A new book explores the topic of practicing Astanga – an intense form of yoga – during pregnancy. Healthista’s Yoga Girl columnist Genny Wilkinson-Priest (mum of four and dedicated Astanga yogi herself) takes a look
If you regularly practice yoga and fall pregnant, it can be difficult to know how to modify your existing practice if you do not want to go to Pregnancy Yoga classes that are entirely directed at the expectant mother.
Yoga Sadhana for Mothers by Sharmila Desai and Anna Wise, is the first book to address the subject. Though it is written for practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga, it can be applied to a pregnant woman practicing any style of yoga.
What is most evocative about Yoga Sadhana for Mothers, the very heart and soul of the book, is the emotional experience of women who practice Ashtanga yoga as they conceive, birth, and even miscarry.
Ashtanga is a rigorous yoga practice linking breath with posture and when practiced with discipline, becomes a spiritual as much as a physical practice. Practicing Ashtanga in the traditional manner – daily and whole-heartedly – requires great discipline and can define, in part, the very identity of the practitioner herself.
When a female Ashtangi falls pregnant, and her journey of motherhood from conception through pregnancy and delivery begins, her relationship to yoga and herself necessarily changes.
It can be a confusing time – should you practice at all in the first trimester? Do you drop back from standing to Urdhva Danurasana (full wheel)? Do you stop practicing the Intermediate series of Ashtanga Yoga, or any advanced yoga posture, altogether?
Unless you have an experienced teacher, there is little to guide a female Ashtangi in this phase of her life where the physical, emotional and spiritual changes can prove tumultuous.
The subtitle of the book: ‘Shared experiences of Ashtanga Yoga, Pregnancy, Birth and Motherhood’ does not adequately summarize the invaluable advice presented in this book that was written with the support of the Jois family (the first family of Ashtanga Yoga) in Mysore, India.
Old school Ashtangis will find much to reminisce about as the presence of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois – the founder of the Ashtanga Yoga system as we know it – is woven through the book. Guruji (this is the term Astangis use to address the ‘guru’ or founder of the discipline) was a family man above all else, and his belief in the sanctity of family – of marriage and children – forms the basis of much of the book.
Most readers will at first come to the book for its practical guidelines in modifying sun salutations and the primary series postures (Astanga yoga comes in sets known as series which are groups of many postures practiced as sequences and referred to as primary, secondary, third and fourth and so on).
It is a godsend in a dearth of published, expert advice on how to practice Ashtanga when pregnant, and offers detailed instruction and photographs on how to modify practice without sacrificing form and flow.
The guidelines are primarily aimed at pregnant women who already practice Ashtanga, but practitioners and teachers of other types of yoga would benefit from learning the modifications as the asanas (postures) shown are of course, not the sole domain of the style of yoga made popular by Pattabhi Jois who died in 2009.
But the book’s real value, its very heart and soul, is the collection of narratives by women from the worldwide Ashtanga community who have not just conceived, birthed and mothered, but also miscarried and struggled with infertility. The wide range of these women’s experiences illustrates there is no one-size-fits-all-approach when it comes to Ashtanga yoga and pregnancy. Though the topic of practicing yoga in pregnancy – indeed of doing any type of exercise in pregnancy is often steeped in controversy and conflicting views – the authors (both senior Ashtanga teachers) make no judgment.
‘There are no definitive answers here, only information tips, suggestions, examples and most importantly, the experience of others to draw from,’ Desai and Wise write in the introduction.
The raw emotion of some of the stories will take your breath away, and serves as a reminder that real pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood isn’t as portrayed in Hollywood films where the expectant woman is a glowing earth mother and barely breaks a sweat when pushing out a perfectly formed, healthy baby.
No. The reality can be prolapsed uteruses, Group B Strep, pelvic girdle pain, emergency c-sections, miscarriage, and fear that you will not love your baby once he arrives.
Guilt, fear, pain, control, shame and regret resonate in some stories. But so too does acceptance, surrender, trust, joy, wonder, and profound happiness.
As different as all these women’s stories are, they have one thing in common – while motherhood is never easy, the Ashtanga yoga practice is a powerful tool that supports and guides, whether you are working on letting go in the first trimester, headstanding in your second, or circling the pelvis in your third.
There is something in Yoga Sadhana for everyone whether you are an Ashtangi thinking about how you might modify your practice to make the body more fertile (soften the intensity and change the diet to eat more dairy, nuts and oil) to one wondering when to come back to the mat (three months after vaginal delivery and six months after delivery by cesarean is a good guide)
And even for the Ashtangi who is already a mother, the book provides a chance to reminisce their own experience practicing while pregnant is nostalgic, tinged in whatever light.
Desai and Wise outline ways to encourage optimal fetal positioning for birth, and give tips on how to prepare the perineal floor for birth. Especially useful is the chapter on postpartum recovery, which can be a challenging time as the mother adapts to the body rebalancing itself both physically and emotionally.
‘This is an opportune time to draw from the lived lessons learnt from the yoga practice, such as returning to the breath and feeling calm when stepping into the unknown or experiencing something seemingly difficult,’ Desai and Wise write.
In this manner, Ashtanga yoga can be a training ground for pregnancy, birth and motherhood as it builds a woman’s stamina, develops her patience and ignites her love for the child to come.
Yoga Sadhana is a must-read for anyone on this journey.
For the complete narratives of mothers practicing Ashtanga yoga, read Sharmila Desai and Anna Wise’s book Yoga Sadhana for Mothers: Shared Experiences of Ashtanga Yoga, Pregnancy, Birth and Motherhood (published by Yogawords Ltd September 14)