A Mama Yoga Break Read: On Abdominal Separation, Breath and Alignment Pospartum
Welcome to Mama Yoga Break members! I am absolutely delighted to meet you. In this bespoke blog I am discussing what abdominal separation is, what its common causes may be and how to check for it. I also provide a short section supported by some videos on alignment that will helpfully help you postpartum and moving forward as a mama. If you haven’t already, please book in for a pelvic health check with a local women’s health physio and as ever, be realistic, patient and kind to yourself in your mama journey. The fact that you are a Mama Yoga Break member is the most wonderful step in providing you with a supportive community and time for some self-care - for mind and body.
What is Abdominal Separation?
The Rectus Abdominis runs from your breast bone to your pubic bone and is joined together with a strong fibrous sheath called the Linea Alba. In Latin, Rectus means ‘straight’ and Abdominis means ‘abdominals’. ‘Linea’ is referred to as ‘line’ and ‘Alba’ means ‘white’ ie white line.
In some pregnancies, the Linea Alba becomes a little darker in colour and is visible on your stomach. This is called Linea Negra which simply means ‘dark line’.
What happens to the abdominal muscles during pregnancy is completely painless - you aren’t aware of it, and it’s referred to simply as abdominal separation. The Rectus Abdominis stretches vertically (up and down your stomach) to accommodate baby bump at your front, and when it can’t stretch any further up and down, it then starts to separate horizontally (from left to right).
So in effect, it’s the left and right sides of your rectus abdominus muscle that have separated from one another. I guess it’s a little bit like the Linea Alba is a piece of heavy duty plastic wrap stretching apart. The separation can take place above the belly button, below the belly button, or both.
Did you know that 66% of women who suffer with pelvic floor dysfunction also have abdominal separation?
The muscles don’t separate in every pregnancy and it depends on a number of factors. These factors are also fundamental in its healing which is why I believe improving separation (if you have it) requires a ‘whole body’ (& mind) approach. It’s not just as simple as exercises; we need to consider lifestyle implications, perhaps posture, alignment, your nutrition, as well as the amount of sleep and relaxation (Mama Yoga Break anyone?) you are getting.
As with anything if you suspect you have abdominal separation - seek professional help (have you booked in for a specialist pelvic health physio check up yet?) Try to avoid any form of sit up, high impact exercise and seek guidance from Jenny @Mama Yoga Break on adapting your yoga practice as some poses such as forward folds/planks or full sun-salutations are not helpful for healing separation.
Did you know 2 out of 3 mums have abdominal separation after their second pregnancy?
How to Test Yourself For Abdominal Separation:
Here is some information to enable you to do a self-test of your own abdominals for diastasis recti (abdominal separation) I would suggest, recovery dependant, you wait until at least 6 weeks after birth. The test is often called the ‘Rec Check’. I like to do ‘Rec Checks’ with new clients and ask regular clients to monitor their own abdominal integrity periodically. You an also ask your Midwife, GP or OB to help you check at your 6-week check up.
You need to be lying on your back to do the ‘Rec Check’.....but, before you jump down to the floor, here’s the best way to get to the mat safely:
Step down onto one knee
Place the other knee down, followed by both hands
Turn onto your side
The walk yourself down sideways
Then, keeping your knees together, roll over onto your back
SET UP POSITION FOR THE ‘REC CHECK’:
Legs are bent
Feet on the floor
Feet and knees are hip-width apart
FINGER TIPS AT THE READY...
Diastasis recti is measured in finger-widths, so you’ll need to place two fingers on your abdominals.
Start with two finger tips above your belly button, pointing them down towards your pelvis.
ACTION FOR THE ‘REC CHECK’ TEST
With your body and fingers at the ready, we’re good to go.
You’ll need to do a little ‘sit-up’ and breathe out as you dig your fingertips down into your tummy.
Wiggle them from left to right slightly, and see if you can ‘feel’ the muscles ‘grab’ the sides of your fingers ever so slightly.
Repeat above and below your belly button to get an accurate test.
You are looking at, and testing both width and depth i.e. the integrity of the muscle. You are also looking for any doming, hernia or discomfort and do remember (super important) to breathe throughout. You may like to do this without clothing if you are finding it difficult to feel your abdominal muscles through clothes. If you find you can fit more than 2 finger widths in the gap or unsure that you have done the test correctly, then you may like to ask your healthcare provider to also check for you. In the meantime, try to avoid any form of ‘sit-up’ (even getting out of bed) high impact exercise or any form of ‘plank'.
So what causes abdominal separation? It really is a symptom of a whole body problem- perhaps pregnancy, genetics, incorrect lifting/loads, it can happen during birth, during a c-section, an imbalance of the abs, weight gain, breathing, posture and a modern lifestyle. This list is by no means exhaustive and, of course, there are so many other biomechanics and lifestyle habits that contribute to the forces placed on someone’s body, resulting in loss of equilibrium.. I generally focus on breathing, posture and, of course, a modern lifestyle as causes which discourages us from moving as we were designed to (as nomadic, hunter-gathers!); and gives us social conditions that may actually contribute to poor alignment/body pressure. (‘smartphone neck’, driving, sitting too much, ‘sucking it in’ or spanx — anyone?).
Lifestyle Habits: The Whole Body Approach
The body is a complex, interconnected collection of pressure systems and structures - all affecting each other. The way you stand, sit and walk – all affect the mechanics of how your body functions and the positive or negative forces that are placed on it consequently. Forces that may contribute to a pressure imbalance that could potentially contribute to pelvic floor dysfunction or abdominal separation.
