My experience with postpartum ashtanga practice
A year ago, after maintaining a daily ashtanga yoga practice throughout my pregnancy, I gave birth to my son. Since that time I have been exploring what it means to maintain a daily ashtanga yoga practice while healing from pregnancy and childbirth, and while learning to be a parent.
I had expected that when the baby was born I would heal quickly and be able to resume my normal pre-pregnancy, because I had a very positive and empowering experience practicing while pregnant, and a relatively easy natural birth at home, actually delivering the baby myself. My actual experience with postpartum asana practice, though, was very different, and much more humbling.
I took six weeks of from asana practice after giving birth, which is the minimum time recommended, and then returned to practice. After modifying my practice significantly during my pregnancy- practicing gently, not building up internal heat, not doing any deeply detoxifying postures, and not jumping back or through – I had been looking forward to resuming practicing with the physical intensity and focus on purification that I had brought to my practice before becoming pregnant. I expected to feel open, light, and strong. Instead, I felt sluggish, heavy and weak. I couldn’t even lift myself off the mat. I soon began hearing the voices in my head of people who had told me that I would never be the same after giving birth and that my practice would be forever changed. Faced with these fears, I began to put a lot of pressure on myself to get back to where I had been in the practice before giving birth. The only way I knew how to make progress is through hard work, and so I began to dedicate myself to rebuilding my practice, with a focus on building my physical strength. Within a several weeks, I was practicing full primary again, though I continued to have trouble lifting myself off the mat, and was unable to jump back or jump through.
About three months postpartum, I began to experience lower back pain. I noticed it most when I was breastfeeding, in bed at night, and during my yoga practice. The pain eventually also radiated to my hip and leg. It became very intense, so much so that I was often unable to sit for long periods or to sleep at night. I am used to pain coming and going in my yoga practice, so I expected that it would eventually be diminished. When it kept getting worse, I decided to back off very significantly from my practice, try to identify the cause of the pain, and to heal myself. I didn’t want to get an X-ray or an MRI, which is what the midwife I saw for a referral to a physical therapist recommended, so I never got a definitive diagnosis, but the various health care providers I saw had a number of explanations for my pain, including spasming piriformis muscle pressing on the sciatic nerve, my sacrum being tilted too far inward, a torqued pelvis, a dysfunctional SI joint, and jammed lumbar vertebrae. These are all, I learned, actually very common postpartum issues. From what I understand, they are related to muscles of the back and hips tightening to compensate for pelvic instability, which is caused by the ligaments being loose from the presence of the hormone relaxin in the body, which apparently stays in the body for up to four months after stopping breastfeeding.
I feel certain that I delved back into a rigorous asana practice too quickly after giving birth. I also think it is possible that, not being cognizant the fact that my ligaments might still be loose, I overstretched in my yoga practice, causing my muscles to seize up to protect me. I also think that, while I felt that I was engaging bandha deeply in my practice- and I was in the context of a postpartum body- it was much less deep than it had been before I became pregnant, and so when I went as far into the postures as I had before I became pregnant, it was too far and caused a strain on my body. I also think I was relying on muscle strength in certain postures to compensate for decreased ability to engage bandha, and that this also put a strain on my musculoskeletal system. I was also drained and sore from constantly breastfeeding and carrying my baby, and didn’t give enough consideration to this in how I approached my postpartum asana practice.
It was actually very challenging for me to determine how far to go into the postures and how vigorously to practice in the first few months postpartum. This challenge was compounded for me- and may be for other women who are first time mothers as well- by uncertainty about whether I had lost strength from the months of practicing more gently, whether my body was permanently changed from the experience of pregnancy or childbirth, whether my body felt different because it had not yet healed, or some combination of the three. Without knowing which it was, it was hard to know how to practice. Added to this was the challenge of not knowing exactly how much energy I could put into the physical practice while healing from childbirth, breastfeeding, caring for a newborn, and sleeping much less than I had before my pregnancy. Also, I found that there were very few resources available about how to approach a postpartum ashtanga practice.
