Introduction to Ashtanga Yoga

“I have been a seeker and I still am, but I stopped asking the books and the stars. I started listening to the teaching of my soul.”  -Rumi

Traditional (philosophical) Ashtanga Yoga is an eight-limbed system which gives the seeker a blueprint for living a life of vibrant health, strength of mind, Self-understanding, Self-realization, spiritual insight and union with the divine. Together, the eight limbs of this philosophy direct the practitioner toward the goal of yoga –  yoga citta vritti nirodaha – the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind – and a sense of peace, equanimity and happiness that results.

“People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”  – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)

The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are:

  1. Yama – moral restraints
    1. Ahimsa – non-harming
    2. Satya – truthfulness
    3. Asteya – non-stealing
    4. Brahmacharya – maintenance of vital energies
    5. Aparigraha – non-covetousness
  2. Niyama – moral observances
    1. Saucha – cleanliness
    2. Santosha – contentment
    3. Tapas – fire of transformation
    4. Svadhyaya – self-study
    5. Ishvara pranidhara – surrender
  3. Asana – yoga postures
  4. Pranayama – breath control
  5. Pratyahara – internal focus
  6. Dharana – concentration
  7. Dhyana – meditation
  8. Samadhi – ecstacy

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (the hatha yoga practice)  is a practical way that we can put into practice each of these limbs of yoga. For example, we endeavor to not harm ourselves in practice (ahimsa), to be content with what we can do (santosha), to make a sincere effort at understanding ourselves (svadhyaya) through the tools of hatha yoga (asana, pranayama). Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is Tapas – the rigor and challenge of the practice generates the fire of transformation. We then take the lessons we learn about ourselves as we practice over time, and translate them into all aspects of our lives.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

With foundations in the yamas and niyamas, the movement method of Ashtanga Yoga is meant to be a practice as integral to life as sleep and food – a vital nourishment for the body/mind/spirit that becomes a regular personal ritual of self-care and mindfulness. The method implores us to make a deep commitment to our highest selves and the pursuit of the Self-understanding and the mastery we gain from a consistent, committed relationship with the tools.

Physically, the practice of yoga asana takes our body through a complete range of motion – massaging, releasing, balancing, strengthening, awakening. The design of the asana sequences implores us toward a balance of strength and flexibility of body that translates to a strong & flexible mind. The system teaches us how to recognize and cultivate right effort within ourselves, even when the definition of “right effort” changes day to day and long term through the seasons of our lives. The practice teaches us to skillfully and harmoniously integrate the many aspects of our practice, and ultimately, our lives. Unbridled stretching and flexibility is NOT the goal.

Do not practice to have a “good” practice.
Practice to maintain steadiness within yourself.

-Sharath Jois

As physically challenging as the practice may be, it is mentally even more so. Ashtanga Yoga teaches us to hold the paradox of honoring where you are, respecting your limits and practicing with insight and wisdom while also pushing your boundaries, stretching your limits and discovering new potential within yourself. It teaches you to observe your mind/emotions as you encounter short term and long term challenges (on and off the mat) and to be compassionately aware of the many modes of resistance the mind generates (frustration, fear, self-doubt, anger, etc.) and to ride the waves of body, mind and life without attachment. As you come to understand the fluctuations of consciousness as the universal workings of a human mind, rather than a personal failing, you become more skilled at exercising mastery over your mind and therefore over your experience of this life. Ashtanga Yoga teaches us to diligently approach challenges and goals with patience and persistent effort over time, with presence, discipline, dedication, commitment and non-attachment.

Spiritually, Ashtanga Yoga provides us with a committed opportunity to “enter the flow.” It is a regular, personal ritual of not only physical health care but spiritual connection with source. God, the universe, nature – whatever name you wish to think of it by, we all need methods to connect with mystery, with creativity, with potentiality that elevate our every thought and action from the mundane to the sacred. Like plugging in your iPhone to recharge its batteries so it performs at peak levels, so is stepping on your mat to plug into a source of vitality, connection, awareness, compassion, peace, light love. The more you engage in deliberate cultivation of these qualities, the more you will embody them in all interactions.

