Yoga Modifications for Pregnant Mamas with a Strong Vinyasa Flow Practice

I thought I’d post a blog for all those pregnant mamas out there who’ve been practicing yoga for years and now find themselves “in a family way” ;-). I get emails on a very frequent basis from new moms who want to continue their vinyasa flow practice but are unsure how to modify safely. I always tell any new mom who has never done yoga, or is new to yoga, Prenatal Yoga classes are the only way to go. And even if you’ve been practicing for years, you may find it very helpful to surround yourself with women who are going through the same experience at the same time. If you’re having a pregnancy with any extenuating circumstances (high risk), you should discuss with your doctor what is appropriate for you and your baby. However, if none of that applies to you and you’d like to continue to attend your regular flow class, (and again, you’ve been practicing consistently for years and feel confident that you are in tune with your body, that you know where your edge is, and that your ego will not get the better of you), here are the guidelines I worked with through both of my (totally healthy!) pregnancies.

First trimester:

1. You don’t want to overheat…you can sweat to cool off, but the baby can’t. It’s fine for you to get a good sweat, but you should not get to the point where your cheeks are flushed. Stand near a door or window if possible, and step outside if you feel like you’re getting too warm. Bring cool water, and rest to control your temperature as you need to…breathe in and out through your mouth, but continue to drag the breath along the back of your throat, and to fill and empty your lungs completely (ujayii breath through the nose will increase your internal temperature, and when you’re pregnant you’re already running a few degrees warmer. Also, do not practice breath retention or “breath of fire”)

2. No deep twists or backbends…the baby is attaching to the side of the uterus, and even though the uterus is “free-floating”, it is still attached to ligaments, etc…ustrasana (camel) is a great backbend if it’s one you usually take…twisting triangle with a block to the inside of your front foot and no “cranking”…twisting crescent the same way…..

2nd trimester:

1.You can go back to whatever backbends you did before you were pregnant. Be aware that all your ligaments will be a bit looser throughout your pregnancy due to “relaxin” (the body produces this during pregnancy because the bones and ligaments need to “soften” for childbirth…ligaments need to open around the hips so you can push the baby out, but your body doesn’t differentiate between ligaments in your hips and every other part of your body. Therefore, you may be able to “go deeper” in some poses, but don’t do it because you can injure yourself, and an over-stretched ligament does not heal easily. Still no deep twists (this continues throughout the pregnancy)…

2. Once you start to “show” (your belly pops out at all), do not lie down on your belly anymore…eventually you’ll have to modify your vinyasas to “knees, chest and chin”…you can also do cat-cows instead. When your belly pops, you’ll need to separate your legs hips distance for utkatasana, forward folding, etc.

3. it’s fine to invert but do it at the wall….getting upside down is good for you and the baby, but falling isn’t good for either one of you.  You’ll be carrying more weight, so be mindful of your wrists and listen to your body. Viparita karani is a great inversion (running your legs up the wall) throughout your pregnancy, although once you begin your second trimester your doctor may advise you not to lie on your back for long periods of time. I experienced no trouble in this regard and ran my legs up the wall every day of both pregnancies, but some women will become light-headed because the weight of the baby and the uterus press on major blood vessels restricting blood flow. You will know if this is happening for you, and in that case, this isn’t the pose for you, and you will also start to take savasana lying on your left side with a couple of bolsters.

3rd trimester

Same as 2nd trimester, but  once you hit 34 weeks, stop any inversions EXCEPT viparita karani(as long as being on your back feels good to you)…the baby should start to “descend” at this point, and you want to encourage that descent. This is also a great time to start doing a LOT of squatting, so if you’re in a class and they do inversions, spend your time in a squat instead

Lastly, as far as “ab work” goes some teachers advise none at all, but i did navasana sit-ups throughout both pregnancies (navasana to ardha navasana with knees bent on the way up)….i think it’s good to keep those “pushing muscles”  strong 😉

Lastly, listen to your intuition. This is a time to be sure you’re practicing compassion for yourself, and to make sure you are filling your home, and your baby’s home (your body), with LOVE!! I felt very in tune with both my babies while I practiced, and I often talked to them (with my “inside voice, of course, lol) as i was moving. I felt especially connected to them in Savasana; it was clear to me that we were both having an experience together. Make your practice about that, and you will have a beautiful time ;-). Hope this is helpful to you and that you have an easy and comfortable pregnancy!