What I ultimately ended up doing was start all over from the beginning, with the sun salutations, and building my practice up a second time, much more slowly. Rather than trying to progress through the series again as quickly as possibly, I focused on using the practice to reach an understanding of why I was in pain, and to help illuminate the path toward healing. I did this initially on my own, in the very early mornings, before the other students arrived. Before each practice, I chanted aloud the first book of the yoga sutras, to remind myself of the meaning and purpose of yoga.
At the same time that I resumed my practice, I began exploring a wide range of healing modalities, from massage, to acupuncture, to craniosacral therapy, to physical therapy, to chiropractic care. I took breath work classes designed to help remove emotional blockages from the physical body. I also changed my diet and started taking herbs and nutritional supplements. I did exercise programs to strengthen the pelvic floor; yoga sequences for the low back, hips, and sacrum; and various kriyas that help encourage the engagement of mula and uddiyana bandha. All of these approaches helped me along the path of healing; they are each explained in some depth in the blog post entitled A Postpartum Healing Journey.
Now, almost a year after returning to ashtanga practice, after having focused a significant amount of time and energy on healing myself, the pain is almost completely gone and much of my mobility has been restored. I can now engage bandha deeply again, both uddiyana and mula bandha, and am able to jump back and through with ease. I am practicing full primary again, but most days doing fewer sun salutations and jumping back between postures rather than between sides, and usually only practicing five days a week instead of six, aware that I am using much of my energy to care for my baby and can’t expend it all in the physical practice. I have also recently added a few second series back bends into my practice to help release my psoas, which is still extremely tight, and to learn how to nutate my sacrum again, which hasn’t been possible for me for many months. My backbends are still extremely shallow, and somewhat painful, but day by day they are becoming deeper and more comfortable. I’m intending to begin alternating between the first and second halves of the primary series soon, and slowly add the intermediate practice, when my body is ready and I have the energy and stamina.
There are a number of approaches to postpartum healing and resources available for postpartum women that I learned about during the past year that were instrumental in helping me heal and to relearn and rebuild my practice, which I think might be helpful to share, in case other women are also exploring how to heal and practice ashtanga after giving birth.
Sharmila Desai’s book Yoga Sadhana for Mothers has a series of exercises at the end for closing the body and correcting postural alignment. These exercises are extremely helpful for postpartum healing and for postpartum asthtanga practice and can be done shortly after giving birth. If I had it to do again, after taking six weeks of postpartum, I would have started my practice again with just these exercises, and done them several times a day for at least four to six weeks before resuming my asana practice. I would have also continued them as a supplement to my asana practice for at least three more months. The Hab It: Pelvic Floor DVD to be very helpful in terms of strengthening the muscles that are necessary for pelvic floor engagement. I also found that using the DVD Viniyoga Therapy for the Low Back, Sacrum, and Hips helped reduce my pain significantly. Using these resources occasionally helped me to approach my daily ashtanga practice with more mindfulness of the areas of my body that I needed to bring my attention to, and helped me get closer to the correct alignment in the postures, despite my lingering postpartum pelvic instability.
In terms of help from body workers, I found chiropractic care to be the most useful in bringing my body back into the correct alignment. The chiropractor who helped me was also an acupuncturist, and in addition to traditional chiropractic adjustments also used acupuncture needles to stimulate and bring chi energy back to a certain muscle that was constantly spasming, which he said was so deep it could not be accessed by massage. I also had some success with craniosacral therapy, which also helped move energy that was stuck in my body and help illuminate what tension needed to be released in order for my pain to be alleviated. I would recommend all or some combination of these three healing modalities- chiropractic, acupuncture, and craniosacral therapy- combined with regular gentle massage, for women suffering from chronic postpartum musculoskeletal pain.
