Review of Sarah Zahab’s Postnatal Strength Workout

Before I get into the review, I just have to share: today is my son’s first birthday. This has been the most exhausting year of my life, but also an incredible one in many ways. About a week ago, he learned to walk unassisted, and so I’ve not only managed to keep a baby alive for a whole year, but he’s now a proper toddler!

It’s hard being a new mom. You know you ought to work out, but it’s tough. There’s the constant fatigue, there’s a needy baby who demands all of your attention just to stay alive, and it’s hard to decide what to do even when you have a few minutes.

Sarah Zahab’s Postnatal Strength Workout aims to solve a lot of those problems by incorporating the baby into the workout. But you know what?

It’s also hard being a blogger, trying to decide on just the right screenshot, when there are so many adorable moments.

So, alright, I’ll settle on this one, a baby who has gone rogue, in a Canadian t-shirt (go, Canada), gleefully taking over the show. The Postnatal Strength Workout DVD (of which I received a review copy) is a totally professional, well conceived workout that is both doable for postpartum women and scalable for a greater challenge. But Sarah and the other people involved in the making of the video clearly also have a sense of fun. I think it’s a great idea to bring babies into the workout, but mine never, ever stays still. It made me incredibly happy that the babies in the video didn’t either, and it just made the whole program seem more approachable. “This is being a parent,” it seemed to suggest, “but you can still carry on with the pushups.”

So let’s get into the meat. After an introduction in which Sarah describes how and when to do the workout, you get seven sections:

Warmup (about 3 min): Sarah introduces her co-exercisers, who show easier modifications of the moves. There is posture instruction, stretches with breathing, and squats, and guided kegels.

Baby Workout 1 (about 3.5 min): This section is intended for babies of all ages. Most of what they have to do is hang out on the floor while the moms exercise, but the positions allow the moms to interact with the babies. Here there is a focus on gently but carefully working the abdominals, push ups, and planks.

Baby Workout 2 (about 5.5 min): For babies who have head control. This section has more creative use of the babies, since they actually serve as weights! Sarah gives tips on how to hold the babies (and how to react to them if they don’t go along with the program!), as well as giving frequent technique pointers. I really enjoyed the exercises here, including squats, press-ups, some really intense ab twists, and bridge. One of my favourites was a double crunch with the baby belly down on the knees. I love the fact that these moves could also be done in the middle of a day, when spending time with one’s kid. And, since my baby already weighed over 20 lbs when I did this section, it was some serious strength training!

Body Weight Workout (about 9 min): This section just uses your own body weight. However, I still had the baby around — he stayed for the whole workout — and that worked fine even if I occasionally had to run after him. It includes some well-guided low squats (these can really hurt my knees if I’m not careful about form), push-ups, shoulder squeezes, a variety of hip lifts and crunches, leg taps, and… more kegels!

Ball Workout (about 9 min): This was a super fun ball workout, and I have to say, even though I am no longer newly postpartum, it was enough of a challenge for me to feel a burn on this one. Again, this is also all about the abs, which is exactly what a new mother needs to work on rebuilding, but there are also exercises for the backs of the legs, arms, and of course, the kegels.

Stretch (about 6 min): Pretty classic set of stretches, including some really nice moves for the lower back. And, oh yeah, more kegels! I’m guessing Sarah thought kegels were boring and needed to be split up over the workout — a good idea of putting necessary pauses to good use.

Bonus (about 5 min): After a check for diastasis recti, or abdominal separation, Sarah guides a few exercises for building abdominal strength that are safe to do in the first six to eight weeks after giving birth. After this section, the video moves directly into a few outtakes and bloopers.

