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At 39, as an older first-time mother, I spent a good portion of my daughter’s first year feeling bewildered and reproachful. “Why didn’t anyone tell me it was going to be like this?” I wailed. Sleep-deprived and overwhelmed, I wanted support from everyone. My relationship with my husband deteriorated, the apartment was a mess, and my hair went unwashed for days. One of the only places of sure-fire solace was my yoga practice, but even that had changed. I was 30 minutes late for my first mother-baby yoga class, and I nursed for half the class.
Becoming a mother is both extraordinary and terribly demanding. On the one hand, you are blessed with a new being who has just leapt the border into life. On the other, you are at the beck and call of your baby and are getting far less sleep than usual. All of this right after giving birth, which can require about four weeks of healing or two months-plus if it was a cesarean delivery. You might have pelvic or hamstring ligaments that were pulled out of whack during pregnancy. Constantly bending over to nurse and hold even one wee child can quickly take its toll on your neck, shoulders, and lower back.
In other words, you may feel like a physical wreck. You may also be emotionally vulnerable, and self-conscious about extra pounds that have not yet fallen away. And you may be impatient, frustrated that there aren’t enough hours in the day to take care of your child, household chores, and yourself. Despite your pride in your newborn angel, part of you may whimper, “What about me?”
Do not lose heart. Yoga provides a wonderful way to get into shape while your baby naps or plays on a blanket next to your mat. Trust that you will be a happier and more spontaneous mother because you have spent a few minutes of your precious time fostering vitality, strength, and balance.
A Practice That Works for You
First, the caveats. Your practice sessions will probably be short and unpredictable. Remind yourself that every little bit counts—a 20-minute yoga session is a triumph. Fit your practice in when you can, even if your timing is unconventional. After the little one has woken you up to nurse, diaper-change, and burp—for the third time in one night—and you are too wired to fall asleep, a single yoga session is of measurably greater benefit than the same amount of time spent sleeping.
Be warned that you may not make it to Savasana (Corpse Pose) at the end of your practice—likely as not, the baby will wake up or the phone will ring before you’ve finished. If you are exhausted, do Savasana or Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose) first. If that’s all you can manage, fine. If you have more time, match the asana to your mood: vigorous and wide-reaching when you are restless or frustrated; grounding and intense when you feel overwhelmed or exhausted.
Stay away from intense backbends and arm balances for the first several months. If you practice vinyasa or Ashtanga yoga, resume it slowly. Be cautious about overusing your wrists in Sun Salutations. It is easy to injure yourself when you are exhausted. And once injured, it takes longer to heal since you have less time to rest.
Pace yourself. A good practice for new moms is a low-impact one, and perhaps more leisurely than is usual for you. Seated poses, restorative poses, standing poses, inversions (if you are already familiar with them), and Pranayama (breathwork) are best.
The following poses do not need to be practiced in one session, nor do they need to be practiced in a particular order. However, they are organized to build in complexity and demand on a body that has undergone pregnancy and birth.
Start with poses that emphasize grounding and the breath. Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), a simple seated position that tones the uterus and brings you into your pelvis, is a great first position. You probably practiced it while pregnant. Here it is again: knees akimbo and soles of the feet planted together. If your chest is caved forward and you have lost the natural curve of your lower back, place a blanket under your sitting bones. At first, sit with your arms braced behind you, to get the length and lift of your spine. Then bring the hands forward one at a time, keeping the length of your side body, to sit and breathe in the pose.
Go on to Downward-Facing Dog and Child’s Pose to find the extension of your spine and release the hips. In Linda Sparrowe’s and Patricia Walden’s wonderful book The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health, the postnatal Downward-Facing Dog is done with each foot planted on a block placed at its lowest height against a wall. The small difference in height between the hands and the feet draws the muscles of the pelvic belly more taut and tones the abdominal organs.
If you wish to further explore the hips in forward bends and seated poses, go on to Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose). Sit with both legs extended in front of you. Bend the left leg deeply, and draw your left foot to the buttock. Ease the knee out to the left, so that the leg rests against the ground and the two thighs are at a 90-degree angle or more. Your left foot’s toes are now against the inner upper left thigh, and the heel is against the left inner groin. Place your right hand on the ground a few inches out from your left thigh, and lean on it slightly. Lift your left arm and lengthen the left side of your body. Sending the sitting bone back, and lengthening from your lower back into your upper chest, reach your left hand for the instep of the left foot. From there, feel the long, slow twist to the right in your forward bend. Breathe and work with the pose for a minute or so. Switch sides.
For those of you for whom the hips are stiff and reluctant, try Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose). From Downward-Facing Dog, bring one leg forward, folding the knee deeply and landing the foot in front of the opposite hip. Square off the hips and bend at the hip crease to lean forward over the bent leg. Reach your arms, extend your spine, and broaden the back of your pelvis by internally rotating the thighbone of the extended leg and bringing the kneecap to face the ground.
If you like the grounding and slow opening of seated poses, go on to Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose). This continues the hip-opening and twist of the previous positions and is quite accessible. Sit with both legs extended in front of you. Bend the right leg and cross it over the left. Place your right foot to the outside of the left leg thigh. Fold the left leg, and bring the left foot to the right front buttock, while the entire leg stays parallel to the ground. Now place your left arm around the right knee, so that the right inner foot is planted against the ground and your weight is on the right hip as well as the left. Place your right hand about six inches behind your right buttock and lean on it, away from the right leg. This gives your belly and lower spine room to twist more deeply. Then prop your right hand back close to the hips, and bring your spine closer to vertical. Inhale and extend the spine, then exhale and twist deeper into the pose, using your left arm against the outer right leg to give you leverage and deepen the twist.
