Sandi Sharkey has been teaching and practising yoga in London for over thirty years. It was a delight for Yogamatters to be able to catch up with Sandi following her recent visit to the Yogamatters Head Office, as Sandi and her husband Paul were the original founders of Yogamatters. In 1998, before Yogamatters was a thriving business, Paul and Sandi prepared to open a Yoga and Meditation studio in North London. There were no local yoga studios in the area, but after a year of planning and meetings, their investor pulled out, so Paul and Sandi turned their minds towards growing Yogamatters instead.
Over twenty years later, some of Sandi’s areas of specialisation now are Pre and Postnatal and Baby Yoga which she teaches at The Life Centre. She brings a wealth of experience and training to all her yoga teaching. We were keen to find out more specifically about Pre and Postnatal and Baby Yoga, but first of all, we were fascinated to find out how yoga has changed in the last three decades!
How has yoga in the UK changed since you first started practising and teaching over 30 years ago?
Yoga is a LOT more popular now. We live in a time where much healing is needed as our world is teetering precariously on the brink of ecological catastrophe. This is our wake up call and the precious practices of Yoga and Meditation offer ways to aid this. Yet despite the availability of these resources, if multitudes of people actually practised yoga, we would see greater transformation.
Wherever you are in London, there are yoga classes up the road at all the local gyms, swimming pools, health clubs…and yoga studios are now ubiquitous (as are yoga teacher trainings).
So – what are people practising? Classes are generally much faster-paced these days – and shorter. Music is often played in classes and that was not the case before. There is a vast consumer culture around yoga. Amidst this, students can sometimes be less attuned to the benefits they could be experiencing if they were engaging their bodies, hearts and minds. Years ago, classes were generally 2 hours and students formed strong ties with their teacher and fellow students, often studying together for many years or even decades. Some classes seem quite impersonal now with students rushing in and flying out like greyhounds… there is much more migration, speed and ‘movement’. Be careful not to conflate Yoga with ‘range of movement’. Yoga means ‘integration’.
In the past, studios often gave yoga teachers 2 classes side by side, to help make their travel/time more fruitful and financially worth their while. Now most studios tend to give teachers only one short class, with an emphasis on diversity rather than sustainability. Yoga teachers’ pay has not increased appropriately with the rising cost of living (for decades) or much in relationship to a teacher’s contribution and experience. Too many studios exploit yoga teachers by underpaying them – this situation is global and endemic. A friend of mine astutely asks: ‘Can one stay well while working in the wellness industry?’ My response to this is that the climate for teachers needs to improve and become healthier and sustainable for us all.
My wish is we recognise how privileged we are to be able to study & practise these valuable teachings and nurture what is sacred about this work while supporting each other and caring for our planet.
How important are the practices of Mindfulness and Relaxation to the practice of Yoga?
Mindfulness and relaxation are ‘Wisdom’ Practices: undoing; being; listening; meeting things as they are. Pranayama and Active/Dynamic Yoga are ‘Skillful means’ practices – ways we cultivate and change ourselves. We need both: to make efforts and then we need some lightness. (Have you ever played the game Monopoly with someone who took it too seriously? It kills the game!)
So, practise and let go… Application and Surrender. Inhale and Exhale. Both are co-essential. These two aspects can be thought of as two wings for a bird to fly… We need practices that develop us and we need practices that allow us to just be, giving space for creativity and insights to arise. There is a tendency for students to fall into a groove of either only doing active yoga or only relaxing practices…which over time is problematic. There is also a trend for students to slip out of class just before Savasana (the relaxation at the end…known to be one of the greatest ‘poses’ of all.) Not only is it disturbing to others when someone leaves class early, it is a loss for the one who departs.
We need both wings for transformation.
How did you come to specialise in Pre and Postnatal Yoga and Baby Yoga?
I was teaching and working within the Iyengar Yoga system for 10 years. During that time, many pregnant women came to my classes and I had to turn them away because in that system, I was not allowed to teach pregnant women. Many of my own students got pregnant and I could not continue to work with them, which was frustrating for me. I wanted to support them with appropriate yoga practices during that arc of their lives.
After giving birth to my second child, I became increasingly interested in the ways a woman’s yoga practice needs to adapt and creatively change for pregnancy and postnatal recovery. I turned to Birthlight and spent the next decade studying and teaching intensively. My third child was born during that time and I experienced firsthand these practices that are gems for women. I continue to feel passionate about sharing this knowledge and supporting others in the community.
