Giving birth is a profoundly transformative experience, altering the person physiologically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. On a physical level, whether it is a vaginal or caesarean birth, the body literally opens up. Each birth experience impacts the tissues, organs and hormones in a different way and to a different extent.
The abdominal muscles and pelvic floor have undergone a high level of stress, stretching to a great degree. The ligaments are still lax due to the presence of relaxin, a hormone that allows the connective tissue to soften so that the baby can pass through the birth canal during birth, and which the body continues to produce while the mother is breastfeeding. This makes the pelvis more unstable and susceptible to straining throughout pregnancy and the first few months after birth.
New mothers have postpartum bleeding (called lochia) that can last until the sixth week after delivery. They may have stitches and swelling in the perineal area, and some of them can also experience incontinence (uncontrolled leakage of urine or faeces), constipation and haemorrhoids.
In addition breasts may be sore and leaky; hormone levels remain unbalanced for some time and there’s a whole new demanding rhythm to adapt to.
A common response is to want to get back to “normal” as soon as possible: to recover in record time and put on the pre-pregnancy jeans as if nothing had happened. The truth is, the postnatal body needs a few weeks or even months to heal from the inside out.
Losing weight is not a priority at this time. A balanced and nutritious diet to support the new mother and baby (if breastfeeding) is essential to keep them both healthy and strong.
The first few weeks after birth can be daunting and of profound vulnerability for most new mothers. On a psychological level they may experience the baby blues or even have postpartum depression. If this is your case, be kind to yourself and ask for help if you need it.
As a general rule, during the immediate postpartum period extreme fatigue is very common so it is always better to choose sleep and rest over physical activity. As you begin to resume your yoga practice, do so gradually and lovingly. Spend the first few weeks doing mild breath work and gentle pelvic floor exercises; more challenging practices should be left out for the first 12 to 16 weeks.
What are the practices to avoid right after giving birth and why?
High impact activities:
In general terms, challenging, fast sequences are not recommended. A much more sensible approach is to perform stabilizing movements that allow the postural changes that occurred during pregnancy to return to normal.
Intense core-strengthening poses:
During pregnancy, the abdominal muscles have lengthened and stretched considerably. Doing sit ups or crunches to strengthen this group of muscles is not beneficial: it creates downward pressure that pushes on the weakened pelvic floor, causing or aggravating conditions such as haemorrhoids or prolapse.
For the same reasons, avoid plank, Boat pose and Chaturanga. Try instead Table top position with toes tucked under or Balancing Dog Bird: Try lifting first one arm, then just the opposite leg, then both ,and see how you feel.
A gentler strategy to strengthening the entire core system (Multifidus at the back, Transverse Abdominis at the sides and front, and pelvic floor at the bottom) is much more effective and wiser in the long run, and will help alleviate back pain.
Also these poses create a lot of downward pressure on the pelvic floor muscles, aggravating conditions such as haemorrhoids, incontinence and prolapse (the protrusion of the true pelvis’ organs through the vagina). Choose poses that promote support and help regain stability in the pelvic area like Bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) with a block between the thighs.
Intense torsions of the torso (especially at the lower part) are contraindicated for women who had a C-section birth as the system is still healing from a major abdominal surgery. Choose open, more gentle twists instead and get the same benefits: massaging the digestive organs and improving their functions.
Deep back bends or front extensions:
Poses like Wheel (Chakrasana), Bow (Dhanurasana), Cobra (Bhujangansa) or Locust pose (Salabhasana) stretch the superficial abdominal wall exacerbating the displacement or separation between Abdominis recti muscles. Start slowly including a supported Sphynx or baby Cobra laying on your stomach (use props to keep your sore breasts away from the floor), or Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) in lying on your back.
This type of Yoga focuses on passively stretching connective tissues and stressing the joints. Already stretched ligaments (the connective tissue that attaches bones to other bones) will not benefit from this practice as it will aggravate their laxity leaving the joints unstable and prone to injury.
Wide legged poses:
Performed too early after the birth, these poses can compromise pelvic stability due to the aforementioned lax joints, and lead to pubic symphysis dysfunction (PSD) or pelvic girdle pain (PGP).
If you had stitches, intense stretching is also not beneficial. Keep the stance between your feet narrower for at least 12 weeks and gradually approach them as you heal and regain strength and mobility.
Advanced or complex poses:
Remember that the body is still healing from a life-changing event and there are many different ways to increase mobility, strengthen and realign body posture. Look for gentler variations of a pose or use lots of props to get the same benefits.
Complex Pranayama practices:
Any breathing technique that requires forceful pumping of the stomach, such as Bastrika or Kapalabhati, or those that use breath retention are not recommended. Instead, choose warming but gentler practices like Nadi Shodana, Ujjayi and Full Yogic breath. For the time being, omit cooling Pranayamas such as Sitali or Sitkari.
The first half year after becoming a mother should focus on healing and rebuilding the connection between the parts: regaining strength in the trunk and back, and stability to return to a normal, healthy posture. But also on managing the stress and overwhelm of having a baby, finding support and connecting with other women going through the same thing.
After having a baby, a woman is indeed postpartum for life. If you are athletic and enjoy high-impact sports or challenging yoga practices, resume your “pre-pregnancy” rhythm only after the sixth month after giving birth and always listen to your body.