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Witness the wreckage of a postpartum woman's body: the back a Quasimodo hunch, the belly nine months rubbery-stretched, the pelvic floor sagging. Hormones rage. For this altered state Laura Staton and Sarah Perron, co-founders of the Baby Om yoga program, have a remedy: Do one downward-facing dog; add a dash of cobra; stir in warrior and tree poses, some plank and a half wheel.
Four and a half years ago, Staton and Perronboth yoga instructors, dancers, and new mothers in need of relief and realignmentdecided over jelly beans to create a yoga class for moms at all levels "from swami to couch potato." They sequestered themselves in a studio and practiced with their babies, flying them on their knees while strengthening their own abdominal muscles and tickling them while doing salutations to the sun. From these practice sessions came Baby Om, which now offers 16 classes throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as a new book, Baby Om: Yoga for Mothers and Babies. "The biggest surprise was our book deal," says Staton. "We're still two dancers who don't have a great business sense."
Baby Om is a hip mama's how-to, a handbook with a beating heart. Swollen with photos of smiling moms and cherubic babies, it makes you feel that doing yoga is the missing key to bonding with your child. The book mirrors the classes, including blow-by-blow instructions for orchestrating each asana (yoga pose) with your little one ("Your baby can nestle in the fold of your bent leg"). Also included are a series of "What Ifs" ("What if the swan dive hurts your back?) and "Cool Things" ("If you find your balance point you can feel completely weightless"). Other chapters address moms who've had cesarean sections ("I wanted to pierce the veil of silence about C-sections and yoga," says Staton, who has had two) and those who suffer from postpartum depression.
Yoga for pregnant women is a late-20th-century trend, probably dating from the return to natural-childbirth notions in the late '60s, says Stefanie Syman, a former Feed editor now writing a book about the history of yoga. "The notion of asana practice being separated from a process of liberation from a cycle of rebirth is very Western. And the usefulness of hatha yoga for prenatal or postpartum women comes more from a Western scientific analysis than from a yoga tradition. But it's all about the pelvic floor, so if your goal is to work on strengthening it, a class like this is probably useful."
Staton describes her Iyengar-influenced yoga philosophy as "trying to help the mother get through a transitional period in whatever way she needs"physically, emotionally. "Some women need to get out of the house, some want involvement with their babies and don't really care about their bodies. Moms on the Upper West Side want to bond and chat about strollers. Downtown and Brooklyn moms want to do yoga."
Staton believes the most important poses for mothers are "any, if you feel you can be in your body even for one moment. Downward dog lengthens the spine, half wheel opens the chest (which helps the mom who's nursing and pushing a stroller around town), tree pose is for lifting the pelvic floor."
As a tool for bending and bowing, the Baby Ombook is no substitute for the class, which works best if your child is a lap babythat is, not yet crawling and exploring. My two 10-month-old sons and I attended a Baby Om session taught by Staton at Shala House at Broadway and 12th Street. Despite the serene settingneatly stacked blankets, Turkish pillows (excellent magic carpet rides for restless babies), fluttering red curtains, gently twirling ceiling fans, a skylight, the occasional flower petal on the wood floorit was the most stressful yoga class I'd ever attended. The stress had little to do with Baby Om in particular, but it spiraled through the group of five moms, steadily unraveling the initial calm. One mom arrived in a rage, having just received a $250 ticket for parking her car and unloading her baby in the bus stop out front. Another seemed perturbed that my twins, already curious crawlers, kept stealing toys from her helpless coo-baby. Since this particular group of moms didn't see toy stealing as sharing (as they do at the 14th Street Y, where we usually go), I was perpetually yanking rattles from my sons' hands and sheepishly returning nabbed water bottles. One mom called my boys "stealth ninjas" (I wasn't sure whether to be insulted or proud). The hunger epidemic exploded next, with cries filling the spacious room. "This is the loudest class ever," announced Staton, a thin blonde woman jauntily dressed in a pink spaghetti-strap shirt and black leggings. "Usually there are more babies under five months." Then Staton adroitly turned the chaos of a flailing yoga class into an impromptu baby-bouncing session as moms alternately jiggled and nursed the little ones' tears away.
Amid the cacophony, I managed three poses: one seated twist, one downward-facing dog, and one handstand. It was the downward dog that hooked meand the gentle prodding that Staton gave me to float my hips higher.
Lesley Bunnell Russ, a 29-year-old modern dancer and bookkeeper with nine-month-old Fiona in tow, has been attending Baby Om since March. After the session, she said "Laura has an innate sense of how to incorporate yoga for moms and babies. She's really good at explaining that we're doing thisinverting our bodies, for examplebecause our hips are tired from carrying the baby." Fiona appeared amused throughout much of the class. "She doesn't really cooperate now, but when she was smaller and out of sorts, the exercises made her happy. I think twisting her legs helped her with gastrointestinal stuff."
Marisa Cohen, 36 and a freelance writer, was attending her first class with two-month-old Molly. "I liked that Baby Om wasn't too hippie-dippy spiritual," she said afterward. "And when I was lying on my back doing flying baby, it was the first time I heard Molly giggle."
I went to another Baby Om class hoping that with the help of a friend my twins and I could participate more fully. It was a quieter session, more productive perhaps, but the instructor didn't have Staton's magic touch. My poses, desperately in need of correction, went unremarked on, and the explanations of how a given pose helped heal this or that postpartum malaise were less rigorous. A few days later I went to the Mommy yoga class (sans babies), but of the six students I was the only postpartum attendee (the others were pregnant). Although I discovered I'm a hyperextender and in need of restorative asanas, the class was not the existential high I'd been craving. The instructor was similarly slack in fixing poses.
Staton really does have a gift for identifying what the postpartum body needs, perhaps because she's a mother of two. "After my first baby was born I'd just cry and feel like everything was upside down," she admits. "A road back was through my body because it's a point of knowing and identification for me." The neutral environment of Baby Om reflects the casual tone of the book, making a strong case for reconnecting with your body while steering clear of what she calls the "cliché of a warm room with women talking about their uteruses."