An interview with Kimberly Johnson about the role yoga can play in a new mother’s life.
After her own difficult experience giving birth, yoga instructor Kimberly Johnson traveled from Brazil, to the United States, to Thailand in pursuit of the best trained experts in postpartum recovery. Now she wants to share her knowledge about recovery time, yoga and the resumption of a regular sex life with other new mothers.
“Whenever I find something that works with my own healing process, the next step for me is to share that,” says Kimberly. “It makes me feel like what I’ve been through has a higher purpose.”
What is your main advice for new mothers?
Slow down, be careful and listen to your body.
Could you tell us a little bit about your own recovery?
During my own recovery, I became aware of prana, the basic life force. You can do all you want on the physical plane, but if you don’t have that basic life force, you won’t get any results.
How do you restore that life force?
Through resting, sleeping and eating good foods—that’s really the only way to do it. That’s the material that generates prana. All the abdominal exercises in the world aren’t going to help unless you have that.
In terms of actual exercises, very simple things work—like lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat. Then place a ball between your knees and coordinate your breath with squeezing your knees together. The more you activate the inner lining of your legs, the greater the possibility you’re going to activate your pelvic floor.
After a while, you can try doing gentle pelvic tilts while you’re doing that. It’s very common to have lower back pain. In pregnancy your belly gets pushed forward so your lower back gets pulled forward also. Then after you have the baby, this musculature is still hard and built up as a counter brace. It’s good to do things that flatten your lower back and lengthen out your lumbar tissue.
I teach people to differentiate between stretching a ligament and stretching a muscle. During pregnancy most of your ligaments get really soft. Most people think that’s awesome, they’re more flexible. They want to go into that flexibility, but that’s something that’s potentially damaging to the joints.
When your pelvic floor is loose and unstable, the outer hip muscles actually get very tight. You need to release them. You can get a tennis ball, lay down on it and roll around. That’s a way to loosen a muscle without stretching.
After you activate your pelvic floor, you can do some stretching, but you want to be sure you’re at the joint-muscle level and not at the ligament-tendon level. For someone without a lot of body experience, that can be a hard thing to tell, but it is possible.
A lot of women have upper back and neck pain from the position of nursing and carrying the baby, so there’s a lot of shoulder and neck work that you can do. Many people wear their babies in a backpack or a sling, and that will have physical repercussions as well.
How long will it take women to recover or to feel strong again?
I once asked one of my favorite yoga teachers who had two children, “How long is my recovery going to take?” She told me 10 years. My jaw almost dropped to the floor, I thought it was so unfair. But it’s a good perspective shift for those who think they’re going to be back in action in six weeks. I didn’t feel like I had my base level of life force back until my daughter was four and a half.
I just read a blog the other day, a woman’s baby was ten days old, and she was saying she was frustrated because she couldn’t hike, and she really loved to be in nature. That’s the expectation that people have, just get back on the horse, but it’s not like that. You’re a different person.
We want to do everything. We want the body we had, want the career we had and just add something else onto it—even if, rationally, we know it’s impossible.
We’re not trying to get our old body back. We’re trying to move forward to a new place, an undiscovered place that will be just as alive, vibrant and full of possibilities as the old place. It’s a process of reforming.
How did you shift your yoga practice postpartum?
I shifted my yoga practice to favor yin building, which requires longer holds—a more restorative practice. Some women want to get back to running five times a week and a challenging Ashtanga yoga practice—they have to let go.
Look beneath, what’s driving you to do those things in the first place? What’s the emotional necessity behind needing to run five miles a day? What space is that filling inside for you?
Women might need to switch to a more restorative practice as opposed to a dynamic vinyasa practice.
Could you give us some examples of restorative poses?
What works best are resting poses—for example, savasana or corpse pose. Someone with a strong practice might barely consider that a pose, but it’s one of the most important postures. Another really good restorative pose is to simply lie on your side with a bolster between your legs and a bolster under your head. You can lie on the floor with your pelvis a foot away from the wall and your legs up the wall.
Often times sitting cross-legged isn’t comfortable postpartum, because it’s really opening up your pelvic floor. You might need to find a way to sit in a chair or find a kneeling position with a bolster between your calves and your shins.
In terms of overall reorganization, I think it’s very important to have a broader perspective of time, to slow down, be patient and not drive yourself so hard. You have to let your body reorganize itself on its own at least for the first six to eight weeks. Then you can have body work, you can have a massage. There’s a Mayan abdominal massage that specializes in organ placement.
