This is another in a series of book extracts by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli that we are publishing on the yogayoga website.
• If you are interested in further reading, we stock a small selection of Uma Dinsmore-Tuli’s books at the studio.
By Uma Dinsmore-Tuli
The immediate postnatal period can be a time of great elation, and also profound vulnerability and depression. It is a precious time for building the foundations of a relationship with the baby, but also a time of dramatic readjustment. Re-connecting to some of the pranayama practices learnt during pregnancy can be a comforting emotional link with life before birth, for both mother and baby. The practical benefits of many of these pranayama take on different significance post-natally.
For example, the full yogic breath continues to be energising and calming, but is also a valuable means to tone and develop a new awareness of the abdominal muscles. Ujjayi still remains a useful soporific breath that can be especially helpful to settle into rest during and after breastfeeding. The Golden Thread exhalation is helpful to alleviate feelings of anxiety and panic that sometimes accompany the arrival of a baby. The balancing effect of the alternate nostril breathing practices (nadi shodana and variants such as anuloma viloma) can be a real life-line during periods of volatile emotional swings, when the new mother’s moods may alternate very rapidly. Bhramari and its variants is also of great value as a stabilising practice to promote acceptance and contentment.
One of the key applications of pranayama in the postnatal period is as an auditory link with the baby. The familiar chants and breathing rhythms which the baby heard in the womb throughout pregnancy can have an impressively soothing effect upon the child once it is born. Many mothers have reported with delight how readily their baby will settle to the gentle sound of the chants or mantras they chanted during pregnancy. Mantras are special sounds, sometimes Sanskrit words, sometimes phrases, but sometimes also just ‘seed’ sounds with no especial meaning; they are all used to focus the mind in yoga. Tiny babies also love to rest on their mother’s chest or belly whilst slow rhythmic breathing continues: for this practice to be really comfortable for the mother, it is best to rest with knees bent, and the soles of the feet on the floor. Let the gentle rise and fall of the body with the breath carry the baby along too.
In addition to benefiting from the use of familiar pranayama learnt in pregnancy, the new mother’s postnatal recovery can also can be assisted by the Healing, Decompressing, and Feeding breathing practices that are specifically devised for postnatal women.
Healing Breath with Mula Bandha and tiny Uddiyana Bandha
This relaxing breath re-traces in reverse the path of the birthing breath. It helps to resettle the organs in the pelvis into a non-pregnant configuration, and it provides gentle but energising toning for the muscles of the pelvic floor and the abdomen.
If, prior to pregnancy, you have been used to practicing or teaching the standard yogic approaches to Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha (both of which usually involve a lifting and retraction of the pelvic floor on the exhale), then the postnatal period is the time to return to this practice, but very cautiously at first. Notice that the instructions for this healing breathing mark a return to the usual yoga practice of lifting the pelvic floor on the exhale.
In some approaches to postnatal yoga (notably that developed by Françoise Freedman), this type of breath is referred to as ‘reverse breathing’ and is initiated on the inhale. This can be confusing because this pattern of breath and pelvic floor movement is in fact close to the ordinary form of yoga breathing usually practiced outside pregnancy, and in which the lift is initiated on the exhale. The ‘reversal’ in the term ‘reverse breathing’ was initially coined to reflect the relationship of this breath to the birthing breath, in which the pelvic floor is lowered on the exhale. It is only this birth and pregnancy specific practice (and not the classic system of yoga breath and bandha) which is reversed now. To avoid confusion, I prefer to refer to this postnatal breath as the Healing Breath because that is its primary function.
Please note that this breath is not suitable for practice during pregnancy.
How to do it
You can have your baby lying on a cushion by your side for this practice, or perhaps, if it feels the need for closeness, you can have your baby resting on the lower part of your abdomen, leaning back against your thighs, with your legs bent and feet flat on the floor.
The most beneficial position in which to practice this breath is semi supine – lying on the back, with the knees bent. Have the feet either flat on the floor with the knees bent, or (even more restful) have supports under the back of the knee, or the lower legs raised on a bolster. If the lower back feels uncomfortable resting on the floor, have a folded blanket to provide softness. Place a pillow under the head so that it also supports the back of the neck and the top of the shoulders. Let the chin drop towards the chest.
Close your eyes and establish a comfortable and easy rhythm of full yogic breath..
Let the awareness flow up the body from the base of the spine to the crown of the head on the breath in and down the body from the crown of the head to the base of the spine on the breath out.
As the breath rhythm becomes easy, start to notice the soft hollowing of the belly at the end of the exhalation, and the way that the lower back (lumbar spine) can ease down towards the floor as the belly ‘sucks down’.
Let the rhythmic cycle of the breath draw your awareness more towards the exhalation, and feel that this hollowing of the belly and lowering of the lumbar spine to the floor is building a connection to the movement of the pelvic floor. Inhale softly.
