This blog is meant to be about my return to the practice of Ashtanga yoga after the birth of my daughter. Below I discuss my experience, elaborate on a few insights and connect these to the relevant teachings of the KPJAYI Institute and Jois family.
First, one note, Hurray! We did it! We went through labor and delivery, and now have the most amazing, wonderful daughter, Diya. Motherhood is stunning. It involves more from me than any task I’ve ever undertaken, but for everything I give of myself, the returns are unimaginable. There is nothing more stunning then the love and innocence of an infant–the gaze of her eyes and the beauty of her inquiry. She grows by the day and I have never felt more relevant or needed in the world. I could elaborate on this forever, but….that’s not the aim of this post.
Second, for the main purpose of this blog entry–returning to the practice of Ashtanga yoga postpartum. I will start with the physical aspects and a few wise words of a wise man:
The shape of you.
The shape of me.
The shape of everything I see…
The Physical Return to Asanas. My mornings of postpartum yoga are reminiscent of this book by Dr. Seuss, which makes Diya smile every time I read it to her at the ripe age of 12 weeks. Dr. Seuss provides the most obvious and valuable insight for returning to the physical practice of any form of yoga after having a baby–The shape of me is different. Prior to pregnancy, I never spent much time thinking about the shapes I MIGHT have been, but I was quite grateful for the shape I was in. I never imagined my body would change so much in one year. But never fear! It does seem to be returning. I will not forget seeing my pregnant shadow on sunny days against glass windows in downtown Washington as I would get off the metro after yoga and walk to work, or the time in practice when I turned and saw my pregnant reflection in the glass covering a photo of Pattabhi Jois in our studio and thought “Whose that pregnant lady? Wait! Holy Mother…that’s me!” I’m pretty sure I was always in awe of the growing size of my tummy, and now, the sudden decrease in size.
Now what does this mean for practice? Everything feels different–not quite like it did before pregnancy (at least as I remember it), and it definitely doesn’t feel like it did during pregnancy. Postpartum ashtanga is really like starting yoga over–with muscle memory and knowledge of the practice–but in a very different and new body. Some postures have been easier than others and some harder, but nothing has been quite as I had expected it to be. What have I learned from this? It’s best not to have any expectations for what I can do on my yoga mat, especially 6 weeks after having a baby.
Pregnancy was a gradual change. Postpartum was an instant one. In the first 72 hours postpartum I lost 2/3rds of the weight gained during pregnancy (that was 11% of my overall bodyweight at the height of my pregnancy), and continued to lose weight through the first month–a fast and dramatic change in body shape. Right now I weigh about 8 lbs more than my pre-pregnancy weight, but my body and proportions are quite different. I returned to the practice six weeks after Diya was born, and I’m pretty sure the vast change could offer some lessons in geometry or the laws of physics for the inquiring student. My entire physical sense of self changed over night. Starting practice was, in many respects, like starting over. The first two weeks, in particular, posed challenges I had not anticipated. That said, the joy of being able to see my feet again and to bend forward, was also hopeful! Kelli Hastings, a teacher in Orlando,FL (owner of Sister Lotus Yoga) and mother herself, offered one piece of advice, which I tried to take to heart: Use the postpartum time to improve upon the practice. During the first month back for me, this has meant spending a great deal more time thinking about myself in standing postures, closing poses and those early poses of primary. This advice has also mentally helped as I have been challenged to regain strength and balance in my new shape.
When to return to the practice and how? Like all things yoga-related, there is a host of conflicting advice out there. Pattabhi Jois recommended waiting at least 3 months, and Saraswati Jois made this suggestion in an interview a few years ago. I’m told Sharath recommends waiting at least 6 weeks, and this is the advice passed onto me from my teacher, Faith Scimecca, as well. I admit, I did a few sun salutations–probably because (as Faith told me) I was a bit delusional and excited to get back to a smaller version of myself–but, in general, I try to stick to the purest form of the practice as recommended by the Jois family. Sometimes not practicing, and the lesson in patience, is its own form of practice. Sometimes less is more. While I was not physically practicing asanas, I did try to take at least 10-15 minutes a day during the first six weeks to meditate and breath. In the first few weeks with a newborn, 15 minutes alone can be an incredibly emotional experience in itself–ranging from luxury to anxious worrying. I find the practice of yoga nidra very relaxing and rejuvenating, and I sometimes practiced 15 minutes with a guided CD. There are several available now through iTunes.
During the first few weeks I focused on sun salutations and the final postures in padmasana, and I gradually added standing postures back. As Sharath notes in his new book:
Committing oneself to the practice of suryanamskara and the final variations of padmasna is an appropriate starting point for most practitioners. They are especially therapeutic and can bring many benefits. Always remember to work slowly and overtime your pactice will develop. Perfection cannot be attained overnight.
In the postpartum return, I used this as the basis for finding Tristhana—rediscovering my breathing with the posture and gazing points as well as reconnecting with the mula bandha.
Ujjayi Breathing and the Return of Mula Bandha. Kaboom! The most striking change occurred with mula bandha. I knew my abdominal muscles would change, but I wasn’t expecting them to disappear. The first few practices were an emotional roller coaster, the let down came when I could not connect my breathing with the physical asana in the same ways I did before. It took some time to find my abs and reconnect with the pelvic floor, but fortunately, after a few weeks of daily practice, it did start to return and early postures picked up right along with them. This was the most difficult part of my return. I could get into postures, but I quickly realized that’s pretty meaningless without the breath.
The one insight I would offer from my experience is that in the postpartum beginning–more is less. I wanted to do more, but instead, really trying to reconnect with the mula bandha–When I couldn’t feel it, I imagined it. By the second week of practice, I could feel it returning and it’s been getting stronger since. In this sense the return has not been about racing to add all the postures back into my practice, but rather, focusing to reconnect with my breath with the asanas and the spiritual journey of the pregnancy and postpartum with the physical practice.
The Spiritual Journey. The spiritual journey of practicing through pregnancy and now into the postpartum period is really quite indescribable. During pregnancy, I felt I was able to connect with my daughter in ways I definitely would not have been able to without the practice. It has also brought an inner calm and balance to my daily life that goes beyond the usual.
The greatest gift I gave myself during pregnancy was the continued practice of Ashtanga yoga, and the greatest gift my husband, friends and family gave was their continued support of my practice. Chidu, my husband, in particular, made it possible for me to practice by dropping me at yoga on the mornings I went to work, and now, he continues to care for Diya while I go to practice. Without his support, I would not have the regularity in practice–or the focus in my day-to-day life–that I have. He has been central to my continued practice and I have been damn lucky. I’m also fortunate to have an amazingly supportive yoga teacher and studio, Faith at Woodley Park Yoga, with friends who gave encouragement and love throughout pregnancy.
That said, I realize not everyone has that support to get to yoga in the mornings, but I would still encourage the continued practice of yoga through pregnancy–if you were doing it before getting pregnant and there are no health reasons to prevent you from continuing. Yoga for me was the one activity that gave me energy, particularly in the 1st and 3rd trimester, and it was the one time of the day where I focused on myself, breathing, and bonding with my little one to-be in advance of labor. Now that we are together in the world, practice is back to my own individual time, and it has been a way to get beyond the sleepiness of life with an infant, the physical hum-drums of the life postpartum, and to find inner calm with a new and improved sense of self.
 Jois, Sharath. Astanga Yoga Anusthana. Mysore: KPJAYI Mysore, 2013.