But postpartum, it’s really time to listen to the body.
What do you have to tell women about sex postpartum?
Sex has a lot to do with each individual relationship. There are some studies that show couples who have a great birth experience—meaning the woman felt very supported by her partner—their sex life actually improved postpartum in frequency and quality. That’s something you don’t hear a lot about.
One of the biggest killers of libido is resentment. So, if it feels like the woman’s taking a much bigger part of the burden, or if she feels as if she wasn’t supported enough, those things need to be talked about.
Communication is huge. Some people are very scared of the physical pain. Some women, even if they don’t tear, even if they had a cesarean, still experience pain involved with sex postpartum. Addressing that pain, whether it’s scar tissue, whether it’s lubrication, is often an issue. Sometimes the husband is worried he’s going to hurt his partner. They have to communicate these things, these worries and fears.
I would like people to open their definition of sex. Take penetration out of the picture a little bit. Not that that isn’t going to come back. But first, go back to the basics of what connection is about. Starting with communication, talking.
Sometimes I recommend co-listening, where the couple sits side by side with each person facing the opposite direction. Each person has 10 minutes to just talk, the other person listens. If you want to talk about the discussion afterwards you can, or you can just leave it alone. It’s an exercise in listening and expressing.
How long does a woman need to wait before she can have sex again?
A lot of people feel relieved to hear that some people waited a year. Others say they’re ready after two weeks. Most professionals recommend waiting at least four to six weeks to restart your sex life. You want your uterus and cervix to be back in the right place. It’s always good to err on the safe side. For example, when you over-do exercise or sex too early, you run the risk of long term incontinence—some problem that might not show up for 20 years, but is related.
I couldn’t give someone a time frame and say that in six months you’re going to feel a certain way, but I can say it gets easier and here are some things you can do to make it easier. On the physical side, being adequately lubricated is important. That means drink enough water, eat moistening fruits and make sure that you have enough time for foreplay.
Also, scar tissue affects lubrication, because it can wrap itself around the glands. If you do have scar tissue, pursuing pelvic floor physical therapy can break up the scar tissue. Getting rid of the scar tissue resolved pain during sex for me 100 percent.
Could you tell us more about scar tissue?
Scar tissue is insidious by nature and pelvic floor tissue is very porous, so the scar tissue can infiltrate and grow. The great thing is that the consistency of the pelvic floor is a lot like the mouth. If you put your finger in your mouth, you can easily move the tissue around. What breaks up scar tissue is heat—which can be pressure or actual heat, and vectors of movement, like you would move any muscular fascia.
Castor oil is really effective. The molecular make-up of castor oil happens to be very similar to vaginal mucosa. It’s been known for a long time that castor oil helps break up scar tissue. You can use your own hand or you can have your partner do it. You just work the scar tissue. You go in there and it feels like a spider web with small seeds in it instead of organized tissue fibers going in the same direction. You work it every day for 30 days, and it starts to break itself up, and the body dissolves it and takes it away.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell postpartum mothers?
Full recovery is possible without surgical intervention. A lot of people get their diastasis—an abdominal split down the center—stitched back together, and if you do that you’ll restrict your ability to breath. There are natural solutions to all of these problems.
I also had diastasis. In Thailand, I met an amazing women who was doing a study on postpartum recovery and scar tissue. She did internal pelvic floor work on me and in one session my diastasis knitted itself back together. It’s good to ask the question, “What resources do I have in place so that my postpartum recovery can go smoothly?” Because if you’re like me, where yoga was one of your main resources and then that’s taken away—what other resources do you have?
What brings you joy, makes you feel spiritually connected? What are your internal resources and what are your external resources? One piece of advice I always give is the minute your baby falls asleep, sit down and do your practice.
There are a million things to do, but the main things are to take care of your spirit and to take care of your body. Sit down and meditate and lay down and sleep.
I don’t consider birth a trauma, it’s a huge life event. There’s not a lot of other things you can compare it to. You have to take care of your basic needs.
To read more about postpartum recovery and yoga, visit Kimberly’s website at www.kajyoga.com.
Luke Hammons currently lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He trains Capoeira and instructs English. He also writes short stories, poetry, and screen plays. There is a Buddhist saying: Better not to start anything, but if you start, better to finish. Luke thinks of this saying often. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the Inland Northwest School for Writers.
Editor: Maja Despot
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