All in all, Sarah Zahab’s Postnatal Strength Workout is a useful program you can do in bits (this is why I included rough times) or all together for a longer, but still manageable workout. Zahab suggests that if you want a greater challenge, you can repeat sections, which I probably will when I do the video again. I like that she’s constantly keeping you on form, and that she’s aware of women who have had vaginal deliveries or c-sections. She also has a really warm on-camera presence, friendly and motivating without being annoyingly perky. (Well, and the occasional twinges of a Canadian accent remind me of home.) The one thing that worked less well for me was the camera angle, which sometimes made it difficult to see what the modified exercises were. This video would have been just the right amount of challenge for me about eight weeks after birth; a year later, the ball workout and the exercises using baby as weight still made me work.

You can get Postnatal Strength Workout at Amazon, or directly from Sarah Zahab at http://www.sarahzahab.ca/.

Taking a breath; getting back to yoga

This morning I decided to do a bit of yoga. Not a big deal, except I haven’t done any in months — and I was enjoying my prenatal yoga so much before I gave birth. I’ve made a lot of time for dance lately, but taking the time to slow down my breath and really focus on the asanas just hasn’t been part of the picture lately. (One exception has been Hala Khouri’s Yoga for Stress Reduction.)

But here’s the thing: there really is nothing like yoga. It got rid of my knee and back pains, and that deep breathing kept me going through a stressful year in my life. So yesterday I bought a copy of Yoga Journal, and today I got my husband to watch the little one while I did a simple, two-page routine for stretching and twisting the back.

I didn’t have the right equipment. I was on a carpet (really not ideal for downward dog), wearing bellydance pants. But that barely mattered. It was so, so difficult to slow and deepen my breath at first. I think this is partly due to the fact that my dance courses have encouraged keeping tight abdominals and breathing into the rib cage, so I had to remember what the belly could do too.

It was wonderful. My back felt longer, and I was more relaxed. More than that, at some point, I started to feel just happy — about life, being a mother, and so on. I’m always just a little bit skeptical when I read these Yoga Journal articles about bhakti and radiant joy and love and all of that stuff, but you know what? Sometimes it works. No altars or mantras necessary. Not even a mat.

Review of Jennifer Gianni’s Fusion Pilates Birth Ball for Post Pregnancy

As I was working with Jennifer Gianni’s Fusion Pilates Birth Ball for Post Pregnancy, I had two thoughts:

1. While prenatal workouts are mostly light workouts that other, non-pregnant people could enjoy, especially if they have an injury or are suffering pain, postnatal workouts are pretty specific. Man, I thought kegel exercises were detailed — it turns out that the kind of exercises you do once the baby’s out are way more internal and precise.

2. This video has some really fun Swiss ball exercises, the kind that make having that silly rubber bubble worthwhile.

I previously reviewed Jennifer Gianni’s Fusion Pilates Birth Ball for Pregnancy, and while I thought it would be good for someone advanced in their pregnancy and needing very gentle exercises, I also found it quite a bit lighter than what I could do, and sometimes a bit fussy in the set-up required. Fusion Pilates Birth Ball for Post Pregnancy, on the other hand, is a much better fit for what I was looking for. (Both are review copies, by the way.) It’s still not about sweating, but getting the exercises set up is much easier, and the moves themselves are a bit more challenging.

Fusion Pilates Birth Ball for Post Pregnancy also includes the “Fusion Essentials” intro to proper form. And then it’s straight into the workout!

The workout itself begins with pelvic floor exercises. These are very well taught, even though it’s always kind of a challenge to translate these kinds of descriptions of very internal muscular contractions into real practice. The idea is to build up the pelvic floor to offer stability and resistance before doing abdominal work that presses down on it. The exercises are taught slowly, gradually, and with different kinds of breaths. There are enough reps to really get a feeling for things.

You may not be able to tell, but this woman is working her pelvic floor.

The rest of the workout consists of gentle but targeted and, for a new mother, intense pilates-style moves on the ball. For many of them, Gianni will start with a variation for very new postpartum moms, and then build on it for women in the advanced postpartum period. I thought this was a great way to both teach moves and make the video useful to women at different points beyond pregnancy.

