When I was in college (in the late 90s) I was introduced to Yoga through a workshop that was offered off campus,
but at that time yoga seemed relatively obscure. The practice was seen as esoteric and rarely attracted more than a maximum of 5 participants. Today, yoga practice has become much more widespread across social groups.
Over the years, I’ve heard women reporting that their first entry into yoga practice was during their pregnancy. Prenatal yoga classes have become a way for women to find consistent guidance through the phases of their pregnancy, but also to participate in a community which shares stories and resources. But many expecting mama yogis, whether they’ve been practicing for a while or they’re just starting out, don’t realize that a complete system of health and wellness exists which is a fruit of the same soil as the yoga traditions.
This system is called Ayurveda.
To make Ayurveda more accessible, and applicable to our most common life phases, yoga instructor and Ayurvedic Consultant Susan Fauman has started to chronicle years of teaching in her blog Food, Sleep, and Sex. Susan was first introduced to Ayurveda in her early 20s when she found herself ill with serious digestive issues. After experiencing the depth and power of Ayurveda’s holistic view of well-being and healing, Susan realized that she wanted to understand and live its principles. Her studies have led her to India four times to apprentice with master Ayurvedic healers as well as to herb and nutrition studies in the US, South America and Thailand.
Over the years, I’ve learned so much from Susan. After the birth of my first child, she created a delicious nutrient-rich bone broth to help rebuild my strength. As is always true with Ayurvedic recipes and treatments, the ingredients were chosen based upon my own unique constitution. To share other ways Ayurveda can serve us during our pregnancies and that critical 4th trimester, I asked Susan to further explain Ayurveda’s view on pregnancy.
Ayurveda for Mamas To Be
Every mama (and papa) wants a strong, resilient, healthy babe. Some are fortunate to be blessed with one. But what if there were things you could do to stack the deck in your (or your little one’s) favor? Ayurveda —the system of health and healing developed in ancient India—may offer this opportunity. (Always consult with a trained health professional before making diet and lifestyle changes).
As with many ancient systems of medicine, Ayurveda looks to nature to explain the
infinite variation that our individual forms take. Ayurveda identifies five elements, or modes of expression, which compose the manifest world: earth, water, fire, wind and space. The ancient practitioners of Ayurveda discovered that particular elements have a tendency to show up in relational pairs. This led to the concept of dosha. Dosha manifests everywhere. The predominance of one or another determines the characteristics of a person, a time of day, a season of the year, a climate or a disease.
Dosha translates poorly into simple English. Suffice it to say that doshas are dynamic relationships. Doshas are the doers in our bodies. Nothing happens without them.
(caption: The 3 doshas, or “building blocks” of Ayurvedic constitution)
There are three doshas:
- Vata —the dynamic relationship between wind and space elements.
- Pitta —the dynamic relationship between fire and water elements.
- Kapha —the dynamic relationship between earth and water elements.
All three of the doshas play roles in the healthy functioning of the body. Each of us has a unique proportion of these forces (frequently with one of the three in predominance) driving our expression called prakrti. When the doshas are in their proper proportion (based on our unique blueprint) we experience health and ease, when they are in an improper proportion (again, based on what is right for us), they cause dis-ease.
Prakrti literally means “first action.” In a sense, prakrti results from the “first action” or impression of the substance, time and space of our conception upon our being. The state of health of both the sperm and the ovum of our parents (substance) and the location and character of the environment (time and space) of our conception all influence our constitution. Gestation also has some influence on our base expression.
Prakrti guides how we experience the world. It provides the raw materials of our abilities and our challenges throughout life. It informs our likes and dislikes, and it also determines the factors in life that will support or destroy us.
This means that by cultivating our health before conception, during pregnancy and in the post-partum period, we have the possibility of setting our children up for a lifetime of more ease and well-being. The interesting thing is that no matter what mom and dad’s constitution is, if they conceive during a period of relative balance, baby will develop a constitution composed of equal parts of all three doshas. Ayurveda considers this constitution—called samadosha—the hardiest (physically, emotionally and mentally) of all possible proportions.
