A Primary Series Practice for the Ashtanga Mama
Whether you’re an Ashtanga Mama because you’re a seasoned practitioner new to motherhood, or a seasoned mother who discovered Ashtanga not long before your most recent pregnancy, there’s a good chance you’re feeling somewhat confused, scared even, about how to re-start your yoga practice. I know I was, after giving birth to my daughter, Iris, on New Year’s Eve, 2018 – despite having practiced Ashtanga for the preceding 15 years! Which is why I found myself feverishly researching the subject and subsequently putting together what I consider to be a safe postnatal practice.
I know, even if you’re all at sea, it’s still tempting to just crack on with things and see how it goes – especially for those of us who possess the kind of personality traits that are typical of so many Ashtangis (overzealous, anyone? Hmmm?). But let me first say three things:
- If you haven’t already done so, go and read Postnatal Primary Pt 1: Back to Basics. It won’t take long, but it could spare you some serious injuries! Besides, there’s only so much telly an Ashtanga Mama can watch during those long, lonely nights feeding a ravenous newborn. Get reading!
- Stick with the Postnatal Primary modifications for at least 6 weeks. It’s still a hefty practice – especially when you’ve got a newborn to care for, too!
- Don’t forget your daily ‘Belly Pops’! (Full instructions in Postnatal Primary Pt 1) And remember, you can do them sitting up, on hands and knees, and in Modified Bridge pose.
Okay, let’s go!
There are lots of ways to modify Sun Salutations, and I used quite a wide variety over the first 6 weeks on my mat, to safely get me back to the classical versions of Surya Namaskar A & B. Below is a list of the variations I used, followed by an explanation for each modification, and then the formula I followed over those first 6 weeks. Beneath all that, you’ll find a link to an IGTV post which contains demonstrations of each one.
NB. The following variations all start and end as normal, and incorporate the modifications described below.
Surya Namaskar A – Version 1: No Jump-back, Half Plank > Cobra, transition back to Downward Facing Dog via knees, step forward.
Surya Namaskar A – Version 2: No Jump-back, High Plank with protracted shoulders > Upward Facing Dog, Downward Facing Dog, step forward.
Surya Namaskar B – Version 1: No Jump-back, High Plank with protracted shoulders > Upward Facing Dog, Downward Facing Dog, hands and knees, Crescent Moon (R), Downward Facing Dog, hands and knees, Crescent Moon (L), Downward Facing Dog, step forward.
Surya Namaskar B – Version 2: No Jump-back, High Plank with protracted shoulders > Upward Facing Dog, Downward Facing Dog, hands and knees, Crescent Moon (R), High plank > Upward Facing Dog, Downward Facing Dog, Crescent Moon (L), High plank > Upward Facing Dog, Downward Facing Dog, step forward.
Surya Namaskar B – Version 3: No Jump-back, High Plank with protracted shoulders > Upward Facing Dog, Downward Facing Dog, Three-legged Dog, Warrior 1 (R), High Plank > Upward Facing Dog, Downward Facing Dog, Three-legged Dog, Warrior 1 (L), High plank > Upward Facing Dog, Downward Facing Dog, step forward.
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Ashtanga Mama Modifications
No jumping back (or forward): We use a veritable catalogue of muscles for dynamic movements like these, from those in our arms, shoulders and back to the abdomen and hip flexors. Not only are most of us weak in some, if not all these areas following pregnancy and childbirth, but we’re exhausted too, and energetic transitions are only going to deplete us more, which really isn’t the point of a Postnatal Primary practice, or indeed, any Primary Series practice.
No Chaturanga: It’s unlikely that your deeper core muscles will be strong enough for you to maintain proper alignment in full Chaturanga at this stage, which means the rectus abdomini will have to work harder if you do it – and this could easily result in core muscles that never ‘knit’ together properly (and a dome-shaped belly to boot!). Replacing Chaturanga with alternative moves also provides you with an opportunity to rebuild your shoulder strength, which might have waned a little if you scaled back your practice during pregnancy.