Just about every part of the body has an exercise — the upper back, the abs of course, the legs and glutes. There are even some exercises that build on the pelvic floor work done at the start of the workout. And there is one truly delicious upper back/shoulder stretch. When I started doing it, I thought “oh, this is so good for anyone breastfeeding,” and sure enough, Gianni’s voice piped in and said the exercise is ideal for nursing moms! And although a number of the moves require a wall, I was able to use a couch and a chair successfully, as I did not have a free wall available.

Best of all, a number of these were really fun. I’m not a master of Swiss ball workouts by any means, but I have done a few of them so far, and I find that the ball is often a bit unnecessary. It could be replaced by a chair or weights depending on the move. Gianni has you do some rolling and balancing exercises that really only do work with the ball. They were so much fun, that I think I will put the baby on his playmat tomorrow and bounce around next to it on the ball!

Fusion Pilates Birth Ball for Pregnancy is also available from http://www.fusionpilates.com/.

Bellydance and Pregnancy – An Interview with Sera Solstice

I’m very excited to introduce a new feature on this blog: interviews with video artists and producers. Kicking us off is Sera Solstice, a pioneer of the East Coast Tribal style of bellydance. Besides founding Solstice Studio in New York City, she has produced five DVDs with World Dance New York, among them Foundations of Bellydance: East Coast Tribal, Lunar Bellydance, and Solar Bellydance. I previously reviewed Bellydance: East Coast Tribal, but for our first interview I wanted to ask Sera about a subject near and dear to my heart, the relationship between bellydance and pregnancy. Before continuing, you can read my review of her video Goddess Dance – Prenatal Bellydance & Meditation.

Why did you decide to put together a prenatal bellydance video?

I wanted to document/record my pregnancy and be able to share it with others. It was my second pregnancy, and I felt that it was a very special and sacred time. My first pregnancy was filled with fear and anxiety of all the unknowns. During the second go-around, I had more confidence. The meditations and presentation are what I wish I could have had during my first pregnancy. Perhaps there are a few Moms-to-be out there that could benefit from it.

How did bellydance help you during your own pregnancy?

There were many days when I didn’t feel like doing ANYTHING. But I still had to show up to teach class because I had committed to doing it. As soon as I would drag myself out of the house and to the studio, I realized how good it was for me. Suddenly I was surrounded by loving community who could share in my experiences, and I got great exercise. Getting your blood moving is so very important. Bellydance expands your body awareness, especially in the hips and abdomen. So it really helps a woman to connect to her body when she is pregnant, and be able to connect to the changes, and celebrate that through movement. It helps to connect to the baby too, as you feel your whole womb moving, its as if you are dancing with the baby. I think it makes women feel like a Goddess.

What are some of the greatest myths or misconceptions about prenatal exercise, or about dance more specifically? 

I think there is definitely an overload of precautions, and this is so no one is held responsible in case someone gets hurt. But the problem with all the warnings, is that it opens up the psyche and the consciousness to imagine these possible injuries, and then, I believe, it can make a person afraid, and therefore less trusting of their body, and therefore, more prone to the exact thing they are afraid of. What is most important is for a dancer to listen to her body.

Is bellydancing during pregnancy helpful to women even if they wind up having – or plan to have – a caesarean?

Of course! Bellydance is not just meant for preparation for birth. It is an active meditation of connecting with your body. I would assume it would help a woman heal faster from Caesarean, as she would have a stronger body, and a stronger desire to get back to that physical place of enjoyment of her body. As well as having stronger muscles in the abdomen. Plus a stronger back to help her to NOT use her abdominals as she is healing.

Is there a difference between the benefits an amateur can gain from prenatal bellydance and an advanced student or pro? 

