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Rest and Repeat

Harness the power of yoga during pregnancy and postpartum

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In today’s fast-paced society, it’s no secret that many of us emphasize the value of “doing” and diminish the significance of downtime—a mindset that often extends into pregnancy.

Expectant moms (myself included, with a second on the way) are frequently burdened by the anxiety of wondering how we’re going to manage what we once did: whether it be maintaining our usual workout routines throughout trimesters or fixating on household to-dos when in the throes of postpartum recovery. But in reality, we’re not supposed to do it all (or do it the same).

Here’s how to reclaim rest and tap into the benefits of yoga during this transformative period of motherhood.

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The pressure to be productive

With the pace of modern life pulling our attention in so many directions, we often end up in a continual state of reactivity.

“We’re always encouraged to be doing more,” explains Rebekka Walker, the director of yoga therapy at the Vancouver School of Healing Arts, where she works closely with pregnant and postpartum women, and also practises as a certified doula. “In that propulsion to always be doing, what we’re really [experiencing] being pulled out of … the present moment.”

This pressure to be in a perpetual state of productivity can have an impact on everything from sleep quality to hormone regulation, which Walker stresses are both vital in pregnancy and postpartum to create a calm and nurturing environment for ourselves and our little ones.

“If we aren’t allowing ourselves that time to heal, that time to reintegrate, that time to really discover what it is to mother and to build that bond with baby, then people start to struggle,” she says.

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The power of rest

How can we alter our mindsets to fully embrace the concept of downtime? And what does it mean to truly be in a state of rest?

“Rest isn’t necessarily sleep quality, but it’s our capacity to just stop and be for a moment,” Walker says. “It’s our ability to downregulate the nervous system or to take moments of what I call ‘conscious rest’ or little breaks throughout the day.”

Whether pregnant or caring for a newborn (when sleep is stunted by everything from a growing belly to feeding a tiny human), carving out time for rest enables us to surrender to our current circumstances. “How we think, how we relate to ourselves and to others: it’s all rooted in our capacity to rest,” says Walker.

Practising conscious rest in pregnancy and postpartum can take on many forms, such as reading a book, meditating while breastfeeding, or doing gentle stretching. It means forgoing the pressure to head outdoors for a run or to quickly scrub the kitchen before your little one wakes.

Author and yoga instructor Kimberly Ann Johnson explores this topic in her book The Fourth Trimester (Shambhala, 2017): “Exercise is a healthy stress reliever, but sometimes it is the only way that women know how to regulate their stress levels,” she writes. “[Pregnancy] is a great time to strengthen internal practices like meditation, so you don’t require such high levels of exercise to get through the week.”

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Yoga as a form of rest and recovery 

Embracing rest throughout each perinatal stage doesn’t mean giving up movement. Yoga is one of the more beneficial ways to connect with our bodies and minds during this transitory time.

While standard yoga is typically centred on stretching exercises, Walker explains how prenatal yoga emphasizes structural alignment and stability-focused work—from strengthening the pelvic floor to releasing lower back tension. It also focuses on breathwork and visualization techniques.

“Looking at breathwork, mindfulness-based meditation techniques, or visualization practices: all of these tools that we use in yoga are so helpful in the birthing journey,” says Walker. “They help recalibrate and regulate the nervous system response in birth as well.”

Research also indicates prenatal yoga can contribute to a reduction in labour pain, lower the likelihood of intervention during childbirth, and boost the birthing parent’s immune function. Additionally, studies suggest yoga can enhance psychological well-being during both pregnancy and postpartum by mitigating stress and improving overall sleep quality.

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Reframing the concept of self-care 

Whether pregnant or tending to a newborn, committing to a standard yoga practice each week might prove unrealistic. Instead, Walker suggests reframing the idea of self-care, and not fixating on a previous workout routine or wellness regimen.

“Smaller but more regular practices of self-care are equal to or even better than an hour at the gym,” she says, speaking to how the concept of “getting back to normal” post-birth is misguided. “There’s no going back after you have a child. You’re not going back to anything—you’re creating something new.”

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Switching off

Vancouver-based yoga teacher and doula Rebekka Walker provides a short breathwork exercise for expectant mothers:

1.      Begin in a comfortable seated position. Practise belly breathing by placing your hands on your belly and inhaling deeply through your nose, feeling your belly expand.

2.      As you exhale, allow your belly button to move back toward your spine. Repeat this process 10 times, or for as long as you feel comfortable.

3.      Begin to visualize yourself going through each stage of pregnancy:

○       Picture yourself feeling strong and healthy as your baby grows inside of you.

○       Visualize yourself going into labour and giving birth safely and successfully.

○       See yourself holding your beautiful new baby in your arms.

○       Stay here for a few more breaths.

4.      To come out, begin deepening your breath once again. Wiggle your fingers and gently turn your head from side to side, letting the benefits of your practice soak in. Allow one more full breath in and out before resuming your day.

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Strength in numbers

Many cultures around the world prescribe a 30- to 40-day rest and recovery period for new mothers. The Chinese refer to this tradition as zuo yue zi, which translates to “sitting the month.”

It’s a time when the birthing parent is supported by family and community in everything from preparing meals to helping care for their infant. While the official practice is less common in Western cultures, consider seeking additional support during the postpartum period (valuable for both you and your partner) from others such as relatives, friends, or a postpartum doula.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2024 issue of alive magazine.

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