This piece is purely focussed on yoga; I am writing a separate piece about pregnancy that is more general. I hope that my gratitude for the fragile luck of our fertility and conception is evident. I have never taken it for granted.
“Throughout pregnancy, your body is your unborn baby’s universe. You are the rivers, sunlight, earth, atmosphere, and sky.”
The most frequent question I have been asked while pregnant, has not been ‘Do you know what you’re having?’ (a girl), ‘Did you have morning sickness?’ (YES) or ‘How are you feeling?’ (I am feeling every feeling.)
The most common question has been, ‘Are you still practising?’ It has been asked by fellow yogis, keen to know if and how a strong daily practice can weather such winds of change, but also from friends and colleagues, who find my two-hour 6am ritual frankly bizarre, and wonder if a tiny womb stowaway has made it impossible.
It is an easy question to answer inadequately – ‘yes, of course I’m still practising’ – but so much more complex to answer in full. So here is the proper answer, my experience of practising yoga throughout pregnancy. I hope this level of detail is helpful to other women who, like I did, fear the seismic shift in their relationship to their body and their yoga, that the beautiful tidal wave of motherhood sets in motion.
A couple of years ago, when I noticed that other people’s babies were on occasion adorable, and that I sometimes felt a pang of jealousy in passing a heavily pregnant woman, I did what I always do in the face of an important life development: I read a book. Yoga Sadhana for Mothers by Anna Wise and Sharmila Desai, is a kind of manual for ashtanga in pregnancy. It explains how to modify the sequence, when not to practice, and outlines traditional healing practices for pregnant women and new mothers. The meat of the book though, is first person testimony from around 35 different women, on their experiences of practising while pregnant, and of childbirth.
I read the book cover to cover one afternoon, and have come back to it multiple times since. I was struck that this wonderful daily practice clearly has the potential to damage, rather than to enhance, a woman’s journey to motherhood. The stories seemed to fall into two camps, those whose attachment to the physical practice (note: not the practice itself, but their relationship to it) made the changes of pregnancy harder to surrender to, and those for whom it had cultivated a receptive openness to new experience. I feared that I would fall into the former camp. I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to ‘do my practice’, of losing my physical strength, of getting uncontrollably big.
This assumption of my own character, my neurotic prediction of how I would react to pregnancy, was proven wonderfully wrong in an instant. It was September. I practised full primary series and meditation each morning, until Monday 24th – Full Harvest Moon – when I felt the usual shivery aches and pains of ovulation. Ovulation has always been a less pleasant experience for me than my actual period, which is very useful when date-watching is your chosen method of contraception. We decided to stop date-watching.
The next day, Tuesday 25th, I was sitting at my desk at work, when I suddenly “knew” that I was pregnant. My usual ovulation pain had become something. An energy. It felt female. In my diary that day, I wrote, ‘I think she has arrived’. The words looked crazy on the page, but when I sat on the train home, with the September sun on my face, I knew that she was there inside me, a current of electricity waiting to organise itself into her insistent little pulse.
From that day and for the next 2 weeks, I did no yoga postures. Each morning I sat on my mat, and I listened. There was something happening in the space between my navel and my pubic bone, something that needed not to be disturbed, by abdominal muscles contracting, by flying upside down and through the air. Something that just needed to be still. This awareness, a conscious instinctive response to the reality of a body’s needs, is in many ways more of a yoga practice than my physical rigours over the previous few years had ever been. My worst fears about myself were immediately unrealised and undone. What I had failed to anticipate, when worrying over my ability to ‘give up’ my practice, was the volume and clarity with which my body would speak to me. It was an unavoidable need: Slow down. Wait. Listen. Don’t miss this.
This pulse of energy shivered along for the first 6 weeks, and I would move around my mat for an hour or so each morning, just doing what felt right. In terms of a ‘type’ of practice, it would probably best be described as a fluid and gentle vinyasa flow. Externally, my body was relatively unchanged. Internally, it was a completely new landscape. No bandha felt appropriate. My body needed to be an open channel. I was all arms and legs, finding ways to move without contracting the muscles in my front, finding ways to breathe that gave her space. Already she needed room to grow. Already she was my drishti, a tiny star that I circled in the early morning light.
Around week 6, this pleasant, buoyant hum of energy descended into the deepest exhaustion I have ever felt, layered beneath waves of nausea. I felt sick from the second I opened my eyes to the moment my tiredness beat me out of consciousness each night. My already low blood pressure dropped further, and I suffered from postural tachycardia as my circulatory system adapted to its new size. Standing on my mat each morning, I could almost hear my heart, 135bpm echoing against my collar bones, when all I had done was roll out of bed and have a glass of water.
For anybody with a daily practice, you know that it is usually something that you fit into the margins. It is the thing you make space for in the early morning, or later in the evening after work, or when the kids are in bed. My margins immediately disappeared. I was flying all over Europe filming for work. There was no getting up two hours earlier to work my way to a blissed out sweaty savasana. But there was still a daily practice. Once every week or two it might last an hour, even two, but most days it was simply whatever I needed that day to make myself feel better. I was listening more intently and more honestly to myself than I had ever done before.
A single example of this that was repeated a thousand times over at every level of the practice, was the breath. Ujjayi breathing made me feel dizzy, and made my heart palpitations worse. The inhale was still delicious, but the exhale was heating and constricting when I needed cooling and opening. I started experimenting with a soft, open-mouthed exhale. Sounds simple, right? For any devoted ashtangi, it’s a total brain melt. This is not how you’re meant to breathe. Am I even practising if I’m not doing ujjayi?