Yes. A dancer who is already familiar with Bellydance will be able to achieve more benefits since she has already built the strength and flexibility BEFORE her body begins to change during the pregnancy. I would recommend that someone who has not studied any bellydance, try to get in as many classes as possible before your body starts the massive physical changes during pregnancy. I don’t think it is good for a 3rd trimester pregnant dancer to pick up Bellydance for the first time. I think it is best to go easy as possible and do movements that your body is already familiar with. Bellydance is a very internal dance. Many dancers seek it for its external image and style, but ultimately, the dance initiates from within and is most powerful in this way. So if a new dancer can approach it this way and not worry so much about looking like her teacher, than she could begin dancing during her 9th month of pregnancy. But again, it is about perspective. I see many people overdue it in order to get the results to LOOK right. A new dancer who is more concerned about FEELING right is on the right path.

How did you learn to meditate, and what role do you think it can play in a new mom’s life?

I started meditating as a teenager and have read countless self-help books and participated in countless spiritual, new age, shaman workshops and rituals. I had to make this meditation, really for my own birth, as I recorded it 3 days before I gave birth. I knew it was pretty far out, and may be a bit too inaccessible for a first-time meditator, but it was what I was called to do. For me, this was what the DVD was all about. The meditations were the most important element. I think WDNY played it down a bit in the title, probably because it was so far out there, but I had to commit to what I felt moved to do. It helped me a lot during my birth. I hope so much that Moms-to-be can use the visualizations. It is meant to be listened to multiple times over to prepare for birth.

In your experience, how soon after birth can women start to dance again? 

A woman should wait 6 weeks minimum. Unless the baby slides out without pushing, chances are the pelvic floor muscles have undergone some damage. The womb needs time for healing and for contracting back into place. It is most important that a woman does not rush out and start trying to work off the pregnancy weight. She is doing a disservice to the beautiful home (womb) of her baby, and her own body that worked so hard to find balance during this time. It makes me sad to see so many women who spend so much of their thought-energy on how much they weigh after the baby is born. It is a beautiful gift that you have received, that you were able to birth this little being. Celebrate your body, that did this work, treat yourself like a goddess, and enjoy your baby. Listen to the subtle voices of your body. IF it hurts, AT ALL, don’t do it! I waited at least 6 weeks, because I could feel there was damage to my pelvic floor, and I wanted to recover and heal, physically and emotionally. Birth is a traumatic miracle. It takes a lot of processing and adjusting. It is a whole initiation into a new stage that you will never return from.

Did having a child change the way you approach your dance? 

Yes. Life experience is what makes good art. I have such depth of life-experience, I have endless emotions and anxieties and frustrations, and incredible joys and loves to dance about. Dance about dance itself is quite boring to me.

I’d like to thank Sera for generously answering my questions about bellydance and pregnancy! I think “birth is a traumatic miracle” is a quote to hold on to — I can’t think of a single sentence that has better summed up my experience of it. And now I’m inspired to go back to my daily meditation…

You can visit Sera’s website at www.boldbellydance.com and find out more about her videos at World Dance New York.

First workout with Helene Byrne’s Bounce Back Fast! Post Natal Core Conditioning

My mother’s day gift to myself? Starting to exercise again.

Even though there are many people who exercise before hitting the six-week mark, it’s my nature to have a sense of fearful respect towards any process that involves cutting my body open and rearranging my organs. So I was really careful to toe the line before I got my doctor’s ok: I didn’t lift heavy things, I didn’t exert myself too much — at least not two days in a row — and I did absolutely no exercise. Not even the lightest movements. None.

But man, was I ever dying to. So to ease into it again, I decided to start with my review copy of Helene Byrne’s Bounce Back Fast! Post Natal Core Conditioning. There are two workouts. “Gentle First Moves” can be done early in the postpartum period, and is all I’ve worked with so far. Then there is “Bounce Back Fast!”, with an “Abdominal Separation Program.”

Bounce Back Fast! begins with a series of informational segments on beginning postpartum exercise, using kegels to recondition the pelvic floor, dealing with Diastasis Recti (I didn’t have this so I skipped watching this segment), and ways to work the abdominals so as to pull in the stomach. I think it’s really worth watching through these at least once for two reasons. First, Helene introduces the postures she later calls on in the workout. And second, the tips on keeping the abs engaged during movement have made me much more aware of how I hold myself when walking, holding the baby, breastfeeding, and so on.

