I have had a few strange, but often curious looks from people when I have mentioned the topic for this TM column. Understandably so. I don’t think many people see the deeper connection between yoga and breastfeeding or that many people associate a successful breastfeeding relationship with having a supple, strong body and peaceful mind.
Even though I was in reasonable shape when my breastfeeding career began, I was utterly surprised by how physically taxing breastfeeding could be on my muscles. In the early days, when my babe seemed to suckle for what felt like hours on end, I would wind up with achy arms, shoulders and back. My legs would feel restless like I had just been sat on aeroplane for 12 hours without moving. I laugh now at my initial weakness of body.
Not only was I tackling the purely physical side of nourishing my buttercup, I was grappling with my cerebral thoughts. During those long feeds or those times when I felt like all I did was have my ta-ta’s hanging out all day, my mind would alternate between the ecstatic bliss of what I was doing and the monotony of it all.
Even with my many years of familiarity with meditating and yogic practices of softness and mindfulness, I still struggled with the monkey living in my mind. I was/am still working at entering my own silent abyss with ease. The stillness of breastfeeding could rattle up my monkey, causing me to feel trapped or like I was being held hostage. When it got all too much for me I couldn’t transport myself out with mind-dulling TV and my head generally was too full of fogginess to comprehend a good book. My self-love and yogic practices were being put fully to the test! [Personal note: I do not feel that self-love and yogic practices can be separated - rather they are a mutually exclusive entity.] While I can’t speak for every lactating mama, I can only assume every mom has had instances during nursing that weren’t all filled with creamy hues and rosiness.
Fortunately, Mother Nature designed us perfectly to by and large experience enormous ripples of satisfaction and love while we nourish our cherubs. While it could be very easy to blame my modern western lifestyle for any short-comings and all the counter-intuitive messages it gives me everyday about raising my child, I would rather not squirt my precious breastmilk on the antagonist. Instead, I tried (I use that word because after all I am human, too!) to tap into that peaceful space that dwells within me at all times and not allow myself to be totally consumed by the guilt of feeling bored or wondering when my nursling would ever release my breast.
For me this is where the ability to utilize yogic thinking truly ups the anti. My interpretation of the meaning of yogic thinking is just that it is another phrase for positive thinking and affirmations, believing in something greater, the law of attraction, meditation, mantra japa etc. Basically, if I remain calm, allow positivity to abound, it is the natural order of the Universe to sort the rest of it out. If I was really in a mental tizzy it became paramount for me to find a mantra to soothe my soul and begin deep yogic breathing. This would eventually bring me back to a euphoric equilibrium.
Of course I can’t possibly leave out the importance of proper breathing or yogic breathing on my triumphant breastfeeding passage. Like many women in modern society, I had never seen a baby breastfeed (although I was breastfed) and had very little practical knowledge. Everything I knew about breastfeeding was theoretical from books. Although I was aware that I might have a slight disadvantage for not having practical familiarity, it wasn’t enough to prevent me from doing everything humanly possible to make my breastfeeding relationship with my angel work.
In the first weeks after birth I battled to get a proper latch-on. My nipples were severely cracked. I cried at nearly every nursing session. But in my heart I knew I had to march forward – for me there was NO other way to feed my baby. While my midwives and my LLL leader patiently helped us, I would begin deep three-part breathing, fully oxygenating my body, and then I would get on with it. As with any relationship, there is ebb and flow, so later when things became awkward due to teething, toddler titty twirling, tot boobie gymnastics or my own restlessness, I would call in the goddess of yogini breathing to get me through.
Not only had yoga been a crutch for me pre-pregnancy and during my son’s birth, but it helped me create a magical breastfeeding bond between us. You don’t have to have years of experience on a yoga mat to benefit from its healing powers, just a little faith and motivation. I also think it is worth mentioning that it does not matter where you are in the spectrum of life - now is as good as any time to breathe more deeply and realign your body and mind. So lactating or not, mama or papa, old or young, the following yoga postures (asanas), yogic affirmations (mantras) and yogic breathing (pranayamas) will manifest a more easeful body, peaceful mind and blissful life. While I can’t make any guarantees, you don’t have anything to lose unless you call spontaneous laughter a side-effect.
Yoga asanas to nurse a woman’s body into a full-time lactating queen:
Eagle (Garudasana – just the arm position), Cow Face (Gormukhasana), Wide Legged Forward Bend – variation w/ hand interlaced behind back and moving towards head (Prasarita Padottanasana), Cat-Cow, Cobra (Bhujangasana), Camel* (Ustrasana), Fish (Matsyasana), Downward-Facing Dog (Ardho Mukha Svanasana), Thread the Needle, Rag Doll, Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar), Half Locust – Superhero variation (Ardha Shalabhasana)
As with any yoga postures, proceed with care, listen to your body and if you are a complete newbie seek the advice of a qualified yoga instructor. *Camel ~ the beginner’s variation ~ is suitable for new mamas. Wait until at least six months postpartum to enjoy the full pose (hands to feet) to insure your uterus has returned to its pre-pregnancy position.
[Psst…go to www.yogajournal.com most of the above poses are pictured and thoroughly explained.]
Yoga mantras (affirmations) to quiet your inner-monkey:
~ I am at peace with myself and my surroundings.
~ I breathe in the serenity of my beauty.
~ I am peace (use any descriptive word such as love, happy, exuberant etc.).
~ Om Shanti
~ Om Tat Sat
~ Om Mani Padme Hum
There are a boundless number of mantras/affirmations that can be used to transmute the negative mind-chatter. They all don’t have to be cheesey and new agey either! The key is to use one that feels delightful to your soul and just keep repeating it (in your mind or vocally – your darling will love to hear such positive vibrations exiting your mouth). Eventually, the constructive thoughts will prevail!
Yogic Breathing ~ Pranayama:
Hands down, my favourite pranayama is deep three-part breathing. From this base of expansive breathing all other breathing techniques become possible and it allows your body to fully unfold in any yoga asana. Safety note: yogic breathing should never be forced or laboured. If at any time you feel shortness of breath, dizzy or faint, discontinue the practice and resume your normal breathing.
Start by sitting in a comfortable position – any position that allows your spine to be long and expanded (you can lay supine on the floor). Place your right hand on to your abdomen and your left hand on to your chest. All exhalations and inhalations happen through the nose. Begin by inhaling through your nose, drawing the breath down to your belly. You should feel your right hand expanding out as the air presses the abdomen out. Continue to draw the breath up through the diaphragm into the lungs and then into the chest/heart. You should now feel your chest expanding into your left hand. Continue the breath up into your collar bones and throat. Now, slowly exhale through your nose in reverse order – chest, lungs, diaphragm, and abdomen. As you exhale you should first feel your left hand soften on your heart and your right hand on your abdomen. With each inhalation you are working to expand and each exhalation naturally contract and relax. Eventually each one of these parts will flow one into the next making it a seamless breath. Continue breathing wholly and completely.
This should be our natural breathing pattern, but stress and modern life have shifted us into shallow chest-breathers. If this three-part breath is practiced often enough it will eventually become your natural breathing rhythm. If you are lacking in inspiration watch any sleeping baby to see how they entirely employ their full lung capacity.
I extend a special kudos to every goddess mama who embarks on a yoga journey at such a precious time in her life. Conceiving, birthing, breastfeeding and raising aware kiddies is a monumental task and by inviting yoga into your family’s life you are coming one step closer to relishing more moments of infinite bliss.
(This article was originally published in The Mother Magazine issue 37.)
If you truly want to see yogini breastfeeding in action follow the link to watch a one minute video ~ this is not to be missed and most likely the best minute you spent all week!!