Postnatal Primary Pt 1: Back to Basics

Postnatal Primary Part 1: Back to Basics

Remember how your Ashtanga practice was before you were pregnant? Well, the bad news is, it’s probably not going to be like that again for a while yet. The good news, however, is that with a bit of patience and some awareness of which parts of the sequence you need to avoid or adapt for the time being (as explained in Part 2 of this Postnatal Primary blog) you can set yourself up for a strong, safe practice once again.

A word of warning

  • I’m not a doctor. You need to make sure you’ve been given the all clear to resume exercise before attempting any of this (normally around 6-8 weeks postpartum). Have a look at this Postnatal Return to Exercise infographic for more information about recommended activity levels postpartum.
  • If you’re not given the all clear (perhaps because you have diastasis recti and/or other issues relating to postpartum – eg. pelvic organ prolapse, pelvic girdle pain, SI joint pain, and or general back/hip pain), you should see a physio or pelvic floor specialist. You might also want to follow the brilliant Nikki Bergen @thebellemethod on Instagram for some great pelvic strength exercises.
  • Even if you’ve not been diagnosed with any of the above, proceed with caution! The following modifications suited my postpartum body, but if they don’t feel right for you, don’t do them! In a blog about when it’s appropriate to plank, crunch and v-sit again postpartum, Jessie Mundell poses some good questions to ask ourselves when we resume activity following childbirth:
    • Is your belly bulging out?
    • Are you feeling pain or soreness in your lower back or pelvis during or after?
    • Are you actually keeping good alignment through the low back and hips or are you rounding and flopping around like mad? (Very, very common)
    • Do you feel like you’re going to pee your pants with every rep?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, then of course, the answer is to tone things down.

Mum and baby on a yoga mat
Life will never be the same again, but your yoga practice might be!

Oh, and by the way…

If you didn’t have an established Ashtanga practice before getting pregnant, now isn’t the time to start. Try a gentler form of yoga (and tell the teacher you’ve just had a baby) and come back to Project Ashtanga at a later date.

If you do already belong to the Ashtanga Brigade and still feel confident pressing ahead, having read the above ‘word of warning’, then I recommend using the modifications outlined in Part 2 of this blog consistently for at least 6 weeks. By then, it’s likely that you’ll have re-established strength in the deeper core muscles, which will give you a good foundation on which to re-build your Full Primary practice.

Postnatal Primary: Why your body needs you to adapt your Ashtanga practice after giving birth

Before we get down to the nitty gritty of returning to your asana practice, it’s worth taking a moment to explain why it’s necessary to adapt your Ashtanga Primary Series practice, even if you had a very straightforward birth with no lasting complications.

  1. First and foremost, your body has changed and, therefore, so should your practice!
  2. The Primary Series is choc-full of ‘crunch’ type movements – the kind that target the rectus abdomini, or six-pack muscles. Normally, this isn’t a problem (indeed, it’s a pleasing side effect), but if you’ve just grown a human, there’s scope for doing some lasting damage:

“When you activate your rectus muscles in isolation, there is a natural tendency for them to pull apart, increasing the strain on the linea alba—which is likely to cause a widening of diastasis and prolong your recovery time.” ~ Dr. Ryland Stucke, Yoga International

  1. The hormone relaxin, which softens the ligaments around the joints in preparation for childbirth, can linger in your body for several weeks after the event, and if you’re breastfeeding, even longer – up to 6 months after you stop! This means the joints are less stable, leaving you more prone to injury. For this reason, your focus needs to be on strength, not flexibility (although, granted, a good shoulder-stretch after hours of holding your newborn will come as welcome relief!).
  2. Let’s be honest, being a mum is bloody hard work and, combined with broken nights, can leave you feeling totally done in. For this reason alone, it’s important to resume a practice which leaves you feeling replenished, not even more knackered!

(Re)starting with the basics

I highly recommend this for Postnatal Primary inspiration!

The advice commonly given by the Jois family – as detailed in Anna Wise and Sharmila Desai’s excellent book, ‘Yoga Sadhana for Mothers: Shared Experiences of Ashtanga Yoga, Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond’ (a must-have for pregnant Ashtangis) – is to wait three months before resuming practice. Even then, they recommend only practising Surya Namaskara followed by seated Ujjayi breathing and Anuloma Viloma, adding subsequent postures only when the former can be accomplished without difficulty.

