The first forty days after birth

This week I received an email from a student who wanted to come to my Friday night class. That's a pretty regular Vinyasa class, though more on the gentle side. She was mostly writing to let me know that she is twelve weeks postpartum, after a C-section no less. She informed me that she had already done postnatal exercises with her midwife and now wished to get back into yoga. She asked if during the class I would be kind enough to let her know which poses she should skip and which would be safe for her to do.

Usually, after a C-section physical activity is not recommended before week eight after birth. Most midwives say that the postnatal phase and regaining your pre-baby shape should take as long as the pregnancy did – so forty weeks. I'm not as strict, and I also don't believe our bodies ever go back to being exactly the same as before. But I'm convinced that the first forty days after delivery – no matter what kind of delivery – are a highly sensitive time. To quote one of my favorite Ayurveda websites: “During this time, the mother’s physiology is as delicate as her newborn’s. This six-week window can set the tone for the health and wellbeing of both mother and baby for years to come.”

As if nothing had changed

I hate to sound preachy. I find it best to share from my own experience, so everybody can learn from my silly mistakes: After my first child was born, I was under the impression that I needed to prove to the world that I was the same as before. I went back to a “regular” yoga class after six weeks. Because I was self-employed and afraid to lose students I also went back to a light teaching schedule after six weeks. I didn't listen to my midwife, who by the way is nothing short of amazing. I ventured out for walks way to soon. I didn't take it easy and I didn't spend as much time in bed or on the sofa, resting and bonding and giving myself time to adjust to this new life.

I paid for it dearly. Not right away. While I was practicing the same as before I kept thinking: “Oh but I feel fine! I can already do a backbend. I'm good holding plank, I've already rebuilt my abdominals.” But just because you can, doesn't mean you should. For the two and a half years in between pregnancies my sacrum hurt every single day. Every morning getting out of bed, I would feel like I was eighty years old. It's likely that I overstretched the sacral ligaments and destabilized my whole pelvis by venturing back to my usual drill way too soon.

My usually robust immune system stayed delicate for the first eighteen months of my son's life. I caught otitis, which I hadn't had since childhood, a bladder infection, the first and last ever in my life, and countless sinus infections. I was skinnier than I have ever been.

Even though I literally trusted my midwife with my life, for some reason I thought that I was more special than anybody else and that the standard recommendations for the first forty days after birth didn't go for me. Even when my pelvic floor was clearly telegraphing to my brain that it wasn't enjoying being up on my feet for longer than an hour, I didn't listen.

A second chance

I was fortunate enough to get a second chance. My connective tissues softened again due to the hormonal change in my second pregnancy. In between pregnancies I had delved deep into prenatal and postnatal yoga, I'd experimented and researched and I had worked with a lot of women before and after birth. This time I did everything by the book. Even though it's harder when you already have an older child, I rested. I paced myself. I asked for help. I didn't do a single Asana until six weeks after birth. I didn't leave the house for three entire weeks.

Fifteen months later I still don't practice the same way I used to. I'm not sure I ever will. I no longer have anything to prove. Two pregnancies and two natural births have changed my body forever. I take pride in that, even though the skin over my belly is still loose and my breasts look like sad memories of what they once were. But like I once said to a (male) teacher who asked me if I was okay to demo handstand now that I'm a mom: “It only gets better from here.”

About more than just the body

When the postnatal lady showed up on Friday night, I told her my story. I made sure she felt welcome and assured her I would support her in class, but I also asked her if she wouldn't consider coming to postnatal classes. It turned out she didn't have a babysitter for her older child, so I suggested we do a couple of privates. Mostly because postnatal (and prenatal) yoga are not just about the modifications and which poses you have to skip. To me, they are about a state of mind, about how we prepare and adjust on all levels to the one of the biggest life changes there is.

During pregnancy the body softens and stretches. During birth it opens in ways it never has before to bring a new life into this world. Prenatal yoga supports that process of breaking open with physical, mental, energetic and emotional tools and techniques.

In the postnatal phase we are looking to stabilize, draw in and close after being porous and living in symbiosis with another being for so long. This too happens on all levels, not just the physical. It's my humble opinion that skipping any or all of that is what makes it hard to bounce back. I will also say that it makes me sad when women want to bypass the changes in their pregnant body and can't wait to get back “in shape” after birth.

We only do this once, twice, maybe three times in our lives. And we have the rest of our lives to practice yoga or run marathons or work out. Why not take the time? Why not rest? Why not enjoy staying in, getting cozy and being exempt from having to do anything? Not only because it helps to reset our body and our psyche, not only because it strengthens our resilience, but because our state of mind inevitably rubs off on our children. If we exude balance and vitality, they will thrive.

PS: All my considerations are mostly relevant for the fairly “standard” situation, meaning mother and baby are healthy and it wasn't an overly complicated birth. I can't speak for women who have experienced postpartum depression or who have had complications during or after birth. I'm well aware that in those cases you do whatever you have to do or whatever you can to stay afloat.

PS: This student's request has reminded me that prenatal and postnatal care for the mother are still not addressed enough, at least not the way alternative, traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine envision it. I'm more than happy to offer privates and come to your home should you wish for direct support on all levels when you can't make it to the open classes.