Thanks to everyone who read (or is continuing to read!) Get Fit Lit! For more content you can check out my new blog here.
As you may have noticed I have taken a hiatus from Get Fit Lit to focus on some other projects. I’ve recently had the honor of being included on the Women’s Wellness Collaborative website. You can read my article here and peruse a variety of topics on women’s health and wellness.
It’s taken me a while to write a postpartum post, unlike my last postpartum experience I’ve been blessedly busy and at a loss for words (partially due to being in awe of my little boy, partially due to lack of sleep). For those of you who follow this blog because of your own connection to a stillborn child I apologize for the absence; I remember what it was like just a few short months ago, scouring the internet for accounts of pregnancy after loss and praying for happy endings. The conclusion of this last pregnancy was indeed happy, my son Trey arrived safe and sound via a planned c-section at 38 weeks. It’s strange and wonderful to be sitting here on the other side of things, at 13 weeks postpartum T seems accepting of our new parenting skills and my c-sectioned body has resumed normal activity. Few things make you appreciate the importance of core strength like having your middle sliced open for the very best reason. For those of you reading this who are pregnant, postpartum, or just curious I thought I might share my second postpartum experience, thus far, through the lens of a fitness professional and baby loss mom.
After having Eve I literally hit the ground running within the first few weeks for a number of reasons. Exercise brought me out of my head and into my body which was helpful because after losing her my head was not a place I wanted to be. Like most women I wished to return to my normal shape as quickly as possible. This goal was made all the more urgent since there were no visible signs of baby outside of the changes in my body . With the added task of rebuilding my core and pelvic floor I was able to resume activity quickly and with a vengeance, working through stages of grief with every mile, pushup, and downward facing dog. Conveniently, my coping mechanism served the dual roles of a healthy hobby and my livelihood. Going for a run whenever the mood struck or practicing yoga for hours on end assisted in moving through the initial loss and subsequent pregnancy. It got me to where I am now which begs the question: where am I now?
Figuring out how fitness fits into the puzzle of motherhood has been a day to day process, especially since taking a year off from a full time fitness career to take care of T. These days it’s about using exercise and nutrition to be the best mom I can be. Getting back to exercise during the first few weeks postpartum was much trickier physically than last time. The pregnancy had me so focused on getting T out alive that I couldn’t think past the delivery. Logically I knew major abdominal surgery might put a dent in my fitness routine but, as with most aspects of the pregnancy, I was in denial. Recovery went like this:
- Shuffle up and down the hospital hallways hanging on to husband for dear life
- Shuffle around the house and lament to husband that I will never be able to move properly again
- Slowly walk around the local high school parking lot holding stroller for dear life and cry as a runner gracefully passes by
- Slowly walk around neighborhood and tentatively do some light core work and yoga
- Moderately walk around the neighborhood and happily do some moderate core work and yoga
- Quickly walk around the neighborhood and ecstatically do some more advanced core work and yoga
- Run around neighborhood and set up a makeshift gym in the basement after weeks of strength training withdrawal
- Make a visit to the local gym and leave Trey in the “kid zone”; being apart makes us both a little fussy (we are still working on that one…..)
It’s been a trip, one has to wonder why physical therapy isn’t a given after a c-section but healthcare is a funny thing. Life with an infant is also a funny thing. I am comfortable with flexibility when it pertains to hamstrings but not so much when it pertains to schedule. T is helping me work on this. There are nap time Tabata sessions, (this protocol works great if your infant isn’t big on long naps). Runs happen when my husband takes baby duty (Dee was hoping I’d given up on them but the joke is on her). Walks happen daily or several times a day depending on how stir crazy we all get (coaxing Dee up a hill while simultaneously wielding a stroller is a surprisingly challenging push/pull workout). Yoga and meditation help balance out hormonal and fatigue induced mood swings (though my husband might argue otherwise). On the whole things are coming together even when the individual days get a little wonky. When postpartum body frustration sets in I do my best to muster up the will to look at things from a more grown-up perspective. T doesn’t need a mom with six pack abs. He does need a mom that is strong, healthy, and present. Some days that means doing squats with a baby strapped to my front instead of a barbell across my back. With each new stage my view of fitness keeps shifting. I’m adjusting my routine instead of relinquishing it.
The other day I met a friend for a walk at a local park. Every part of the outing, from struggling to adjust T’s stroller to discussing sleep schedules, made me feel like such a new mom. On the ride home I came upon the cemetery where we buried Eve. Pausing at the stop sign to look up the hill towards her grave made me feel like such an old mom. I considered visiting her until T began to cry. He needed to be fed. With a silent apology to Eve I continued home. It’s a strange feeling to be a new/old mom, to know what it is like to bury a child before seeing one take their first breath. Kinetically my pregnancies were very similar despite the worlds of difference between them. Through movement I remembered the past, rooted myself in the present, and looked forward toward the future. Frustrating as it may be to have the body of a mother of two when the world sees a mother of one there is no denying the evolution that has occurred thanks to the baby in my heart and, now, the baby in my arms.
