Category Archives: Health

Yoga in Early Motherhood: A Follow Up to Ashtanga During Pregnancy

[More than a year ago, Wendy Spies practiced Ashtanga through her pregnancy and wrote about it in Ashtanga During Pregnancy: One Ashtangi's Experience. This article became our most read, with almost 14,000 views as of December 2007. She also posted a video on YouTube.com, 9 Months Pregnant Backbends, which has had almost 70,000 views. This is a follow up more than year later, answering some of the questions you've asked in the comments sections. -Ed.]

Thank you so much for the wonderful questions. I had intended to write an article when August (my son) was 6 months old. It has been 14 months now and I am only now having enough energy to indulge any “extra projects”. Any extra time this past year was spent on trying to reconnect with my husband in our marriage, get my practice more regular or catch up on sleep!

I am glad I waited. We recently weaned from nursing and it has been another layer of experience I did not expect. I had some pretty severe (but thankfully short lived, about two weeks) depression when I stopped nursing my son. The mental shift caused by the drop in prolactin was profound for me. What I found interesting during this period is that the dramatic shift allowed me to observe the effect of the hormones on my monkey mind. I was living my dream life and knew that, yet I still felt terrible, like life wasn’t worth living.

0612-baby-august.jpg

baby August in savasana (7 months old)

I practiced off and on through that period and eventually came out of the funk. I would like to say that the physical practice of yoga and meditation brought me out of it, but it didn’t. I practiced as much as I could during that time I tried to meditate more but found it nearly impossible. I was truly overwhelmed with negative thoughts. I was dragging myself through my practice not enjoying a single minute of it. I would like to believe that it would have been worse if I hadn’t practiced, but I am not sure. The only thing that actually helped me was time. I told myself that if the depression went more than two weeks then I would seek medical attention. Luckily I didn’t have to. This depression ended about a week ago and my practice feels more solid than ever.

It is amazing how trauma builds character and devotion. I am thankful I experienced this. The overall big shifts in hormones for the past (almost) two years have been a very educational experience. It has been an opportunity to really separate the mental from the physical and observe my own inner dialog. I believe that this is a journey we can all share even if we don’t carry a pregnancy. We most easily have the opportunity to become the observer when our lives shift. Through changes caused by injury, trauma in family and jobs, moving, even through happy additions to our lives, we have the opportunity to use our practice to observe those mental and physical transformations in ourselves. One day we are strong and flexible, the next day we are not, one day we are happy and the next an overwhelming sadness overtakes us. Gifts are given to us and then in the next breath taken away. These experiences give us an opportunity to separate our identity from these gifts, to get deeper, to find our own true nature. What am I if I am not strong? Happy? Friendly? Flexible? We are then able to feel closer to those around us, to truly understand how we are all fundamentally the same beautiful people wanting to be happy and struggling through life’s journey.

0703-baby-august1.jpg

baby August in tadasana

Now onto the questions…

I’d like to know more about your breath. Did you practice ujjayi breathing not only in your practice but during labor as well? Or did you practice other breathing techniques like Lamaze during labor?

My husband can probably answer that question better than I could. The details of the labor are very fuzzy to me now. I remember getting momentarily very angry at Terence, my husband, when he wasn’t “breathing right”. We had been taught one technique in our classes, but then when we got down to the labor, I found that technique very stressful, it was making me anxious. So through my declaration, “don’t do that! Do like yoga, yoga breath.” We immediately began doing some long deep breathing. (Terence says that the counting associated with yoga breathing really seemed to help bridge through the contractions.)

How far were you in your practice before you got pregnant?

(I am going to assume that this is a question about where in the Ashtanga sequence I was when I got pregnant.) I was blessed with a flexible back, so when I started Ashtanga second series was actually easier for me than first. I think that is true for many people. I had a very traditional hard-nosed teacher who took away all the postures and started me with a half primary and was very conservative with giving our postures. I was officially just barely into second series when I got pregnant. However, I teach “vinyasa” and practice and teach all kinds of different postures. So, I wasn’t always just doing primary series. Also, I found that I was really testing the patience of my teachers during this time. I added the splits sequence in there for a while, I did some pigeons and extra lunges.

At what point did you stop doing postures on your belly and forward-bending postures?

The very first thing I lost or modified was anything where my chest hit the ground. I found that my breasts were very tender as soon as I was pregnant. This made most things that required any chest on the floor impossible. The soreness lasted until just a couple of months ago. I did a modified preparation for dhanurasana and bekasana where I never rested completely on my front before going into the postures.

0704-baby-august.jpg

upward dog?

And what was your practice like after the baby? Assuming you were up nursing, etc., were you able to go to mysore practice, logistically and energy wise?

I waited a month and then practiced a TON as soon as I could. For a few months there I was practicing every day. I was lucky enough to get a 5 month maternity leave, so I could get up super early and nap in the afternoons (or when the baby was). August (the baby) was not sleeping through the night until he was a year old. My husband was nice enough to take the baby and I would go very early before he had to go to work. Often August would sleep while I was gone, so it didn’t put Terence out too much.

Finally, how has your practice changed since you became a mom?