Basics of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Method

The Method

  • Yoga Citta Vritti Nirodaha – Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness. Yoga = establishing the mind in the Self, directing the attention away from outside objects and to the indweller.
  • Ashtanga Yoga is a moving meditation within which one becomes absorbed in the union of breath and movement – going beyond the mind and into the mystery, the essence, the timeless truth of being.
  • Four principles make up the foundation of the the method: vinyasa, breath, bandha and drishti.
  • Vinyasa is the precise linking of movement to breath resulting in a rhythmic flowing style of movement that reflects the fundamental rhythms that underlie the intelligence of nature.
  • Ujayii Breathing = technique of breath that generates heat, sound, focus and internal pressure control.
  • Bandha = a connection to our deep physical and metaphorical center that generates focus, strength, support, lightness and control.
  • Drishti = looking place, a tool for concentration and meditation within the movement.
  • Taken together, these techniques make up the method of Ashtanga Yoga and have the effect of drawing one sharply into present moment awareness and out of the drama of the mind (the citta vritti – which is the source of suffering)
  • Our practice helps us to process toxic stress and introduce healthy stress. It is a safe haven, an inner retreat, a place for clearing body and mind. What we find there may not always be happy or easy. Our practice takes us through the full expression of human emotion – from elation to frustration, from happiness to anger, from joy to sadness, from determination to defeat. The practice is to face these fluctuations of emotion and mind with equanimity – to show up and carry on, with acceptance and compassion, regardless of the fluctuations of the mind.
  • The practice is designed to liberate us from the consequences of being us, to bring freedom from our mind-stuff and establish our attention in pure being, the essence that all living beings share – the life force, the prana, the creative intelligence, the universe, God – however your mind labels it.

The Practice

  • The physical system of Ashtanga Yoga is consistent – the consistency of the sequence gives us a road map to follow, eliminating the need to think or decide what posture comes next. This repetition offers a steady and clear vantage point from which to watch yourself grow and change. You don’t have to think about what to do, so you are free to focus on the method – breath, bandha, drishti, vinyasa count, which takes you into that deeply meditative space.
  • Ashtanga Yoga is rigorous – though the amount of time and energy you invest in your practice varies from day to day and over the course of one’s lifetime, in general, the practice is meant to have a rigor to it that challenges our discipline, dedication and desire for self-understanding. Even just the showing up on consistent basis is rigorous. This rigor does not mean that the practice is never gentle, or slow, or restorative. But it IS designed to have you face your habits of mind that hold you back. If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you, so the overall energy of the practice is Tapas – the heat and fire of transformation.
  • Ashtanga Yoga is balanced – it aims to cultivate balance between strength and flexibility, between effort and ease (sthira sukha asanam), between poses that seem doable and poses that seem impossible, it takes the body through the full range of human motion (and sometimes beyond!). This beyond exists to teach us that we are far more limited by our minds, beliefs about ourselves and our habits than anything else.
  • Ashtanga is a practice of vairagya, or non-attachment. It is not for the sake of the asanas themselves that we engage in the yoga. We use the practice as a way to look inside ourselves and engage in a private, intimate relationship with our own body/mind. It is important to have no attachment to which postures one can do or not do. In fact, the postures that challenge and frustrate us the most are the ones where the real learning opportunity exists.

The Sequence

  • Primary Series (aka 1st Series, aka Yoga Chikitsa) focuses on establishing a solid foundation of strength, flexibility, stability, grace and control over both body and mind.
  • Primary Series is where students of Ashtanga begin. Mastering it can take years.
  • Physically, it begins with sun salutations and standing postures (to warm up, gather awareness and attention and create a base of grounding and stability), then transitions to a focus on the pelvic region of the body – forward bends and hip openers make the bulk of the primary series sequence.
  • Forward bends and twists create healthy digestion and a strong “agni” or digestive fire – strengthening our ability to process all that we take in – physically and mentally.
  • Hip openers put us in touch with our first and second chakras – the foundation of a healthy body, healthy emotions, healthy relationships and a solid base from which to expand our intention into the mental and spiritual realms.
  • We close the practice with a grounding set of inversions and meditative postures, along with savasana, for deep stillness.
  • As you gain mastery over primary series, there are other, more advanced sequences, waiting to challenge you. The speed at which this evolution takes place depends on the practitioner.

