It is extremely rejuvenating and therapeutic for the lower back. See ‘The First 6 Weeks’ for other safe and effective poses.
While in a supported pose or sitting or lying in relaxation, the emphasis is on lengthening and deepening the inhalation during the early postnatal weeks. I found the viloma pranayama (interval breathing) with emphasis on the three part inhalation especially helpful. (See pull out box for instructions). Focusing on the inhalations can help energise and build optimism which can be beneficial for counteracting the lethargy and negativity that can accompany sleep deprivation. As time goes on, women can shift their focus to longer exhalations which engender relaxation and the letting go of mental and physical tension.
Strength and stability From six weeks onwards, the body has had some time for restoration of the uterus and energy levels begin to return. The mother can now focus on some stronger poses that will enhance her energy and continue the work of knitting back the birthing muscles pelvic floor and deep abdominals.
Strengthening the core muscles will also be beneficial in supporting a weakened back, which is essential to help combat the relentless forward bending postural strains caused by carrying and caring for her baby. I found a blend of yoga and pilates very effective in returning strength and stability to my core. (see ‘6 Weeks Onwards’ page xx for some beneficial poses).
After a Caesarean Section, a woman should wait till the wound has completely healed, usually about two months, before embarking on abdominal toning or any of the stronger yoga poses.
Many women enjoy poses that help release tight upper back and shoulders caused by the endless hours of breastfeeding. See ‘Breast Feeding Counter-poses’ above for poses that help release tension and in build stability in this area, and counterbalance a tendency towards postural kyphosis (rounding of the upper back.
Enjoy your baby and your yoga
Originating from the ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the concept of Isvara pranidhana, which can be interpreted as ‘surrender to the divine or a higher power’. To flow more harmoniously with the demands of new motherhood, there needs to be an ongoing melting of the ego. As BKS Iyengar points out: “In bhakti or true love there is no place for ‘I’ and ‘mine’. When the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ disappears, the individual soul has reached full growth.”
Now, as a busy, single mother to a rambunctious toddler, this wonderful tool called ‘yoga’ continues to help boost my joy levels on a daily basis. I relish the opportunities that motherhood has presented so far to embody the rich philosophy of yoga, both on and off the mat.
Linda Sparrows and Patricia Walden. The Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health, 2002
Laura Staton and Sarah Perron. Baby Om-Yoga for Mothers & Babies, 2003
BKS Iyengar. Light on Yoga, 1991 Bernard Bouanchaud. The Essence of Yoga-Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1997
Francoise Barbira Freedman. Yoga for Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond, 2004
Judith Lasater. Relax & Renew-Restful Yoga for Stressful Times, 1995
For Pregnancy: Check out Ana Davis’ Prenatal Yoga Program Complete Set (Classes 1 to 7).
Ana is a highly experienced yoga teacher who specialises in pre and postnatal yoga, including training yoga teachers in this area. This is a complete program designed to support you in preparing for the birth of your child
For Post-Pregnancy Recovery: Check out Ana’s Postnatal Yoga Program Complete Set (Classes 1 to 8). This set of classes will support you recover quickly and regain your strength. This period can be challenging, and these resources are designed to provide you with valuable emotional and mental stability