Regarding approach the asana practice, what I ultimately found most effective was to focus on breath, bandha, and drishti; to practice according to vinyasa krama, progressing slowly, step by step; and to try to follow the vinyasa as closely as possible, but more slowly than I used to. Also, the way that my teacher is currently teaching forward folding – rounding the back and bringing the forehead to the knee, focusing on the engagement of uddiyana bandha and drawing inward rather than bringing the chest and chin to the shin and lengthening forward – was invaluable to me in terms of correcting my misalignment and helping me to deepen my bandha. This is not how I initially learned the practice, but I decided to make the transition to practicing in this way during my postpartum healing, and it feels more therapeutic than how I was previously practicing, and more grounding.
One other practice that has been essential in terms of helping me access bandha again in my postpartum ashtanga practice has been to practice uddiyana kriya, agnisara dautiu, and nauli before my asana practice. I do them from a standing position, leaning over with my hands pressing against the tops of my thighs, rounding my lower back. The mornings I practice these three kriyas before my asana practice, I am able to jump through and back with relative ease, and the mornings that I don’t I still have trouble accessing bandha. None of these three kriyas should be practiced right after giving birth, though, it should be noted; I added uddiyana kriya back in a few months after giving birth, and agnisara dauti only about nine months postpartum. Nauli had not been in my practice before I became pregnancy- it is generally not recommended for women planning to conceive- but I had a feeling that it would help me with my postpartum healing and asked my teacher to help me learn it at the same time that I added back in agnisara dauti. I found that learning nauli helped me direct energy to the internal muscles that were spasming, which helped release the tension there and restore mobility to my left SI joint and hip.
Lastly, diet, herbs, and self-care practices have been very important. Eating a nourishing, sattvic diet has helped me, as has increasing my food consumption; I now eat two breakfasts, lunch, and a late afternoon snack each day. Drinking coconut water, which helps me stay hydrated while breastfeeding and has high magnesium content, has helped reduce my pain. The most significant reduction in pain I experienced was when I began taking a prenatal/postpartum vitamin supplement, which helps replace the nutrients that are depleted by breastfeeding. I have also found taking chamomile extract to be very supportive to the healing process. And I give myself a sesame oil massage every morning, and a castor oil bath most weekends. I should note that I only added in the castor oil bath after my son was eating solid foods and I could go four or five hours without breastfeeding- before that, I used sesame or coconut. Respecting the ladies’ holiday has also been very important during my postpartum ashtanga practice; each time I do it, my pain decreases and mobility increases.
If I had understood when I first began my postpartum practice that my body would eventually heal, that I would be able to engage bandha again, and the sense of strength and lightness I had felt in the practice before becoming pregnant would return, I believe I would have been able to approach my postpartum ashtanga practice with more patience, and with more of the curiosity, joy, and humor I felt during my pregnancy practice. I expect that I would have still worked hard to rebuild my practice, but perhaps a little bit less aggressively, and with a focus on learning rather than achieving. I think if I had done that, I might have avoided some of the pain that I experienced in the past year.
That said, challenge of practicing with intense, chronic pain over the past year, though, and the experience of trying to heal myself, has actually, in many ways, been a blessing. This is in large part because it has helped me understand my tendency to extremes, and to begin bring myself into greater equilibrium. Before, I organized my life around the practice of yoga; I woke up every day at 4:30 am, practiced asana twice a day, for a total of about three hours a day, and also did pranayama, chanting, and meditation. In the early months of being a mother, though, I needed to reorient myself, and rather than organizing my life around yoga, I needed to use the asana practice to heal myself and to support my transition to parenthood. I didn’t realize that right away, and so fell out of balance. Now I am slowly coming to a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of the yoga practice on the mat and the yoga practice, and to reaching a place where they are mutually supportive. One day I may practice again in the way I once did, when my son is older, but for now am enjoying learning about yoga from watching him explore the world with wonder, joy, and presence, and from sharing with him some of the things my yoga journey has taught me so far.