The journey to motherhood and birthing a baby is an initiation of the greatest kind. Your body expands over many months to grow a brand new human, and then your heart expands exponentially when you meet this little life. Certain traditions in South America, Southern Asia, much of the Middle East, and parts of Europe recommend resting and nesting for the first forty days of your baby’s life in a cozy home environment; and most doctors and midwives would echo that wisdom, also advising a recovery period of six weeks or more -- or what is often referred to as the“fourth trimester".
Many of us moms feel stir-crazy about leaving the house, feeling more productive, or getting back to our exercise routines before that time is through, but it is important to be cleared by a doctor or midwife before you begin exercising again. It is equally essential to listen to your body when you do begin your practice, because pushing yourself too hard in the early days after birth may lead to a longer recovery, overall. When you are feeling ready, postnatal yoga is the perfect way to revisit a postpartum body practice in a mindful way.
Postpartum Body Challenges
Every mom has a unique pregnancy and labor but what we have in common is a brand new body that has endured exhaustion from childbirth and caring for a newborn; recovery from a possible episiotomy or C-section; skin that has stretched for up to 42 weeks; engorged breasts from producing milk; sore or tight hips, back, and shoulders from pregnancy and feeding a baby; and abs that have separated and need to move back together.
The round belly of a pregnant body is possible because of abdominal wall expansion and some separation -- a normal part of any pregnancy -- which then contract back into place during postpartum recovery as the rest of the organs also move back into place. But at least 60 percent of women (at 6 weeks postpartum) are affected with diastasis recti: diagnosed as when the distance between the two sides of the abdominal wall is more than two centimeters, or more than two and half finger widths wide.
To address diastasis recti with yoga exercises is engaging the transverse abdominus muscles, or the innermost layer of muscle, to knit the core back together. at the most subtle Physical therapists warn that crunches and upper body twists can worsen the condition.
Pelvic Tilt: Lay flat on your back with your feet hip-width apart. Contract the lowest and most subtle layers of your abdominals by bringing your hips towards your bottom ribs and squeezing both sides of your core together in the center.
Leg lifts: Lift one leg at a time with bent knee in the air like you are marching in wide steps.
Pelvic Floor Recovery
The new normal for plenty of moms may include incontinence or leaking. Pelvic floor recovery is usually the first exercise recommended for postpartum recovery. Kegels, also known as pelvic floor contractions, are said to help.
Tadasana / Mountain pose: Practice standing tall with good posture, so you can remember to keep a long, tall spine while you are walking. Like someone is pulling a string at the crown of your head. Your pelvis should align with your hips.
Malasana / Garland pose: Start in a simple squat with the legs wide apart, lower your booty towards the ground, and then incorporate pelvic contractions or Kegels while inhaling/exhaling.
Having a c-section involves enormous midsection surgery, cutting into multiple layers of muscle making simple tasks like driving, bending over to diaper your baby, and even walking up and down stairs incredibly challenging for weeks in many cases. Additionally, there may be emotional or psychological trauma to sort through if your surgery was the result of an emergency circumstance; or if it just wasn’t planned, you may feel like your body failed you.
Maybe the best you can hope for in the early stages of your surgery recovery is to take ten deep, full-body breaths circulating energy throughout your body while you heal in bed.
Use props to help support yourself in bed, sitting-up, feeding your baby, and; when you are ready -- on your yoga mat as well. Also avoid twists and abdominal crunches until your incision is mostly pain free and you are cleared by a doctor. Many c-section mamas are not comfortable going belly down on a yoga mat for many months. Taking your time is key.
Bandhasana / Bridge pose: Lay on your back with feet hip-width apart. Bring your feet close to the body and pressing into them, lightly lift your back off the floor and slowly lower your back down rolling through the spine.
Modified Dandasana / Plank pose: From your forearms or hands extend your legs behind you, but bend your knees up. Lift your belly into your back contracting your core. Repeat a few times and relax your abs in between by lowering onto the mat.
Start slow, Find your flow.
Even though yoga is generally pretty mellow, use discernment and be gentle with your postpartum body. Beginning to stretch too strong or too early may have counterproductive consequences. For example, if you are very flexible you may overstretch your muscles early in your recovery because of the pregnancy hormone “relaxin” (which does just as it says, relaxes muscles to allow for childbirth). A good place for anyone to begin is to stand tall and take deep breaths. See what your body is telling you it needs, and try a few from the list below in your own flow.
Yoga Poses for Postpartum
Child’s pose: Spread your hips and knees apart down on the mat and bring your big toes together. Press the back of your wrists into the mat below your feet. Rest your forehead on the floor or on a pillow. Take deep breaths and calm your mind.
Thread the needle: If you are cleared for twisting, start from hands and knees and thread one arm all the way under your chest reaching for the other side while your shoulder head touches the mat. Switch sides. Great to relieve breastfeeding tension.
Happy baby / Knees to the chest: Lay with your back flat on the mat and hug your knees into your chest. You can grab your knees your feet and open your legs to relieve tension in your hip flexors too.
Forward Fold: It feels so good to do a simply fold forward without a big pregnant belly in the way. Just let your upper body hang loose and breathe into your lower back.
Downward Dog: From hands and knees extend your arms straight and strong with your neck relaxed. Tuck your toes and lift your hips and straighten one leg at a time, peddling the legs to stretch your calves and hamstrings.
Online Resources and Studio Classes
There are lots of video resources available online to address more specific symptoms of postpartum bodies. If you get the time to visit a yoga studio, many schedules will offer gentle yoga classes that would be appropriate for postpartum mamas. You can look for names like Yin Yoga, Postnatal Yoga, Mom & Baby Yoga, Gentle Flow, or Postpartum Pilates, in both studios and online; or search for specific stretches based on your personal condition. Always tell your instructor if you have body challenges or complications from childbirth for safety reasons, and check with your doctor or midwife if questions arise.
The postpartum days of the fourth trimester (and beyond) are precious times to treasure as you get to know your new baby; but finding a few minutes to relax into a yoga routine or other stretching option will help you feel good in your body, which in turn helps in taking care of your baby.