June 19, 2011

Dude, Where’s My Core?

There are many things I enjoy about being a mom-to-be yogi, and a lot of them have to do with this special ‘in-tuneness’ that we yogis have with our bodies. Often when I describe my discoveries to my doctor, midwife or physiotherapist during my prenatal appointments, they say that a lot of women aren’t really aware of experiencing them because they don’t feel their body change in these subtle ways.

For example, I felt my baby moving quite early, around week 14. Its first kick was during upward dog and it really startled me. By week 16, I could feel a whole range of movements and it allowed us to start bonding. I understood very quickly what sounds woke him up or bothered him, and when he was just happily swimming around and stretching. My midwife explained that I was sensitive to his movements because I had very little body fat in my abdomen. Suddenly I felt grateful for all those vinyasas I had done in my pre-pregnancy life.

An unexpected aspect of pregnancy to me is that my abdominal muscles have been stretching to make way for my little one’s expansion and growth. I know it is stating the obvious and it’s very logical, but before you’re pregnant and if you don’t know anyone around you who is expecting, you don’t really think about this. Also, I don’t know about you, but sometimes until I feel it, I don’t understand it.

As my bump started to grow, I felt my core begin to soften. Whenever I made a movement where I would normally get my core involved, it felt unresponsive, like the engine of a car on a frosty winter morning. I’ve been feeling like, you know, ‘Dude, Where’s My Core?’ In my pregnancy-ignorant mind, I always imagined that pregnant women couldn’t come up from lying down to sitting because the bump was in the way. But now, having a small 21 weeks belly, I realise that it’s because your core can’t do this job for you anymore. I witnessed myself struggling to open jars of jam and bottles with screws at one point. All these everyday gestures made me realise how much I use my core and that without it I feel quite vulnerable.


Before pregnancy, I had a rather strong core. I had practiced Ashtanga during my whole first year of yoga practice and this foundation stayed with me afterwards. I’ve always loved ‘flying’; arm balances were my favourite. Bakasana taught me so much about confidence, courage and determination. It’s a very self-affirming posture, as it relies a lot on core power. There is this feeling that the quiet force of your abdomen muscles will carry you and take care of you no matter what. Symbolically, there is something of a reassuring and stable mother in our core strength; the kind that holds your hand and tells you that you’re going to make it. And that’s what the core does; it holds your body together and stabilises it.

I’ve also realised how the change in my core affected me on an emotional level. I don’t stomach things the way I used to. I got married two weeks ago and my husband and I were caught in the middle of an ugly family feud a few days before the wedding. The whole experience was very painful. His family made some cruel and hurtful remarks to us, and it has been destabilising for both of us, at a time when what we needed was caring attention rather than hostility.

In the heat of the whole drama, I found myself looking for my core for support, in an ‘I can take this’ kind of way. That’s when I noticed that, again, it didn’t respond as usual; it was not prepared to take the hits like a heavy-weight boxer, and give me the confidence to get on with it. Again I felt very vulnerable, but also responsible. My core’s priority was elsewhere: providing a shelter for my little one. My ego would have to wait, and somehow it was a good thing. This softening of the core is to me one of my first lessons of motherhood – of humility and renunciation. Becoming a mother means softening and accepting vulnerability: ours and our babies. Our bellies soften and so do our mind and heart. Where my core used to do the work, my heart is now taking over. It’s easy to confuse firming our belly with affirming a ‘tough cookie’ personality; after all the third chakra resides in our core and is associated with identity and ego.

My lovely physiotherapist has given me a series of Pilates-type exercises to work my core during pregnancy and support my hips, which are becoming unstable because of the hormone called relaxin that prepares them for birth. At first, the idea of doing core work when pregnant didn’t seem quite right. But she’s really used to working with pregnant ladies and reassured me that it’s easy to know what type of exercises babies don’t like because they tend to give you good kicks. My baby doesn’t like upward dog, and I’m not really able to do vinyasas anymore, but I’ve learnt some cool prenatal hip series that seem to make him happy.

A good core also helps with the back pain that comes in late pregnancy, so even if at the beginning, it might feel weird to squeeze your abs when you know that there is a little someone in there, it’s important to keep fit. There are a lot of things that can be done to maintain a healthy abdominal belt when pregnant: plank is an easy option, as are side-plank, pelvic tilts and also the Pilates version of our bridge -i.e. 10 repetitions instead of 5 breaths.

Since I’ve started my exercises, I feel reconnected with my core; it’s a bit stronger now and I imagine it as the little shell that cradles my baby. I feel more confident as well; calm-confident rather than defiant-confident. I had appointment with a midwife recently and afterwards as I was booking my next appointment, I told the receptionist how lovely the midwife had been. She replied in her Essex accent: ‘That’s all you need, luv’, confidence. Midwives, they’re here to give you confidence. I never say wise things, but believe me, a woman needs confidence to be a good mother.’ I love strangers who give you the best advice, without you prompting it. I always find there’s something providential about those encounters: what you need to hear when you are ready for it, the unexpected answer to a question that has been sitting in your mind for a while.

This week, I read in Psychologies that a lot of people become parenting-advice obsessed, stockpiling books and frantically exploring internet forums. I’m not saying this won’t be me in a few months, I’m as neurotic as the next person, but from what I’ve been learning lately, a lot of parenthood has to do with trusting yourself and your best judgement – your gut instinct -, the rest is all about love. In other words, mothers should be confident, rely on their core and their heart and everything should be fine.

Picture credit:

Pregnant woman: http://www.alphaorthotics.com

Bakasana: http://www.andrearussell.com

Pregnancy yoga: duringpregnancy.info

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