In that conflict were so many lessons. The first, was a real and proper engagement with what ujjayi breathing actually is, and why we do it. Aurally, it is a focal point that forms a part of the Tristana (pose, breath, gaze). Physically it helps us to access our bandha, the physical internal locks of the body, to activate our core musculature, hug tissue to bone, and live inside that glorious heating sensation of a body that is simultaneously strongly activated, yet softened by breath from the inside out. In the room-spinning haze of morning sickness though, was it providing a focal point? No: it was making my head swim. Did I need to access my bandha? To heat my body? To power myself with the lightness required to lift off the ground? No! I needed to dissolve into a downward flow of energy, dissipate the unpleasant heat within my body, slow my racing pulse, and release the tension that accompanies constant nausea. I needed an open-mouthed exhale.
The second lesson, was that this ‘mind-body’ connection we talk about in yoga, is actually far more specific than that. It is one thing to talk about uniting and bringing together mind and body, but in what direction is the conversation taking place? Much of the time, for me, it has involved my mind telling my body what to do. This feels like a mind-body connection, firstly because it does unite the mental and physical realms, and secondly because we are so used to our mind being dominant that this direction of conversation feels more natural and often quite pleasurable. My experience of yoga was instantly transformed when the conversation had to start flowing the other way. When body dominates, mind steps back and simply listens and allows. ‘You should be doing ujjayi breathing’ was a message from the mind. Up until this point, it had always chimed with the message from my body, and so I had never had to examine its origin. But now it had stopped making bodily sense, I allowed the softer needs of my seasick body to own the practice. In many ways, this first trimester yoga, though physically ‘less’ than I had ever done before, was the start of the most advanced practice I have ever had.
Around weeks 16/17, I progressed from feeling dizzy and sick, to feeling ‘just quite crap’. It was a welcome improvement. At this point, my practice shifted. From the early days of pregnancy, until you finish breastfeeding, your body produces a hormone called relaxin. It’s a pretty Ronseal name, because its purpose is to relax the joints in your pelvis to allow your baby to move through you during labour. I already had very mobile joints, and working with my flexibility to build functional strength, has always been the biggest physical challenge for me in yoga.
By months 4 and 5, my joints had started to ache. The kind of low-level discomfort that would usually be eased by stretching, a warm bath, maybe some yin yoga. But everything I tried seemed to make them ache more, feel less stable. I realised that my joints were opening, and that the relationship of strength and flexibility in my body was shifting out of balance; I was becoming more flexible than I was strong. And suddenly ashtanga made sense again. From around week 17 until around week 32/33, I worked my way through a slow and modified ashtanga sequence. My breath was still mostly an open-mouthed exhale, I used a lot of props, I spent more time than usual in most postures, and I rarely made it past the standing sequence, but something about the balanced solidity of moving back and forth from right to left, and the strength and containment of ashtanga – as opposed to the fluid opennesss of a flow-based practice – was the most beautiful antidote to the loosening in my joints.
My shoulders and hips stopped hurting after just a few days. My back stopped aching. In a funny way, I felt stronger during this period than I have ever done in my life. The power required to contain increasingly mobile joints, with a shifting centre of gravity, while gradually gaining 20 pounds, was deeply strengthening. I never experienced the changes as a loss, never worried that I was getting weak because I wasn’t doing certain things. Instead, I felt very clearly that this body that knew how to hold itself upside down, lift itself up into the air, balance only on its hands, was now working hard to carry our baby.
I am now nearly 36 weeks pregnant, and experiencing another shift. In a way, labour started around the 30 week mark, as I felt my body begin to move expectantly towards birth. The regular contractions, cramps, twinges, and the baby getting into position and moving into my pelvis, have brought about another change in energy. My centre of gravity is low enough that I feel more earthed, more grounded, than I’ve ever done before. She is so big, and so physically present all of the time, that practice is like a Siamese dance around one another.
We are physically one being with two hearts and two minds, the motherbaby, connected for another month or so before the umbilical cord is severed. I practise a slow, strong, and heavily-adapted version of ashtanga, but where there was once a tightly bound core of heat at my pre-pregnant centre, there is now a watery universe where she swims. The second half of my practice, is simply breathing. I move through a few different pranayama, some focussed on working with my pelvic floor, some focussed on releasing, and some more directly on preparing for labour. This usually lasts around half an hour, and as any pranayama practitioner can testify, is hard work.
Of course I have missed being able to do certain things, to move in certain ways, but this time is so fleeting, and I will miss practising with her inside me. It would have been futile to cling to the physicality of ashtanga, only to find it all inevitably evaporated after childbirth. Instead, the past eight months have been a lesson in the joys of letting go, before I have to do it on a bigger scale – letting go of her and allowing her to be born, and letting go of sleep, a routine, daily expectations. It is partly because I look forward to being reunited with ‘the practice’ at some point in the future, that I have surrendered to these changes. I suspect – though of course I do not know this for sure – that if I look after myself properly now, I am less likely to get injured, depleted, exhausted, and more likely to stay healthy and strong long-term. When I do find myself suspended from my hands upside down in years to come, I might possibly understand my body a bit better than if I had simply powered through, glued to the routine.
I have no idea what will happen next. At every stage of pregnancy you are both full of new wisdom, and blindly ignorant to the next turn of the wheel. You balance on a constant precipice, newly-informed and yet newly-naive. Pregnancy is a sort of ‘instant yoga’. It has taken me so far inside my body, amplified the physical over the intellectual, body over mind, and gathered me up in the wonderful ebb and flow of daily change. For eight months, I have made space for her. Where there was nothing, there is now our child. And though she is a tiny baby, she has taught me so much. So yes, I am still practising, but what that practice looks like, changed irreversibly the moment she appeared.