I didn’t expect my first postpartum yoga class to be easy — or even my second. I knew it would take months to regain the strength I’d lost. But I’d regain it. I was a yoga teacher, after all, with years of conditioning and ~intentions~ and freaking sandalwood incense. My body was supposed to will itself back to form, and if it didn’t, I wasn’t supposed to care, because namaste, mamas, I’m divine. Fast forward six months to me muttering f-bombs under my breath during a vinyasa class because I still couldn’t lift myself up into a wheel. Wheel pose used to be one of my favorites, one of the easy ones. Nothing was easy anymore. I went home and cried in the bathroom in my Lululemons while my daughter screamed in her crib because I would never have a “normal” body again.
Want a spiritual leader? Come with me. As a yoga teacher, I should know better than to sit the words “normal” and “body” next to one another. I should be a living example of loving my body. But it’s hard to love your body when you’re teaching a class of taut-bellied 20 year olds after eating half a box of graham crackers and a few nubs of rapidly dehydrating cheese, hoping no one notices your belly hang when you demo downward-facing dog.
A student approaches me after class to ask if I’m expecting again, and when I say no, smiles and cocks her head. “Are you sure?”
Yes, I’m f*cking sure. I haven’t had sex in weeks! My vagina hurts just thinking about sex.
“Pretty sure,” I say and smile back.
set your intentions
I want to set the room on fire. When I talk about it with a friend, she tells me about a new ab workout on YouTube. But unlost baby weight is the least of our postpartum problems. It’s just the problem everyone talks about, if they talk about the postpartum body at all. We’re too busy now to focus on our bodies. Or maybe we’re embarrassed. So we make jokes about our mom bodies (shoot me if I ever use that expression seriously), make light of our pains, and reassure ourselves that, one day, sex will be great again.
Will it? I don’t know. I have a hard time feeling sexy. For months, I didn’t want my husband to touch my breasts. Ever. They hurt. They leaked. The slightest sensation brought to mind the tiny, puckered lips of my daughter. I thought it would get easier with weaning, but once they lost their milk, they also lost a good deal of their oomph.
This is no help to my sex drive.
What sex drive, you ask? Exactly. It took me months to feel OK about anything going inside me, and even after months, I couldn’t feel better than “meh.” Not because the sex was bad, but because my body was bad. It wasn’t responding the right way. I wasn’t feeling pleasure, my discomfort wasn’t giving my partner any pleasure, and when it was over I felt dried-out, old, and ugly. It seemed impossible that just a few months prior, I was climbing all over my husband like a sexy-bellied mother-earth goddess.
ground yourself into the earth
I’m lying on my back cursing the heavens above me. My gynecologist recommended pelvic floor therapy because my tear hadn’t healed right, and I had a semi-permanent muscle spasm (if only semi-permanent hair dye lasted as long). I wanted to laugh in her face. Who has the time to schlep to SoHo for an hour of supervised Kegel exercises? I would do them on my own, something to focus on during those 3 a.m. feedings, and until they worked, I would grit my teeth and bear it.
Not to mention that I feel even worse than I look. A survivor of two spinal surgeries, I’ve never felt lower back pain like I do since giving birth. I hobble out of bed in the morning. The bone spur in my left heel doesn’t help, but in order for it to go away, I’d have to stop wearing my baby. And if I stopped wearing my baby, she’d probably never nap again. I can, and do, draw on my yoga knowledge. Do lots of downward dogs and child’s poses, breathe into the low back. Rabbit pose is a good one, too. Bend your knees when you forward fold. Use your core when you lift things. Never sleep on your stomach. Oh and stop bending over to pick up things like Cheerios and screaming infants.
put your hands on your belly and breathe
God I’m hungry. No one warns you that breastfeeding will make you so famished; that you’ll find yourself shoveling a crusty muffin into your mouth with one hand, at 2 in the morning while bouncing a screaming baby over your shoulder. Or that labor feels like passing through an asteroid belt. The moms in my yoga class rag on their bodies all the time, and I don’t have reassuring words. These are issues no one warns you about. The best I can do is place my hands on their hips when they collapse into an early child’s pose, and hope they can feel my empathy.
Part of me blames our warped ideas about health, and the myths we build around perfect yoga moms and perfect yoga butts. Part of me blames stress. And part of me feels like this is a natural shift in the emotional relationship we have with our bodies, a relationship that changes throughout our lives. We’ve given life to a person, and that giving doesn’t end with labor. The real giving begins after. We help our little ones grow healthier, stronger, and more vibrant than we are, which is amazing, but it also hurts. It’s scary.
bring hands to heart center
My heart might explode out of love or caffeine or strain. It’s the pre-dawn, when only parents and bakers are awake. I’m present, picking my daughter out of her crib, clutching her to my chest for the first time that day.
We talk a lot in yoga about how you you can always return to your mat. But when you go up into a handstand, you rarely land back in the same spot. So it is with parenthood. Yoga teaches us about cycles, and, looking back on my first year as a mother, I see a flow there — nursing, rocking, touching the sky, crouching, nursing, opening, and closing, finding my circle widen as my daughter grows. It’s a different kind of movement. There’s a messy beauty to it.
lengthen your spine and gaze forward
My daughter is 14 months now and walking. She staggers all over, catching herself, rushing at life, she’s in a hurry. I haven’t “gotten back” my pre-baby body. After a year of restorative yoga, and leading other people through their own evolutions, it feels like I’m in a new body, like my body has rebuilt itself in a slightly different way.
If yoga has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t hide from fear and pain. You need to embrace it. You’re a mom now, and your heart is bigger. So is your capacity to feel happiness, and with that, unhappiness. Maybe it manifests as a tension in your body, and you don’t know if it’s rooted in the hips or the shoulder blades, and you don’t know how to fix it. You’re frustrated. You survived childbirth! Everything is supposed to start feeling better. Except it’s impossible to separate the physical from the emotional, and your world just cracked wide open and had to reshape itself around a new emotional center: your baby.
So yes, you should exercise when you can, rebuild core strength to move mindfully, work on releasing stress. But remember the body is so much more than physical. Often, it is an expression of what is in your heart. Sound strange? Just look at your baby, and remember that your body made that little person. And then it makes all the sense in the world.