Love to you and your beautiful baby (or babies!),

Ally

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Always consult a physician before beginning a yoga practice or any other form of physical exercise!

To Love and Die in LA

To-the-wellorganizedIn Savasana tonight I had a vision of myself as a very old woman coming close to the end of breaths in this body.  At first I got scared and rejected this idea and almost came out of Savasana to start thinking, but instead I decided to just be with it and open to it. I saw my children as people in their fifties with children of their own. I saw that they were sad to lose me and i realized my only hesitation about leaving this realm was that i worried for their happiness. I told them that they had been the absolute lights of my life, the greatest of gifts, that I had had a beautiful, fulfilling life, and that I would always be with them every step of the way. I assured them that they couldn’t lose me because I would live in their hearts, and that I was sure we would be together again.

When I came out of Savasana I was emotional and felt fragile. Usually Savasana is so peaceful, I feel so connected and open and quiet, so this was a very different experience. And it wasn’t a dream because I was awake, and it wasn’t a thought tangent because I actually saw this scene unfold like a movie. I wasn’t even terribly troubled at the idea of dying since it seemed I had made it a good long way, and my children were grown and seemed like happy people.

I love my life. I love my children beyond words, and I love teaching yoga and being with people and being of service and being in nature and feeling in the flow of things even when they aren’t unfolding exactly as I would like or might have expected. I love to learn and open and deepen and surrender, and sometimes be scared or sad or lonely or angry, because I know then that I am awake to my own experience. I have no interest in drama, or who’s fu*%king who, or what someone said or did, or who’s doing better or worse because life is just too precious and too short, and I’m pretty sure it’s about learning to love one another. I’m in a relationship for a long time, and it is full of history and complication and love and memories and hurt and anguish and joy and birth and work and so I don’t judge other people in relationships because I know the terrain is steep and sometimes full of rocks slipping underfoot and hail hitting you in the face, and sometimes it’s like a soft breeze on an untouched stretch of beach.

If we accept that energy does not die, it just changes form, then death does not seem so scary. I believe in a collective unconscious, I think we are all flowing to and from the same source, I believe that source is love. And yet, there are souls we cherish in bodies we love and want to touch and hold, there are voices we yearn to hear. Goodbyes are hard, they are like a knife through the heart, and death is the most definitive goodbye we know, not that we know it. Most people are afraid of the unknown, and what happens after we leave our bodies seems something we will never be able to discover until we experience it. But I meet people from time to time, and they seem so familiar, I think, “I know you, we have traveled together before”, and I find this comforting. Who knows if my vision is real. I hope to live to be one of those ninety-year-old yoga teachers with long white hair and twinkling eyes and deep laugh lines. Maybe it will happen that way.

In the meantime i want to celebrate this life and every person i meet and every experience i have and do my best to allow things to unfold, to cling less and to surrender more, to judge less and to love more, to speak less and to listen more because there is so much happening around us all the time, but there is a deep well of wisdom in the body, in the heart, in the soul. An atheist might say there is no soul, there is just the limbic region in the brain. A Jew might say there is no Jesus, and a follower of Jesus might say anyone who doesn’t believe will burn in Hell. I’m pretty sure my job is to find a way to love everyone, even the people who feel completely differently about things than I do, maybe especially them. I think love is the source. It’s not about making money or being right, love is the currency. How much do you have and how much can you give, how far can you fling it and share it and spread it. And to acknowledge that the body I’m in is borrowed, it will not last forever, and that goodbyes in the form of changes or deaths are part of this experience. So that I can fully appreciate every breath, every moment, every light in every eye I love. So that I don’t miss chances to tell the people in my life that I love them, not just on holidays, but every chance I get. So that a “normal day” is never taken for granted. We want to deny the reality that everything is temporary, that we are even temporary, but that is probably the very thing to acknowledge and accept so we can WAKE UP to each moment. If you love full on, full force, full blast, I think you might just take the fear out of death, out of goodbyes, out of change.

Sending you love, Ally Hamilton

When the Old Way Stops Working

Yoga-quiets-theThere is usually a reason people come to the mat. I started practicing my senior year at Columbia University when I found myself at a real crossroads in my life. Without going into too much personal detail, a series of events forced me to look carefully at the choices, the big choices, I had been making. I realized with some alarm that none of them had anything to do with me, at least not in any real way. I had been making decisions based on other people’s needs, mostly, or on what I thought I should do, but I had no real understanding of what I wanted. I was an adult, but I didn’t really know myself. Just the basic things, even–what makes me happy? What do I need, or want? What am I here to do?

