I have been practicing yoga for the better part of my life. When I first experienced yoga I was in my teens, and I took yoga with an aerobics instructor at the all women’s gym I joined with my best friend. I remember that I liked yoga class but I didn’t much understand its benefits beyond being another way to exercise. So at that point in my life, I participated in yoga class because I liked the movements and the way I felt when class was over, but I didn’t pursue yoga beyond the gym.
Fast forward to college. I was in the middle of my first big relationship. For a little while I was in love (aren’t we all at that time in our lives?). I was also enrolled in an honors college program that covered my tuition for school. And while having a scholarship that paid for my schooling was a great opportunity for me, it also stressed me out. If my GPA slipped below a 3.0, I would lose my scholarship. Luckily that never happened. However, I still had to keep my grades up and eventually deal with the first big breakup of my life. Which stressed me out.
To cope with the stress that my late teens and early twenties brought with them, I did a lot of yoga. I purchased yoga DVDs and woke up early to practice first thing in the morning before I’d head out the door for class. For some reason, yoga had this way of chilling me out. While practicing, my mind would race with all the thoughts of everything that I had to get done (or everything I was worried about), and sometimes I’d actually get annoyed when I’d be in pose and have to hold it for a long time. Over time though, I came to appreciate that holding a pose in yoga helped train me to focus and slow down. It also helped me to slow down my racing thoughts and handle what would eventually be diagnosed as anxiety.
Years later when I was pregnant with Annabelle, my first child, I decided to take a prenatal yoga class. At this point in my life, I had been practicing yoga about twice a week and wanted to continue with it while pregnant, but I wasn’t sure what exercise was safe for me to do. I also wanted to have a natural birth without the use of pain relieving drugs. Like every new parent, I wanted to do what I thought would be best for my baby, and I wasn’t sure what the effects of pain relievers would be on my new baby. In all the years that I’d practiced yoga before pregnancy, I’d learned that yoga had healing effects for headaches, back pain, stress, and much more. I had a hunch that yoga might also be beneficial for my pregnancy, my growing baby, and labor.
As it turned out, I ended up having to be induced for labor with Annabelle. A sonogram worried the doctors at my midwife/ob-gyn practice, and so I was scheduled for an induction. I had to let go of my hopes for a totally drug free birth since labor was being brought on by pitocin. During the first four hours of labor, I refused pain relief. Instead, my husband helped me get into yoga poses that I’d learned at my prenatal class and I listened to soothing music like Enya. Unfortunately after the fourth hour, I was desperate for relief. I felt totally unprepared for the pain I was feeling–pitocin brings on contractions in a strong way, such that, as I’ve since learned in a later birth class during my second pregnancy, the body is less able to cope with the pain. In contrast, when a woman’s body goes into labor on its own, the contractions build up and our bodies are better able to manage the pain of labor.
So at 2 p.m. I requested an epidural. I had to make peace with the fact that the birth of my first child wasn’t going to happen the way I had wanted it to. And to be honest, this wasn’t the first time in my life that I had trouble accepting that a turn of events was different from what I had hoped. Practicing yoga has helped me change this part of myself, or at the least, it has helped me cope with and accept what I am unable to change and to move forward with the life and circumstances that are at hand.
Four hours later, I held my beautiful baby girl Annabelle. My midwife congratulated me on doing a great job during the pushing part of labor. To which I immediately responded, “I will have to thank my yoga teacher.” For weeks and weeks, my teacher had worked with the mothers in my class to move into poses and do exercises that would make labor easier–kegels were a big part of that, lol. Prenatal yoga also gave me something to focus on while I was doing the hard work that is labor. I brought my mind to the class and my teacher, and that is what I thought about when I needed to slow down or work to move my baby out into the world.
Six years later and now the mom of two, I practice yoga at least three times a week. A big part of why I practice yoga nowadays is because I need a time to let me body work hard and to give my mind time to let go and at the same time focus on the moment. This is hard for me to do; it is something I’ve struggled with much of my adult life because I have so much that I want to do. Even as I sit here writing this post, my fingers moving across my keyboard, my mind tuned into the words that I type, I do have a list of what else needs to be done: where am I taking my kids today? what client am I meeting with this week? what projects must I complete for work and for home? and what’s for dinner? When I roll out my mat for yoga class and move into that first child’s pose or downward dog, my mind meets its match. If I don’t bring my mind into focus, I tend to fall right on my ass and out of a pose because I wasn’t focused. Life is like that too. If we don’t pay attention, all of a sudden, we’re blindsided by something because we weren’t paying attention.
