Tools for Teaching Postnatal Yoga
Easing Back into Practice
Doctors and midwives recommend that a new mom wait for at least six weeks (eight weeks, if she's had a C-section) before hitting the yoga mat. Establish just how long it's been since she gave birth. She may have practiced regularly during pregnancy, but she doesn't have the same body she had then—or ever before. (Even if this pregnancy wasn't her first, her body and recovery needs won't necessarily be the same after each birth.)
The abdominals are the muscles most affected by pregnancy, and so they're an obvious set to focus on. Jane Austin, a prenatal yoga teacher for the Yoga Tree Studio in San Francisco, encourages students to reacquaint themselves with this area. "I cue engaging abdominal muscles a lot, because women just don't have the connection to their abs muscles, for good reason," Austin explains. "This will create stability so their backs are supported as they move through the postures. The lower back is really going to be the flag if they're working the abs the right way. If it hurts, they've gone past their capacity."
Austin recommends "belly backbends," such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and Salambhasana (Locust Pose), to regain strength in the back and abdominals. Other poses that help bring awareness to the torso and engage the muscles include a variety of seated twists, such as Marichyasana I (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi I), a twisting variation of Sukhasana (Easy Pose), Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), and standing poses such as Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose) and Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose). Once a student feels comfortable with basic abdominal work, she can practice more intense poses, such as Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose) or Plank Pose.
The shoulders and neck are another area that can be very sore in the postpartum period. Austin says, "If she's having any complications around feeding, she's going to find that every feed is a very stressful situation. When a woman is stressed, she tends to pull her shoulders up by her ears, and this creates a lot of pain in the neck and shoulders." Simply carrying a newborn around will strain the upper back, because the tendency is to hunch over the baby instead of standing up straight. Shoulder openers such as Viparita Namaskar (Reverse Prayer Pose), Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), and Garudasana (Eagle Pose) will help loosen the muscles in this area.
By the end of the first eight weeks of motherhood, the postpartum student should be ready to resume her regular practice, but remind her to listen to what her body is ready to do. Jumping, dropping back into Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose), and intense vinyasa are still a bit ambitious until her abdominals are completely restored.
The Importance of Rest
This time is exciting, exhausting, thrilling, and scary. A new mother will be flooded with conflicting emotions while simultaneously trying to manage all the physical demands of parenthood. Taking time for complete relaxation at the end of class is a good way for her to recuperate and calm her mind. It may be the only time in the day she gets to focus on her own needs. Guided meditation, pPranayama, and supported poses such as Savasana (Corpse Pose), Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose), and Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose) will all help her give her body and mind a rest.