Now, let’s be frank here. This is not an exciting video. It’s filmed in a very plain studio, though the shots are very clear and professional. Helene enunciates everything slowly, explains in detail what the postpartum body needs, and doesn’t use cutesy words for body parts the way exercise video instructors sometimes do. There’s no “tushy” here. When Helene means “anus,” she says “anus.”

Nor is the workout exciting. If you were simply to watch it, you would probably think nothing is happening. And this, my dear readers, is why I always insist on doing the videos I review. Because this plain 30-minute workout, with no music and no flashing lights, is ridiculously effective.

I’ve done it three times so far, and each time I was suffering from upper and lower back pain before I began it. The first time I worked with the program, I felt pain relief the following day. The second and third times, I had no more back pain immediately after finishing the program. I am serious. One moment I was in lots of pain, and exactly half an hour later, I felt good.

How did this happen? The exercises themselves are fundamentally basic stretches, the kind I know from physiotherapy and from pilates/yoga type workouts. They remind me quite a bit of the Viniyoga back therapy videos I love so much. However, Helene cues them with precise attention to which muscles should be tensed and which relaxed. And each of the exercises has something just a little bit different about them. One focused on pulling in the abdominal muscles uses breath work and hand spotting to get those loose muscles working again. (Incidentally, this particular exercise would be great for belly dancers looking to isolate lower from upper abs!) A hamstring stretch uses the included elastic band to do a gentle but powerful variation. These are just a few examples.

The other thing I want to note is that while these exercises seem like nothing from the outside, doing them correctly is very difficult, especially postpartum. While my strength and flexibility have improved with each repetition of the workout, I’ve also come to see more and more how much concentration they need to be done according to Helene’s instructions.

I’m looking forward to working with the second part of the workout. But I’m also looking forward to returning to dance and yoga instructionals, to say nothing of other postpartum exercise programs, with the increased awareness of my abdominal muscles taught in Bounce Back Fast!

Bounce Back Fast! is also available on www.befitmom.com.

Putting mom’s body together again

Yesterday I swam for the first time since last October. Having finally received the go-ahead for exercise at my six-week check-up on Monday, I spent what free time I could carve out during the week doing a series of activities I hadn’t been able to for ages:

1. Tuesday: I took a hot bath.
2. Wednesday: I got a massage.
3. Thursday: I went swimming.

I’ve come to see these as necessary activities not just for me, but also for everyone around me. On the especially exhausted days recently, not only have I been miserable, but I’ve managed to make everyone around me miserable too. The destructive power of an unhappy mom is considerable! So my husband knows to send me out of the house when things are getting bad. On one particularly exhausted day, he said to me, “Why don’t I watch the baby and you go to Half Price Books and buy some books?” Now, I need more books like I need a tornado to go through my living room (oh, wait…), but I dutifully went and did what I needed to do for the sake of my soul. I don’t think what he did is pictured in Porn for New Moms, but it should be.

Anyway, to return back to swimming… During my pregnancy, I splurged on prenatal massages twice. I don’t usually go for massages, but I thought my body deserved them then. But what surprised me was how psychologically important they were too. Even during a pretty easy pregnancy, I still felt like my body wasn’t really my own anymore. People stared at my belly, and every time I went to the doctor’s I was poked and prodded in various ways. It started to feel like my abdominal area was just a totally different part of me, available for the viewing and inspection of others. When I got a prenatal massage, I nearly wanted to cry, since it was the first time I felt like a whole person, with body and mind both belonging to me.

Fast forward to labour, a c-section, breastfeeding… now my body feels even more cut up into chunks. This bit is for the baby, this bit was cut up and needs to be kept dry and not used for anything, this bit is still bleeding, this bit hurts from lifting the baby, and this other bit hurts from bending over too much. It’s a completely fragmented experience of my own body. And while massage and the bath helped a bit, it was really when I went swimming that my body didn’t feel like bits anymore.

