A new partnership focuses on fitness and wellness for new moms
I’m lying on a yoga mat, adjusting the placement of my hips and feet for the Pilates class that’s about to start. Andrea Neiman, the class instructor, comes over and gently rolls my shoulders backward to correct my posture. Before the class, Andrea covers variations for each of us—all women who have given birth in the last year or two—so that our movements are safe and effective whether we experienced a vaginal or cesarean birth.
The class is calm, slow, and just what I need after four pregnancies pushed my body to its limits. I created life, but in doing so, my body literally readjusted my skeletal structure, stretched my skin and left curves in new places (hello, underarms!?).
Ask any woman—regardless of the number of hours in labor/pushing or whether the c-section was emergency or planned—and she will tell you the ways in which her body was never the same.
Physically, women who have vaginal births can experience incontinence, discomfort during intercourse, abdominal muscle separation or other issues. For those who experienced a c-section, recovery can be lengthened and painful. For example, my best friend always kept a pillow nearby because clutching it to her abdomen was the only way to ease the pain and discomfort that sneezing or laughing would cause her healing incision.
Besides basic bodily functions, the postpartum weeks and months can come with depression or anxiety, and often mean lingering and sometimes surprising body and self-image issues. While mental health concerns should be treated by a trained professional, nurturing a healthy body can go a long way to ease some of the mood disorders postpartum women can experience.
To respond to the needs of local mothers, The Motherhood Collective, in collaboration with Lynchburg Parks and Recreation, has rolled out a new series of community classes and activities for new and expecting mothers. Mothers, like me, who just need a little help getting back on track.
I’m going to just put it all out there—after four vaginal births, my pelvic floor needs some serious help. Following my third pregnancy, I experienced what I now know was “urge incontinence,” meaning that it wasn’t a problem if I sneezed or laughed (unlike several friends, who leaked at every sneeze). Instead, if I felt the urge, my muscles would fail to hold it in before I could walk through the kitchen to my bathroom—obviously, this was not only humiliating but highly inconvenient.
I was embarrassed, but I brought it up with my provider, who pointed me in the direction of a pelvic health physical therapist, and she told me the muscles supporting my bladder were actually working too hard and clenching all the time, and gave me exercises to help calm them.
After my first child, the baby weight came off quickly with nursing and light exercise, so I was surprised when I ballooned after my second pregnancy. Life circumstances piled on more anxiety, and I turned to food for comfort more often than not. Needless to say, that number on the scale never came back down. I know I am the steward of my body, but a full-time job and growing family meant my own fitness and well-being took a backseat.
But eventually, I knew enough was enough: I couldn’t keep putting everyone and everything else first. I had already attended some of The Motherhood Collective’s conversation cafés and playgroups, so when I heard about their new wellness classes, I decided to finally prioritize my health and give it a try.
Postpartum Core Connections
Back in the Pilates class, called Postpartum Core Connections, Andrea walks us through gentle stretches, and builds up to light, repetitive toning exercises. She stresses this is not a traditional Pilates class, but a hybrid based on her training and the specific needs of the postpartum women she teaches.
For example, when working with a woman who has experienced a vaginal birth, Andrea focuses on strengthening the pelvic floor and bringing the hips and pelvis back to a new “normal” resting posture. For mothers who experienced a c-section, she will help gently strengthen the abdomen, which may still be recovering from major surgery.
Lauren Barnes, executive director of The Motherhood Collective, explains that the choice to expand into wellness was obvious when the organization began planning their 2017 programming calendar.
“We looked for gaps in ways we were serving women,” says Barnes. “We saw severe disparities specifically regarding women’s pelvic floor health and other muscular post-birth issues.”
She says research shows 1 in 4 women experience post-birth pelvic floor or abdominal injuries.
“We saw that women were physically not doing well, and we partnered with excellent instructors and Parks & Rec to offer this class to truly nurture the mother to grow the child,” she explains, referring to the organization’s mission statement.
Aside from helping women physically, the partnership also reduces the financial barrier by making the classes much more affordable than what they would cost at private practices. The entire six-week Pilates class is just $18 for city residents.
Mamas on the Move
Also offered through this collaboration is Mamas on the Move, a free, regularly scheduled stroller walk at local parks, so new parents can meet for a casual workout that’s gentle and social, while still getting women moving.
First-time mother Courtney Sinha, 35, is a social worker in Lynchburg who’s been attending the Mamas on the Move stroller walks even before she was pregnant. As she planned to conceive, she says, “I needed to lose weight and I did that by walking. I kept motivated by thinking that one of these days I would have a baby, and we could go walking together.”
Courtney now attends every session with her wife, Kim, and newborn baby Nora. Like many working mothers in the group, the Saturday option was perfect as she headed back after maternity leave. Even if she doesn’t want to get out of bed, she says, “The baby wakes up early so there’s really no sleeping in.”
While it’s advertised as a stroller walk, many parents bring an infant carrier to walk with their babies close to them.
Healthy Mama Self-Care Series
The self-care series launched because Barnes says women were not taking time for themselves. “So we thought… why not make a time? It will be on their calendar.”
The five-class course leads women through a different healthy living topic each week, and then at the end of each session there are
30 minutes of silence and candlelight. “Watching women come out of there, it’s like they’re coming out of a spa. It’s amazing,” says Barnes. “We love nothing more than helping to create outlets for community that also cultivate healthy habits or positive self-care.”
And the community agrees: the first round of new programming this past spring sold out, and more programs are being added. “It’s been an overwhelming response.”
As far as my own journey goes, the Pilates class is just a small piece in what I hope will be a lifelong practice of caring for myself in my role as mother and provider for my family. During the whirlwind of the preschool years I will have to be diligent about my own wellness, but my mind and body deserve it. And I believe that my kids will reap the benefits (because they can already tell you that a stressed-out mama is no fun!).
For now, you can find me on a yoga mat somewhere, breathing in and out, learning to love and care for this new version of the body I’m in—and thankfully, it’s only getting stronger with each Pilates leg lift.
By Meridith De Avila Khan