Once a woman becomes a mother, everything changes—her body, her obligations, her priorities. Not only does she need to heal physically, but she's responsible for another human being. It's easy for her to put her needs aside in the interest of the baby's.
"I was surprised at how long it took me to really recover my ability to give myself the time to do a full practice and get out of the house to do it," says Deanna Harris, mother of three-year-old Kai.
If a student is returning to your class after giving birth, you can make sure she's getting the physical work she needs to regain strength and the mental release she needs from her demanding new role as a mother.
Physiology of the Postnatal Period
"Postpartum [six to eight weeks after birth] is a whole different animal," says Debra Flashenberg of the Prenatal Yoga Center in New York City. "Now that she's had the baby, the attention shifts to the baby and away from the mom. I want to get back to mothering the mother—and reminding her to be patient."
The first month after giving birth is a time to recuperate and adjust. The pelvic floor has been stretched significantly during birth and may even have been cut or torn to facilitate delivery. The cervix has to close back down from dilating to 10 centimeters (4 inches) and then stretching to let the baby pass through. The uterus shrinks a lot in the first few days, but it will take at least a month to return to its postpartum size, and the internal organs have to settle back into position after being crowded for so long. If the mother had a Caesarean section, the pelvic floor will be intact, but she has had a major abdominal surgery that will take several months to heal.
Perhaps one of the most surprising (and possibly disappointing) aspects of the postnatal period for a new mother is that she still looks about four to five months pregnant. The baby and the afterbirth add up to only about 15 to 20 pounds of weight lost immediately. In the first week or two after giving birth, she still has a lot of extra fluids in her system that are slowly being flushed out or reabsorbed. Her abdominals and the skin over the belly are loose after being stretched out for nine months.
These first few weeks can also be hugely emotional as she learns to take care of her new baby and adjust to her role as a mother. This intense responsibility, combined with hormones that are still present in the system (and will remain for months if she is breast-feeding), can lead to mood swings and even depression.
A perfect remedy for all of this soreness and mental stress is a yoga class, but remember, your job as a teacher is to make sure your student is not rushing back into a practice her body is not ready for.
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, Pranayama, 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.
Baby the Mother
Some points to consider when teaching a postnatal student:
Encourage patience. It took nine months and one birth to get to this place, so a new mother should give herself another nine months to get back to "normal." If she tries to rush the healing process, she could actually prolong it by aggravating any strained muscles, tears, or incisions. Encourage her to listen to what her body is ready to do.
Focus on the center. A postpartum student's torso is the area that needs the most attention. Help her work on her abdominals and lower back by starting with gentle stretches and gradually moving into strength-building poses. Offer lots of chest and shoulder openers to ease soreness in the upper body.
Turn the focus on her. The early months of a baby's life are its most helpless. Your student will be spending so much time caring for and worrying about this little person that she will neglect her own health and needs. Encourage her to relax and focus on herself while practicing, so she will be refreshed and ready to parent again after class.
Harris says, "My practice has changed, because I incorporate more of a yogic attitude in my life and in my parenting. My asana practice doesn't get as much attention, but I feel like I have a full experience.
"I think that, as a parent, I have needed to make choices about how I spend my time, and it makes me much more aware of how important the things I choose to do are to me. Yoga has taken a step up in my mind, because it's one of the things that I am willing to make a priority."
Brenda K. Plakans, mother of three-year-old Eamonn and six-month-old Alec, lives and teaches yoga in Beloit, Wisconsin. She also maintains the blog Grounding Thru the Sit Bones.