Just minutes after giving birth three months ago, my OB asked me “Do you do yoga?” A seemingly random question to ask a woman who just gave birth, I couldn’t have been happier to answer it. I told him yes, I do, to which he said “ah yes, the yoga ladies are very strong.” He couldn’t be more right.
Giving birth was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I know, it’s not often you hear the word ‘exhilarating’ and ‘birth’ in the same sentence. And yes, it was very uncomfortable, but I firmly believe my yoga practice helped me explore and understand what was going on in my body during pregnancy and cope and manage the pain during childbirth. It taught me to focus, breathe, and be fully conscious during every moment of the birth process, and I’m happy to say that I remember the experience in vivid detail, and with much joy.
The funny thing is, I wasn’t doing a full physical practice of yoga every single day. I took a prenatal yoga class once a week at the local yoga studio and would do a few poses after a long walk or a weight workout. Sometimes my asana (posture) practice would just be a restorative relaxation over a bolster. If you’ve never tried this…it’s heavenly.
But there is far more to a yoga practice than just the physical asana. Yoga – or ‘union’ – connects all the important aspects of a woman’s strength to enable her to productively and consciously give birth to a baby – physical asana practice, meditation, breath work and attention to the present moment. We were born to do this work of creating a life, and yoga can effectively help us harness our power.
Knowing what works for one person doesn’t work for everyone, here are a few of the parts of my yoga practice that truly helped me during pregnancy, childbirth, and recovery.
1) ‘Corset’ ab work – I often hear women say they can’t do core work while pregnant. This couldn’t be further from the truth! In reality, core work is even more important now, when you are pregnant and a new mom, than ever before. Not only will your back muscles thank you, but you’ll have a much easier time pushing during delivery and recovering post-childbirth as well. However, the type of core work you do is of utmost importance (ie, no more crunches during or after pregnancy!) All you need is this one ab exercise, which I call the ‘corset pull.’ This one exercise is perfect for both pre- and post-natal core health:
Lean against a wall with your feet about a foot away from the baseboard. Your upper body and hips should be against the wall. Put your hands on your baby / stomach and take a deep breath, filling your stomach out as you breathe. As you exhale, make a ‘SSSS’ sound through your mouth and draw your corset in toward your spine at the same time. Keep exhaling to the end of your breath until you feel all the muscles of your core pulling in – in the front, on the sides and around the back. **Be careful not to hold your breath during pregnancy as this can negatively affect oxygen levels for you and your baby. Breath-retention work in yoga is not recommended for pregnancy. Repeat 20 times For more of a challenge, do this exercise on all 4’s. I should also mention that this one exercise can help whittle inches off your midsection…anxious to try it now?!
2) Guided birth meditations can help you visualize the events of your childbirth experience. Athletes mentally prepare for the game beforehand, and this is exactly what meditation and visualization is meant to do for you during childbirth. I listened to hypnobirthing guided meditations before going to sleep, and it was this meditation that helped me visualize and internalize the birth process I envisioned. In fact, after listening to this meditation one weekend, I was further dilated at my next OB appointment at 38 weeks! (Full disclaimer: this is my sister’s recording, and I’m not being compensated for this mention. I used this meditation a LOT during my pregnancy because it is so good.)
3) Breath work is key to being able to ‘release’ into contractions and work with the process of delivery, not against it. Think about when you are in pain, what is the first thing you likely do? Suck in air, and hold it. As challenging as it sounds, being able to let go and breathe through the contractions will help advance your progress greatly, and potentially shorten your labor.
Aim for very long, slow, deep breaths. If you are familiar with ujjayi (ocean breath), use that to find your rhythm. If not, count to 4 on your inhale, and 6 on your exhale. A longer exhale accesses the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system. How does this apply in yoga? When faced with a challenging posture, notice your reaction with your breath. Do you hold your breath? Does the breath get shorter? If so, take long, slow and deep inhales and exhales to see if you can work with the discomfort, rather than against it. You can even practice your breath during your day, during a stressful event or while waiting for the subway (which can also be a stressful event.)
4) Know that the baby feels what you feel, and experiences the same hormone rushes as you. Tuning into your breath and taking longer, deeper breaths can lower your stress level in just a few seconds. The same breathing exercises above apply to lowering your stress level as well! Two for one.
5) Finding community – as a new mom, know that it takes time to recover and there is no such thing as too much support. In many cultures, new mothers are kept in bed, with their babies, for the first 40 days. The woman’s mother, sisters, and women friends shower her with help, support and love during these 40 days, after which point the new mama emerges into the world with her baby. In our culture, we’re sent home from the hospital after a life-changing event to fend for ourselves. The support and love of a yoga community can be a lifeline during this very sensitive time.
Check out the Devoted Mamas community here, and join us!