A New Normal
Postpartum. It’s a word I had a vague idea about before having my first baby. I knew I’d be tired, sore, maybe even a little delirious in the following weeks. But what I didn’t know was how woefully unprepared I was when it came to understanding my body’s new chemistry. The intense changes my postpartum body had undergone and was still undergoing. I was still in my 20’s and a serious athlete for most of my life – how hard would it be for my body to just go back to normal?
Having bought into the notion that postpartum life was just a hellish period I had to muscle my way through until the chapter was over and done with, I expected it to be tough but brief. Nothing I couldn’t handle on my own. But after nearly a year had passed since having my daughter, my body still felt foreign to me. I was the same me, just different, and that wasn’t going to go away overnight. I quickly learned that “postpartum” wasn’t just a term reserved for the months following birth, it was a term that would define me for the rest of my life.
The changes in my body didn’t disappear once the baby was born – I was forever “postpartum”. My body was adjusting to a new normal. A normal that required me to discover totally new ways to treat and nurture my body. Ways that met my body where it was today, not some version of myself from a decade ago.
To get closer to my new version of normal, I had to reclaim and redefine the word postpartum for myself. To update it with a much more optimistic and encouraging edge, in a way that acknowledges the vulnerability it brings but honors and reveres the time as sacred and cherished. Instead of dreading the post-birth period and seeing it as something I have to “get through”, I acknowledge its challenges and embrace them as part of the wonder of what I’ve been able to create. To truly appreciate my body for what it has been able to do – give life.
So Much Change, So Little Time
It’s no secret that a woman’s body works overtime during pregnancy. In a matter of months, our bodies are capable of growing a single cell into a fully formed human being. And we feel it. Creating and carrying a baby for several months is a monumental physical undertaking. In the later stages, something as simple as getting in and out of bed can become a daunting task.
Throughout pregnancy, a woman’s body undergoes intense hormonal, muscular, and structural shifts in a remarkably short period of time. Our bodies are constantly readjusting and recalibrating to prepare for a growing baby which has a huge impact on the alignment of our joints as well as our muscle function. As the uterus expands, it rises in and out of the pelvic cavity and actually displaces the stomach and other internal organs.
Our hormones are also a huge factor in this equation. The hormones that prepare the body for childbirth can also impact key areas of stabilization throughout the body. The hormone Relaxin also increases in the body which relaxes the tissue that connects your bones and loosens joints and ligaments.
Women also experience a redistribution of weight during pregnancy. A woman’s blood plasma increases by over 50% creating more vascularization and an increase in body weight. That combined with the added weight of the baby has an inevitable effect on our posture. If you’re a mom or mother-to-be who sits at a desk or in a chair for prolonged periods of time, the added pressure on the hips and pelvic region can cause chronic tightness and even pain in the area.
While pregnancy displays the incredible strength and resiliency of women’s bodies, it also provides a glimpse into the vulnerabilities it can create. All of this added pressure and extra weight can cause major hip and low back pain, even for the mommas who pay attention and actively work to offset it. It was no wonder I was experiencing severe discomfort during and after my pregnancy. Ignoring what I was feeling and believing it would just “go away” was only exacerbating the issues. I knew without giving them the proper care and attention they deserved, they would become long-term ailments.
So, how do we work to counter these inevitable changes taking place in the body throughout pregnancy? How do we nurture and support our postpartum bodies so that they feel and function their very best?
How do we get to know our postpartum selves?
We care for them. We nurture them. Get to know them on a much more intimate level than we ever have before because our bodies have done something they have never done before. We embrace slower movement and postpartum stretches that will support them.
As a new mother, it is our natural instinct to start prioritizing the needs of others above our own. Our infant’s survival in the early stages literally depends on it. This is why the postpartum period is often regarded as one of the most difficult times to focus on our own health and healing. In an instant, we are given the biggest responsibility of our lives. Good luck!
We can become so narrowly focused on the needs of our newborn that our own needs become secondary. Survival mode quickly becomes our default state of being. When we are postpartum and living in survival mode, rather than allowing our bodies the time and rest they need to recover, we continue leaking out energy until we are totally depleted, mentally and emotionally.
Postpartum Stretches for Opening and Re-Strengthening Your Body
To heal our postpartum bodies, we must be willing to open ourselves up. When we begin to find openness again in our physical bodies, maybe just maybe, we begin to open ourselves up to life again, too.
