From Emily Marenghi's perspective, her second postnatal yoga class was an unqualified success: Her daughter nursed for only 45 minutes of the 90-minute session. "The classes, like my days as a new mom, were unpredictable," Marenghi says. "I quickly learned to ratchet back my expectations for myself, and let whatever happened be enough."
Mommy and Baby Yoga is gaining popularity across the country. Its predecessor, prenatal yoga, has become a mainstay of healthy, active pregnancies, and postpartum women are loathe to relinquish their lifeline to others going through the same momentous life changes. (And, yes, there's the get-back-in-shape factor, as well.)
Many new moms find that the camaraderie of postnatal classes helps offset the sometimes isolating and often disorienting stage of early parenthood. Jane Austin, a longtime San Francisco Bay Area teacher, says that although moms value the increased physical strength they develop in her class, the sessions offer far more than exercise. "Postnatal classes are much more social than regular ones. Sometimes the thing the mamas get most out of it is the connection. If they feel that way, I feel my work is done."
Perhaps most important, postnatal practice also gives moms and babies the opportunity to bond with each other, both physically and spiritually.
Elise Collins, an integrative Hatha-style instructor, mitigates moms' occasional frustration with the many class interruptions by holding fussy babies and demonstrating pose modifications for women who have babes in arms. "When moms are calm, babies are calm," she says. "You're really helping your baby when you take care of yourself."
For some new moms, doing yoga with their babies actually deepens their practice. Britt Fohrman, a San Francisco Bay Area doula and postnatal teacher, has witnessed students transcend "head"-based asanas and experience poses in the purest way—without overthinking or judging themselves. For Fohrman, who weaves both Viniyoga and vipassana (Buddhist insight) meditation into her Iyengar-based practice, this evolution is a gift. For many of the moms, this sort of surrender demands a new way of thinking about their identities and bodies.
"I tell [the moms], your practice is being a mother, and sometimes that means letting go of the asana. Asana is a very small portion of yoga. What you're doing is the yoga of devotion and service. Sometimes the moms get that, and sometimes not," Fohrman says.
One thing all experts agree on: before beginning a yoga program, it is important to get clearance from your health practitioner following the birth. Women who have had cesarean births or separated abdominal muscles (diastasis recti) may find they need more time before resuming exercise. Some poses may aggravate healing perineums and should be avoided or modified; this can sometimes be addressed by using a folded blanket in seated poses to relieve pressure on the perineum and put weight on the sitting bones. Finally, high levels of the joint-loosening hormone relaxin are still present in the body, and so poses should be adopted with care.
If a new mom's focus can be narrowed down to a single body area, it's the abdominals. Before pregnancy, most of us called it "ab" work; in postnatal yoga, instructors encourage women to embrace the belly.
For another Pilates-based option that also releases the lower back, Marble's students draw the knees into the chest, holding babies on the shins and rolling the body forward and back along the spine. Moms may perform additional strengthening by raising and lowering legs from this position. Stronger mamas may extend legs above the ground several inches while holding baby's hands.
Collins likes to remind students that the belly is one of the body's primary power centers. "Ideally, we want to have strong, soft, sensuous bellies, like belly dancers," she says.
Abdominal work can be done very effectively with baby. San Francisco-based yoga teacher and infant massage instructor Kari Marble relies on a multipronged program.
Start Crunches with the back flat, knees bent, and soles of the feet on the floor. Lean baby against the thighs or lay her on the tummy for support. As you breathe out, draw the belly deeply in toward the spine and lift the head and shoulders off the floor. Release as you inhale, lift as you exhale. Once you get stronger and you feel no strain in the back and no bulging in the belly, you can raise your bent legs to a 90-degree angle. Work the obliques in this position by raising your upper body and turning it from side to side, aiming alternate shoulders toward opposite knees. Elbows are pointed out, hands lightly behind the head, eyes focused at a 45-degree angle. Baby can remain on your belly throughout.
