In my last post I went over what’s going on with your postpartum body, and some of the things that can go wrong. If you missed it, catch up here.
In this post, I’ll share some basics on how I approach postpartum recovery, how to know when it’s safe to return to the air, and what to look for in a postpartum online program or coach.
Every postpartum body will benefit from doing some amount of specific corrective exercise, even if your birth was easy! For those with diastisis or prolapse, it’s even more important.
Here’s some good news: the basics of that work is the same for everyone, whether you have prolapse, a diastisis, or not. It’s all about re-establishing Intra Abdominal Pressure (IAP).
IAP is the pressure that is created in our bodies by breathing. It is regulated by your diaphragm, pelvic floor, and transverse abdominus (TVA). These three muscle groups form a kind of canister, the diaphragm is the top, pelvic floor is the bottom, and the TVA is the sides. Inside the canister is our organs.
When we have good IAP, on an inhale our diaphragm fills with air which puts pressure down on our organs, which in turn puts pressure on the pelvic floor, causing it to relax. When we exhale, our diaphragm lifts up, which pulls the pressure on our organs up and our pelvic floor should contract. The TVA is there to keep the pressure moving up and down, instead of spilling out of the sides.
Not sure how you’re managing your pressure? Try this!
(Unless you know you have diastisis or prolapse, then don’t try this!)
Place one hand on your belly button. Take a deep breath and exhale like you’re blowing out a candle. As you blow out, pay attention to where you feel the pressure in your abdomen. Do you feel your belly tighten and lift, or do you feel a sensation of pressure down or bearing down? Do you feel your belly pull away from your hand or bulge out into your hand?
If you’re feeling pressure down and bulging, that’s a good indication that you’re not managing your pressure well. But you can fix that!
Breathing exercises are one of the best ways to start your postpartum recovery because when you’re working on your breathing, you’re addressing the three muscle groups that got the most abuse during your pregnancy and delivery, which are also the muscle groups that make up your canister: the diaphragm, pelvic floor, and TVA. Breathing exercises can help those muscles regain strength and tone, as well as help your brain reconnect to them.
Here’s a simple exercise that can help you reestablish your core connection:
Lay on one side with your head on a pillow or yoga block and your knees bent comfortably. Make a “C” with your top hand and wrap it around the top side of your ribs.
Take a few breaths here, not trying to change anything but paying attention to what it feels like (we’re going to compare and contrast). Where do you feel movement in your hand? In your fingers? In the webbing at the base of your thumb? Into your thumb? Do you feel movement at your neck, is your shoulder lifting up and down? Is all the movement in your belly?
Now, let your thumb join the rest of your hand and place it back on the side of your ribs. Take a deep breath and as you exhale, gently press your hand in and down, allowing it to roll your top side towards the floor and gently round your upper back. Keep your hand pressing down and take deep breaths, focus on the feeling of the back of your ribs filling with air and expanding.
After you take several deep breaths in the position, relax back to your starting shape. Make your hand into a “C” again and place back on your ribs and breath. Does it feel different now? Do you feel more movement in the webbing of your hand and into your thumb? Less movement in your neck and shoulder?
Try the other side! Notice if it feels different from the first side (that’s super normal).
Ideally our ribs should expand in all directions while we breath. This is an important part of re-establishing your IAP, but it has more benefits than that! When your ribs are fully expanding, it might decrease neck and shoulder tension and help with upper back stiffness!
Breathing and your pelvic floor
Your breathing exercises are the perfect place to add some pelvic floor awareness – remember, the diaphragm and pelvic floor work together! Many people seem to be under the impression that for your pelvic floor to recover you should be trying to hold a kegel all the time – just squeeze and squeeze and squeeze – but that’s not the way muscles work. Muscles aren’t supposed to be contracted all the time, they need to relax, too!
When you’re breathing, you should be thinking about the rhythm that exists between your pelvic floor and diaphragm. When you inhale, fill your ribs and feel the pressure in your belly build. That pressure should push down on your pelvic floor causing it to relax. As you exhale, imagine squeezing yourself from the bottom up – your pelvic floor lifts, your belly tightens, and your ribs squish all your air out.