Cobra: In Surya Namaskar A Version 1, a Half Plank > Cobra transition makes it easier to fix the scapula in place (so they’re not ‘winging’ – something they’ll also do if you introduce Chaturanga too quickly) and therefore avoid putting stress on the front of the shoulder capsule. Replacing Upward Facing Dog with Cobra is also worth doing when you get back on your mat for the first time, if only for the novelty of being able to lie on your belly!
Shoulder protraction: High plank > Upward Facing Dog transitions (see Surya Namaskar A Version 2) are great for building shoulder strength, whilst also giving you chance to experience a stretch over the entire abdomen. The key here is to protract the shoulder blades (as if rounding the upper back), to activate the serratus anterior – again, to help you avoid “winging the scapula”. To do it, just imagine a hand between your shoulder blades and try to work against it. Introduce these transitions gradually, however, to allow time for your deeper core muscles to regain their strength in High Plank. And leave out Upward Facing Dog for a bit longer if the abdominal stretch feels painful, not pleasant.
Stepping into Warrior 1: To begin with, you might want to experiment with coming into a Crescent Moon position instead of Warrior 1. It can feel a bit clumsy, but a steady Ujjayi breath will bring you the grace you’re looking for as you start to feel your way back to more dynamic movement. After that, use the momentum of a Three-legged Dog > Warrior 1 transition to help you get into the pose – but do it mindfully, with your Bandhas engaged!
After a few weeks, days or even breaths, you may well feel ready to attempt the normal version of Surya namaskar B. With the pelvic floor (Mula Bandha) and transverse abdominis (Uddiyana Bandha) activated, the movement of turning the back foot to 45° and then stepping into Warrior 1 with the opposite foot is a good way to gradually prepare the body for more dynamic movements, such as jumping back and forward, and jumping through to sitting.
My 6-week Surya Namaskara formula:
Week 1: Surya Namaskar A Version 1 x 5
Week 2: Surya Namaskar A Version 1 x 3, and then Surya Namaksar Version 2 x 2
Week 3: Surya Namaskar A Version 1 x 3, Surya Namaskar A Version 2 x 2, then Surya Namaskar B Version 1 x 3)
Week 4: Surya Namaskar A Version 1 x 3, Surya Namaskar A Version 2 x 2, then Surya Namaskar B Version 2 x 3)
Week 5: Surya Namaskar A Version 1 x 2, Surya Namaskara A Version 2 x 3, then Surya Namaskar B Version 2 x 3)
Week 6: Surya Namaskar A Version 1 x 2, Surya Namaskar A Version 2 x 3, then Surya Namaskar B Version 3 x 3)
Week 7: Ready for the classical versions of both Surya Namaskar A and B.
Assuming your baby hasn’t woken up / demanded to be fed / vomited on you, and you’ve not abandoned your mat in favour of gazing at your beloved little creature while s/he sleeps, then it’s time for the Standing Sequence. Below, I’ve made comments on the postures I believe to be risky for Ashtanga Mamas, but of course, you should take a cautious and mindful approach to them all, and always, always, always have your Bandhas switched on.
- Padangusthasana – as normal
- Padhastasana – as above
- Trikonasana – as normal
- Pavritta Trikonasana – as normal, but really take your time moving into the twist (even if it means you only end up spending one breath with your top arm fully extended, for example). Not even the most adept Ashtangi / luckiest child bearer will have been able to maintain deep twists throughout pregnancy – it’s just physically not possible – so your body needs time to readjust. As always, focus on maintaining the Bandhas, and think about turning your rib cage so that it’s your chest that moves and not your hips – consider placing your bottom hand on a block if this isn’t possible.
- Parvakonasana – as normal
- Pavritta Parsvakonasana – as I’ve already mentioned, deep, closed twists feel particularly difficult after pregnancy, when it’s impossible to practice them because of your big belly. A body that’s not ready for a deep twist can easily end up compensating by over-extending the lumber region or rounding the mid-upper back – and with the hormone relaxin still affecting your joints if you’re still breastfeeding, that’s basically a recipe for injury. For this reason, I believe a modified version of Pavritta Parsvakonasana is a non-negotiable necessity for the first few weeks. Remember, even modified, this posture offers us a good opportunity to strengthen the deep core muscles – the transverse abdominis and obliques – since they’re responsible for turning the torso.
