I had it easy before this small human came into my life. In terms of yoga practice, that is. I had over the last ten years cultivated a life that more or less revolved around making space for practice, and I realize what a ridiculous luxury that is. I turned myself into a morning person (yes, it’s possible), I had space at home and at the studios where I’ve taught over the years, as well as access to Mysore programs with teachers I’ve been so lucky to learn from. My non-yoga jobs have never needed me to start earlier than about 8am, and when I took trips to Mysore, I mean life just revolves around practice there, so ain’t no thang to get up at 3 or 2:30 or whatever. So, like, maybe my yoga practice is actually beginning now.
Before the birth, I tried not to have too many expectations in terms of when I would get back to my practice. I had heard 6 weeks, or 12 weeks, as an appropriate time, but as with advice about practicing during pregnancy (no inversions! yes inversions! don’t practice in the first trimester! do whatever feels good! no twists! no backbends! twists and backbends are great as long as you do them correctly! etc), I took everything with a grain of salt and figured I’d know what was appropriate for my body.
The first couple of weeks after Malcolm was born were all about keeping my head above water. It’s a bit of a blur but I was definitely not doing any asana. Around week 3 I was starting to crave movement but I couldn’t stand for long — sun salutations were out of my reach, so to speak– so I did chair yoga, essentially. Inhale raise arms; exhale lower arms. Such simple movement felt so good. From there, my practice grew, slowly, bit by bit. Around week 4, sun salutations without chaturanga or up dog. I was doing maybe fifteen minutes every other day. When that started to feel a little easier, I added chaturanga and up dog, and then started on standing poses around week 5 or 6.
At this point, I was practicing whenever I could. Forget the same-time-every-day paradigm; it was now whenever Malcolm was sleeping or Peter was home from work. Before the child, I was very particular about where and when I practiced; if I was at home I would do the dishes and sweep the floor first, to create a lovely clean de-cluttered environment in which I could connect to my highest self. Ha. Now that my me-time was very (verrrrry) limited, if the boy was asleep or otherwise occupied (in someone else’s arms, in other words) regardless of the state of the house (dirty laundry on the floor? whatever.) I would slap my mat down (on dust bunnies? who cares.) and do thirty, forty minutes, whatever I could do until the wee one needed me.
I went back to teaching at 8 weeks. Initially, I thought I should sleep as long as possible in the morning and I decided to take my chances with practicing after I taught, rather than before as I was used to doing. But within a week or two it was clear that the lack of consistency was getting to me. It was very hit or miss to practice at home– Malcolm would go down for a nap and I’d start practice only to have him wake up fifteen minutes later. Or I was just so tired (and hungry, good lord you get hungry when you’re nursing) that if he went down for a nap, practice would not be the first priority. So I switched gears, got up a little earlier and since then, have been practicing every day before I teach. Getting up pre-4am (these days, it’s 3:25 now that my practice is getting longer) is not for everyone but it works for me. I am a much more effective teacher when I have practiced.
Back to the asana. I added poses on to my practice as I would with a new student, waiting until one was not giving me any trouble before adding on the next, not more than one every other day or so. I spent about a week in Marichyasana D. And a little more than that in Supta Kurmasana. It was actually sort of fun to be challenged by poses that hadn’t been challenging for me for years. There is so much to learn in the primary series.
There were a couple of considerations I had to maneuver through during this process: the first is that my rectus abdominis (RA) muscles– the vertical muscles that give you the six-pack abs– separated during pregnancy. This is fairly common. If the gap is wider than a few centimeters (mine was not) it’s called diastasis recti and can lead to some complications, but even with a narrower gap it can be problematic if not corrected. The fix for it is to strengthen your transverse abdominis, the belt-like horizontal muscles that run underneath the RA. Luckily, this is another way of saying engage your uddiyana bandha. So I’ve had to be a little careful during poses like navasana and supta padangusthasana, and any of the transitions where both legs go up and overhead to use my bandhas and not my RA. I go a little slower, lift one leg at a time, bend my knees. When I re-learned how to stand up from a backbend I had to focus on unfurling rather than muscling my way up: this movement can go right into your RA if you don’t trust the strength of your legs to get you up.
Additionally, as a nursing mom I have to pay close attention to how much energy I’m expending. A two-hour practice followed by three hours of heavy lifting (also known as “teaching Mysore-style”) takes a lot out of you, and since I am solely responsible for producing the nutrients to sustain my son, I need to make sure my energy stores are not depleted. So when I started adding on intermediate series poses, I switched almost right away to what Sharath had me practicing once he gave me eka pada sirsasana: first half of primary plus my intermediate poses Monday/Wednesday, second half of primary plus my intermediate poses Tuesday/Thursday, Friday primary only, Sunday intermediate only. The decision to do this came from a conversation with my teacher— this is perhaps a whole other post, but throughout the pregnancy and post-partum period (and, well, in general) it has been essential to have a teacher I can contact for advice about all of this.
As of about a week ago, I’m back to practicing up to yoga nidrasana, which is where Sharath took me on my last trip to India. There are some things that are harder than before I was pregnant, and some things that feel more stable. In general my body feels stronger, which is a bit of a surprise since there are certainly muscles that are not physically as strong as they were before. But overall, the pregnancy and birth have taught me how to tap into a different kind of strength.
There is a perception that Ashtanga is a very linear practice: the carrot/stick method of mastering one pose and getting the next. And that may be true initially, but a few years in it becomes much more circular: a process of un-learning and re-learning. You get to a certain place in the asana sequence and then due to illness, or injury, or pregnancy you need to take a step back for a time. And this can either be frustrating, or it can be a sort of exciting opportunity to look at your practice in a different way. If I can’t fold forward in Janusirsasana A, what else can I get out of the pose? Can I focus more on mula bandha? Can I find a little more strength in my back, lengthening up rather than forward? And so on. There is always more to discover.