What benefits does yoga have in pregnancy & after birth from your own observations and experience?
Pregnant women benefit so much from spending time with other pregnant women in a relaxing and supportive atmosphere. Stretching within safe parameters is joyous and having quiet time to bond with the baby helps women feel connected to their babies before the birth. They don’t have to wait.
The classes focus on breathing, postures and flowing sequences that are specifically for pregnant women, in order to increase well-being and mental clarity; to de-stress and make space for the baby (in body/heart & mind) and enable the women to feel integrated and be more comfortable with all the growth and change. The practices we do create a feeling of lightness and release worry and heaviness…often bringing delight!
To be able to approach birth with relaxation and energy & lots of practical skills, including mindfulness, supportive breathing techniques & body/baby awareness is very empowering for women. However, because we don’t have control over outcomes, how a birth unfolds is always unique and unpredictable. If women have practice in meeting their moments, with access to their breath and mindful attention, they generally approach birth with greater presence and energy – for whatever it will be. Afterwards, whatever the birth was like, a woman who has been practising yoga & has a community of supportive friends, will usually replenish and heal vibrantly.
Obviously, we have to be very open when talking about birth, because every situation/person and birth is different…but we can say ‘No Guilt, No Blame & No Shame.’
It is really helpful if a woman can return to the same teacher after she’s had her baby. In modern times, there is so little continuity of care, in spite of the fact it is known that this considerably benefits our physical and emotional health. Sometimes a yoga teacher is the only healthcare professional to be with a woman steadily over the arc of her pregnancy and the postnatal time. It can be a very important relationship.
My Mum and Baby Yoga classes are held on the same day, side-by-side, so the women can see and continue to meet each other. When one leaves the Pregnancy class to have her baby and then later shows up for the Mum and Baby Yoga, the other pregnant woman can see her again and meet the little one. Life-long friendships and relationships of support are formed, and vital information is exchanged through this contact.
And the babies who came to yoga before they were born (i.e. Pregnancy Yoga) are a real joy, because they already have experienced what we are doing. They look around as if to say, ‘Oh yes…this is where my mummy relaxes, and I get lovely attention and have a good time!’ They recognise the sound of the bowl I ring and the sound of my voice, as well as the rhythms of class.
It is emotional for women to return to the circle of class with their baby no longer inside them but earth-side. Having class on the same day & in the same space maintains continuity and makes it all feel much more relaxing and familiar. I really appreciate The Life Centre for making this possible, having taught Pregnancy and Postnatal Yoga at many studios in London, and nowhere else was it set up so supportively in this way. These classes are a very special space and actually a brief window of time – because babies grow quickly and before you know it, that phase is over.
How do Postnatal Yoga classes assist with rehabilitating the body?
Knitting the body back together well, after birth, is essential for a woman’s physical, emotional and mental health…for years to follow, including menopause and beyond. In the West, we tend to care for women inadequately during the postnatal period. This hugely important time in a woman’s life is sadly often mismanaged. Let’s change this!
Women need a lot of rest in the first weeks after birth: to have their hips wrapped and eat nourishing and warming foods…They need to be horizontal (ideally on their backs) as much as possible so the tissues, which are loose, can begin to knit together towards the core -as opposed to dropping from too much standing and inappropriate exercise after birth.
With good Postnatal Yoga practice, we heal the body from the inside-out…starting first with the breath & finding tone with the exhalation. It is the breath that tones our deepest tissues. There are gentle, healing practices a woman can begin while lying in bed almost immediately after birth. All of the practices are simple and very healing and can be done while a woman is with her baby. Learning how to self-care, while caring for another, is essential for mothers.
In terms of yoga movements, the upper body needs a lot of opening and release to counter all the rounding over baby/holding/feeding…However, the lower body needs to close. Most general yoga opens the hips and stretches the pelvic tissues and that is destabilising for a woman post-natally. After giving birth to my first child 29 years ago, I returned immediately to general yoga and suffered sacroiliac pain and joint destabilisation for years, not realising that I was doing inappropriate practice. So many women do exercise in this time, which is actually not helpful to them in the long-term. We need to support the pelvic ligaments and allow the lower body to close in a good way, after all the stretching and opening from pregnancy and birth.
