Nrithya Jagannathan, Senior Yoga Therapist, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai.

T Krishnamacharya, legendary yogi, was emphatic in his insistence that women have a special right to practice yoga and further that ante-natal and post natal yoga practices are essential for women. On the occasion of World Breast-feeding Week, let us try to understand the importance of yoga practices for nursing mothers.

Women who have a normal delivery, can usually commence simple practices of yoga focusing primarily on breathing, soon after delivery, while post a C-section, it is normally recommended to wait till healing is complete. Even in the case of those undergoing a Ceaserian, gentle practices of breathing may be introduced after a few weeks of delivery.

The importance of breast feeding the new born can never be over-emphasised. In this context, a well-planned practice of yoga designed by a competent teacher, keeping in mind individual requirements and considerations can go a long way in offering holistic support to nursing mothers.

In the post-natal phase, most women experience fatigue, which is aggravated further by erratic sleep cycles. Short practices of mild asana-s combined with pranayama can go a long way in improving the overall energy levels. Sleep deprivation may also impair cognitive abilities, especially in the early post-natal phase. This may manifest as mild to moderate lapses of memory, lack of attention to simple tasks and so on. Practices of yoga can also be designed to improve cognitive function and attention span, in such situations.

Further, when the correct posture for nursing is not adopted, back pain or strain is common, especially as the back muscles tend to be lax post pregnancy. Again, in such cases, simple stretches, mild forward bends and twists done to the individual’s capacity can both reduce the strain felt and also progressively strengthen the back. This post-natal back strengthening is an important aspect of regaining one’s health and fitness after the multiple physical changes undergone through the pregnancy. These movements can also be adapted to focus on strengthening the arms, for the new mother has to hold her baby for long durations, both for nursing and also to promote mother-child bonding. Also, these practices can gradually be intensified to focus specifically on weight reduction and toning the body post pregnancy, a factor that is often of great concern to new mothers.

We also see that practices of yoga in themselves trigger the relaxation response of the body. When the relaxation levels are higher, the body’s immunity is also significantly higher. This is another area in which yoga contributes, for both during and after pregnancy, there is a lowering of the body’s immune response. Hence, susceptibility to common infections is higher. Practices of asana and pranayama contribute towards building immunity and also enhance overall sense of wellbeing.

Generally, there is a strong correlation between emotional status and hormone functions. This is especially so of nursing mothers. Lactation is directly linked to the mother’s emotional state. There are research studies that indicate that increased stress causes decreased production of oxytocin, a key hormone for stimulating lactation. Anxiety, worry and increased stress are proven inhibitors to lactation. Guided relaxation practices, visualization and pranayama practices have the effect of calming the mind, lowering anxiety and reducing stress.

Going further, post-partum depression is also very common among nursing mothers for a variety of reasons. While one direct reason is the decrease of pregnancy hormones and the sudden surge of post-natal hormones, it is also evident that depression is further aggravated by lack of emotional support from spouse and/or family, sense of helplessness when confronted with managing a baby and the home, perception of one’s own body image as no longer favourable or appealing, lack of adequate sleep etc. Yoga based counseling methods along with practices that boost energy, reduce anxiety, enhance relaxation and build confidence, can help a mother effectively manage these emotional challenges of new motherhood. Such interventions are essential especially in the present times, as untreated post-partum depression can prove to be dangerous both for the individual and her family.

In conclusion, we see that whether it is physically, physiologically, cognitively or emotionally, the tools of yoga such as asana, pranayama, visualization and chanting can contribute significantly to the overall quality of life of the nursing mother, offering her an anchor during a critical phase in her life when she is experiencing a number of new challenges.

At the bottom line, it is also undeniable that the physical and mental health status of the mother has a definitive and positive impact on the growth and health status of the infant. Practices of yoga not only offer the new mother holistic multi-dimensional support to facilitate a smooth transition from pregnancy into motherhood, indirectly they impact the child’s health and happiness as well.

However, it is essential that practices of yoga be designed by a competent and experienced trainer after a thorough assessment of the individual and her needs, abilities, the time available for practice and her personal situation. The inherent adaptability of the tools of yoga, give us enormous scope for designing individual-centric practices that can make the post-natal phase healthy, pleasant and memorable.