Pelvic floor healing can definitely be complicated and there’s many ways your pelvic floor can become dysfunctional. Two common ways are that it is hypotonic – meaning it can’t hold tone or has trouble contracting and creating tension, or hypertonic – meaning it holds too much tension or tone and can’t relax. Good breathing can help with either of these issues, but if you suspect you are one or the other it’s definitely time to seek help from a pelvic floor PT.
Breathing and your abs
Now that you’re starting to get the hang of how to expand your ribs while breathing, it’s time to connect that to how your abs work.
Do me a favor and google “Abdominal Doming” and look at images – I don’t want to steal anybody’s pictures.
Doming can be a ridge down the front of your stomach, or a lump around your belly button – it’s a little bit different for everybody. But it’s what the pressure down or bulging out feeling that we talked about earlier looks like. If you have a diastisis it will be more pronounced, but you can have it either way.
This is the big thing to learn how to manage as you work on regaining core strength. Can you lay on your back and take deep breaths without doming on the exhale? Can you gently lift one leg while you exhale without doming? Can you lift your arms by your ears without doming? These are your baby steps to reconnecting and strengthening your abs!
Your goal is to gradually add more load and complexity to your movements while breathing well and without doming!
Getting back in the air
I know, I know, this is what you’ve been waiting for. When am I ready to get back in the air?
What I’m mainly looking at when I’m working with a postpartum aerialist is breathing and doming. Can they hang and breath well without doming? Can they do that and lift one leg? Both legs?
Not only are these helpful tests to access yourself or students, they’re really helpful exercises in and of themselves! Aerial and pole create a tremendous amount of pressure and force in our bodies, and it’s hard to simulate those challenges laying on your back. Finding gentle ways to begin to reintroduce some of those stressors, and testing your body slowly and thoughtfully will give you your most successful outcome.
I love a low sling or knot and keeping one foot connected to the floor when helping someone get back in the air. A low straddle back is the perfect place to explore your breathing upside down!
My biggest piece of advice for both coaches and returning postpartum aerialists is to focus on how you’re moving vs relearning tricks and skills. How do your abs feel when you lift your legs to climb? Is your mid back supporting you when you invert? Are your hips rotating when you straddle? Can you rotate your ribs from side to side? Can you get your arms over your head without arching your back?
If all these pieces are working together, relearning your tricks will be easy! Well, as easy as anything ever is in the air!
This post might feel like a lot – you may be saying “How do I know if I’m breathing right?”, “Am I doming, I can’t tell!”, or “I can’t even feel my pelvic floor!” Add to that the fact you have a baby to take care of now and you might be ready to quit before you even get started. Being a new mom is overwhelming enough as it is!
But there is so much help out there for you!
Pelvic floor PT
Working with a pelvic floor PT is beneficial for any postpartum body, even if you don’t have any major symptoms. Just a few sessions can help you start your recovery off on the right foot. If you have prolapse, I hope it goes without saying that you should be working with one, and they’re beyond helpful for diastisis as well.
But if you’re restricted because of insurance, cost, or location, there are other options!
There are multiple online programs available these days. Core Exercise Solutions, Restore your Core, Mutu, and POPuplifting are all quality programs that I’d recommend.
Any good program should teach you breathing techniques and pressure regulation, and focus on slow, gentle movement that loads your body gradually.
Watch out for programs that promise specific results in a specific amount of time. There is no way to guarantee anything about postpartum recovery, every body is so different and has its own timeline for recovery.
Working with a coach
There are plenty of personal trainers, pilates instructors, and other movement coaches out there like me who have done specialized training in postpartum recovery! Working with a coach is a great way to get personalized attention, and is excellent in conjunction with either PT or an online program.
If you’re in PT, additional coaching can help you maximize and expand your PT exercises.
If you’re doing an online course, having a coach to work with occasionally can give you the feedback and correction that’s missing when you’re practicing alone.
Or if you need the motivation, you can work with a coach weekly and then you have something to show up for.
Many of the online programs I mentioned above also train movement professionals in their methods, and their sites have a resource tool to find a trainer near you!
You can do it!
I know when you’re covered in spit up, haven’t slept, and have a baby that won’t stop crying, it’s hard to imagine things ever going back to “normal”. And in some sense, it never will. You have a new normal to learn! But you don’t have to settle for a body that feels like it belongs to someone else.
Your aerial training may never look like it did before you had your baby, but with some thoughtful work you can be back in the air and doing what you love as though you’d never left!
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