My Postpartum Yoga Practice Wasn’t What I Thought it Would Be
Reconnecting With My Body After Childbirth
by Preeti Hay
My labor lasted fifty hours. In spite of a healthy pregnancy, a regular yoga practice, and additional exercise, my attempted home birth failed miserably.
With the baby crowning, I walked down a flight of stairs to go to the hospital. More pushing, finally followed by an emergency C-section. The baby came out healthy, but an infection kept him hospitalized for the next two weeks.
Had my best-laid plans simply failed me or was it destiny? Surely my body had failed me. I was doing prenatal yoga hours before labor—and yet hours after the birth I could barely walk. It was a physical blow of a kind I had never before experienced.
Having grown up in India, yoga had been part of my life ever since I could remember. I prided myself on regular practice and the awareness I’d cultivated of my body and mind. But two weeks postpartum, I lost my body completely.
The incision hurt, my full breasts ached, my shoulders were in pain from the muscular tension of nursing, and sciatica still lingered from the pregnancy. How would I ever be able to move the way I did before? Nonetheless, I knew I needed yoga, and I needed it now.
When it came to reestablishing my asana practice, I had no idea where to start and accepting that fact was harder than anything else.
I knew Zo from her restorative classes. Restorative yoga was something I had done on rare occasions when I was sore from working out. It was relaxing and meditative—beyond that, I had given it little attention. It’s for old folks, I once thought in passing (and later reprimanded myself for this). Now, it seemed the only thing I felt my body could manage. Being part of the same community, I called Zo in absolute desperation. Before I knew it, she arrived for our first postpartum class on a cold January day. I was pumping breast milk and the baby was asleep. When it came to reestablishing my asana practice, I had no idea where to start and accepting that fact was harder than anything else.
“Let's breathe,” said Zo. I could still breathe, of course, and that was important.
We did a few simple pranayamas, very basic shoulder stretches, a few sets of parvatasana, and then savasana to end the session. I was rejuvenated! It was not the usual yoga class with inversions and deep stretches, but it was real yoga nonetheless. I could feel air moving through my nostrils again.
Following that initial session, we did yoga every week, which became my much-awaited “me time.” It was unbelievable how much I could not do. But especially because of the restrictions, I learned movements and poses I would never before have taken the time to do.
As my practice with Zo grew, she showed me simple movements for neck and shoulder tension, deep lunges for the psoas, and forward bends for sciatica. What I found particularly interesting was the modification aspect of the practice. It was not about achievement or athleticism, but about making poses work for my situation and specific condition.
I used props in ways I never had before, and I appreciated them more than ever. I laid my body on stacked blocks to open up my shoulders; I did elevated downward dogs for more shoulder work; vajrasana with a block; leg lifts with straps; and to my relief I used as many bolsters as I desired!
When it came to abdominal work, it felt as if I needed to begin from less than scratch. My abs were still numb from surgery, but I knew I had to build them back up—starting from the deep, transverse abdominal level. But where would I start? I worried before class.
"Just lie with your knees bent and squeeze your abs as if you’re squeezing a tennis ball from all sides," advised Zo. Simple yet effective. Next we went to basic pelvic tilts. Very slowly, like a drop trickling into a pitcher each week, I began to build back my strength.
Zo knew exactly what I could do, and she did not judge me for what I couldn’t (the way I used to judge myself). I greatly appreciated her ability to work with all types of bodies, fitness levels, ages, and injuries.
When one can assume a yoga pose without much effort, it is easy to miss the nuances as well as the process itself; in my partpartum classes, however, I had to pay attention to subtle details and movements that made all the difference to my comfort. I have never been more directly and personally exposed to issues of muscle memory and the resilience of the human body than I was then.
I was humbled by how much the body guides and tells one what to do and what not to do. Sometimes I moved swiftly from downward dog to planks and side planks, and back to downward dog and one-legged dog. And sometimes I just stayed in down dog, knowing that the best thing would be only child’s pose next.
I also have a newfound love and respect for restorative practice. It works for everyone. If you are injured or aging, you don't have to give up your practice or your life; you just need to work with your body. This is a truly unifying and liberating idea for me, an idea that is fully embodied in the practice of restorative yoga.
I love Zo. She is a natural. My favorite thing about her is that she is a purist. No fluff here—just the simple craft of yoga. The ease of our student-teacher relationship has me thinking of our classes as real Indian “backyard yoga.”
We could easily be practicing under a mango tree on a hot Indian afternoon.
We now begin with hip stretches while sipping chai at my house. The breastfeeding still makes it impossible to do poses like cobra or locust, but we focus a lot on forward bends and deep elongation of muscles.
I can now do inversions again with strength and confidence (in both my body and my spirit). I have built up to numerous planks and boat poses. But the most redeeming experience of all is when my seven-month-old joins us in downward dogs!
We always end in savasana—sometimes laying on bolsters, or using rice bags on my quads to stabilize the legs and relax the muscles, or with my legs up the couch for support—it depends on the day. Our meditation has been focused on healing the pelvic floor, breathing in and out of the floor (as if the breath originates there). This has been a very healing practice—breathing out fear, resentment, and contempt, and breathing in the new life, acceptance, and joy that trauma sometimes overshadows.
Yoga has saved my life. It came to my rescue when I hit a dark wall after the birth of my son.
My body did not let me down after all; it has loved me back and supported me in my recovery. But this experience has been beyond physical, because yoga is also such a spiritual practice. I continue to learn to forgive the failure of plans, people, and processes.
I am working on healing the pain of the body and the loss of expectation. Most of all I am rebuilding faith in life—learning to love myself, my family, and my new little bundle of downward dogging joy!
Once a yogini, always a yogini. Thank God for that!