Many people are always asking me about what Ayurveda is and how it can support pregnancy and the postpartum period. Ayurveda is a system of health and medicine from India that dates back almost 5000 years. It covers topics ranging from nutrition to yoga to surgery to philosophy to internal medicine. Ayurveda at its most basic is a way of living with awareness that we humans are connected with our environment. It’s not just traditional knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation without knowing why. It’s a deep rooted, very logical way of viewing the world with it’s own scientific method. It will enhance your life and bring you closer to your optimal self so you can best be of service to this world. Sounds too good to be true? Well, it’s not. I promise you that.
Using Ayurvedic knowledge to improve your well-being and that of your family or clients will bring forth greater ease and flow as the seasons of life change. Who doesn’t want more energy and less illness? This is what we are all going for, right? I see every day the way it has benefitted my friends, my clients, my kids, my classmates, my husband and of course myself. Sometimes it is the most simple things that give a big change. For example, eliminating ice from the diet improves digestion almost immediately.
In pregnancy, many women find that they are more in tune with the subtleties of their body and also feel a greater connection to nature. There is a strong sense of being a part of the world rather than separate as the transition into motherhood occurs. Ayurveda can nurture this to be lasting rather than a transient thing. A large part of why I felt a calling to start working as a postpartum doula was to give women who have this experience the chance to really just be in this shift in life and consciousness. Any mom knows that a fresh cooked meal, a little sleep, a quiet bathroom break or even an uninterrupted shower can make a big difference in outlook on everything. No woman should have to feel rushed to get back a “regular life” that will never exist for them again. It’s just not healthy in any way to be plowing the fields a week after having a baby no matter what people say. One’s physical, spiritual and emotional health shouldn’t have to suffer because of lack of cultural knowledge and misguided societal expectations.
Rather than feel that they need to be who they were before and jump right back into the hustle and bustle of modern life, why not support the mom’s mind, body and soul to be able to settle into her new space. Diet, rest and massage are the big ones in Ayurveda for ensuring this place is nourished properly. I will mostly be touching on the food aspect and how as a doula you can help without even using Ayurvedic terminology with clients. By connecting deeply with what we put in our bodies and relating it with how we feel physically, emotionally and spiritually, it becomes obvious that what is eaten in the postpartum period can either help this new space be a healthy one or one filled with difficulty.
I won’t overload you with too much information right off the bat but I will just do a brief theory introduction and I encourage you to seek out more if you are intrigued. According to Ayurveda, everything you see, including you, is made up of five elements. These are akash (ether/space), vayu (air), tejas (fire), aap (water) and prithvi (earth). From these elements, the doshas are formed. The three doshas are vata (air & space), pitta (fire & water) and kapha (water & earth). Each person has and is born with the doshas in different amounts known as their prakriti or constitution and remains with different levels of each as life goes on. There is a natural ebb and flow of these doshas which progresses in the day, in the seasons and also changes in age bracket.
Looking at the pregnancy and postpartum period as a season is what has always made sense to me. There is normal physiological changes that each pregnant and postpartum woman will go through. Focusing on what that means for postpartum, vata (air & space) needs to be balanced. There is a space where the baby was and if that is not properly cared for, can lead to various problems later in life ranging from urino-genital to constipation to arthritis to back ache/ sciatica. More severe conditions can also come from this as well.
Along with this need to balance vata, in the early days and weeks, special care needs to be taken with the digestion. It is generally weakened by the birth and even more so with a cesarean birth. With the weak digestion, the body may not get the nourishment it needs to restore, rebuild tissue and have good milk supply. You can eat all the healthy foods you want but if your digestion is weak it won’t do anything beneficial for you.
Impaired digestion also leads to constipation. A common fear of women after having a baby is the first poop and for some even the second and third are scary. With a proper Ayurvedic introduction to food and spices after having a baby, this fear is lessened. In Caraka Samhita, a main text of Ayurveda, it is recommended to feed the woman who gave birth a spoon of ghee processed with five pungent herbs right when her appetite comes on. This ghee should be taken with warm, light to digest foods for up to a week or more. It will help in firing up the digestive process, aid in expelling the lochia and also in bringing the uterus back to it’s size in a healthy manner.
If that ghee, called panchakola ghee, is not available, the diet in the first weeks should still be sure to include warm, cooked, spiced, light to digest and yet nourishing foods. Spices such as ginger, black pepper, garlic (cooked in ghee – not raw), cumin, ajwain, cardamom, fennel, fenugreek and caraway should be favored but most common kitchen spices will somewhat help in digestion. Fats should be taken in a quantity which the mother can handle. The ideal fat is ghee but coconut oil may be ok for those in more hot and dry climates. Foods that are prepared for the mother should include things such as barley, kitchadi, white rice gruel, unleavened wheat breads, oats, cream of wheat, mung soups, warm spiced milk, squash, beets, okra, yams, fenugreek leaves, asparagus and carrots. Sweeteners used not just for taste but for nourishing should be iron rich such as sucanat or date sugar. Sweet fruit can be taken alone after the first few weeks but the sweet kind only and certainly not cold in temperature. Dates are really the ideal postpartum fruit in my opinion. An easy, great snack for new moms is a medjool date cut in half w/ a little ghee and a 1/2 tsp of almond butter in it.
Leftovers should be avoided at all cost. They create gas in mom and baby due to increased heaviness in the food. Fermented cheese should also be avoided for some time as it is quite clogging to the system. The most important to remember is to avoid dry (crackers, toast, dry fruit), raw (salad, green juice), very heavy (lasagna, beef, yogurt, eggs, lots of nuts), gas increasing (cabbage, broccoli, raw onion) cold foods (anything out of refrigerator or freezer). Like increases like so since you are trying to increase warmth all over to aid recovery in tissue, fire up the digestion and have a proper flow of milk, you can see how extra care should be taken to make sure to avoid all of the properties that will create stiffness, prevent healing and constrict flow of milk. The body needs a lot after giving birth– but it must be of the right qualities for the body to be able to use fully.
Much of the healing in the early weeks and months is on the subtle level. It can’t necessarily be quantified like the way the uterus involution can be measured. Every body works at their own pace with a range of baby & family experiences to go with it. With that said, without proper attention to diet and rest, there is an increased chance of physical and emotional disturbances days, weeks, months or years down the road. Ayurveda gives really good guidance to why certain things may be happening and can be used very much to troubleshoot and to help avoid any unnecessary problems later on. I encourage you to try to understand this and use the principals in any postpartum cooking that you may do. Anybody who I have seen eat and live this way has an easier, smoother time with healing and long term breastfeeding.
Lisa is a lover of Ayurveda and living in accordance with nature. She lives in Marin county with her husband, two daughters, one dog and four goats. After the birth of her first child, it became clear to Lisa that the western medical establishment did not think about health the same way she did. She already had a budding interest in yoga (asana), food, herbs, nature and the power these things had over her health. Discovering Ayurveda gave her a construct to understand how these things fit together and a tool set to use them to help her family, friends and now her clients. She has found her niche as a post partum doula and Ayurvedic counselor in hopes to guide people on their path of health and happiness.
*photos of mom and babe breastfeeding are by Sophias Special Deliveries