Plunging into the water I felt shocked by its coolness, and so I focused on that. I had been a bit scared about my first bit of exercise — would my abdominal muscles hurt? Would I feel them pulling the way I did a few weeks ago when I stood up holding the baby? But they felt fine when I started swimming, my back pain went away, and suddenly I could just give in to the meditative flow of being in the water. I’ve never been a particularly strong or skilled swimmer — in fact, I really only started to like it in university, after reading a book on swimming and working on my technique (yes, I do everything via book learnin’!) — but I can now breast stroke for ages.

Even more surprising than the fact that my body felt ok, in fact just like my old, pre-baby body, was this: I found I wasn’t getting tired at all. You would think after six weeks of no exercise, lack of sleep, round-the-clock breastfeeding, and only short walks, the first bit of cardio would have me huffing and puffing at the edge of the pool. Not only did that not happen, but I only left the pool because of the cold weather, not because I was tired. I really felt I could have gone on swimming for another hour, forgetting all those worries and to-do lists that usually fill my head.

I am now really looking forward to starting some gentle postnatal workouts and bellydance…

My son, future dancer

One of my goals as a parent is not to impose my own desires on my child. I’ve seen it happen too often that parents try to live out their unfulfilled dreams through their children, usually to the frustration of those children. The trick is: what’s the line between trying to revive a lost cause through your kid and just sharing your passions and hobbies with them?

I’m starting to realise the extent to which this is true since, spending a lot of time with my baby, I keep imagining possible futures for him. And unlike those moms who imagine their kids becoming doctors or athletes or lawyers or other important muckymucks, I’ve become convinced that my son has the right build to be a dancer. He has these beautiful, slender legs that I’m convinced will be long, he’s strong and seems to want to stand on his own despite his six weeks (tomorrow), and when feeding, sleeping, or just hanging out, his hands will fall into the most graceful shapes. For an example, see picture.

It’s not that I want or expect him to become a professional dancer, but I like the idea that he will enjoy dancing. The truth is though, even this quite basic and understandable desire is about me. You see, music and his reaction to it gave me one of the most important moments of joy, of connection as a mother, in the last few weeks.

Back track a few months. Baby — just a fetus at the time — was starting to respond to sounds and music outside the womb. My husband and I were watching Fatih Akin’s documentary of Istanbul music, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul. I was lying on the couch, and my husband had his hand on my belly, feeling the occasional shifts and movements. Late in the movie, there’s a scene on the outskirts of Istanbul, in a bar filled with Romani musicians. The musicians are well sauced, and the music is frenetic. One of the Roma interviewed talks about the spirit of the music, how in hearing it, you simply have to get up to dance. When classical Turkish music is played, he says, people just sit and watch.

All the time, the song is rising in a crescendo, the baby is moving like mad, and when the final beat strikes, he gives a good, solid kick in perfect time! My husband and I both feel it and look at each other in amazement. This only grows in the next scene, a short of classical Turkish music — true to form, the baby stopped moving immediately and stayed still for the rest of the movie.

We joked many times later that he liked gypsy music. In fact, as a fetus, he tended to react to fast dance music in general. Fast forward to five weeks after birth. I am tired from interrupted nights and what feels like constant feedings. I am gradually growing in love with this beautiful little creature, but I don’t quite know what to do with him yet. Newborns aren’t very interactive, after all. And then, one day when I’m feeling down, I remember the music he liked in the womb.

So I get the iPod that usually plays rain sounds all night, search for some “gypsy” music, and play it for him while he lies on the bed. We listened to Romanian and to Flamenco music, and his little arms and legs flew in every direction. Sometimes I guided his movements, sometimes I let him just react to it on his own. And can I add that random baby flails sometimes look like flamenco arms? Just sayin’.

Maybe he was reacting to the music, grooving in his own baby way. Maybe he had no clue what was going on. I never can tell with him. But it was a real moment of connection for me, reminding me that the little boy who now runs my life was once in my womb, dancing in time to the beats outside.