The Approach

  • Method (breath, bandha, drishti) over technique (sequence, alignment).
  • Regardless of the exact postures practiced, the breath is the key to unlocking the secrets of all yoga techniques. Breathe to look, listen and feel within. Find the place where the breath flows deeply and spontaneously with the least effort. Move from energy, not muscle. Fall in love with your breath and the lyrical way it directs the body in the dance of yoga.
  • Within any posture, attend to your foundation. Attune to the flow of your breath. Establish bandha and drishti. Energize and stabilize with your legs and feet, refine with your spine. Express and expand with your limbs.
  • Work to balance sthira (steadiness) and sukha (ease), or effort and relaxation. All of yoga (and life) is the exploration of the play of opposites (inhale/exhale, day/night, light/shadow, yin/yang, masculine/feminine). Ashtanga is an expression of this universal principle of balance and rhythms of nature.
  • The alignment contained within Samastithi (equal standing pose, aka mountain pose) can be translated to many yoga postures, especially the standing ones. The relationship of the head to the shoulders to the pelvis, the front body to the back body, the soles of the feet to the crown of the head. The balance of grounding and lifting forces. The use of bandhas, breath and drishti. All of yoga is contained within samastithi.

10 Practical Tips for Practice

  1. Start small – develop a short form practice and make it a habit. Then you can grow into the full primary series.
  2. Be consistent – the more you can practice on the same days, at the same time, in a routine, the easier it will be to make it a habit.
  3. Have a dedicated space – sometimes difficult with kids and/or pets, if you can keep a dedicated space that is clear and ready to go, it will enhance your ability to practice.
  4. Reduce distractions as much as possible. Prioritize and sanctify your practice.
  5. Early morning is ideal, but anytime works as long as you can commit and keep your promise to yourself.
  6. Just step on the mat – this is often the hardest part. Just get there. Breathe and move. Be less attached to how much you get done. Just begin. Fall in love with your breath.
  7. Practice on your own, but check in with a teacher and a community – Ashtanga is ultimately a practice of personal responsibility. You have to want what it offers. it helps tremendously to have a support system and is essential to have the guidance of an experienced teacher as you encounter difficulties and challenges or struggle with motivation.
  8. Lower your expectations and go slow. Take the long view. It is ok to learn and move through the sequences slowly. This is meant to be a personal practice for a lifetime. Keep a sense of humor!
  9. 99% Practice, 1% Theory.
  10. Take a spiritual, devotional approach, rather than a purely physical approach. This sustains you when things feel difficult or overwhelming.

Postpartum Yoga FAQ

Affectionately called “Mama Yoga” by the regulars, postpartum yoga started as a way to focus on healing the physical challenges of post-pregnancy, but quickly became so much more. More than “just” a yoga class – postpartum yoga has created a community of mothers who share joys and milestones and support each other through challenges and come together for a once or twice weekly opportunity space, rest, reflection, self-care and healing.

We’d love to have you join us! Check out the answers to these frequently answered questions and email us if you have others!

HOW SOON AFTER GIVING BIRTH CAN I COME TO CLASS?
We have had moms return to postpartum yoga as soon as 2-3 weeks after giving birth. Many return to their practice within the 4-8 week range, after being cleared by their midwife or doctor for physical activity. As with all things, I encourage moms to listen to their own inner guide as to their readiness to get out of the house and away from the baby and back into a loving, attentive relationship with their bodies. In general, refrain from practice until you have stopped bleeding postpartum, and it may take a few weeks more if you had a cesarean section or difficult birth.

CAN I BRING MY BABY TO THIS CLASS?
This class is devoted to self-care for mothers, so no babies in Postpartum/Mama Yoga! If you’d like to come practice with your baby, join us for Mommy/Baby Yoga on Thursdays at 10:30 AM.

WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL PRACTICE?
Each session is tailored to the needs of those in attendance, so it varies from session to session. Some sessions will be quite restorative, some quite strong, depending on the energy and needs of the mamas on that day. In general, all classes will cultivate elements of posture & strength, eliminating back pain (a common pp complaint!), building core awareness and strength and deep rest! We often focus on reversing “breastfeeding posture” by opening up the chest and shoulders, and healing issues such as pelvic floor weakness and abdominal separation (Diastasis Recti). We can also refer those with serious issues to pelvic physiotherapy.

I HAD MY BABY “X” MONTHS/YEARS AGO, CAN I STILL ATTEND?
Absolutely – if you are mom, you enjoy community with other moms and like to practice yoga, you are welcome and will benefit, no matter how long ago you gave birth!

CAN I USE MY CLASS PASS FOR PRENATAL YOGA?
YES! Class cards are good for all regularly scheduled yoga classes (but not special workshops).