I took my first yoga class with Dharma Mittra at the Dharma Yoga Center in New York City, where I grew up. At first, I kind of kept sticking my toe in the pool, practicing once or twice a week. It wasn’t an instantaneous light-bulb experience, it was just that little by little, I began to realize that my moments of clarity, of awareness, of feeling really myself, were happening on the mat. And so my practice became a sort of lighthouse, a beacon, it just kept drawing me in, and soon I was practicing six days a week. My stairmaster collected dust, became a coatrack, and was eventually put out with the trash. I had no desire to go to step class, or an abs class, or to lift weights while listening to my walkman. I did not want to plug in, tune out, and focus on aesthetics, I wanted to tune in and find out who I was.

I have always been blessed with phenomenal teachers, people who have shown up at the perfect time. I do not believe this is coincidence. There is the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”; I have found this to be true, both as a student, and as a teacher. The best teachers I have had have taught by example, just by the way they lead their lives. At a certain point, my practice kind of took hold of me, and began to fill more and more of my time, and the deeper I went, the more I committed, the more there was to learn. And every time I looked up, there was someone there to illuminate something else for me. Some of my biggest influences have come from Dharma Mittra, Bryan Kest (at whose studio I taught for over 5 years, and for whom I will always feel enormous gratitude), Jorgen Christiansson (I began practicing Ashtanga yoga with Jorgen in 2001, and eventually assisted him), Baron Baptiste, Max Strom, and Saul David Raye.

The gratitude I feel for my teachers surpasses anything I could write, but truthfully, the practice itself is your best teacher, just showing up on the mat. In 2009 I felt moved to open my own space, and fill it with amazing teachers. It wasn’t part of my long-term plan, but sometimes the universe gives you a huge kick in the ass (which is usually preceded by several smaller ones you may have ignored), and as a result, Yogis Anonymous and my daughter were born on the same day. They joined my then almost three year old son. So I had a plethora of teachers arrive all at once.

Any yoga practice begins as an internal journey, and often students ask about this. It’s true, you have to turn your attention inward…..my breath, what is happening in my body, in each and every moment? The most amazing thing, though, is that this internal journey will eventually lead you back to your connection with everyone and everything else. There are countless benefits to any regular yoga practice, one of which is just getting comfortable in your own skin, both physically and emotionally. What is the truth? Not what do I want it to be, or what do I think it should be, but just, what is? This is a practice that has Eastern roots, and here I am, this Westerner. We live in this hyper-commercialized society, where so much value is placed on the external. Three minutes of commercials is all it will take to convince you that you don’t look right (you should try this diet), you don’t smell right (better buy this deodorant), and apparently, you don’t feel right, either (better call your doctor to get this medication, quick). So many people suffer as a result, always in search of those external factors to make things right–“I’ll be happy when I lose 10 pounds, find my soulmate, have that giant house, or new car, or better job, or fill-in-the-blank”, and there will ALWAYS be something else, and happiness will be this hummingbird, always in sight, but just out of reach.

It takes so much energy to fight the truth, whatever it is. We grow up, and even those of us with the most loving parents are told, “Don’t be sad”, or ,”Don’t be angry”, and so we are taught that only certain feelings and behaviors are all right, are acceptable. And little by little, we lose the ability to even identify what we are feeling, let alone sit with those feelings. I have a vague sense something is wrong…let me, quick, turn on the television (“you don’t look right or smell right or feel right!!!!), or the internet,(Facebook, anyone?) or pick up the phone, or race to a movie (where I will likely be convinced that if I could just find my soulmate, I’d be happy), because I don’t want to FEEL anything but good, and here comes life with all it’s ups and downs, and I just don’t know how to deal with feelings of loneliness, or rage, or boredom.