The practice ends with the phrase “take what you learned on your mat today and bring it out into the world”. I sit, and breathe, and remember. It’s Mother’s Day weekend. It’s confusing and painful, a bold-faced reminder of all that is missing, what I am not (or am? or will be?) I breathe through the daily ritual of rolling up my mat, putting away the props that have become necessary in order to modify poses for my 28 week pregnant belly. I am starting to make room for the 2 pound 11 ounce son growing in there. I breathe for him, for the memory of my beautiful daughter Eve, and the little one before who stopped forming before we knew whether to call them him or her……
Before I began the practice of yoga I was tight, wound up, anxious. I rigidly held onto the reigns of my life, certain that the tighter I held the more control I would have. I leaned towards fast paced exercise that would tighten my muscles, I never stopped to breathe. I was never truly still, even when not in motion my mind raced constantly, eyes darting nervously, foot tapping rhythmically, in time with my fast-beating heart. Too much “pushing forward”, not enough “relaxing into” lead me to seek a more balanced approach. Chronic sleeplessness and sore achy hips in my mid twenties lead me to seek some relief, to hop off the treadmill and into a yoga class.
The fatigue of two nights without sleep weakened my resolve, making it possible to release all expectations of the experience I would have. Too tired to care what my poses looked like in comparison to the person next to me I worked my way through the class, moment to moment, without second guessing or judgment. I stumbled into the present moment by accident, balancing in tree pose while locking eyes on the Sears (now Willis?) tower. Lying in corpse pose, a vulnerable posture that usually made me feel tense and uncomfortable in a roomful of people, came with ease.
Yoga, it seems to me, is less about building a new skill set and more about recognizing that which we already possess. It is less about moving forward and more about being exactly where we are. And so, if we are willing, we can take what we learn on the mat and bring it out into the world. When I lost Eve I saw the return of some old habits. I tried to make sense of the senseless, to find a reason when doctor after doctor told me there was none. What got me through, still gets me through, were new habits reinforced during my daily practice. I had dabbled in acceptance, played around with release, so when thrust into a new reality there was a small part of me open to the challenge. Much has been, and continues to be, discovered on a 72″ long 24″ wide rubber mat that sits in the middle of our once upon a time (and possibly future?) nursery.
An article came out this week in which the vatican’s chief exorcist listed yoga, among other things, as leading to a rise in demonic possession. I can’t speak for anyone else but I know that, for me, the experience has been quite the opposite. Yoga has allowed me to release many demons over the past year or so, helping me to connect with loss and pain and move through in a way that encourages growth and connection instead of isolation. Connection with the mind and body can stimulate connection with humanity. When perception changes from “my pain” to “the pain” it fosters awareness that pain is universal and often a breeding ground for empathy and compassion.
And so this mother’s day, as I place fresh flowers in the vase that rests atop my daughters grave, I will breathe strongly and deeply into my belly. I will acknowledge the child who lives in me and the ones who came before. I will acknowledge mothers mourning their children, children mourning their mothers, and all who ache with loss on this holiday. I will acknowledge the hope and fear and everything in between that comes part and parcel with the privilege of being alive, finding connection, and realizing a love so strong that it spurs the creation of new life.
Since I completed my training as a registered yoga teacher (which happened to be in Virginia, hence the clever title of this post) I’ve been intent on enlightening my clients on the benefits of the practice. Most people come to me for personal training and though I’ve only recently starting taking private yoga clients it’s been included in my programs for quite some time now. When I recommend yoga to my strength training clients I am often met with apprehension. They tell me they are not flexible enough, don’t have the patience, and prefer a “real workout”. As I am myself a late convert I completely understand this way of thinking. It took me quite a long time to realize the benefits and to this day they never cease to amaze me. What once was a compliment to my routine has become my staple.
First, let’s dispel the most popular myth: you don’t have to be flexible to practice yoga. Saying you are not flexible enough to practice yoga is like saying you are not strong enough to lift weights. Just as you can become stronger by lifting weights you can become more flexible by practicing yoga. The great thing is gaining flexibility that it is only one small part of the practice. There are many aspects that have nothing whatsoever to do with flexibility: increased concentration, strength building, breath control…the list goes on.
Another myth is that you must have a patient and naturally calm demeanor to successfully practice. The less patient and more anxious you are the more benefit you will find. Most of us spend the majority of our time in management mode, working from the sympathetic nervous system. Though necessary for survival for many of us this system tends to be in overdrive, leading us to feel anxious and unsettled when we would prefer to be at rest. Our bodies forget how to relax which leads to digestive upset, sleep disturbance, high blood pressure…the list goes on. Practicing yoga trains the brain to switch to the parasympathetic nervous system. Just like the repetition of lifting a weight will eventually strengthen a muscle the repetition of mindful movement combined with deep breathing will strengthen certain areas of the brain responsible for producing the relaxation response. It is said that neurons that fire together wire together, meaning we can train ourselves to become more relaxed. Some people are blessed to naturally float through the world in a positively blissful state but for most this takes work. Yoga is that work.