HAVE OTHER QUESTIONS? EMAIL US!

Tour de Baby

In teaching childbirth education, I often compare labor and birth to endurance athletic events – the ways in which body and mind are challenged, how to keep focused and plan for the long haul, staying in a healthy frame of mind and pace your energy. So many similarities. Baby Cadel took this comparison to new heights.

When I first met his parents, we bonded over a shared love of physical fitness in general and in particular, an affinity for bike racing and the Tour de France. I was first introduced to this sport in the heyday of Lance Armstrong, and find this event fascinating – the sheer endurance and mental strength required, the constant challenge, the beautiful scenery, the drama that plays out over three weeks of racing. It is quite captivating.

When I found out they were planning to name their little guy Cadel – a name I have only heard because of a famed professional Australian cyclist and Tour de France winner Cadel Evans, it all seemed so fitting. But got even better when Cadel decided to make his grand entrance on the first day of the 2017 Tour de France! And in the spirit of this grand event, Cadel’s parents displayed superhuman amounts of physical and mental endurance and were so happy to finally meet their baby. I was particularly struck by Dad’s empathetic and expressive nature during their labor. You could feel that HE could feel every ounce of her pain. It was as if he literally went through it with her and carried her so beautifully throughout the challenge. I will forever be awed and inspired by them both and in love with the serendipitous way Cadel made his entrance to the world! Check back in 20 years or so to see if he becomes a professional cyclist.

Baby “B”

This gorgeous family was signed up for the Yoga Birth Childbirth Education class. After attending the first session – SURPRISE! – this little guy decided he was going to make his appearance early. I was super psyched when his mom reached out months later – well after the experience of shepherding him through his early days of NICU life and all the extra special care that preemies require – and asked if we could do some photos in exchange for the Yoga Birth registration fee that they never really got to utilize. It was a pleasure to capture their bond and the extra special love that they have for their now very strong and healthy baby boy!

10 Reasons Ashtanga Yoga is the Perfect Practice for Parents

I began practicing Ashtanga Yoga at the tender age of 24. I instantly fell in love with this practice that is equal parts intense workout and deep meditation. As my own teacher describes, it felt like “coming home to my soul.” Over the years, my practice has seen every fluctuation imaginable, through times of strength and weakness, through three pregnancies, through a couple of injuries, through times of high motivation, through times of no motivation and rock bottom. My physical capabilities have waxed and waned over those years. But the one thing that has remained constant is my ability to rely on this presence in my life, to retreat to my practice to process the many ups and downs of my body/mind. Whether I feel uplifted or crushed, I can step to the top of my mat, raise my arms in that first sun salutation, take in that first deep breath and come home to my soul. When I feel strong, my practice helps me build on my capabilities. When I feel weak, my practice holds me like a loving embrace. When I feel scared, my practice helps me to remember my power and move beyond fear. When I feel confident, my practice helps me embody my limitlessness.

Today, with my children out of the intensely demanding baby/toddler stage, I am enjoying a renewal as practice feels more consistent and stronger than ever. But the more important change over these years is the realization that this very physical practice – it’s not about the physical! The postures are simply a gateway into the realm of your highest self. The postures call you to connect to your source, to your infinite potential, to yourself as time transcendent presence. The real work is to get to know your mind, the way you approach challenges and failures, how you judge and tell stories and get stuck in the small self and to grow beyond the limitations of the conditioned mind. The asanas are kinetic keys that open you up to the limitlessness within and connect you to your infinite self. At a time of life when so much of your time and energy is devoted to others, to spend time each day nurturing your self is priceless.

Here are 10 reasons why Ashtanga Yoga is an ideal practice for parents.

  1. The practice encourages a daily commitment to self-care, however small or large. As parents, we often put our own well being last on the list. But you can’t give from an empty cup. A consistent commitment to practice fills that cup regularly so you have more to give freely and joyfully.

  2. The practice can be expanded or contracted to fit the amount of time you have on any given day. Do 10 minutes or two hours.

  3. The practice cultivates a steady physical and mental strength – qualities you certainly need for the rigors of parenting.

  4. The practice is centered on cultivating a powerful, conscious breath, a tool that helps one develop patience, presence and calm abiding in stressful situations.

  5. Primary Series – the first sequence you learn – is focused on the abdomen, cultivating digestive fire, or “agni” to promote optimum health, eliminating the “bad fat around the waist” as it says in Yoga Mala, strengthening core muscles, and cultivating your hara – a deeply powerful physical and energetic center.