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- Prasarrita Padottanasana – as normal
- Parsvottanasana – as normal, but if you feel yourself ‘crunching’ the abdominals because gravity is weighing you down, consider putting some blocks under your hands so you can focus on maintaining the Bandhas instead.
- Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana – as normal, but beware of the following tendencies in each variation:
- A – ‘crunching’ the abs as you fold forward over the extended leg – just think about engaging the Bandhas, don’t worry about how low you can go, and if gravity isn’t helping, bring your body back into a vertical position.
- B – pushing the belly out, tilting the pelvis forward, and arching the back – instead stand tall and keep the Bandhas engaged!
- C – ‘crunching’ the abs as you draw the leg towards your body (see notes on A)
- D – leaning back in order to lift the leg – this only engages the six-pack muscles (the ones we’re trying to avoid over-using); if you stand tall with your Bandhas activated, it’s the psoas muscle which will be targeted instead.
- Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana – as normal
- Utkatasana – as normal. Fabulous posture for reactivating the Bandhas if they’ve come ‘loose’!!
- Virabhadrasana 1 – avoid doing a mini backbend and letting the belly ‘spill’ forward; lift the spine out of the pelvis, keep the pelvis neutral (ie. not tilting forward) and maintain tension (Uddiyana Bandha) in the lower abdomen.
- Virabhadrasana 2 – as with Virabhadrasana 1, keep the pelvis neutral and avoid letting the belly ‘spill’ out.
Don’t be in any hurry to reintroduce dynamic vinyasas like jumping through. The rectus abdomini play a big part in these kinds of moves and those are the muscles you want to avoid over-burdening before your deeper core muscles have had chance to redevelop their strength. Just gently walk the feet forward and sit down with awareness – this is, after all, still a vinyasa:
“Vinyasa” is derived from the Sanskrit term nyasa, which means ‘to place,’ and the prefix vi, ‘in a special way'” – Yoga Journal
Still going? Your baby is a DREAM! Let’s settle in for the Primary Series ‘filling’…
- Dandasana – as normal
- Paschimottanasana – as normal
- Reclining Plank – as normal. This is a really good posture for achieving overall core strength, since most of the effort come from your lower back, obliques, glutes and hamstrings.
- Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana – as normal
- Trianga Mukaikapada Paschimottanasana – as normal
- Janu Sirsanana
- A – as normal
- B – as normal, although you might want to leave this out for a while if you had stitches…
- C – approach with caution – make sure you’re opening from the hip and not the knee, or your soft ligaments will go from hormoney to moany in no time (and may never go back!).
- A – as normal
- B – as normal
- C – as normal but modify if necessary (and it probably will be necessary at first – see notes on Pavritta Parsvakonasana). Don’t compromise the integrity of posture and you’ll find that this posture really helps remove tension in the shoulders – it might not look like it, but this is a chest opener as much as it is a twist.
- D – repeat C until the twist deepens enough for you to bind, then start practising D
- Navasana – Don’t do it, Ashtanga Mama! Wait until you’ve been practising the Postnatal Primary for several weeks before reintroducing this posture, and when you do, try a modification first (eg. knees bent, shins parallel to the floor), taking care to maintain the Bandhas (transverse abdominis). After a couple more weeks, you might be able to progress to the full posture.
- Bhujapidasana – this posture recruits the rectus abdomini, so if it’s still early days or you’ve not seen any improvement in your core strength, either leave this out or else substitute it with a squat (provided you didn’t suffer any serious tears during childbirth) and up to 30 pelvic floor / Kegel lifts.
- Kurmasana – as normal, but take it slowly. Don’t let yourself just ‘splat’ onto the ground – your joints are vulnerable at the moment and ligaments can be easily overstretched (something there’s no coming back from!) .
