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Yoga for Mothers and Babies
By Laura Staton, Sarah Perron
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2002 Laura Staton and Sarah Perron
All rights reserved.
What's So Great about Yoga?
Yoga with babies? To some people yoga might seem like a completely natural thing to do with your infant. To others it makes as much sense as teaching her the jitterbug. Yoga teachers often talk about overcoming your own self-imposed limits. As parents we often try to do the same thing. Yoga encourages us to look beyond our assumed boundaries, both physical and emotional. Limitations — self-imposed or dictated by external conditions — are all around us, and it's hard not to cling to ideas, especially when it comes to raising children. Often we have more choices than we think.
Yoga practice encourages you to go deeper into your physical self where you may bump up against your own assumptions about your limitations only to find they are ideas, not necessarily hard facts. Flexibility, a core tenet of yoga practice, means giving new ideas a chance to prove themselves or being open to alternative ways to instill the kinds of habits you want for your child and for yourself.
What do we think about when we think about yoga? Most people will say it has something to do with connecting the mind and body, and as dancers we were drawn to yoga in part because of this simple definition. We found that yoga practice had a lot in common with dance. Both involve physicality and precision, strengthening your limbs and stretching the spine, and exploring space and the individual experience of time. It was never boring.
But what is yoga, exactly? You probably know the basics: it's a 5,000-year-old spiritual practice begun in India, based on the knowledge that the physical, emotional, and spiritual elements of life are inseparable and ever-changing. There are many aspects of yoga, one of which is asana practice. Asanas are physical movements or poses that can be combined in different ways to provide a range of benefits. Through these poses, yoga encourages an inquiring approach to the body, meeting a variety of musculoskeletal, meditative, organic, and energetic needs. Asana asks that you go inward, learn to concentrate on the connection between breathing, your physical self, your thoughts and feelings.
Most important, yoga also meets you at your level, which is why it's the ideal postpartum exercise. You can begin yoga at any time in your life and it is a diverse enough practice to encompass an enormous range of physical experience. Yoga can be gentle, but it is also a form of rigorous exercise, and it's worth noting that yoga was originally done exclusively by young men. Only in the twentieth century did renowned yoga schools in India begin to admit women. Today the practice has spread around the world and yoga practitioners come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and ages — even babies.
Baby Om was designed to be a serious yoga class for the postpartum body that includes the baby as well. What happens in a baby yoga class? Interaction. Communication. Touch, play, and fun. You are encouraged to get down on the floor and interact with your baby as an equal. The physical aspect of yoga can calm you so you are more available to yourself and your child. You experience the present moment — something your baby does automatically. This is a wonderful way to get to know your child. That's why we do yoga with our babies instead of lifting weights, riding a stationary bike, or jogging.
Yoga makes us sensitive to the language of the body. The physical body can say a lot about personality, and as you become attentive to your baby's style you learn a lot about who he is becoming. Dylan's optimistic nature was reflected in the ease of his body language. Rosey was physically confident and agile; she did a lot of backward arching, a reflection of her willful personality. Nissim dozed on his back like a starfish, as if he feared nothing; indeed, he turned into an outgoing physical daredevil. Uma, at five months, was scooting herself around the room far away from Mom, investigating every other baby. Mae was very peaceful and physically settled, mirroring her sanguine nature. Curious or cautious, flirtatious or reticent, it can often be read in babies' early body language.
The absence of competition in yoga class was one of the aspects of the practice that initially drew us to it, and we want to stress that Baby Om encourages a noncompetitive atmosphere. The purpose of the baby engagement exercises is not to train the budding genius or the world-class athlete, although we have found through our teaching experience and conversations with mothers and child development experts that there are emotional as well as physical benefits that come along with this practice. For the infant, Baby Om offers a safe and nurturing environment and fosters growing confidence in movement and body awareness. The ability both to attach and then separate is achieved because the baby is involved in but is not the absolute focus of the mother's activity. Within this communication the baby has room to develop both connection and independence.
Another excellent benefit of this work is in fostering consciousness of how a parent cares for herself. A physically active parent presents an important role model and promotes continued participation in a child's future mental and physical health. You can think of this on a spectrum of activities that may later include participation in toddler gym classes, swimming, or skating.