  6. The structure of Ashtanga gives you a road map, a direction, that enables home practice and encourages you to take personal responsibility for your experience.

  7. Mysore style Ashtanga (as we teach at The Womb Room) creates the space for individualized learning. It is not a one sized fits all yoga “class”, but a true partnership between teacher and practitioner that supports you, wherever you are, throughout the changing circumstances of your body and your life.

  8. A deep sense of community exists between people who share a love for this practice. Those who practice together become extended family, supporting and uplifting one another through the trials of practice and life.

  9. The practice is a method of connecting to source to recharge – it is rejuvenating and invigorating –  clearing you of your physical and mental burdens and filling you with the vitality and energy that animates all of life.

  10. The practice is an inner sanctuary –  giving you time and space away from the incessant demands placed on parents. Your time on the mat is a regular opportunity to retreat from responsibilities and just BE.

If you would like to learn more about this powerful practice, consider joining us for the Introduction to Ashtanga 4 week series at The Womb Room, beginning January 15, 2017.  This class will give you the foundation you need to join in the ongoing, weekly Mysore practice sessions (registration for the workshop includes a FREE MONTH of Mysore) and you’ll be entered into a drawing to win a copy of David Swenson’s Ashtanga Yoga Practice Manual, an excellent guide to learning Ashtanga. If you sign up before the end of 2016, you can use the promo code BLOG to take $20 off the registration price. Register here and begin your journey to learn this deeply transformational practice, make a commitment to regular self-care and join a tight-knit yoga community.

Metta Loving Kindness Meditation for Election Frustrations

Today, I learned that I live in a leftist bubble. My illusions that most of my fellow Americans share my values of inclusiveness and equality was shattered. I have spent much of the day in despair, and I can feel the hard-heartedness wanting to take over. Fellow yoga teachers are all on Facebook like “come to class and let’s be the light” and I’m all over here like “I want to kick every person who voted for this hate-monger in the teeth.”  I have been wondering all day how I’m going to get it together in time to teach my evening yoga class tonight when I feel so disheartened and sad.

And then I remembered it is exactly because I feel disheartened and sad that I turn to yoga. Yoga is not just a “feel-good, happiness-inducing practice”, it is a “comfort me when I’m sad and broken practice” and a “sometimes the truth hurts practice” and a “I’m going to keep showing up anyway no matter how many times I am left sobbing in the dirt practice.”  So it hit me, the only theme that there could possibly be for tonight’s sadhana: Metta, a practice of loving-kindness.

Loving-kindness, or metta, is unconditional, inclusive love, a love with wisdom. It has no conditions; it does not depend on whether one “deserves” it or not; it is not restricted to friends and family; it extends out from personal categories to include all living beings. There are no expectations of anything in return. This is the ideal, pure love, which everyone has in potential. We begin with loving ourselves, for unless we have a measure of this unconditional love and acceptance for ourselves, it is difficult to extend it to others. Then we include others who are special to us, those who challenge us (ahem!)  ultimately, all living things. Gradually, both the visualization and the meditation phrases blend into the actual experience, the feeling of loving kindness. (www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree/loving-kindness)

So even if you can’t join us at The Womb Room tonight, perhaps you could take a few moments to do a Metta meditation of your own. Here’s how. 

heart-chakraSit or lie comfortably and become attuned to your breathing. Make your posture relaxed and breathe in and out through the center of your chest. Try to release the desire to change, control or manage what is happening. Slow down the flow and watch the breath as it rises and falls – as all things do – a coming and a going, without attachment to either. Begin by generating a kind feeling toward yourself. Feel any areas of mental blockage or numbness, self-judgment, self-hatred. Then drop beneath that to the place where we care for ourselves, where we want strength and health and safety for ourselves. Continuing to breathe in and out, then say or think the following phrases several times.

May I be safe and protected.
May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger.
May I be free of physical and mental suffering or distress.
May I be happy, healthy and strong.
May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.

After you have repeated these phrases in reference to yourself, repeat the phrases as an offering to: someone you love very much, someone you feel neutral toward, someone who challenges you or makes you angry (ahem!) and then to all living beings.

I don’t know what will become of us individually or collectively, but I know that in times of celebration and times of despair, yoga gives me tools to understand, to process and to continue to live from a place of love and pure intention.

