In the practice of yoga asana, there are fundamental principles of intelligent movement that can be applied to all postures and transitions. Understanding these principles and applying them mindfully creates a support system from within that allows the body to function optimally. Structures like your spine are designed to seek this homeostasis and, given the proper support, will more effortlessly find this place of center where the entire body functions in health, strength and comfort.
One of these principles is the practice of bandha (bon-da). The word bandha is a Sanskrit term that means “lock.” When we apply these locks in our asana practice and our daily posture, we are able to harness forces of healing, protection, support, stability and strength. Bandhas are multi-dimensional forces that provide “core” support as well as perform more subtle actions such as directing one’s energy and attention. For this post, however, we are going to focus on the physical attributes of bandhas and how this can support a mom who may be experiencing weakness, poor posture, incontinence, prolapse, abdominal separation or other challenges post-pregnancy and childbirth. To be clear, this DOES NOT APPLY to anyone known to have an overly tight or tense pelvic floor. There are two types of “locks” within the pelvic bowl: Mula and Uddiyana Bandha.
Mula, another Sanskrit term, means “root” therefore Mula Bandha is called the “root lock.” In physical terms, it is the pelvic floor – literally the root of your spine (the central axis of your body). The deep pelvic floor, consisting of several muscles grouped together (called the Levator Ani) within the interior of the pelvis, has a trampoline type tension to it, in that it should be strong enough to provide support (for your pelvic organs, including during pregnancy the added weight and pressure of your baby, placenta and amniotic fluid) while still being soft and pliable (to let a baby pass with ease). Like all things in yoga and in life – the healthiest expression is found in balance. Too strong a pelvic floor can cause back pain, pelvic misalignment and difficulties in childbirth, among other issues. Too weak, and you experience incontinence, prolapse, back pain or even neck and shoulder pain (as all structures in the body are ultimately connected to the central axis – the spine – and something that affects the base of this axis affects the interrelationships of all bodily structures).
Essentially, when someone asks you to do a Kegel they are asking you to practice contracting and releasing your pelvic floor. I am not a fan of “doing your kegels” as the pelvic floor does not function in isolation and is more effectively strengthened in the context of the entire system of “core” support. I keep placing “core” in quotation marks because what most people mean by “core” is ABS, and there is much more to the “core” than your abdominal muscles, starting with your pelvic floor.
The first step is creating awareness through the breath. Sit or lie down, observe your natural breath and firmly anchor your attention to the inhale and exhale. When your attention is established in the breath, begin to feel the pelvic floor deep in the bowl of your pelvis. When you can tune into movement, pulsation in this place, you’ll notice that as you inhale, the pelvic floor lowers and as you exhale, the pelvic floor naturally lifts. Begin by observing these movements and see if one feels dominant. Before engaging, we want to be sure you aren’t already working with TOO MUCH pelvic floor tension, but since you just had a baby, we’ll assume the opposite is the case – weakness! Then, we need to ENGAGE.
To engage Mula Bandha, you can use the North-South-East-West technique. This technique can be done sitting or standing, but a reclining bridge position is an ideal posture in which to feel these four points. North is your pubic bone. South is your tailbone. East and West are your two sitting bones. Try to mentally isolate each of these four points, visualize them, and then work to physically and energetically draw them together in different combinations. Draw North to South (pubic bone to tailbone). Draw East to West (two sitting bones). Draw North, South, East and West together. Become intimately familiar with creating this base of support for your spine and torso and apply it to all yoga asana (except restorative yoga or savasana, which is a time to let go of everything!) and to daily movement habits, especially those that increase intra-pelvic pressure or create a straining feeling.
Uddiyana Bandha = Transversus Abdominis
Uddiyana means “flying upward” and the practical application of this lock involves a very important postural support muscle called the transversus abdominus (TA). The TA is the deepest and innermost layer of your abdominal muscles. This muscle wraps around from your back on either side of your spine, to the front of the abdomen. Imagine the shape and function of a corset. You basically have your own natural, built in corset, which is why pregnancy, which stretches these tissues to an extreme, can leave one post-birth feeling flabby, unsupported and weak. After birth, many moms experience a Diastasis (separation of the rectus abdominus, the surface muscles). While this is important, a strong TA is a key part of healing, as it provides a deeper layer of structural support. Learning to engage Mula and Uddiyana Bandha set the stage for healing.
