Ashtanga yoga, pregnancy, birth & motherhood
Yoga, Pregnancy, Birth and Children
by Jessica Walden
Jessica started a daily Ashtanga Yoga practice with David and Simi Roche in 1994 while studying as an Exchange Student at the University of Adelaide in Australia. She moved to Encinitas in 2004 to study with Tim Miller. Over the last 12 years she has made several trips to Mysore, India, to study with Guruji, Sharath and Saraswati and has been granted a Teaching Authorization Certificate from the KPJAYI in Mysore. Because of my other career commitments, she teaches in selectively and has taught at Simi Roche’s studio, Tim Miller’s Ashtanga Yoga Center, Jois Encinitas, Creativity and Personal Mastery Course in San Francisco, Quality Assurance International, Next Generation Gym (Adelaide, Australia), and has assisted Sharath at KPJAY Mysore. More than anything, Jessica prefers to remain a student of this amazing and essential yoga, and I continues to practice it daily in Encinitas, California. (photo by: Michelle Haymoz Photography)
The benefits of yoga are endless and for women who want to have children. Yoga can be such an incredible practice for all stages of a woman’s life; before conceiving, during pregnancy, during labor and as a mother with children. There are as many yoga and baby stories as there are babies. I am honored to share my experience as a yoga practitioner during pregnancy, during labor, after giving birth and raising children. Yoga means “union” of body and mind but also the union of every aspect of your life during all stages of life. The practice is a true gift as is motherhood.
I practiced yoga (Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga) for 8 years before conceiving my first child and so yoga had already transformed my life and habits. In other words, yoga was fully entrenched in my daily existence prior to conception. So when I got pregnant, I continued to do a yoga practice, although the practice took on a new form.
Both of my pregnancies absolutely dictated what my practice was to be like, as well as what I would eat, when I would sleep, even what music I would listen to! My body during my pregnancies was so intuitive. I decided not to follow any one else’s guidance on what I should and shouldn’t do during pregnancy because my body told me exactly what it needed an what it didn’t.
For both pregnancies, from about 8 weeks until about 16 weeks, I had to stop doing a traditional “Ashtanga Vinyasa” practice because it made me so nauseous. Instead, I walked a lot! And I slept a lot! Once the nausea subsided I started practicing again and found that any sort of back bend or twist or anything putting even the slightest bit of pressure on my lower belly didn’t feel safe or “right” to me. So, I left those types of postures out. As my belly grew, my practice changed but throughout the entire pregnancies I chose asanas that I had learned pre-pregnancy from Primary Series, Intermediate and even Advanced A that felt strengthening, opening and right. Many women stop doing inversions during pregnancy but inversions, especially pinchamayurasana andsirsasana, felt very good to me because of the shift in weight off my legs and feet. Many women also find that they can do ustrasana or other backbends but I could not do those without a pulling sensation in my abdomen.Ashtanga Illustrations by Boonchu
As I grew, my practice changed. I usually only did about an hour of asanas but did a lot more walking, swaying my hips and enjoying the slow steadiness of the stride. Being outside, feeling the breeze and watching life around me seemed to be exactly what my body wanted to do during my pregnancies. I would often walk to the yoga studio, which was an hour away by foot, do my practice and get a ride home. That was the perfect “practice” for me throughout my pregnancies.
Every woman and every baby is different and so listening to your own body is best. Also, it is best to always err on the side of caution if you’re not sure. I didn’t like getting too hot and also did a lot of prenatal yoga during my first pregnancy in order to slow down and be around other pregnant women. It was magical.
Both pregnancies were healthy and relatively easy. During my first pregnancy, I only worked part time and so could sleep a lot more. I enjoyed every single bodily change during that pregnancy and reveled in the process so much. I gained a new appreciation and love for the female body, all that it is capable of and all that it becomes in order to nourish the new life inside. I was so grateful for getting to experience this incredible part of life.
During my second pregnancy, I was working full time, was already a mother to my first son who was going on 3 years old, and my husband was in India for 3 months of the pregnancy. So, I was busy, didn’t get nearly as much sleep as I did during the first pregnancy and didn’t really have time to savor the process as much. I had planned to take two weeks off work prior to the due date to relax and prepare but the Friday night after leaving work, I went into labor. My second son was 2 weeks early and born on April Fool’s Day.
My first birth, from the first contraction to the moment my son, Anjaneya, was born, lasted almost 40 hours. All those years of lifting up on “the inhale” and activating the bandhas had made it very difficult for me to work out how to release and allow things to move downward. First births are often harder for most anyway but I really didn’t want to let go. Still, my son was totally calm while he waited for my body to open up. I was turned away from the birthing center twice before they finally let me stay. After about 37 hours I thought perhaps I might need a cesarean but one of the midwives on duty (who was not the one assigned to me) came into my room and made me get off the bed and sway my hips every time I had a contraction. That finally got things moving!! I went from 2 centimeter to 10 in an hour and my son was finally born. I feel that the yoga practice had built my endurance over all those years and my body could keep going, even after all those hours of contractions. It also healed so quickly after the birth and tearing badly (when I felt him finally coming down the birth canal, I pushed very hard. I don’t recommend that!!).