Want more? Consider coming to Yoga Nidra Friday night. The practice of Yoga Nidra is excellent for releasing negative emotions, frustrations and hopelessness and the desire to kick people in the teeth.

What is a Bandha and what does it have to do with my postpartum body?

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 Bandha
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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.

bridge pose.jpegTo 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

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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.
good posture.png

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
restorative1
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.

Reflections on the Impermanence of Young Motherhood

That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. It is the ordinary state of affairs. Everything is in process. Everything—every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate—is always changing, moment to moment. – Pema Chodron

Fleeting.

 

I’m trying to memorize the feeling. The soft, warm flesh of a four year old, whose body fits, curled up into the small of my back, while we sleep. Really, she’s too big to be sleeping in our queen sized bed – owning all the room that her parents should rightly share. This girl – the way she sneaks in a kiss on the top of my head every time she rolls over in the night. She fits like an extension of my form, arm draped over my collarbone, leg nestled over a hip – her snuggles a tonic to the loss of her littleness. But despite the errant foot in the face, or the fact that my husband and I both hug the outer six inches of each edge of our bed, despite the fact that she has a comfortable bed across the hall in the room she shares with her sister, I can’t bear to put her in it. I can’t bear to relinquish this form of quiet closeness to this child, my last child, because doing so would be to admit the end of my days of early motherhood – the end of diapers and breastfeeding, baby wearing and bed sharing- all the physical and emotional intertwining I have so cherished as a mother to babies and toddlers. The end of the most wonderful phase of my life.

Of course, I’ll always be their mom, their mother. But “mama” is a special kind of being in relationship with tiny souls whose entire world revolves around you – mama – the sun of their existence. I’ve been left breathless by the speed with which they have assumed the mantle of their own lives. My oldest daughter spends much of her time closed in her room, the sun of her own universe. A place where I now cast a reflective glow, but am no longer the fiery center. Sometimes that place at the fiery center burns. I think of the time I waited – glassy eyed, catatonic – overwhelmed by the immediacy and demands of new motherhood – for my husband to get home from work and without a word, walked out the front door, down the street to the edge of the stream, where I stood and stared into the water, watching it rush by, until I could reclaim the feeling of being human. But more often, being the sun at the center of their lives meant long days of nursing, snuggling, napping – letting the mundane details of everything else in life fade away. In that place, I would become saturated in the feeling of this tiny body containing a vast soul – so new to this earthly plane, but timelessly familiar. So many moments of the last decade I spent like this – viscerally connected to these beings who understand and communicate without words, who seem so innocent, so helpless. But I know their secret, the babies. They contain a wordless wisdom, an essence of spirit – that we adults spend our entire lives waking up to. They are pure potential, the embodiment of God, spirit turned flesh before culture carves its mark and the hardness of time and loss and pain leave an imprint. I wish I could contain that feeling, bottle it, so I could pull it out and inhale its heady scent whenever I wish. But like trying to lasso a cloud, the memories float by, changing shape, dancing around the edges of my mind – there, but shifting, moving, falling through the curl of my fingers, just out of reach. The tears well up even now, at the sheer mention of this ending, at the knowledge that time marches without any consideration of my longing to be once again buried under the flesh of small child, the heavy weight of young motherhood, the lightness of being.

the dancing girls

the dancing girls

Everything is in process, yes. My three girls are in the process of gaining increasing mastery over their own lives. They are in the process of learning at lightning speed and expressing their spirit with confidence. They are in the process of becoming the center of their own universe. I am in the process of becoming the mom who can sit back with a book and watch as her children play in the ocean without the immediate fear they will be swallowed up by the beautiful fierceness and power of it. I am in the process of learning to play the guitar and diving deeper into photography and expressing my creativity and voice in a multitude of ways. I am in the process of discovering who I will become without the weight of early motherhood suffocating all the minutes of the days. In the freedom of their becoming, I am liberated into space and time for my own becoming. My heart is eager for all that is to be – for them and for me, but I mourn for those lost days of feeling a forming child swimming around in my belly, of traveling the cosmic path of childbirth and bringing back a beautiful, soft, pink, perfect baby, of keeping that baby close to my skin, close to my heart, close to the center of my being, for all those fleeting days. I am left breathless at the speed with which their early childhood has passed and the grief of mourning their newness – a snapshot of time that can never be relived, no matter how many beautiful photos I take. Of course I celebrate the what-is, the children that they are now, – but that feeling of being so viscerally connected to these beings always dances around the edges of my consciousness. As we all grow through this life together, I will gladly cast the reflective glow of my mother love onto them as I rightfully hover more and more at the edges of their existence. But a part of me will always live in the beautiful, painful, fleeting fierceness of young motherhood, when my body, my soul, my love was the fiery center of their existence.