Nevertheless, many practitioners (myself included) feel strong enough to start sooner, and there’s no doubt that a decent chunk of time out for yoga provides some much needed relief from the demands of baby care. However, there really is something to be said for taking time first, to reconnect with the foundations of your practice: the Breath and the Bandhas. Where I live, in France, we’re lucky enough to get 20 free sessions of ‘la rééducation périnéale du post-partum’ (fanny physio, in Yorkshire parlance) after giving birth. Thankfully, Ashtanga yoga offers women everywhere a similarly good deal…

Going deep: Reconnecting with the Breath and the Bandhas

No Ashtanga practice is complete without a steady Ujjayi breath and strong Bandhas and, as luck would have it, these things have enormous benefits for new mums. We can use them to strengthen the deeper core muscles (namely, the transverse abdominis and pelvic floor), which means we’re less likely to experience messy coughing and sneezing situations, and less likely to over-burden the rectus abdominis (and risk the dreaded diastasis recti!) as we work our way back to full practice.

I learnt the following exercise during an In-Depth Development Training programme at Mysore Yoga Paris, and it served me incredibly well as a way of maintaining a strong core while my body expanded, and regaining its pre-pregnancy strength afterwards. It also worked well as an exercise in mindfulness – it might not look like it in my Instagram video (see below), but there’s a lot going on and you really have to keep your focus! I recommend doing it every day for at least 3 months after giving birth. It’s easy to incorporate it into a longer asana practice, but also serves as a ‘practice’ in itself on the days when you don’t have the time or energy for anything else.


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‘Belly pops’ – a how to guide:

  1. Sit on a bolster or chair and start to lengthen your inhales and exhales using the Ujjayi breath.
  2. Without raising or tensing your chest or shoulders, practice gently drawing your belly button back towards your spine as you slowly exhale, and activating the Uddiyana Bandha (and the transverse abdominus – aka the deep abdominal muscles).
  3. Next, practice contracting the Mula Bandha – lifting the pelvic ‘sling’ – on the exhale.
  4. Now combine the two: Take a deep breath in, allowing the belly to fully inflate, then as you begin to exhale, engage the Mula Bandha before beginning to apply the Uddiyana Bandha.
  5. At the end of the exhale, release all effort, letting the belly ‘pop out’ and the pelvic floor relax.
  6. Now introduce a count: Inhale for 5 as the belly inflates, then exhale 10 as you contract the Mula and then the Uddiyana Bandha.
  7. Release and repeat for a minimum of 10 times.
From the Root to the Heart of the Matter

It’s nice (but not necessary) to bring in a visualisation, too. At the start of each inhale, take your awareness to the ‘root’ of the of the spine – the Muladhara Chakra – and imagine that it’s an anchor holding down your pelvis as the breath travels up through the belly, then the chest, elongating the body along the way. As you exhale, bring your focus to the heart – the Anahata Chakra – and picture it ‘holding up’ the sternum while you squeeze the breath out. Feel the body getting longer and more stable with each breath, and feel the space between the Muladhara and the Anahata chakras filling up with prana.

Final words on the matter (and then we’ll get to the Postnatal Primary Practice, I promise!)

  • Make sure you’ve activated the Mula and Uddiyana Bandhas before starting each asana practice – albeit with a little less ‘force’ (a gentle lift through the Mula Bandha combined with mild pressure in the lower abdomen is sufficient).
  • Use the Bandhas when performing everyday movements like lifting, sneezing or twisting, too. After a while, you won’t even have to think about it – it’ll become a natural, reactive movement.

Okay, let’s get to it!

Postnatal Primary Pt 2: It’s all Ashtanga, Mama

2 Comments on “Postnatal Primary Pt 1: Back to Basics

  1. Bravo Katy pour ce beau travail! Je te fais un Gros bisous?

  2. Merci Typhaine, j’ai passé beaucoup de temps à créer! Je te fais aussi un gros bisous! ?

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