Baby yoga

🕔Dec 15, 2005

Neat rows of shoes mark the entrance to a basement room in downtown Prince George where unusual things are happening. Inside the room, tiny babies just a few months old are being rolled and stretched. Older infants are being hung upside down by their ankles. And they’re loving it. Most can’t yet sit or crawl, but these babies are already mastering the half-lotus and the twist. They’re eager young participants in a Mom and Baby Yoga class so popular, there’s sometimes a scramble for floor space.

Every Wednesday morning, more than a dozen babies pull up in jogging strollers, slings, and car seats. Yoga teacher Carla Wainwright greets them by name, and even offers babies a quick cuddle as new mums roll out yoga mats, unpack diaper bags, and swap tales of C-sections and night feedings.

Gilat Grunau settles her son, Boaz, down on a blanket with a Hebrew baby book. He’s been coming to class since he was just two months old. “Yoga has made all the difference for us,” Grunau says. The graduate student moved to Prince George just weeks after Boaz was born. In this yoga class, she’s found a community of like-minded mothers and babies who inspire her son. “The support network is wonderful,” she says. “It’s changed everything for me.”

“It’s a huge support for being a better mum,” agrees Kathi Zimmerman, whose son, Graeme, has regular dates with babies he met at yoga. “This class was a defining moment for me as a mother. These babies will be Graeme’s friends as they all grow up together.”

Across the room, Denise Hogue is rolling out a purple yoga mat. She works as a forester and most of her colleagues are men. So she was delighted to find a place to exercise and relax as she gets to know other mothers – and her daughter, Laurel. “When you’re a first-time mum, you don’t always know what to do with your new baby or how to spend your time together,” she says. “Yoga is a good way to interact, even before your baby is old enough to respond to toys.” These days, Laurel giggles as she joins her mom in an airplane pose and later, as she hangs upside down. Still, Hogue insists Laurel’s favourite part of yoga is looking around at all the other babies.

At the front of the room, Carla Wainwright hugs a stuffed animal to her heart and the class begins. There are breathing exercises and a short meditation before each mother puts her hand on her baby’s heart and begins a full-body massage. “The touch is very loving,” Wainwright explains later. “It builds the bond between mom and baby.” Soon, the moms are pumping their babies’ little legs in a bicycling motion, tickling tiny noses with toes, and rolling their infants from side to side. “Babies feel stiff just like we do, and they enjoy the movement and stretching,” Wainwright says. “Yoga increases their flexibility and helps them digest and even sleep better.”

Wainwright is a wildlife biologist who’s also been teaching yoga for years. When she got pregnant, she added pre-natal classes to her repertoire. And after her son, Liam, was born, she decided to teach Mom and Baby yoga, too. “It’s something special just for the two of you, something you do together, “ says Wainwright. In fact, she used to teach the class with Liam along. “Some days it was great,” she recalls. “But some days I’d have to breastfeed him while I was trying to explain a pose to the class at the same time.”

These days, the teacher’s son is too busy walking to slow down for yoga, so Wainwright uses a stuffed giraffe named Siddhartha to demonstrate baby poses. She soon lays Sid down, and the babies rest, while their mothers do some yoga moves of their own. Later, the babies are lifted up as free weights as mothers strike poses to strengthen their legs, arms, and post-pregnancy abdominal muscles

“This really helps you get back into shape after childbirth,” says Denise Hogue. “Nothing motivates you to hold those core muscles more than holding a bridge pose while you have your precious baby sitting on your legs … you won’t let them fall!”

Although the class is structured and strenuous, it’s no stroller boot camp. Wainwright remembers what it’s like to be a new mother and wants everyone to feel comfortable. So, as some women move athletically through the poses, others are encouraged to stop and nurse their babies or change a dirty diaper. The mood is calm but not always serene, as babies new to yoga sometimes cry from the unfamiliar blur of bodies and movement. “Our first class, I was trying to keep Laurel calm and make it fun for her,” remembers Hogue. “But it was a completely new experience for her, and she was crying. Several moms mentioned she had a really distinct cry. Maybe she disturbed everyone, but after two or three classes, she settled in.”

One of the most dramatic moments of the morning is when the older babies are all hung upside down in unison. These baby inversions may startle spectators and brand-new mums, but the tiny acrobats seem to be enjoying themselves. “Babies love it,” says Wainwright. “They like the feeling of weightlessness, and they’re not afraid of being upside down.” She says inversions give babies benefits similar to what an adult gets from a shoulder stand, when blood runs to the head, freeing the heart from pumping, and then washes back through the body, cleansing and stimulating. “It looks dramatic, but it’s quite safe,” she insists.

Wainwright notes babies should be at least three and a half months old before trying inversions. But the upside down pose is also popular with older babies and toddlers, including Liz Roche’s son, Liam, who graduated from the yoga class months ago. “Liam loved it when he was old enough to hang upside down, says Roche, a child psychologist with the Northern Health Authority. “I still do it with him. But he’s bigger now, so we hang him upside down from a standing position.”

After a class of hanging, stretching, rolling and lifting, mothers and babies finish up with some energetic circle dancing, some quick socializing, and a closing meditation that includes snuggling close. These are the moments Denise Hogue savours. “With a baby, your life is so hectic all the time, but Laurel totally relaxes when I relax. So this gives you a moment in the day to really appreciate what you have together with your baby. And maybe it sounds kinda cheesy, but when you breathe into your heart, you really feel love for your baby. It’s like when your baby is first born and you feel this incredible sense of love – and this brings that feeling back, honestly.”

For more information about Mom and Baby Yoga or Prenatal Yoga in Prince George, contact Chinook Yoga Studio: Suite 116, 1717 Third Avenue, Prince George. Ph: 250.564.YOGA.