- Supta Kurmasana – as normal, but heed the advice relating to Kurmasana.
- Garbha Pindasana > Kukutasana – just work in Garbha Pindasana – no rolling back and forth, no Kukutasana.
- Baddha Konasana – as normal but be careful to not overstretch your vulnerable joints!
- Upavishta Konasana – again, be careful to not overstretch your vulnerable joints – don’t let gravity push you into this too soon. And instead of ‘popping up’ to the next posture, simply lift your head and chest to a vertical position, then bend your knees as you find your balance on your sit bones, and stretch your legs back out.
- Supta Konasana – wait a few weeks before rolling onto your back and then back up. Just come up from Upavistha Konasana, then bring your legs back down to the floor again.
- Supta Padangusthasana
- A – wait a few weeks before lifting your head towards the extended leg.
- B – as normal
- C – as normal
- Ubhaya Padangusthasana – wait a few weeks before starting in Plough and then rolling up to Ubhaya Padangusthasana. Just come up to this posture from sitting by balancing on the sit bones, bending the knees so that you can hold the big toes, and gradually extending both legs.
- Urdhva mukha pachimottanasana – see if you can move straight into this posture from Ubhaya Padangusthasana. If not, just leave it out for the time being.
- Setu Bandhasana – don’t go into the full posture straight away – you risk injuring your neck. Instead, roll onto the top of your head, but place your hands alongside your head (as though you were coming into full wheel) to provide extra support.
It was a while before I felt confident doing shoulder or head stands, and you might want to leave them out for a while too. I was breastfeeding and had a lot of tension in my neck from holding the baby – and I was worried that all the weight in these postures would bear down into my already vulnerable neck, due to me having weaker shoulder muscles. I was also concerned about overstretching my abdominal muscles with a deep back bend, as this can worsen any abdominal separation (diastasis recti) that might have occurred during pregnancy. For this reason, my finishing sequence looked as follows.
- Modified Bridge – this posture is a great alternative to full wheel as it opens the chest area, which is often tense from holding a new baby and feeding her. It’s also a good posture to be in whilst doing some ‘Belly-Pops’ (get full instructions in my Postnatal Primary Pt 1: Back to Basics blog). Nice to throw in a few pelvic tilts before lifting up, too. Win, win, win!
- Happy baby pose – this will probably feel amazing, so take your time in the posture. It’s a gentle way back to full forward bend after doing a back bend (in this case, Modified Bridge, as described above).
- Paschimottanasana – as normal
- Salamba Sarvangasana to Matsyasana – I avoided this sequence of postures completely for a good month or so after restarting my practice and you might want to do the same. Whenever you reintroduce it, be sure to really press into the upper arms to take pressure out of the neck, and come down if you experience pain at any point. Oh, and beware the massive milky boobs – the struggle (and suffocation) is real!
- Uttana Padasana – don’t practice this variation until your abdominal strength has returned. If it feels good, you could stay in Matsyasana for a few extra breaths instead.
- Sirsasana – if your arms and shoulders feel weak in Half Plank, wait until you feel stronger before attempting Headstand again. Without proper support from the shoulders and forearms, you risk putting a huge amount of pressure on the delicate neck area. I left this one out for a couple of months after getting back on my mat.
- Lotus flowers – crossed legs is fine for the Lotus Flower sequence. Full Lotus is fine too, of course, but you should take care to not damage the ligaments around the knees, especially with breastfeeding hormones in your body!
Normally, I’d encourage people to maintain a state of conscious rest in this posture. But when it comes to new mums, I’m doing no such thing. Let yourself fall into a luxurious mini sleep if you need it. Consider setting a gentle alarm to rouse yourself if you’re worried about time. Or let nature do its thing – your baby will need you sooner or later. And no doubt, you’ll need your baby too.
Om shanti, shanti shanti…
Share your wisdom!
Don’t agree with something you’ve read here? Got a different take on being an Ashtanga Mama? Please, tell us what you know by leaving a comment below – we’re all in it together!