Pregnancy is one of life’s most profound transformations. It changes you — and your yoga practice — in ways that no other experience can. Cultivate a new relationship with yoga through your wild and wonderful pre and postnatal journey.
More than two decades ago, as a teenager, I fell in love with yoga. I have always marvelled at how the practice has the power to change my body, mind and life off the mat. How it made me stronger, calmer and more disciplined. I was dedicated and tenacious in my practice — but not always the best student. I often pushed too hard, trashing my knees and sustaining a long list of injuries along the way. Then I got pregnant.
I remember the moment vividly. I was working on a project in Katherine, NT. Practising in my little hotel room. No matter where I was (and I was traveling a lot), my practice was not negotiable. Two hours a day. On the mat. I had almost finished, relishing in urdhva dhanurasana. I tucked my chin in to come down and noticed my belly — a strange bulging. It looked like my abdominal muscles were separating.
“That’s weird,” I thought (having been a prenatal yoga teacher for some time). “That’s a pregnancy thing”.
And just like that, I knew I was pregnant.
Pregnancy as a yogi
As a prenatal yoga teacher, you can just imagine how I saw the whole pregnancy, birth, postnatal thing rolling for me — I was going to be the yoga mamma. I’d be on the mat until the final hours of delivery. I’d drink smoothies and sleep; we’d be in a love cocoon. I would have a “calm” birth and just “breathe” the baby out. I’d be back on the mat in no time post labour doing two hours practice a day. (Cue the universe laughing uncontrollably.)
It didn’t exactly roll this way. In fact, my perfectly constructed, neatly folded, disciplined life imploded in the most vulnerable moment of my life.
I had nausea that felt like the world’s greatest hangover, jetlag and gastro all rolled into one. I vomited most days — for four months. Once it finally stopped, I was 20 kilograms heavier, as eating carbs voraciously 24-7 was the only way to curb the vomits. My partner and I separated. It was devastating.
I tried to disappear into a dynamic physical practice. Goodness how I tried. I clung to that physical practice like no one’s business — modifying sarvangasana and sirsasana right up to the bitter end, putting bolsters under my pelvis and chest to do salabasana and dhanurasana, working and practising in a hot room until 38 weeks. Holding everything together by a thread — until my body literally collapsed.
During pregnancy, hormones such as relaxin render pelvic bones and other joints more flexible for birth. It’s a necessary, clever thing the body does. But sometimes they can over stretch. Like mine. Symphysis pubis is when this overstretching happens in the pelvis. I could hardly walk and was couch-ridden for my final weeks. At 42 weeks, my son, Gabriel, refused to come out.
Two weeks of posterior pre-labour hell, and 48 hours of labouring in hospital, I was finally induced. Moments later, with an emergency caesar, he made his way into the world screaming his little lungs out. Which he continued to do. All the time. For months. And he vomited. A lot. After refusing to eat for weeks on end, and losing a lot of weight, he was finally diagnosed with reflux.
“Yoga,” as I knew it, was over. Gone were the luxurious two-hour asana practices. Gone were the 45-minute meditation sittings. My yoga practice looked very different.
It looked like this: a bleak morning, around 3am, when in order to combat G’s screams, I open my laptop, play the Gayatri* mantra loud and I chant. G calms. I calm. Thrust out of my head, into my heart. In the dark, in the lonely, tiny apartment with just the two of us, we disappeared into these powerful words from the Rigveda.
Welcome to the world of the pre and postnatal mum.
Pre and postnatal life
Every story is different. No two pregnancies are the same. But one thing is certain — it is the greatest, most transformational process in a woman’s life. The transition from “me” to “mamma” isn’t easy for anyone. It is the most joyous, exhausting and devastating thing all at once. No one can prepare you for how profound these physical, emotional and spiritual changes actually are.
The body is not the same as the pre-baby vehicle we used to get around in. And why would we expect it to be? It’s doing this incredible thing. It’s growing a human! I mean, I feel like every pregnant woman deserves a medal and a parade in their honour for this very task. From both an anatomy, and yoga physiology perspective, the body goes on quite a journey during this process.
In the first trimester, your hormones make seismic shifts. Physically, there are rapid changes. Nausea and fatigue may be present. The foetus is most vulnerable. Many lineages, and teachers, recommend not practising at all during this crucial time. From a yoga physiology perspective, the baby has begun its journey in muladhara chakra. This is the seat of survival, connection to earth, family, work — for both mum and bub. The foetus continues to grow in svadhistana chakra, seat of intimacy and creativity. This is associated with the element of water. Interestingly, you do physically start to build more blood and fluid in the body. All of your creative energy pours into this space, building, creating another human.
The second trimester brings big hormonal changes. This includes relaxin kicking in, which creates instability in the joints and muscles, especially the abdomen, sacroiliac and pelvis. Many women have more energy so it’s a good time to focus on building strength before it becomes challenging to do so in the last trimester with physical restrictions. Growth continues in manipura chakra, the seat of your ego, or sense of self. Yes, your identity, the thing you have carefully created and clung to your whole life, has been taken over by a new tenant. This can trigger a loss of confidence and start the big process of motherhood known as “letting go” — letting go of who you once were, or who you believed so strongly you were.