My second birth only lasted 4 hours from the first contraction to the moment my son, Narayana, was born. I had remembered from the first birth to move my hips (sway from side to side) during each contraction. Once the pain got too intense, I would have my husband move my hips for me. My second son moved easily through my body, which is why he was almost born in the car. My husband rushed me to the hospital, pulled up outside where there was a midwife standing with a wheelchair. I got on the wheelchair backwards on my knees and she pushed me into the birthing center, hollering, “We’re having a baby!” Two other midwives ran over and they asked me to go to the bed about 6 ft away. I said, “The baby is here” and ended up giving birth right there, standing up! The birthing center report said that I had been admitted into the center at 4:36AM and gave birth at 4:37AM.
Again, I am grateful for the practice for teaching me to breath and for keeping me calm and my body strong and resilient. And again, I healed quickly after giving birth a second time (no tearing). Both births were completely natural with no pain medication (not even an Aspirin!) or complications. I am incredibly grateful for this.
Pattabhi Jois said that women should wait 3 months after giving birth before going back to their practice. I felt the need to start Surya Namaskaras, the standing sequence and some postures from primary series much sooner than that. I waited about three weeks after my first birth and waited about 2 weeks after my second. That intuition that is so strong during the pregnancy is also very strong after giving birth and during breastfeeding. I only did what felt supportive of my body but I felt it was very important to do something in order to keep strong and flexible. Also, my time was limited and so, early on after my births, whenever I could fit in 30 minutes (or 20 or 10), I would. Immediately, as I started breathing and moving, I would reconnect with that place of peace that I had known so well prior to having children. That is a place that keeps calling me back to the practice every day.
Interestingly, it took me longer to make the “come back” after my first child than my second. The first birth obviously takes your body to a place that it has never been before and changes your body in many ways, so the re-adjustment takes a while. Also, if you’re breast feeding and waking in the night a lot, you don’t really have the desire to power through a practice. I just took each day at a time and moved slowly. I also felt a bit like I was “starting over” and used that approach to gain more insight into the pose and into the breath. It just felt good to move!! It probably took me about 6 months to feel “normal” in my practice again but I learned so much more about bandhas, because they appeared to have completely left my body with the birth! I really focused in drawing in the pelvic floor gently with every breath and it not only helped me heal the pelvic area, as I tore very badly with the birth of my first son, but it re-stimulated the mula and uddiyana bandhas and so they came back even stronger than before having kids.
Giving birth is a blessing in so many ways but especially since it enables us to start fresh with the practice. The body’s memory is incredible and everything not only comes back, but it changes and often evolves for the better. I think the main thing is to keep listening to your body and exploring it. As long as you have the time to do a bit of practice daily (which is one of the main reasons why women lose their practice – they just don’t get the time to keep it up) you’ll have no problem. Yoga is about being “awake” and using what we have to work with, and what we have at every given moment is perfect.
As my babies grew, so did the length of my practice. My husband was always very supportive of me continuing to practice and so he would do his practice at 3:30AM just so that I could do mine after his and he could watch the babies. When you have that support and you have that deep connection with the practice, it is very easy and natural to keep going with it.
I will say that when I became pregnant both times, I mentally let go of my attachment to the practice. Even though I did continue to practice according to what felt good through each trimester, I didn’t really care about the future of my practice. Ashtanga is an intense form of yoga and it attracts driven individuals. When I became pregnant – both times – I rejoiced in getting to be a mom and my practice evolved into something to support that. Instead of pushing myself to do asanas, the practice served to keep me grounded, breathing, moving. Both times I didn’t really feel like I would ever “get my practice back” and I didn’t care. Of course, after both births I did get the practice back and it was actually better and stronger than it had been prior to having babies. And, the practice flourished as I flourished as a mother.
The practice is many things. It is the one time during the day where the slate is wiped clean, where all of the responsibilities of work, motherhood, life are put on hold, where the mind and the body are able to be replenished through the breath, movement and dristi (focal point). After a practice, I am ready for whatever life brings. The practice builds resilience, acceptance, love, humility and softness. It keeps you strong but also keeps you young and supple, and able to look through the eyes of your children more readily. It helps me maintain a sense of gratitude and compassion for myself, which allows me to feel grateful and compassionate towards others. It helps me adapt to change because no matter what happens, the practice is always there, even if the asanas change depending on the stage of life I am in. It helps me be a good mother, partner, friend.
My sons are now 10 and 7 years old and they have grown up with my husband and I doing a daily yoga practice. It is normal for them. They also practice yoga and have been to India many times. However, with children, the practice space and environment are not always ideal. In fact, the practice space can be very chaotic. As a parent, you learn to adapt and take whatever opportunity you have to practice. You learn how to focus even when the demands of motherhood are still upon you. And you learn to find the balance between taking care of others and taking care of yourself.
~ Jessica ~