Since a postpartum body is an ocean of change, and a new baby counts as one of life's major challenging events, yoga practice can be enjoyed for the unparalleled healing it can offer. Take the time, look within, grab your baby and your yoga mat, and begin sharing your life as a creative and healthy adult with the small wonder that has just arrived.CHAPTER 2
Baby Om Basics
This chapter presents the basics of Baby Om: when and where to practice, what to wear, and how to engage your baby. It provides a foundation for the four classes to follow. Remember, though, that these are only guidelines born of our experience — if a different approach feels better to you, feel free to try it.
First, when do you practice yoga? Initially, establishing a regular time will be hard — after all, as a new parent you'll be learning to grab time wherever you can find it. Ideally, it's good to set aside a "yoga hour" at approximately the same time each day. We all know that babies thrive on routine, and sometimes so do we; we rarely find time to do the many things we put off, especially when juggling the demands of an unpredictable baby. Whether you practice in the morning — fortifying yourself for the rest of the day — or plan your sessions for the afternoon lull, it helps to establish consistency in your timing. For many of us, yoga works best just after the baby's nap or feeding. We found that following Baby Om time, our babies were often either ready for a nap, or willing to spend a little time on their own, freeing up some quiet periods during which we felt fresh and rested. We also found that doing the class two to three times a week was just right, transforming our bodies and our enjoyment of our babies. Even if your practice is less frequent, you can enjoy the benefits of Baby Om.
What you wear is another matter of preference. We suggest comfortable clothes that allow you to move freely. Our Baby Om standard uniform for the first year included black drawstring cotton pants, tank tops, and T-shirts. You don't need any special workout gear (unless you really love that kind of thing!). The baby, of course, need follow no dress code: whatever she can wiggle in is fine. We think "onesies" are great.
Environment and Equipment
Next, where to practice. All that's really required is a space at least the length of a yoga mat (six feet or so) and the width of your arms spread out, fingers extended. The yoga mat itself, however, is almost a necessity (see Resources for where to find one; they are widely available from catalogs, online, and in bath product shops and chain stores). The mat prevents you from slipping while you are doing your poses, and pads the floor slightly. Babies seem to find the spongy rubber of sticky mats endlessly fascinating. That said, a hardwood floor is also acceptable, although you will want some kind of rug or padding to soften things up for your baby. In addition, you'll need at least one pillow; we prefer couch cushions over bed pillows. You will use this pillow to prop yourself up in certain positions (described in each class). Young babies also enjoy being propped up on their tummies, at the front of the mat, with extra pillows: it gives them security and develops their back extensor muscles while offering a new perspective on their stretching mom.
It is also worth finding a way to make your yoga time and space distinctive, by adding sounds, visuals, or scents that you feel will calm or otherwise enhance your practice. We often place candles, even scented unlit ones, in our space (lit candles should be far out of reach, of course). Sometimes we chant; sometimes we listen to music — any kind that adds to your relaxation will do and it doesn't even have to be officially "gentle." We've used Bach instrumentals and Schubert lieder, but also bossa nova, Janis Joplin, and Primal Scream.
As in all yoga practices, an important basic to be aware of during your Baby Om sessions is your breathing. This is a fundamental aspect of yoga, and we'll return to it again and again in the classes. Try to use the first moments of each class to establish an awareness of your breath — the difficulty is sustaining the awareness, especially when you have a baby to contend with. However, breathing can be the best tool you have for discovering your natural rhythms, deepening your practice, and shedding anxiety. Paying attention to the quality of your breathing will make everything you do more effortless and deepen the effects of your practice. To do this, you will need to learn to become aware of your breath, which isn't as easy as it sounds. Standard yogic breathing involves inhaling and exhaling only through your nose. This may sound like what we do all our lives, but most people actually breathe through their mouths much of the time. One goal in the basic breathing exercise is to slow and deepen your breaths, making your inhalation exactly even (in count) with your exhalation. If your breath is shallow and fast, you are probably tightening your throat and abdominal area and not filling your full chest cavity. You may notice that you are breathing more in your "front body" and may need to focus your breath toward your "back body." A goal of breath awareness is to become more sensitive to your breathing patterns, and if this is experienced, it's a huge accomplishment.
Pre-Asana Breathing Practice (Pranayama)
Because of the natural delay in beginning asana practice, it is a good idea to practice the pranayama exercises first, which you can begin after about ten days. Keep the breath practices simple and set aside ten minutes where you lie down with a pillow underneath your back and head (to open your chest). Focus on steady exhalations and inhalations. Breathe in and out through your nostrils. When this feels comfortable you can add slight breath retention after each breath. You'll be amazed at how just this little exercise will restore you and clear your head.