In Postnatal Yoga, we practise movements that can be done on our back, seated, on all-fours, standing and walking: all with baby, if awake, or independently if baby is sleeping close by. Also songs, rhymes and playful movements bring a lot of joy and confidence to the mums and babies as they grow healthy and strong together.
We inspire and learn from each other in these sessions, sharing insights and valuable everyday wisdom from our experience as mothers, bringing honesty and non-judgement to all topics. Sharing and supporting each other paves the way for brighter times as parents and community.
What are the main benefits of Baby Yoga for your baby?
If a baby has had a traumatic or instrumental birth, the positive touch and handling in a Baby Yoga class eventually overrides the trauma & they feel more at home in their bodies. Loving interactions help to heal birth trauma. Yoga aids digestion and elimination in babies and relieves gas and wind. It also enhances healthy brain activity and reduces fractiousness in both Mum and Baby as their nervous systems are soothed, promoting more and better sleep. So, although many practitioners are keen to ‘wake up’, most new mums are more interested in getting sleep! Learning ways to rest and recover energy is vital in this phase of a woman’s life.
Babies love seeing other babies and mums…the socialising and bonding. They love being in a relaxed space where mum is really present with them and not distracted. Through positive touch, massage, movement, and relaxed holds, babies develop delight about their bodies and love feeling cherished and enjoyed. Many of the mum & baby classes I attended when my children were babies were chaotic and hectic. In a yoga class, babies learn about being with others in a relaxed and calm way.
Yoga promotes healing, relaxation and confidence for the mums, which their babies appreciate. Mums learn to handle their babies in ways they enjoy and benefit from at different stages of development. As more joy and warmth is generated between them, this sparks delight. It helps the mother/baby dyad to trust and communicate better. Babies learn to relax by example…& they like it when their mums relax. Sometimes at the end of class, everyone is resting quietly and that is a truly wonderful experience for a baby – to know spacious stillness with others.
You describe your teaching style as ‘non-dogmatic’. What does that look like in practice?
‘Dogmatic’ means ‘opinionated, imperious, arrogant, unyielding, dictatorial & rigid’. I admit to having strong feelings about studio etiquette: being quiet if you enter class late; being respectful and aware of each other; informing the teacher before class if you have to leave early; ensuring your mobile phone is on silent (or better switched off) before entering the studio and keeping all devices off the yoga mat; leaving equipment and the room tidy for the next class. However, I am at my most relaxed about all of this in a Mum and Baby Yoga class.
In terms of my teaching style, I am welcoming, approachable and invite students to feel/adjust/question and explore. Yoga is self-experiential.
How can we start to bring the transformation, healing & insights from our practice into our daily lives?
That’s a good question. We need to ask these sorts of questions and explore them as contemplations; to live freshly.
In the spaciousness of a deep practice or in the midst of a retreat, I may have insights and moments of clarity, where I ‘see-in’ to a particular area of my life. I might sense a skilful response to a challenging dynamic or relationship. The real work then is not to forget amidst the busy-ness of life and actually bring those transformative insights into actions; to live my deepest values, responding to life as it is occurring now, rather than projecting and re-acting…
I am interested in cultivating awareness in this body/heart & mind in order to benefit myself and those around me. This life is brief. How can we minimise suffering and make a safe and creative environment for ourselves and others? How can we stay centred while on this earth and open to a sacred relationship with nature? How can we provide sustenance and welfare to those in need around us? How can we stay in touch with the numinous and divine? Sometimes a skilful action is not to ‘do’ anything and let something or someone ‘be.’ Everything we do, or don’t do, has an effect.
Meditation, in particular, helps me be willing to listen and live into this day from my deepest values.
The Buddha described the nobility of meeting what is ours to meet: turning towards our own suffering to know its causes, with Metta and Compassion. The Latin origin of the word suffering means ‘to bear; to endure; to carry’. There is dignity when we carry and endure what is ours, knowing the poignancy of our lives. Habits can fall away as life is tasted with greater freedom.
The Buddha also talked about ‘The Bliss of Blamelessness’. Something transformative begins to happen when we stop blaming others for our misfortune & instead turn towards our suffering with presence, equanimity and compassion. How can we live noble lives and reduce suffering in a world that is spinning? To heal problems ‘out there’, we need to heal them ‘in here’.
Caring is at the very heart of practice.
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