And so we fight the truth of what we’re feeling, but this takes so much energy. And suddenly everyone’s got chronic fatigue syndrome, and it makes you wonder whether that even existed 100 years ago. Whether it’s possible that all of our so-called advances have actually set us back. There are so many awesome facets to a yoga practice, and one of them is just that. Identifying the truth of the moment, even if it is challenging, confusing, confrontational, painful, and being all right with it; learning how to breathe through it calmly, with compassion, staying grounded and centered. This morning I am in Ardha Chandrasana, and I feel that I could hold it forever. Tomorrow, I am falling all over the place, convinced someone has replaced my mat with a surfboard. So be it. This is the truth of the moment, and either way, I am breathing. So many opportunities, microcosms on the mat, and little by little this stuff starts to seep off the mat and into your life. I am in love, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, I am breathing. I got dumped, it’s freezing out, and those same birds just crapped on my shoulder, I am still breathing. The truth is, there is no way to control anything. Great things will happen, sad things will happen, things I want to happen, won’t, and things I don’t want to happen will, and this thing, this happiness of which we are all in search, is nothing more and nothing less than just steadiness through it all. Inner peace, serenity, wisdom, gratitude, call it what you will. They cannot bottle it, and you cannot buy it. But you can absolutely find it, have it and hold it, and the best and only place I’ve found to start is on your mat.

Peace,

Ally Hamilton

Confessions of a YogiLatte

It-is-inhumane-in-myI accept the fact that you may judge me, but I drink coffee and at this particular moment I have no intention of stopping.  I was on a successful coffee fast for over a decade when evil forces disguised as the guy behind the counter at The Coffee Bean sucked me back in, and I could not be more grateful. This happened about 18 months ago, when I was seven months pregnant with my daughter, and I was chasing my then 2.5 year old son around while my husband was in Berlin working for a month. Oh, and I was teaching 10 yoga classes a week, and felt, well…exhausted.

I stood there with my son and my belly and ordered a chai latte. It was about 11am, and as I was moments away from running all over the playground, I thought a little boost was in order. Although I knew the answer, I asked Evil Forces if there was a decent amount of caffeine in the chai. He said yes, but he could make me a “dirty chai” if I wanted more. I didn’t ask what was in it, I just nodded. And I drank that dirty chai and I felt the strength of at least two super-heroes coursing through my veins. Or, maybe it was the shot of espresso which is what makes the chai “dirty” which I found out the next day when I went back for more. I had a moment of anguish when I realized my coffee fast had been unknowingly broken, and then, in a way only someone who has been 7 months pregnant can understand, a moment of “fu#k it, too late now”. I remembered my doctor had said one cup a day was okay, and I figured desperate times and all…so, I was and am back on the sauce.

Lest you think less of me, I will share that I eat local organic fruits and vegetables, no gluten, and no processed food. But here I am over a year later, with an almost four-year old, a tiny toddler, a new yoga studio, and a full teaching schedule. So if you want to judge me for the coffee, bring it on, suckas, cuz the yerba matte ain’t gonna cut it. Now I begin my day by grinding organic beans and making a delicious cup of coffee so I can be a happy functioning mommy at the crack of dawn. And at 11am, at which point I’ve already had half a busy day, I can usually be found (gasp) at the Starbuck’s drive-thru for my guilty pleasure, a latte (yes, if you’re counting, hit two of the coffee magic) . Why the drive-thru? Because that way I can get my boost without having to take my two kids in and out of their car-seats on our way to the beach, the park, Main Street, or wherever it is we’re headed. Here’s the funny thing. Because I go at about the same time every day, I usually order from the same guy. I had been referring to him as “our friend” to my son for months, as in, “mommy is getting a latte from our friend, and then we’re going to play”…and one day I asked him his name. Now when we pull into the drive-thru, my son yells, “Hi, Damon!!!” and Damon, who turns out to be an incredibly nice human being, knows my drink before I order. He knows my kids names, and I know he has a niece and nephew but no kids of his own yet because he hasn’t found that special someone (single ladies, take note). He knows I teach yoga, and I think he may eventually come to class. I share all of this with you because:

1. I think it is only fair you understand the killer core sequence is being powered by caffeine, and

2. These little connections in life which are so easy to miss can really enhance the experience of any given day

We are energetic beings and we are always spreading energy wherever we go. One of the great gifts of practicing yoga is just becoming more and more accountable for the energy we’re spreading. You could make someone’s day, and possibly even save someone’s life by offering a genuine smile at the right moment, and on the flip side, you could probably ruin someone’s afternoon (or however much time they decide to give it), with a thoughtless comment. So, really, this isn’t about coffee at all, it’s just about being awake 😉

More power to you,

Ally Hamilton