Stacking the Deck
Well, there is nothing really surprising in that. Healthy moms and dads produce offspring more likely to be healthy and well balanced. The special offerings of Ayurveda are the tools to approach an expression of balance before conception and to remain gracefully in proximity to it through pregnancy and birth. Preparing in this way is not a guarantee of having a perfectly healthy baby, but it may ease the challenges and strain of pregnancy and create the best possible circumstances for welcoming a healthy little one.
Classically, Ayurveda recommends preparing for conception up to a year in advance. However, even if you haven’t had the forethought and time to plan when you would like to become pregnant, don’t fret. Instead, gently do your best to avoid any sense of anxiety or urgency that can feed an excess of vata dosha (that energetic dance between wind and space). In fact, the management of vata before, during and after pregnancy composes the bulk of Ayurvedic pregnancy care.
- Rest and relaxation. The most important important practice for soothing vata is rest. Start as soon as you can to slow down a bit and practice doing less. This is vitally important. The last thing expectant mamas and new mamas need is more to do. This process of slowing down and resting allows us to hear our internal voice which will ultimately become our most indispensible guide throughout the process of pregnancy, birth and mothering (and fathering). Using relaxation techniques and making an effort to slow down our body motions, breath rate and rate of speech can also be very beneficial. Slow hatha yoga practice with long holds and a long shavasana practice at the end, Tai Qi Chuan and Qi Gung and regular, relaxing massage, are all excellent forms of physical practice which allow the nervous system to deeply relax and train us to move through the world in a more natural way.
- Simplifying your diet supports clear channels and deep relaxation. Eat food that looks like food. Avoid things that are excessively processed or have too many ingredients. Eating seasonal, local produce can help attune the body to time and space. For conception and pregnancy, Ayurveda also specifically recommends drinking cow’s or goat’s milk and eating, ghee, honey, oil (sesame, olive, sunflower, coconut), rock-salt, mung dal and light, white rice such as basmati. For meat eaters, goat, sheep, chicken or deer meat are the most nourishing but easily digested meats during this period. Naturally sweet vegetables such as beets, sweet potato and carrots will also soothe vata and support the process of growth of the baby.
(caption: Ghee (http://lifespa.com/top-ten-reasons-cleanse-ghee/), or clarified butter, is highly prized in Ayurveda for it’s anti-inflammatory and lubricating qualities.)
- Oil the body before bathing, a practice called abhyanga, produces an incredible sense of calm and well-being. Particularly in the autumn and winter, this nourishing practice boosts the functioning of the immune system, providing an extra layer of protection against illness, and creates a sort of insulation for the nervous system. Practiced a few times a week, abhyanga also contributes to a growing sensitivity to our own sensation and intuition.
In general though, anything that allows the nervous system to relax counts as rest. For this reason, routine and regularity can be the most powerful form of rest. A regular rhythm to the schedule, allows the body and mind to anticipate the movement of the day without fear and the nervous system to expend much less energy just getting through the day.
Ayurveda also recommends that the expectant mama try to remain happy. With all of the changes that pregnancy brings, this can be difficult to remember. And in fact, if we overemphasize it, it could become another stressor. But it is good to remember that we can choose to focus on positive thoughts and not to dwell on negative ones. In addition, making the space to relax and slow down supports a calm, happy mind and heart. The recommendation to stay happy also points to the responsibility of a birth partner (and support community) to take care of details that may be stressful or worrying to the pregnant woman. Don’t be shy to accept help when it is offered–or ask for it when it’s not.
The sole purpose of this article is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can address your individual situation.
For more healthy living resources, including access to her free e-course: 7 Days to Better Digestion, visit Susan’s site or follow her on twitter (@foodsleepandsex).