Let’s cover correct standing posture. Think feet hip width apart, feet pointing forward and weight back in your heels. Then, drop your ribs. This stance utilises your bodies in-built structural engineering and the loads are then correctly placed/stacked and thus the resulting forces are working in tour favour. Pregnancy massively affects our alignment as does life as a mummy. Think a forward-tilted pelvis and a new centre of gravity caused by baby-bump and then think arms continually forward of us walking a stroller, carrying baby or feeding baby. Ugh – give us Eagle Arm pose Jenny!!!! When you do look to correct you stance and alignment, do correct it slowly and try not to grip with your glutes. You do not want to adjust too much and refer pain elsewhere. If in doubt, seek advice from a professional. (I have made quick video on rib thrusting below - my youngest woke up as soon as I started filming it - so sorry for his little vocal hello!)
I am a rib-thruster, many of us are. Due to insertions of muscles to our shoulders, spine, then through or pelvic girdle to our lower legs, our head and feet, really do impact our pelvic health. Did you know you have a muscle that runs from your mid back to the the top of your legs (psoas) and another muscle that runs from your hip to your lower leg (Rec Fem) – whole body anyone? I hope this clarifies how your head and feet are so important when talking all matters pelvic. So, by thrusting your ribs you are impacting your pelvis position and compressing the back of your spine making it more difficult to breath thoracically. So, if you simply drop your ribs, you take the pressure off that linea alba, make some space for breath and help your tummy heal.
The way your pelvis is aligned is super important – all of those internal organs in the pelvic bowl are held together by ligaments, ligaments that attach them to each other and even the sacrum. By sitting properly, you help align them and help their positioning. Check how you are sitting now? Is your tail bone tucked under? Try and sit on your sit bones, with a gentle s-curve in your lower back and do think about correcting your feeding position to maintain this sitting position where you can.
If the pressure system and alignment is off…in some instances it may contribute to pelvic floor dysfunction or abdominal separation. Think stance, think drop your ribs.
It’s so important to incorporate breathing practice in to your daily routine and a Mama Yoga Break can be the perfect opportunity to do so! Often in yoga you are taught to belly breath which is great for relaxation – but not so great for that pressure system. We need breath to compliment both our diaphragm and pelvic floor (core) and allow them to work together. We need to learn to move - or engage our core - or /and contract our pelvic floor - on the exhale. We need breath to work with the pressure systems not against it -pushing on the tummy (ab separation) or pelvic floor (dysfunction) and perhaps aggravating symptoms.
Often modern-life and stress (and pregnancy) encourages chest breathing – we need to retrain ourselves to breath into our thoracic area and gently expanding our ribs, helping those forces to work with us and not against us.
I highly recommend watching this video by biomechanical expert Katy Bowman from her blog post Under Pressure Part 2 – which explains breath beautifully.
Relaxation is a valuable part of healing a postpartum body – congratulations on being a Mama Yoga Break member and being in a supportive community which encourages self care. New mums need self-care, support and stability. If your body (new mums!) is tired, under continual stress and in autonomous ‘flight and fight’ not only are certain emotional muscles that affect your pelvis position affected (i.e.psoas) – but the stress hormone cortisol is pumping through your body. Yoga and mediation can be a valuable part of a busy mum’s relaxation.
And, when it comes to exercise postpartum (I always get asked) after a satisfactory check up with your maternal health care provider- somewhere between 6 weeks (vaginal delivery) to 10 weeks (c-section delivery) is roughly where we should be looking to begin correct and gentle exercise. Before then rest, where possible, really is the best choice. It’s all individual - to a persons birth, fitness and healing. It’s also a good idea to have a pelvic health check up before returning to exercise if you can. Choices ? Think gentle, think suitable gentle breath and core work, it should be low-impact -think walking! If you want to go to class – make sure your exercise teacher or yoga teacher are qualified- and ask to see their qualifications: we don’t mind! Your body may also slightly affected by relaxin (hormone) for up to 4 months after birth or when breastfeeding ceased. So try not to overstretch - you can injure yourself.
Remember: Listen to your body, ensure you are eating enough (and of the correct foods), if you have any form of pain, discomfort - stop and do seek help from your medical professional immediately. If you have any pelvic symptoms such as leaking, pain or heaviness - seek professional help. It’s common but not normal.
Then there is a whole other topic of healed footwear and how that affects your alignment- and the pressure system – but Mama Yoga Break members to give you a mama-break (!) perhaps that’s a subject for another day! If you want to know more, check out a recent #bemorehuman podcast I did on the subject.
Remember now is the time more than ever to listen to your body, be kind to yourself and never work in to any form of pain. Your body is healing and re-aligning and is likely tired. If in doubt and for bespoke advice, speak to your healthcare provider and I highly recommend all new moms book in for a specialist check-up with a pelvic health (women’s health) specialist physio. I have left the comment section on this MYB post so if there is anything you would like clarification on drop a note in the comments. Give yourself and your hard-working body - a Mama Yoga Break. Jenny is so experienced in working with the pregnant and postnatal body and can help guide you through this special journey that is motherhood amongst her warm and supportive community.
Hugs, Sarah x
Sarah Pearce BSc is a Pregnancy and Postnatal Exercise specialist (Guild of Pregnancy and Postnatal Exercise Instructors) and a Claire Mockridge - Your Pelvic Matters/Diastasis Detective teacher. The BREATHE Principle™ is a 7 Step Program for fixing Diastasis Recti. This is a NEW full-body approach to fixing abdominal separation. We’re going north of the navel and south of the pubis here! In fact, as a Diastasis Detective I'll be helping clients in… Solving the Mystery Of Fixing Abdominal Separation! With continued thanks to Claire Mockridge.
This post is designed to be informative and is no way intended to replace the professional guidance of your GP, OB, GYN or Midwife. If you have any concerns about your health seek medical advice soonest and it is imperative that you speak to your healthcare provider before returning to exercise.