Now you may hone in on the belly muscles, keeping in mind that you wish to create a supple and sleek abdomen, not one that is six-pack hard. Build into the full sequence slowly, and be gentle on yourself. Do not start working on strengthening your abdominal muscles until at least four to six weeks after giving birth, and longer if you had a cesarean.
Start with a sequence of sit-ups that are slightly off-center. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Place your hands on your pelvic belly, below the navel. Breathe for a few minutes, without effort, feeling the belly rise and fall with each breath. Then cross the right thigh tightly over the left. As you keep the hips on the ground, draw both legs into your chest. Clasp your hands behind your head, exhale, and bring the head up. Keep the head and knees curled in toward one another for an entire set of eight abdominal crunches. Exhale to bring the knees in toward your chest and slightly to the left, while your head curls in and leans to the right. Inhale to release the knees and head away from one another. After two sets, change legs.
Follow this with a sequence of symmetrical sit-ups, with the hands supporting the head and both knees drawn up to the chest (legs are not crossed). Again, exhale when drawing the head and knees together, and inhale to release.
Pay attention to your breathing. If you are not breathing smoothly, you are probably overexerting. Keep your movements even, and do the sequences in manageable sets. This work will also do wonders for your digestion.
To segue into twists that strengthen the side-abdominal muscles, take a restorative twist. Shift the hips slightly to the right, bring both feet up off the ground, and drop the legs together, knees bent, to the left. Spiral through the spine to open your left-side chest and turn the head to the left. Do the other side.
Lying on your back with both knees bent, draw the legs off the ground and move them deliberately to the left so that your legs are stacked and almost parallel with the ground. Do not let them rest on the ground. You will feel this in the abdomen and will need to lengthen into your right arm and find grounding through the right side of your body. Keep your legs hovering for the length of five full breaths, then repeat on other side.
After toning the abdominal muscles, it feels great to stretch them. Poses that open the upper chest also counter the forward-bending movements of nursing and the slump of sheer weariness. Lying on your stomach, do Salabhasana (Locust Pose) and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog) to open your front body. Salabhasana is also a good way to strengthen your back. Be judicious here; build slowly into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, as it may be too much for your lower back and wrists in the beginning. Follow that with Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose). Make sure that you have enough support under your torso to make Supta Virasana a stretch for your quadriceps and a balm for your digestive system, and not a trial for your lower back.
Shoulders and Chest
By opening the chest and creating greater flexibility in your shoulders, you may save yourself from injury during all the lifting, holding, and nursing of your baby. These poses also help with milk letdown and combat postnatal depression. Garudasana (Eagle Pose) and Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) are easy to do. Although Garudasana is typically done while balancing on one leg, feel free to stand on both feet. In Gomukhasana, feel free to sit in Virasana or with the legs crossed tightly, so that one knee is directly above the other. Another good pose for the shoulders and chest is a variation of Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend): stand with your hands in namaste behind the back, then come forward into Uttanasana. Undo the hands and entwine the fingers. Straighten the elbows and reach the hands to the sky, then toward the ground in front of you. Come up, with the arms leading you up and out of the position.
Last of all, several standing poses are wonderful during this postnatal period: Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), and Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose). Vrkshasana gives you stability, and Trikonasana is the foundation pose that gives you the wide base and powerful angles of all the standing postures. Ardha Chandrasana lets you fly. (If balance feels at all uncertain, try this pose with a block under your hand and a wall at your back.) Virabhadrasana I opens you to the glory of a full-on backbend without resistance in the lower back or wrists. Parsvakonasana is great for the shouldersan antidote to any work that keeps you looking down and curled inward.
But of all the standing poses, Parivrtta Trikonasana is the best for the new mother. It’s a spinal twist, a backbend in the upper body and a great adjustment for the neck. It reknits the muscles of the abdomen and opens the hips up quite fiercely. Take your time with this pose and experiment with it: Root the left heel against a wall and place your left elbow or hand on a chair or block instead of reaching the hand all the way down to the right foot; or place your entire body flush with a wall, so that your belly ends up twisting away from or toward the wall.
The first week home after giving birth is now mostly a blur in my minda smear of tearful attempts at latching on and pain in the nether regions. What remains most vivid is what my daughter would do in her more wakeful moments. Content and quiet in our darkened bedroom, she would open her eyes, impossibly slowly, lie there for a moment, and again, impossibly slowly, close her eyes. For her, eyes were strange, their function unknown. Lying there, she gave each blink all the time in the world.
Some weeks later, I practiced yoga at home. I was slightly fearful, my body strangely unfamiliar after months of being driven by procreation. It felt right to be private, to practice alone with this still big but empty belly, and milk-full breasts. My practice was slow and easy, tender. I realized that the postnatal months were mine to rediscover limbs and spine, muscles and organs, and to hug them to me, awestruck. Like my baby, I could start right here, anew.
Yoko Yoshikawa is a yoga teacher, writer, and mother. She has taught at the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Piedmont, California, since 1996, specializing in inversion classes. Her articles have appeared in Yoga Journal magazine and www.yogajournal.com. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her daughter and husband.