With the next exhale, sense the drawing inwards and upwards of the vagina towards the cervix (Mula Bandha). If there is no sense that this movement begins to happen spontaneously, then actively draw the muscles in the walls of the vagina upwards and inward as you exhale.
Keep a gentle grip on this squeeze as you next inhale.
As you next exhale, lift higher and squeeze tighter, feeling the action of those muscles quite high up inside.
Repeat this cycle just once more.
On the next inhalation, release the hold on the muscles, and return to two or three rhythmic breath cycles, as for the start of the practice.
Work with the awareness of the pelvic floor and the breath together, so that the comfortable lengthening of the breath can be accompanied by increasing strength in the muscles.
At the outset, it can be instructive to tilt the pelvis in time with the breath, keeping the buttocks on the floor, lifting the tailbone on the exhale, and arching the lumbar spine a little away from the floor on the inhale. Use this process to connect with the hollowing of the belly (especially low down, close to the pubic bone) and the lifting of the pelvic floor. Once you are familiar with these feelings, then keep the breath moving, but stop the pelvic tilting, and work to develop the awareness of the internal movements.
The instructions above take you through one full round of the healing breath (i.e. two exhales and two inhales). Once you are comfortable with this, you can then continue the practice by increasing the numbers of exhales which you make whilst the pelvic floor is lifted, make the increase gradual, and when you are settled with a comfortable number of exhales per lift, stay with this, and alternate your lifted rounds of healing breathing with a rhythmic cycle of full yogic breath.
The Healing Breath re-integrates the breath and pelvic floor movements to energise and heal post-natally. It is valuable not only for women who have had a vaginal birth, but also for those who have had c-sections, as it energises and strengthens the abdomen and the lower back too.
Initially, it is best to use a lying rest position to practice this breath. But once you are comfortable with it, it works well sitting too. Done gently, to the natural rhythm of the full yogic breath cycle, it makes a great accompaniment to feeding a baby. As you sit to nourish the infant, then you are also nourishing, healing and energising yourself.
Once women have practiced the Healing Breath in the resting position, then it is easy to transpose its benefits to everyday life. The awareness of the lifted Mula Bandha on the exhale is especially useful when lifting and carrying babies. Often the lower back pain experienced by postnatal mothers is a combined result of weakened pelvic floor and abdominal muscles, exacerbated by unconsciously damaging lifting techniques. Since little babies soon grow heavier, and we are constantly picking them up and putting them down, anything that brings conscious support into the process is going to minimise possible injury and discomfort.
For example, when our postnatal and baby yoga students first arrive, many of the mothers complain of lower back pain and weak abdominal muscles. Once they have learnt to do the healing breath as a resting practice, they can then utilise it to provide support for themselves as they lift their children. For example, if a mother is sitting on the floor and aiming to lift her child as she comes up to standing, then the Healing Breath begins as the mother first holds the child. She exhales to contact the lift in her pelvic floor, inhales as she readies herself to stand (still keeping the lift in the pelvic floor), and then exhales again as she comes to her feet, holding the pelvic floor lift as she raises up with the child in her arms. ‘Lift yourself before you lift your child’ is the affirmation to bear in mind as you transpose the Healing Breath into the lifting breath.
In addition to its useful application as a means to encourage safe lifting habits, the most common reported benefit of the Healing Breath is that it begins to bring a renewed sense of energy and strength and tone to the pelvic floor. In our classes, the basic patterns of the Healing Breath (exhale and lift the pelvic floor) are often taught in combination with a simple pelvic tilt and scoop. From standing, this is best done with knees bent, and scooping the tailbone forward slowly, as if it were an ice scream scoop travelling through very hard ice cream that’s come straight out of the freezer. As the tailbone scoops as far forward as it can comfortably come, the knees straighten. Then the knees bend again and the tailbone starts another scoop forward. Each exhale begins at the start of the scoop and finishes at the end reach of the scoop’s forward movement. It feels as if lots of little pelvic circles are being drawn in the air. After a few repetitions a pleasant warmth starts to build in the middle of the lower part of the pelvis.
One day, an acupuncturist who was attending the postnatal recovery yoga class with her baby daughter shed some light on the healing properties of the heat generated by the combination of the Healing Breath and pelvic scoops ‘It’s just like Mother Roasting’ she exclaimed with a smile. We all wanted to know what ‘Mother Roasting’ was. It sounded a bit dangerous, and some of the vegetarians were worried. So our acupuncturist yoga student explained that in traditional Chinese medicine ‘Mother Roasting’ involves smouldering moxa sticks (fat cigars of dried mugwort leaves, to be exact) being held just above the pubic bone, and then over the middle of the sacrum (the flat part of the lower back between the two ‘dimples’) until the mother could feel the warmth from the two points beginning to meet in the middle of the pelvis. The site of this heat was a point intended to bring renewed energy and healing to the postnatal mother. This is precisely the effect of the healing breath.
Pregnancy & Postnatal yoga book extracts by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli:
Mother's Breath: Postures for Pranayama
more extracts from 'Mothers Breath' soon to follow...
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