Which brings me to the other purpose of this post. A month ago, a book arrived in the mail addressed to me. Entitled Pregnancy Health Yoga and authored by Tara Lee and Mary Attwood, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to give an insider’s review for this book because I am not pregnant. That said, I have been pregnant twice and I practiced yoga through both pregnancies–the second of which I was able to go through with a drug free birth. Anyway, I can tell you that I wish I had read Lee and Atwood’s book during my own pregnancies. There are so many things that I love about this book–for starters, I so appreciate the affirmations that begin each chapter. One example is “I breathe deeply and sit tall so that I can create more space for me and my baby.” The authors then go on to discuss how new mothers need not only to let their bodies expand to make room for their growing babies but that mentally they need to make room in their lives for the babies who are about to be born. And that is no understatement. Welcoming a new baby is a wonderful experience, and with it comes many highs and lows. Many new parents will adjust to sleeping less, having less time to play (and by play–I mean do anything that one used to be able to do for fun whether it be going out for a drink with friends or going shopping), and having to give more and more of their lives to their children.
In the pages that follow each chapter’s affirmation are beautiful photographs showing how to progress through a yoga pose that involves movement as well as clear instructions on how to achieve the pose. As a non pregnant reader of this book, I was happy to page through the chapters because even though some of the poses were modified to be safe for a pregnant mother, the poses are nonetheless beneficial for those of us who aren’t pregnant. A helpful resources for all practitioners of yoga is the two page spread that is a diagram for how to move through Salute to the Sun, a vinyasa that I consider the backbone of my own yoga practice.
In chapter five, the authors share a great resource called Common Ailments and Conditions for pregnant mothers. Topics range from self care to backache, morning sickness and how to move your breech baby. The yoga poses pictured and described in Yoga Health Pregnancy are in line with the poses I learned during my Bradley Method class which was a required component of my second pregnancy when I opted for a home birth. Everyday I had to practice pelvic tilts to help my baby move into an optimal position for birth.
In chapter six, the authors share an affirmation that can be helpful both in labor and in everyday life: “I stay open-minded and go with the flow.” As I mentioned earlier, letting go of my ideal birth for Annabelle’s delivery wasn’t easy to do. I tried to do the best I could with the circumstances I had but I didn’t immediately let go and make peace with her induction. In fact, I struggled to accept that the birth didn’t go the way I planned for years afterward. It wasn’t until I experienced my second birth and that too didn’t go exactly as I’d hoped that I made peace with my first labor; I began to see the positive in both of my birth stories and accept that I needed to let go of what didn’t go great about labor. Should I ever again be pregnant, I know that I will have many questions to answer about what I would consider the ideal birth experience for myself and my baby. The rest of chapter six includes several helpful poses that will help mothers manage labor, open and release, and move their bodies in a way that is helpful to moving their babies down the birth canal.
The last chapter addresses the last part of pregnancy which is the postnatal part–the healing of the body as it adjusts to and recovers from the birth experience. Again, the affirmation that I found most helpful from this chapter and which could have brought me much peace after both births is “I am letting go of the need to control.” As I have written about on this blog before, I struggled with PPD or postpartum depression and anxiety after the birth of my son Levi. Adjusting to being the mother of two was difficult for me, to say the least. I confronted a new reality where I had to give and give and give to two little souls who needed so much from me. And believe me, I wanted to do that. I think, when I look back on that time, I was hugely disappointed in myself that I couldn’t give and do everything that I wanted to for my children . . . and instead, I created a very negative space for myself. Over time and by finding ways to balance the new demands of mothering two, I learned to accept that there was so much that I could do in a day and that I needed to let go or what wasn’t essential or ask for help.
While I didn’t notice that Yoga Health Pregnancy addresses baby blues or pregnancy and postnatal anxiety and depression (it does however counsel mothers to go with the flow, get enough rest, to eat well, to attend mother baby groups and get fresh air, which can be helpful for coping with the changes that come with motherhood but does not necessarily address the major hormonal complications that lead to PPD), the book does address physical ailments that can occur to mothers, like diastis retci, in which the abdominal muscles have separated from expansion in pregnancy and required exercise to become knitted back together to support the pelvic area. Other advice in this part of the book that seemed to be spot on was that mothers who experienced vaginal deliveries resume yoga and exercise 6 weeks after birth and mothers who experienced cesareans wait 12 weeks.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading Yoga Health Pregnancy. I highly recommend this book for pregnant mothers and their partners, and I would consider lending this to any of my maternity clients who are curious about yoga.