While targeted postpartum stretches might sound like the sole solution, it is only half of the healing equation. In addition to releasing the tension and tightness built up in certain parts of the body, we must also work on re-strengthening them. It is this delicate balance of stretching and strengthening that provides us with the most stable foundation possible.
The areas of the body most affected by pregnancy tend to be the core and abdominal region, the pelvic floor, the hip region, as well as the low back area. Intentionally supporting these areas will always be an essential part of maintaining a balanced, strong, healthy body – especially after birth!
Postpartum Stretches For The Hips
The psoas major, more commonly referred to as the hip flexors, is one of the longest muscles in the body and the main flexor of the hip. When we sit down, our hip flexors shorten. When we sit for long periods of time such as working at a computer all day, the shortening of our hip flexors can become chronic resulting in tightness, discomfort, and limited mobility.
The psoas is the primary stabilizer for the front and sides of the lumbar spine, which is how we protect our low back. As mentioned earlier, the added weight of the baby places even more pressure on the psoas and when the hip flexors are seriously tight like this, the result is compression and pain in the low back area.
For postpartum stretches that focus on the hip flexors, try any lunge variation. This includes Crescent Moon, Low Lunge, Crescent Lunge, and Warrior 1. To strengthen the hip flexors, try any pose that involves the flexing of the hips against the resistance of gravity. Try Boat Pose or one-legged Mountain Pose.
Reconnecting With Your Core
To strengthen and lengthen the psoas without dumping into the low back requires major strength and engagement from your deep core. Connecting with your deep core is the single-most-important factor in finding postpartum structural stability and support.
While many women rush to crunches to re-strengthen their core area post-baby, crunches only engage a very superficial layer of the abdominal region. Instead of working to wrap the contents of the midsection back into the midline, crunches actually push the midsection out. To counter the pushing out of the uterus and the internal organs and wrap everything back in, we must learn to engage the deep core.
Rather than big movements like the flexing of the spine generated from the rectus abdominis, the much more subtle transverse abdominis primary function is to draw in the abdomen closer to the spine. This allows us to be much more efficient with how we carry that weight around.
To work restrengthening your deep core, consider trying a Postnatal Flow designed to help you achieve reconnection with the subtle layers of these muscles. Create space and mobility in the spine and low back with some gentle seated twists, modified supine twists, wide-legged forward folds, cat cows, and side body stretches.
The Importance of Rest and Surrender in Postpartum Stretches
In order to recover, we must rest. It is perhaps the single most important factor for restoring and replenishing your postpartum body. Without it, our bodies will continue to believe they are under stress and won’t replenish their energy stores. This keeps us in an endless cycle of feeling tired and weak. By allowing your body ample periods of rest, you fully surrender yourself to the body you have today. Not the body you used to have or the body you think you should have.
Restorative postures are an excellent way to heal your postpartum body. Restorative yoga completely releases the muscles and bones from engagement. Through stillness, your nervous system and hormones are able to wind down and even themselves out. As mommas, we are hardwired to believe we can do everything on our own. But what we really need for our postpartum stretches is support. Instead of activating the muscles, restorative postures use props and the floor to allow the body to completely surrender. This rejuvenates the fascia (connective tissue) and creates safer mobility in the joints.
To open the inner thighs and hips, try laying in a supine position with your feet in supta baddha konasana (cobblers legs). Try wedging a block underneath both of your knees so there is no straining in the groin area.
To relieve tension on the backside of the body, try placing a bolster vertically at the base of your spine. Lay the upper half of your body over the bolster for a supported fish pose.
To relieve any of the tiny aches and pains in your body you have no idea how to target, try some self-massage techniques with these cork balls. They’ll help continue releasing the fascia throughout your body.
Gentleness is the Key
The key ingredient here is to go easy on yourself. Take things as slowly and luxuriously as you could possibly want. Despite what celebrities and social media might portend, there is absolutely no rush to “bounce back” after having a baby. There is no clock, no one to beat, no expectations at all. Let yourself feel and experience your body in a deeper way, leaning into every little sensation without judgment. Yes, some might feel strange and unfamiliar and that is to be expected – your postpartum body gave breath to new life, so you must give equal breath toward its recovery. Start slow and move into these postpartum stretches with grace.
The truth is, the better we take care of our postpartum selves, the better we will be able to care for our little ones. The more we give to ourselves, the more freely we will be able to share our joy and our hearts with the ones we love. When we approach our bodies with gentleness and ease, we can approach life’s challenges the same way.
Have more questions about getting back into yoga after having a child? Check out this post on our most frequently asked questions when it comes to postnatal yoga.