Many people think the practicing yoga is sub-par to participating in “calorie torching” activities such as running, interval training, weight lifting, etc. What many don’t realize is that there are 8 major styles of yoga, varying from intense and sweaty to restorative and therapeutic. You can move as much or as little as you like depending on what you prefer. No matter which type you choose you will find common benefits such as an increase in bodily awareness, learning to stay and become comfortable with relative discomfort, and practicing stillness. All these elements can breathe new life into every other activity throughout your day. An increase in bodily awareness can help improve diet. As you become more aware of hunger and fullness cues you build a greater awareness of how to nourish your body best. Learning to stay with and breathe through discomfort can help you better navigate stressful situations, choosing to act rather than react. Practicing stillness can mean the difference between being fully present to your life and being caught in future or past events.
If you are still unconvinced that yoga has the power to create meaningful change in your life and body I invite you to take a look at this video. The biggest shifts in health and fitness don’t happen overnight. The subtle day to day actions are the things that take us where we want to go, enriching every moment along the way.
Last night I watched the movie Whiplash with my husband. As a conservatory trained jazz drummer, he had been eager to see the film and I was happy to oblige (especially since it landed outside his usual wheelhouse of sports and action flicks). As I watched, I was reminded of an uncomfortable feeling from my past. That never-quite-good-enough, keep-trying-harder, no-rest-until-you-are-perfect mentality that followed me around well into my 20s. I was also reminded that, although that old feeling arises now and again, it is no longer my set mode of being.
The bodily changes occurring during this second trimester of my third pregnancy are driving me only slightly insane, but my 19 year old dance major self would have literally been pulling her hair out every second of the day. I guess that’s a step forward. So what is it that changed and why? Could it be that I’m really healthier as a 32 year old pregnant bereaved mother than I was as a 19 year old college dancer in the prime of her life? Is overall health and fitness truly a state of mind?
When I look back on my younger days my singular greatest motivation for movement was to impress people “out there”. With my sole focus on the external, I was blind to all things internal. My satisfaction, whether it came from losing 5 pounds or acing an audition, was completely dependent upon the reactions of other people. Did they think I was talented enough, pretty enough, thin enough? Driven and drained, I continued along that same path but never really found what I was looking for. There was always another choreographer to impress, another 5 lbs to lose, so much further to go until I got there…wherever there was. I notice this theme a lot in the fitness world. Infomercials for diets promote quick weight loss and pieces of equipment promise to you ripped in under 7 minutes. Everything promising thinness or fitness faster with no attention paid to what happens once you get there. The thing of it is there is no there. Life goes on or it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, isn’t fitness sort of a moot point?
So where does that leave me, my clients, any of us? In a results driven society where better, faster, stronger is the name of the game is there room for contentment simply for what is? The answer, you’ll be happy to hear, is yes and it’s the surest way to health and wholeness. When you tune into yourself instead of looking “out there” for confirmation that you are moving in the right direction, you are able to find more satisfaction with each step forward. Let’s face it, you are never going to get what you want from every single person you interact with in the course of your life and, frankly, it is fruitless and exhausting to even try. As much as you may crave it, it is no one else’s duty to validate your efforts and achievements. Fitness, like many things in life, is largely subjective. It is completely possible to look great on the outside and be miserably unhealthy on the inside. It is also possible to be carrying around a few extra pounds and feel strong and vibrant. The only one who knows if what you are doing is truly working for you… is you!
When you work in the fitness industry, you tend to spend a great deal of your time working out. Unless you are willing to be mentally absent from the majority of your life, you must find a way to derive as much satisfaction from exercise itself as from the results. When I began formally exercising as a teen, it was something I had to get through in order to lose weight. I jumped on the elliptical and daydreamed about the day when my perfect body would appear and I wouldn’t have to do this anymore. These days exercise is something I get to do. I genuinely like the feeling of moving my body, but boy did it take a while to get here. The interesting thing is I didn’t change what I was doing so much as how I do it. The more you let go of exercise as a means to an end and embrace movement for movement’s sake the more it becomes a friend instead of foe. (If this sounds like the babbling of an endorphin happy fool to you read this article. I have some studies that back me up.)
In the spirit of the Oscars, my husband and I also watched the Theory of Everything. If you’re in need of inspiration, I highly suggest checking this film out. There is nothing like seeing Stephen Hawking’s physical and emotional struggle to help you appreciate the body and all that it is capable of. The relationship between the body and self is incredibly complex. In order to make it work, a certain amount of openness and acceptance is necessary. Moving and paying attention to the movement is a great way to practice silencing your inner critic and tune in to what truly matters: a healthy and happy self.