At the beginning and end of each class we usually chant Om, from one to three times, but this isn't mandatory. We do it because it marks the beginning and end of our practice, because it affects the body with the resonance of sound, and because the babies love it. To chant Om, let the sound rise up from your abdomen and release it through a relaxed and open throat. Give the same value to both the o and the m. Experiment with pitch and tone; some days your tone may be high, other days it might be low. We don't always hit the same note and the length is not always the same; regardless, the babies still perk up and take notice, and the feeling in the room changes as our energies become more unified.
The most important basic regarding the baby exercises is flexibility. Once you get a feel for these exercises, do as much or as little as you and your baby want, and select whatever mood feels right at the time, from stimulating play to soothing movement. Some days you may feel more focused on your child, others more on yourself: improvise and follow your instinct. Since each practice is a new experience for both of you — sometimes yielding unpredictable responses — we have found that the less of an agenda you set, the better. Never force your baby to do anything, but please note that a little fussing, especially when the baby is on her stomach (tummy play), is very common. Try to stay calm if your baby cries. Remember, a little frustration is considered beneficial for their future abilities in problem solving!
This is vital: work carefully and steadily, especially at first. You probably won't have the same energy level that you had pre-pregnancy for quite a while, and you'll need to conserve and replenish the energy you do have. Remind yourself that yoga is not a race: the pace should be calm and measured rather than frenetic or strenuous. You don't need to force yourself to sit in the lotus position for an hour; nor do you need to attempt challenging or vigorous practice. There's no need to exhaust yourself (the baby will do that for you in any case). If you find yourself getting tired, slow down. Breathe more; do less. Remember, you just had a baby — you deserve a little rest!
Last, a few guidelines that will inform your practice. This list was especially written with the postpartum body in mind. We know that this list won't answer all of your questions and that if you're a beginner some of this may sound complex, but we think these guidelines will give you enough information to see you through your postpartum year. Revisit this list throughout your Baby Om year. You'll find it all the more helpful.
1. When we talk about breaths we mean a full cycle of breathing that includes inhalation and exhalation.
2. Inhale and exhale through your nose. Your lips should stay relaxed.
3. Generally, you inhale in an upward or arching motion and exhale into a forward bending or downward one.
4. The more you can coordinate movement with breathing, the better and more internal your practice will be.
5. Always think about drawing the navel toward the spine (unless otherwise instructed) and lifting from the pubic bone to the navel. This slight contraction engages the lower abdominal muscles and pelvic floor and corrects a forward tilting pelvis. It will also help overtucking and/or overarching in the lower back.
6. Lifting of the pelvic floor, called mula bandha in yoga, is akin to the lifting action of Kegel exercises, which are suggested during pregnancy. An advanced practitioner keeps mula bandha lifted at all times throughout the practice. Notice the connection between lifting the pelvic floor and feeling lighter, alert, and energized.
7. Remember that your body is three-dimensional, with a front, back, and sides, which expands in all directions as you breathe. It is common to think only of the front and back, which can make your posture stiff, so keep this image in mind as you practice.
8. Lengthening the front of your thighs and lifting the hips will help your pelvis shift into a more vertical alignment after having been in a forward tilt for months during pregnancy. This will also help you stand up straighter.
9. Lift the front of your armpits higher than your back armpits; this will open the chest and lift breast tissue that may weigh down the chest. Sliding your shoulder blades down the spine will have a similar effect of lifting the chest. Another way to find this position is to stand with your arms loosely by your sides. Then rotate your hands so that your palms face front and then out to the side. Notice how your chest opens and your shoulder blades slide back and down.
10. Your arms, fingers included, should be relaxed and extended. Think of your arms as an extension of your heart.
11. The part of the body that contacts the floor (feet, hips, knees, hands) supports the weight of the body. Make sure that weight-bearing part is receptive and steady or your pose may feel unstable.
12. Pay special attention to your ankles and the alignment of your feet. The ankle ligaments may be overstretched, so be very aware of your ankle and foot placement. Imagine that there is an X on the sole of your foot and each complete line of the X has equal weight. When you do this, the ankle will become naturally aligned. Another image to try is to always keep the ankles stacked vertically over the heel, especially in wide-legged poses.
Excerpted from Baby Om by Laura Staton, Sarah Perron. Copyright © 2002 Laura Staton and Sarah Perron. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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