Like Mula Bandha, we start by feeling. Find your breath and notice how as you inhale it pushes your belly outward. As you exhale, the belly naturally falls in. To find the TA, emphasize the exhale. As you breathe out, focus on drawing the navel in toward the spine, drawing the lower abdomen (space between naval and pubic bone) in and slightly up, hence the name, “flying upward.” If you apply this in your asana practice, it creates a feeling of strength, stability, protection and lightness and can bring stability and support to the daily physical demands of parenting.
When you engage Mula and Uddiyana Bandha together, it creates an immediate effect of improved posture, which creates the conditions for post-birth healing. As the pelvic floor and TA draw in and up, the sternum (center of the chest) lifts, assisted by the now-engaged muscles of the upper back. These actions together counteract “postpartum posture” or “parenting posture” – the hunched shoulders, collapsed chest, weak abdominals and outward forces of intra-abdominal pressure that make issues like Diastasis or weak pelvic floor worse. Learning to resist these outward forces of intra-abdominal pressure using the bandhas is a key to healing the postpartum body. The ability to resist the outward forces of this abdominal pressure is how you know you are ready to return to more vigorous activity.
Standing up tall also lengthens the Linea Alba, the line of connective tissues between the “six pack” rectus abdominals that weakens during pregnancy to create the separation of Diastasis. Lengthening the Linea Alba draws the two halves of the rectus abdominus together, applying the corset effect to strengthen and rejoin connective tissue to support your spine, narrow your waist, heal Diastasis and eliminate back pain.
The application of Mula and Uddiyana Bandha together create a cascade of conditions within all bodies, but especially recently pregnant bodies, that promote healing and create strength from deep within that supports all movement – both the activities of daily living as well as all forms of exercise (apply these techniques while you run or bike or play sports – you’ll pee yourself less and watch your performance increase!). The key is becoming intimately familiar with this form of muscular activation and then putting it into practice both in your mindful moments of yoga and exercise AND in your daily movement habits. Breastfeeding? Sit up straight and tall (support behind your lower back with a pillow if you need help lifting), engage your root and bring baby to the breast (breastfeeding pillows are great for this!). Picking up your child? Engage your bandhas first. Having back pain? Learn to apply these techniques anytime you find yourself slumping into bad posture or whenever you are going to make a big movement (such as transitions in yoga, picking up something heavy, bending over, or even rolling over in bed).
TIMING AND NUTRITION
Two more important considerations for actively healing the de-stabilization that pregnancy and birth can cause. One is timing. When should you begin to focus on applying these techniques? The answer depends a lot on your pregnancy and birth. The more unstable your body becomes in pregnancy (all the more reason to stay strong and active during!) and the more difficult birth was on your body, the longer you may need that other vital component of postpartum healing – REST! If you had a fairly easy vaginal delivery, I typically recommend waiting at least until your postpartum bleeding stops and then easing into VERY gentle movement to feel out your body and progress from there. If you had a traumatic vaginal birth or a cesarean, you may need to wait longer – at least the typical 6 weeks. Heal your soft tissues before you start to focus on healing your deep core. This sensitive timing and careful reintroduction of movement is the reason I offer postpartum yoga – so moms have a safe space to ask questions of a knowledgable teacher who can guide their specific body. Unless you have a LOT of experience with yoga, it is best to ease into a targeted practice after birth rather than jump back into vinyasa or other fast-moving styles. Once you feel out your body, your ability to activate and sustain these support structures, you can return to more vigorous practice.
Also of vital importance in healing is nutrition. Connective tissue needs vitamins and minerals to perform the many enzymatic reactions involved in rebuilding. Zinc (wound healing), collagen (main component of connective tissue) protein and amino acids (tissue growth), as well as copper, manganese, bioflavanoid and Vitamins C & E, are some of the essential nutritional building blocks of postpartum repair. Add to this list anti-inflammatory components, such as turmeric and ginger and avoidance of inflammatory foods, such as sugar & alcohol. Nutritionist (and return student!) Claire Cohen, of Rooted Integrative Nutrition recommends these foods to support your body/mind in healing post-birth:
Zinc: Oysters, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, grass-fed & organic lamb
Vitamin C: Strawberries, Red peppers, Cruciferous veggies and Citrus
Vitamin E: Almonds, Spinach, Sweet potatoes
Copper: Grass-fed organic Liver, sesame seeds, cocoa
Manganese: Mussels, Hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds
One last key ingredient in supporting your postpartum body/mind in healing is PATIENCE. Give yourself time, have compassion for your body, love it just as it is for the amazing gift it gave you – your precious child and the gift of motherhood.