I went back to work after 5 months and the party was over! (I am a software designer) It was extremely difficult to practice at first. We didn’t want to leave August at daycare too long during the day. My husband still needs to exercise too, and our schedules at work aren’t as regular as we like. Sometimes Terence needs to travel or be on a conference call at 6 am. Things are getting better with each day as we learn to create more of a routine in our lives.

Also, there is another interesting element that I didn’t anticipate that makes practicing hard. There is this powerful maternal compulsion to spend every waking moment with your offspring! I had to convince my husband to force me to leave in the mornings to go do yoga.

I am lucky these days to practice ~4 days a week. Every once in a blue moon I will get in 6 days, but that is super rare. It is even more difficult now that the baby wakes up anywhere from 5:30-7 in the morning. I have recently added in a little jogging to supplement my yoga. This is something that my son and I can do together. It is difficult to practice with a toddler who is either crawling all over you or causing chaos in another room. I also get the extra support from my husband to teach 5 yoga classes a week. When I first came back I was attempting to teach 10 and then I was never doing my personal practice.

Is there any way I can return to my previous shape? Will I be able to do backbends again and also in pregnancy?

I can say that I am in different shape than before, better and worse in a lot of ways. I have a little pot belly now and I am not sure my abs will ever be quite like they were before. However, the new softness makes the jump throughs better in a lot of ways. I don’t try to force it, they just magically come. I was able to do backbends after a few months of healing. The mula (pelvic floor) area can take quite a long while to rebuild, especially if your child’s head is 15.5 inches! One of the things that was always very easy for me, salamba sarvangasana (shoulder stand) took an unbelievably long time to rebuild, while arm balances came back quite easily and better than before.

You really cannot predict how a pregnancy is going to feel until you are there and if practice is even possible. I hope to practice again while pregnant. Who knows if that will even be possible – if I will be blessed with another baby or one that seems to enjoy the practice as much as August does. I will definitely let you know how it goes if we are able to explore another yoga pregnancy!

0711-wendy-and-august.jpg

Wendy and August (October 2007)

What is Yoga Therapy Anyway?

coffee-therapy-idle-type-flickr.jpg

Coffee Therapy
courtesy IdleType

I define yoga therapy as the practice of yoga with the intention to reduce suffering of any form – physical illness, emotional suffering, social isolation.

…the practice of yoga … asks, how is this individual suffering in this moment, and what could reduce that suffering?

…it’s again about finding a way to be comfortable in the present moment…

These quotes are from Kelly McGonigal, a yoga therapist whose scientific research summaries I’ve used in some of the Health posts on AshtangaNews.

cookie-therapy-minuet-flickr.jpg

Cookie Therapy
courtesy Minuet

Seeing that she is a Yoga Therapist, I got curious about Yoga Therapy, which to me, seems a little antithetical to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’ Do your practice and all is coming. But I figured I was missing something, and my curiousity led me to Kelly’s interview from the International Yogatherapy Conference in May 2006.

From reading the research summaries on her website, I would define yoga therapy as using specific sequences of asana, along with breathing and meditation exercises, to try to obtain healing benefits

cat-therapy-boboleta-flickr.jpg

Cat Therapy
courtesy Boboleta

for particular conditions. The yoga therapist creates a sequence that her client can perform and works one-on-one with her client (or in small groups) rather than teaching a one-practice-fits all sequence (like the Primary Series).

I would never suggest that yoga will replace medical care. In some cases, with some illnesses and injuries, yoga might be a sufficient treatment. But in general, yoga is about making this whole experience more comfortable. Yoga helps rehumanize the often dehumanizing experience of physical or emotional illness.

small-apple-trail.jpg

Weekend-in-the-Country Therapy
courtesy me

Yoga therapy seems to be especially beneficial for people suffering from chronic pain, especially back pain, and long-term illnesses, like cancer and AIDS. Kelly states that she’s seen the most impact on emotional suffering.

…Most people discuss the value of yoga in terms of prevention – yoga, as a lifestyle, may help to prevent certain common diseases in the U.S. But I think that yoga is becoming so welcome in medicine and psychology because it is not being presented as an alternative medicine, or alternative-to-medicine. It is presented as a way to reintroduce some of the core values of healing: helping individuals maintain some sense of power over their own well-being, honoring the importance of seeing the “whole” person and not just treating symptoms, and finding a way to prevent unnecessary suffering.

light-therapy-onkel-ulle-flickr.jpg

Light Therapy
courtesy Onkel Ulle

I have to say that looking at other online sources about yoga therapy, I still find the field a little too flaky, a little too touchy-feely, new-agey for my comfort. For example, the yoga therapy section on Yoga Journal’s website has articles that gives specific advice for treating Hepatitis C, vision problems, and even recommends specific postures to alleviate erectile dysfunction.

On the other hand, I found Kelly’s concise explanation of preventing unnecessary suffering in the present moment and her focus on traditional scientific research is intriguing, valuable and very well-stated.

If you want to learn more about yoga therapy, a good place to start is the International Yogatherapy Conference‘s section about yoga therapy. Atypically, Wikipedia does not (yet) contain good information about yoga therapy.

old-shala-govindakai-flickr.jpg

Ashtanga Therapy
View of the Old Shala from Above, courtesy Govinda Kai