Body-based practices such as yoga that include movement and breath work can be a powerful skill set for women in the perinatal period. The transition to motherhood includes normal physiological changes that are adaptive to the stages of pregnancy, birth and postpartum. These bodily changes, however, can influence mood and increase the chances of depression or other intense stress reactions. The Restorative Movement group at The Motherhood Center utilizes body-based practices to address this mind-body connection, focusing on skills that seek to decrease arousal and reclaim the bodily experience of emotion.
Most therapies, including psychological and pharmacological, target normalization of the stress response through cognitive processes and brain chemistries. Since physical syndromes and bodily sensations are a part of the symptomology of mood disturbances, engaging with those sensations through interoceptive processes like yoga and other mindfulness practices can be instrumental in resetting the stress response and managing emotions. It is normal to feel “out of control” of our emotions sometimes. By instructing the body and breath in deliberate ways, we can work to establish or re-establish a sense of agency over ourselves.
Working with a PMAD population requires extra sensitivity and is best served by a trauma-informed approach with a focus on safety and autonomy. In this particular setting, less is more when it comes to movement and breath work. Instead, the yoga practice is utilized as a “noticing” practice with lots of options to self-direct and modify, which means moms are free to feel what they feel without becoming overwhelmed, ashamed or collapsed. This kind of self-reflection is a skill that can enhance our ability to not only regulate emotions but perhaps even understand our driving factors.
The easiest example of how yoga can impact emotion regulation is through the effect of yogic breathing. The breath is an automatic function that is necessary for survival. Because of this, information from the respiratory system is noticed and attended to immediately by the brain. We can use this to our advantage by deliberately controlling the breath to effect change in the body. Specifically, it is the act of the exhale that slows the heart rate and activates the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system. In restorative movement, we experiment with different breathing techniques as a way to soothe the body and decrease arousal.
It is not uncommon to hear from moms though that they are too tired or overwhelmed to “work out” with the body. The most important takeaway here is that less is more, especially during this profound period of transition. In fact, focusing less on time and more on frequency is critical to recovery. If we do a little bit of practice every day, we are far more likely to effect change. Like any habit, emotion regulation is a pattern of physiological functions that repeats itself in response to different stimuli or stressors. To change these patterns, it is more important to do one thing consistently over time than to attempt an hour at the gym once a week.
Sometimes the practice is simply acknowledging that we are tired. It is also okay to let the body rest. In fact, short periods of constructive rest throughout the day can deeply impact a mother’s felt experience and replenish her reserves to cope. Instead of working out, we are “tuning in”. By cultivating stillness, we learn that there is an internal sanctuary to which we can retreat at anytime, even if it’s for just three cycles of deliberate breath. This restorative aspect of the yoga practice is an important part of the Restorative Movement group – it provides safe, structured down time for moms to relax and reintroduce feelings of well-being.
These body-based practices are just one part of the integrated approach to healing at The Motherhood Center, which recognizes the importance of engaging the whole person in treatment through a collaborative and interdisciplinary effort. Stress is often multi-dimensional and so it makes sense that supports are equally dimensional in which there are varying opportunities to regain balance. By taking time to nourish and soothe the body through restorative movement, we are supporting our chances of returning to a physiological steady state. From this steady state, moms can begin the process of rebuilding their emotional scaffolding in order to better cope with the transition to motherhood.
TJ Halliday is a certified yoga instructor currently completing a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology + Mind Body Connection at Columbia University. She leads yoga for Day Program clients at The Motherhood Center.