The third trimester sees an incredible shift in your energy. The uterus has grown from the size of a grapefruit to a watermelon. Pregnancy issues can emerge such as low blood pressure, hypertension, gestational diabetes, heartburn and lots of other fun stuff. These issues can alter your practice dramatically. For example, those with low blood pressure will find moving up and down or lowering the head below the heart may cause dizziness. Those with heartburn may find any inversion, especially adho mukha savasana, makes it worse. From an energetic perspective, you move from encouraging prana vayu (the upward flow of energy) to apana vayu (the downward flow responsible for all excretions from the body). Birth is the greatest apana vayu you experience in your life and that feeling of needing to slow down in the final stretch is very natural. A kapha imbalance adds to this slow down. Kapha, the Ayurvedic element of water (flow) encourages you to be more yin. It’s a really good time to embrace this, to slow down in the practice and use it to rest and restore.
Motherhood and your yoga practice
Once you give birth, manipura chakra is emptied and it becomes a vacuum. You can feel completely rudderless. Who the hell am I? Beyond the nappies and feeds and milk vomits? My teacher, Manorama, says that yoga is understanding who you truly are. And when you have a child, no matter your specific circumstances, who you thought you were is no longer. Steve Martin famously said having kids is like putting a bomb in a marriage. I believe it’s also like putting a bomb in your sense of self. You shift into a vata imbalance according to Ayurveda — no sleep, not enough food or hydration. Generally, the postnatal mum is (not) surviving on a sleep deficit, cold coffee and toast. The body has gone from being full of fluid and blood to literally emptying it out in a very short space of time. In addition, vata imbalance has a tendency to trigger anxiety. Physically, the body is coping with all of this exhaustion, while trying to recover from injuries and complications during birth.
In that vacuum, that emptying out of who you used to be, there is space. And in that space is the opportunity to connect to something in you that is beyond your body. Something in you beyond being a mum. Something beyond your old career, friends, identity, which can feel like it just doesn’t fit anymore. I remember staring blankly into my wardrobe after having G thinking, “I can’t wear any of this. I don’t actually know what clothes I want to wear, but I know none of this ‘fits’ anymore. And not just physically.”
You are different. Your body is different. And so the yoga practice has to be different. It just has to. You must find strength in a new way. You must be patient and kind with yourself, with your body. Your relationship with the “bandhas” becomes more intricate, more subtle. The elusive core muscles (many of us spent a decade or two creating) have disappeared. You need to reconnect to them in a new way. There are parts of you that are softer, squishier and more vulnerable, both physically and energetically. And the more you meet yourself in the moment, exactly as you are, the more the practice will start to heal and rebuild you.
My physical practice doesn’t look anything like it used to. But I am stronger — physically and mentally — in so many ways. I feel the practice now — in every nook and cranny of my body. I have learnt to honour myself by only moving in a way that serves me any given day. I use the practice to refuel. There’s no forcing my body into anything. There is simply true surrender to what is. I am grateful for each moment I connect with my internal world. I drink in every inhale and exhale. I have a beginner’s mind. I’m relearning the asana all over again. Sometimes it’s like I’m stepping onto the mat for the very first time, my body discovering new sensations or limitations every day. I am, finally, after two decades of practice, a good student.
Bhagavad Gita 6:42
atha v? yogin?m eva
kule bhavati dh?mat?m
etad dhi durlabha-taram?
loke janma yad ?dr??am
Manorama D’Alvia translates this sloka (verse) from the historical yoga scripture as: “To be born into a family of yogis is very fortunate, but difficult to obtain.” So yogi mammas, take the pressure off yourself. You’ve already given your bub the greatest gift there is. And yogi mammas-to-be, know that although the mamma transformation is challenging, motherhood really is the greatest gift you can receive.
Key prenatal tips
- Avoid overheating the core body temperature above 38.9 degrees Celsius for more than 10 minutes.
- Caution should be taken when lying down on the back, due to compression of the vena cava — the major vein that returns blood from the lower part of your body to your heart. Savasana can be modified — lie on the left-hand side with blankets and bolsters or pillows supporting the head and legs with knees bent.
- Don’t compress the belly — modify forward folds, take open twists and avoid back bends lying on the belly.
- Avoid overstretching, especially in the joints. Focus on a neutral pelvis and increasing strength and stability. No deep assists.
- Pranayama — avoid breath retention or strong breathing practices (such as kapalabhati).
- Core — avoid core work, instead focus on strengthening the legs and the arms and modifying in order to do so.
- Slow down, especially in the third trimester.
Key postnatal tips
- Postnatal check — wait until you are cleared before returning to practice.
- Musculoskeletal structures are very fragile: hormonal changes, exhaustion and injuries sustained from birth.
- Go slow — take time rebuilding your practice.
- Abdominals — reintroduce any pranayama and core work incrementally
- Bleeding can continue for months after birth — encourage apana vayu; no inversions.
- Relaxin stays in your body while breastfeeding so avoid overstretching.
Interested in prenatal or postnatal yoga? We’re running classes in studio each week or for a deep dive, Rachael is leading a part-time 50 hour course starting 24 August for mamas-to-be, new mamas and qualified yoga teachers.
This article originally appeared in one of our fave health and wellness publications, Wellbeing Magazine.