Sunflower Maternity Session

I have been shooting birth photos for some time now, but this was my first maternity session! My dear friend Stephanie – expecting her third baby any day now – lives right near these sunflower fields. Our first scheduled date was prior to the blooming of these flowers and it was rained out – serendipitously so! We pushed back a week and were granted a gorgeous location with flowers in full bloom. I know the color is such an exciting focal point of these fields, but I still couldn’t resist rendering many of them in black and white. I have a love of the monochrome. Here are my favorites. Click the first one to enlarge and scroll through.

What is the Yoga Birth Conscious Birth Education Method?

When I was expecting my first daughter, I did all I could to prepare for a natural birth. I took classes, stayed fit and active, ate healthfully (most of the time) and read every book I could get my hands on. As a yoga teacher and Ashtanga Yoga practitioner, I continued with my regular yoga practice throughout my pregnancy, modifying as my belly grew and my body changed. When the day finally came at 38 weeks, I was blessed to achieve my goal of a natural birth (I almost had the baby in the car!).

Camel Pose

Out of all that preparation, what showed up to comfort and guide me in those raw, consciousness-altering moments of simultaneous pain and pleasure was my yoga practice.

All that time I had spent directing my mind toward breath and ease in challenging yoga poses became the focus and calm I needed to surrender to birth. All those moments I spent as witness to the fluctuations of my mind helped me turn fear and anxiety into presence and purpose.  All those moments on the mat cultivating prana (life force) allowed me to trust the process of birth and the power of the nature to bring my baby through and into my arms.

During pregnancy, as I put in the miles on my mat, I consumed all the knowledge about birth that I could from every angle – physiology, culture and politics – and in retrospect after the birth, realized that I had also gotten somewhat lucky. A different care provider, a longer labor, and I knew my experience could have more resembled the multitude of stories I had encountered where women’s bodies were co-opted by a business driven, politically motivated, patriarchal maternal care system.

I did not emerge entirely unscathed by it.  Wonderful as the labor was – when I pushed the baby out within 5 minutes of arriving at the hospital – she was immediately taken away from me and placed in the NICU “for observation, just in case.”  Even though my beautiful, natural birth had happened, I was not prepared for this unfounded and unnecessary moment when my first child was whisked away. The first I saw of her was of a bad photograph someone had taken in the NICU with tubes and wires coming off her body when she should have been safe and warm against my chest.

Those moments of separation were a painful eternity, but what they did do was to awaken an activist, a passionate new devotee to the rights of mothers and babies to be regarded with utmost respect during the sacred, transformative rite of passage that is childbirth.

When I was ready to return to teaching yoga, I did so with a fierce new passion to support and educate families about the impact of birth on the mother and the baby both as individuals and as a bonded unit. I did so wishing to educate women about the choices available to them in childbirth and the possible impact of those various choices. I did so wishing to offer the yoga practice as a way toward physical health and strength, emotional balance and calmness, mental clarity and insight and spiritual awareness and surrender.

That is how Yoga Birth was born. Yoga Birth combines the philosophy and practices of yoga (postures, breathwork, meditation, relaxation) with education on the physiology of normal birth and spectrum of choices available in the modern birthing environment. Yoga Birth is not a “natural birth” class per se, though I love natural (physiological) birth and teach about its many benefits. I believe in a woman’s right to self-determination, to maternal autonomy. I support a woman’s right to make an informed decision about what is best for herself and her baby in her unique situation, given that she is informed of the benefits and risks of the various approaches.

So what is a Yoga Birth and what defines this approach to childbirth preparation?

