Baby yoga is on the timetable of nearly every yoga studio these days, but it wasn’t always that way. When I started classes in Exeter, nearly fourteen years ago, baby massage was a thing, but baby yoga was still pretty much unheard of. There was postnatal yoga with babies, but the kind of baby yoga class I wanted to go to, didn’t really exist,.
This was apparent in the kind of enquiries I got at the start. ‘How do you do yoga with a baby? Do you use it as a weight?’ I couldn’t blame them. I’d being teaching prenatal and postnatal yoga for a while; I’d done children’s yoga training, workshops with Birthlight and Sitaram; but what I had in mind was something slightly different. I was a mother of an eight-month old baby and I knew for certain that he wasn’t going to behave like the babies in the yoga books, lying patiently while I gazed lovingly down at him from a tree pose. And he certainly wasn’t going to pose in his down dog under my down dog. There may be a single moment when your down dog coordinates with your baby’s – in fact it does happen in my classes now and then, but we don’t aim for it. I don’t know how long it takes to set up these photos (and they are beautiful), but I was after something that embraced all the imperfections of parenting, not the perfect illusion.
For me, yoga is about reality. It’s about seeing things as they are, with no illusions, unattached from the narrative or expectations we attach. Those phrases that stick in our consciousness: I should be able to…I’m not good enough at… came up more than ever for me when trying to be a parent. I wanted a class where they were totally irrelevant and where everyone felt as though whatever they or their baby was doing was perfect. I also wanted the classes to be useful, to offer practical ways of calming babies and soothing colic, or how to do some relaxed breathing in the middle of the night when your baby won’t sleep. And, importantly, I wanted it to be fun. Because being a parent is hard enough.
The one thing I was certain of was that I didn’t want to run a class where mothers couldn’t relax doing their yoga because their baby was crying, or feel any more pressure than they already did about whether their baby was behaving, performing. Or feel frustrated because they’d carved out this time to do something for themselves and they’d spend the hour either carrying their baby around or feeding. Don’t get me wrong – I am a big fan of postnatal yoga, which I also teach, but I just had something slightly different in mind.
I was sure there must be a way to nurture both parents and babies that put babies at the centre and emphasised, above all else, the interaction between parent and baby. I also didn’t want my class to have a purely postnatal focus, as I wanted it to be open to anyone caring for their baby – mums, dads, grandparents and carers. So, from the beginning, we advertised the classes as ‘yoga for babies and their grownups.’
So, based on my own yoga practice and teaching, all the research I could find and my own experience as a mother, the first Yoga Babies class started in March 2006, with three mothers and their babies, in a slightly damp basement. Since then, the locations and the numbers have changed, but the classes have remained true to their original concept. We start with some grounding and as much breathing as we can get away with. Then we focus on stretching and releasing areas that get tense while holding and feeding babies, such as neck, shoulders and upper backs and then, after grown up yoga with lots of clapping and clicking fingers to engage babies, we turn to the babies. When I started, the songs I wanted to go with the baby stretches didn’t exist, so I made them up. We go through relaxed holding and carrying, soothing techniques, baby meditation (yes, really), and we end with relaxation. After all these years, I am amazed nearly every week at how this actually works, that most of the class are lying with their babies, relaxing together. It’s like a little miracle. And I love it.