For women who are stronger, Marble follows crunches with Pilates-inspired Wide-Leg Circles. Lying on the back, with one leg raised straight and reaching through the ball of the foot, draw big circles with the leg while minimizing movement in the pelvis and back. Advanced students may circle both legs simultaneously, grounding the pelvis at all times. Baby can rest on the belly throughout.
Modifications: Austin adapts the classic crunch for brand-new moms by placing the feet against a wall for lower-back support, with the shins and thighbones at right angles to one another.
Finish with Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), placing baby on the belly while you inhale up and exhale down; or a Baby Bench Press, on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor while you lift baby up and down just below the chest.
Balancing poses are especially important for focusing in postnatal classes, which—mirroring life—can be more chaotic than not. Many versions of Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose) can be done holding baby—albeit less than purposefully—in the crease of the hip, or simply in the arms. (Austin claims to have witnessed moms nursing babies in this pose!) Initially, try Vrksasana (Tree Pose) against the wall with baby in your arms. Advanced students may move away from the wall or, if he is not too heavy, raise baby overhead.
Marble has observed that Half Squats are great fun for babies and both calming and strengthening for moms. Either cuddle baby to your chest or hold older babies facing outward with back to you, while you drop slowly into a squat and come back up. Add intensity by lifting baby straight overhead or raising and lowering her in a bicep curl. Collins likes Wide-Leg Squats: Walk the legs out wide, turn the feet out, toes wider than heels, and bend the knees. Babies can be held in a variety of positions. As they get older, you can use the position to help them learn to stand. This pose segues nicely into Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend). After folding forward and interlacing fingers behind the back, Marble's students hold and swing baby, either facing mom or the floor.
One pose that baby can truly mimic is Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). Sit with legs wide and the soles of the feet together, or with legs extended. Place baby in the same position in your lap. Do a gentle forward fold together.
For students who are at least three months postpartum, Collins suggests Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose), a seated abdominal strengthener. Baby can lie in the belly, as if in a boat's hold. Sit with legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Extend arms straight in front of you, shoulder-distance apart, palms facing each other. Lean back and balance on your sitting bones. Slowly lift your feet off the floor and extend legs straight, at a 45-degree angle, feet touching lightly, so your body makes a shallow V. Make sure you keep your chest lifted. To modify: Support your legs with your hands, or do the pose with your feet against the wall.
Following abdominal work in regular classes, many teachers offer twisting for release. Women with separated abs or those who are less than eight weeks postpartum should approach twisting with caution, experts say. If you are ready for twisting, try Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's Twist). Moms who are not yet twisting may lie flat on the floor with one leg extended. Roll over with the far leg bent, crossing the extended one and keeping the shoulder pressed into the floor.
Prenatal yoga participants will recognize a favorite in Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose). Rest baby on your chest as you lie back on a bolster (or, for more incline, a bolster and block). Alternatively, you may drape baby face-up across your legs with the soles of the feet together.
As with any yoga session, and particularly with postnatal practice, be mindful of your strengths and limits.
When frustration with limited postbirth capabilities rears its head, Fohrman reminds her hardworking students of the magnitude of what their bodies have accomplished. "Be gentle and compassionate with yourself," she tells them.
Student Emily Marenghi agrees. "Postnatal class was a practical and baby-friendly haven for me during those tough first months. The classes helped me strike the balance between taking care of myself and taking care of my daughter, and it was greatly rewarding to reconnect with friends during a period of such massive change in our lives."
Kim Green has written for Mother Jones, Los Angeles Magazine, The San Francisco Business Times, IPS wire service, and iVillage.com. She is the author of two novels, Is That a Moose in Your Pocket? and Paging Aphrodite. Kim lives in San Francisco's Noe Valley with her husband and 22-month-old daughter.
Mom's top is in watermelon by Prana and pant by She Beest, available at See Jane Run, 24th street, San francisco; Baby is in earthtone & brown striped pants by www.malinas.com.