A Yoga Birth is a conscious birth in which women and their partners are aware of the spectrum of choices available to them and informed enough to follow a path that aligns with their values and intentions. A Yoga Birth is a birth in which the parents have not only educated their thinking mind, but done the inner work to cultivate a vision of birth that aligns with the deepest longing and knowing of their heart and soul.

cropped-prenatal-yoga-picture1.jpgYoga Birth is embodied. With movement through yoga asana (posture) as one of the primary tools, we don’t just sit around and talk about birth and think about birth. We get up and move through the body as a form of deep listening and connection. We use movement as the basis for understanding what brings about ease in birth (gravity, movements of the spine and pelvis, variety and maternal intuition in positioning) but also as the basis for a deeply connected and loving relationship with our own bodies. The postures of yoga give us a safe but challenging container to experience our physical limits and working with our minds to cultivate ease and relaxation in moments of intense effort and to cultivate surrender and total relaxation in moments of stillness and rest. There is simply no substitute for practice.

Yoga Birth balances data and wisdom. While knowledge of birth is important – the anatomy and physiology of birth, how to facilitate the normal mechanisms of labor, the risks and benefits of typical hospital procedures, etc. – we believe intuition, inner-wisdom, gut feelings and a knowingness of the heart are equally important avenues of perception and decision making. In Yoga Birth we seek to connect expectant parents to their own faculties of inner knowing and cultivate an awareness of how the mind and consciousness work so as we take the journey of altered states of consciousness that is birth, we remain perceptive, unafraid, able to balance our intuitive sense with our rational, thinking mind, to make choices in our births (and our lives) that align with both our knowledge and our intuition.

Leo Myer-12Yoga Birth is inclusive. The Yoga Birth approach is not only for those wishing to have an unmedicated birth. It is not about narrowing our choices but broadening our minds. Yoga Birth aims to make parents conscious – conscious that they have choices, conscious of the risks and benefits of the various choices available to them, conscious of the importance and impact of the birth experience on all involved, conscious of the need to take personal responsibility for the quality of their birth. We work from the maxim of my primary childbirth education training from ICEA – “freedom of choice based on knowledge of alternatives.” Every birth can be a Yoga Birth if approached with acceptance of what is, compassion and self-love, a respect for the inherent power of the birthing woman and sacredness of birth as a manifestation of the creative force of the universe.

Yoga Birth is holistic. We do not just give birth physically. We give birth intuitively, primally, spiritually and emotionally. Birth happens on every level of the being. And while the primary consideration is the health and safety of the mother/baby dyad, a Yoga Birth recognizes that well-being goes beyond the physical realm and the emotional and spiritual needs of the mother and baby are also important and deserving of acknowledgment and respect. A Yoga Birth is mindful of the inherent wholeness of babies and birth and recognizes the transformation that is happening at every level of being – leading to the bliss that is at the heart of yoga and a mother’s love.

Yoga Birth is thorough & informative. While yoga is the tool we use to cultivate the faculty of discernment, education about birth (anatomy & physiology, choices & methods, evidence-based use of procedures, etc.) is the goal. Yoga Birth classes include a wealth of information about the realities of childbirth from a physiological perspective (hormones of labor, importance of privacy & safety, physical & emotional support) and how to facilitate the mechanism of normal birth. They also include an understanding of evidence-based procedures, interventions and medical realities of birth, when such approaches become necessary, and how to navigate their use to preserve the spirit of gentle birth and the togetherness of mother & baby as soon and as much as possible.

If you are a yoga teacher, or grounded strongly in your own yoga practice, and the description above resonates with you as something you may like to offer to expectant parents, you are invited to join us for the FIRST EVER Yoga Birth Conscious Birth Education Facilitator Training, beginning in November 2015. You will learn to offer this 6 week, 18 hour class that combines yoga practice with childbirth education to help expectant parents navigate the maze of choices and challenges that may influence their decisions and experience. The training will also offer a basic introduction to labor support, examining what it means to hold the space for a birthing mama and her partner and practical ways of providing physical, mental and emotional support throughout the childbearing cycle.

I have been teaching this innovative and extremely popular class for 10 years and I am extremely excited to share it with you and enable more teachers and families to benefit from these teachings that have proven so effective (read testimonials here) at helping families define and prepare for their best birth.

If you need a more solid foundation in teaching prenatal yoga before combining it with childbirth education, you can also join in with the Prenatal Yoga Teacher Training beginning September 2015. You can take both trainings together for a discounted rate (contact me for details or with any questions you may have about either training.

Thanks to all who choose – in a wonderful variety of ways – to offer their love and effort in support of all the beautiful mamas birthing all the beautiful babies and helping to raise the vibration of love and consciousness in this world – whatever your method.

XOm-
Heather Brown