Any time your body goes through major changes it's worth reassessing how you exercise, along with your physical habits. Having a baby is one obvious occasion. Yoga can be a gentle practice for the postnatal period—if done right.
“Postpartum is a time for healing and yoginis should take it slow for a while,” says mother and yoga teacher Amanda Russcol, founder and owner of Yoga High, in Denver, who counts women in their postnatal period among her students. “As they ease back into exercise, they should be aware of having more flexibility than normal and should not stretch too deeply to protect the ligaments and tendons.”
It's also important to listen to your body, as always. “Don't do anything that doesn't feel good,” Russcol says.
Giving birth can lead to physical troubles, among them diastasis recti, a separation of the abdominal wall, which might go undiagnosed. “If left untreated, diastasis recti could eventually lead to prolapsed organs, low back pain and other issues,” says Russcol, who hasn't completely healed from the condition 14 months after giving birth. “It goes back and forth, depending on how diligent I've been about my limitations.”
What's more, diastasis recti can close then open again, and the hormones that allow it to easily reopen can be present even after weaning, so checking in periodically is prudent, she warns.
Unless diastasis recti has been ruled out, don't do planks, sit-ups, crunches or most core work, she advises. The best way to build your core, she says, is by strengthening the transverse abdominals, the deepest abdominal muscles, which wrap around your sides from the ribs to pelvic bone and compress the abdominal organs when contracted.
“Focus on the transverse abdominals will also help to pull in any residual 'pooch' and heal the diastasis recti,” she says. Here's a simple exercise she suggests. Lie on your back with your hips level, and place your hands on your stomach, bringing your index fingers together below your bellybutton and your thumbs together above it. Then suck your belly in like you're trying to fit into tight jeans—the lower belly pulls up and in, while the upper belly pulls down and in.
To see if you have might have diastasis recti, try this, Russcol says: Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor. Lift your head two to three inches without trying to engage your core muscles, and then feel the midline of your belly, from the pubic bone to the sternum. If there's a divide, notice how many fingers wide it is. “One finger might be normal, but in my experience can still be closed up completely,” she says. Next, notice how deep the divide is: Halfway to the first knuckle? All the way to the second knuckle? “The deeper and wider it is, the longer it will take to close,” she says.
Doing things that bring you joy and finding time for yourself are also important postpartum, as is catching shut-eye when you can. This gentle practice from Russcol relaxes stiff muscles and calms the sleep-deprived mind, making it a go-to before bed.
1. Bridge pose
Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat and ahead of your hips. Gently raise your hips, keeping your knees in line with your hips and feet. Focus on your transverse abs by imagining you're tightening a girdle: Seize your torso in. Also focus on engaging your gluteal muscles and hamstrings: Use your fists to see if your buttocks are firm, not relaxed. To be sure you're engaging, isometrically draw your heels back. Hold for 10 breaths.
Why it's good postpartum: Gently strengthens muscle groups that are important for lifting and lowering babies.
Come to your hands and knees, hands under your shoulders, knees under your hips. Let your belly gently fall, as you lift your hips and head. Follow by gently rounding your back. Focus on long, slow inhales and exhales that link to each movement. Repeat for 10 breaths.
Why it's good postpartum: Gently engages back and shoulder muscles then stretches them, helping soothe muscles that tighten from nursing and holding a baby.
3. Thread the needle
From hands and knees, slide the back of your right arm and hand along the ground and through the space between your left hand and left knee, until your upper arm or shoulder drops to the ground. Take 10 breaths, and then repeat with your left arm.
Why it's good postpartum: Stretches the mid- and upper back and shoulders, which get especially tight from breastfeeding.
4. Child's pose
From hands and knees, draw your feet closer and gently drop your hips back toward your heels. You can keep the same space between your knees, or widen or shorten your stance, depending on what feels best. Take 10 breaths.
Why it's good postpartum: Calms. Stretches low back, along with the hips, which often tighten during pregnancy.
5. Legs up the wall pose
Come to a seat with one hip close a wall. Pivot so that you can lie back while resting your heels on the wall. Take 10 breaths.
Why it's good postpartum: Improves circulation and increases blood flow to the abdomen, which can help with healing that area.
6. Gentle supine twist
Lie on your back, setting up as you did for bridge pose. Gently drop your knees to the right. Take 10 breaths, and then repeat by dropping your knees to the left.
Why it's good postpartum: Stretches abdominal oblique muscles, which can tighten during pregnancy (and pull apart the rectus abdominis more, making stretching the obliques an important part of healing diastasis recti).
7. Final rest
Lie comfortably on your back (or find another position if you prefer). Take 10 long, slow, deep breaths, while focusing on gratitude.
Mitra Malek, a former Yoga Journal editor, has taught yoga regularly since 2006. Connect with her at mitramalek.com.