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Interview with Bonnie Berk Back I Home
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Interview with Bonnie Berk

1. In your opinion, how challenging is it for a woman to be a mom?

We all have our ideas about what motherhood is all about. For women who grew up in a home with a working mom, it is easier to see the realities. Although, many think it will be “different” for them.  The women who seem to have the best adjustment to motherhood are those who embrace chaos.  There is no “perfect” mom so for those women who put pressure on themselves to be “perfect,” motherhood can be a frustrating experience. The recipe for adjusting positively to the new mother experience:  a tablespoon of humor; a cup of good friends who are also new moms, a pinch of humility and a bucket-load of flexibility in both mind and body.

2. Teaching yoga requires great patients. what inspired you to become a yoga teacher?

I have been practicing yoga since I was 19, about 30 some years ago. I always knew that the best way to really understand something was to teach it. So, even in my early days, I started teaching yoga to whoever was interested. In nursing school, I understood the relationship of a “healthy mind in a healthy body” and taught classes there as well for fellow students. I didn’t have a big following since most of my classmates thought I was “whacked!” After all, in 1977, yoga was just coming onto the scene in the US.

When I graduated second in my class, I think many of my classmates realized the wisdom of my ways. Many years later after becoming a personal fitness trainer, I noticed a certification for a yoga teacher and decided I wanted to bring yoga to pregnant women and new moms. So, I completed the certification, developed Motherwell Yoga and since I was certified, my local YMCA asked if I could teach for them. I started with just a few students in my class and now our YMCA offers two classes everyday, many of the instructors are my former students and I am recognized by Yoga Alliance to train other Yoga instructors. And by the way, our average yoga class has about 20 participants both men and women of all ages and fitness levels. I also started a yoga program for cancer patients and people with heart disease as well as a Wellness at Work program bringing yoga and mindfulness programs to the worksite.

3. You are a pioneer in using yoga as a complementary therapy. How can yoga help reduce cancer and other chronic diseases?

Yoga does not necessarily reduce the incidence of cancer or other chronic diseases, but can help deal with health challenges should they arise. With cancer patients, treatment may cause many side effects that yoga can help reduce including fatigue, nausea, neuropathy and overall feeling of wellbeing. When a person has a chronic disease, there is a disconnect that occurs between the mind and body. In yoga, we embrace the diagnoses and we honor our bodies in order to help them heal. Our internal healing mechanisms work best when supported by gentle exercise, relaxation and inner peace. Yoga helps to bring all these elements to the cancer patient as well as anyone who suffers from chronic disease.

4. Sometimes a mom might not realize she is pregnant for about 2,3 months. how important it is for a mom to know she is pregnant at very early stages?

The first few months of life are critical in fetal development. By the third month of pregnancy, the baby has everything he or she needs to survive. So. the sooner a mom knows she is pregnant, the better she can make lifestyle modifications that can impact the health of her and her baby. For example, drinking alcohol can cause many negative effects to the fetus, especially in the early months of pregnancy. So, I recommend that women start practicing healthy behaviors even before pregnancy. In my book: Motherwell Maternity Fitness Plan, I devote an entire chapter on the importance of adopting a healthy lifestyle before pregnancy. And the earlier a woman starts to practice mindful exercises, and the longer she continues, the more benefits she will receive. In fact, some studies show a positive correlation between exercise in early pregnancy and the size of the placenta, an important predictor of pregnancy outcome.

5. Peaceful pregnancy and positive childbirth sounds so relieving. How can meditation help a mom achieve this?

By practicing meditation, we experience our true selves. We are not our bodies, we are not our thoughts, we are not our feelings. We are spiritual beings having a physical experience on this earth and our bodies are the vehicles to take us through this lifetime. Through meditation, we sit with our true selves noticing our bodies, our thoughts and our feelings as an outside observer looking in. When we are able to separate ourselves from the “experiencer” to the “witness,” our bodies are able to relax, our minds become recharged and our feelings have no power over us. So we are able to make decisions that are in our best interest rather then just reacting to things around us.  

Developing a mediation practice before or during pregnancy, we are able to “witness” the changes that occur in the body and notice anything that doesn’t feel right in the moment. We are able to watch our minds and explore the feelings and thoughts surrounding pregnancy from an objective standpoint. We can notice any fears, and/or anxieties that need to be addressed in order to find inner peace. We realize the importance of the breath in regulating our nervous system and helping to bring relaxation into the muscles.

The most important aspect of having a positive childbirth experience is being able to “let go.”  With yoga and meditation, we learn the importance of surrender and trust.  And when birthing a baby, we need to surrender to the experience and trust that whatever is supposed to happen will happen. By allowing ourselves to surrender to the experience, our bodies are able to do the work of birthing a baby. When women are tense and come from a place of fear, muscles tighten and labor can actually be delayed putting excess stress on both mother and baby.

6. What type of meditation would you recommend?

The best time to meditate is after some kind of exercise, whether it be aerobic in nature or yoga. Physical exercise allows us to sit more quietly afterwards. This is especially important for the new meditator.  Start sitting in a comfortable position and just observe your mind, your body and your breath. While observing, try to practice the following:

1.    Non-judging: Be an impartial witness to your experience
2.    Trust: Adopt an attitude of trusting yourself, your goodness and your wisdom
3.    Non-striving: The ultimate goal of meditation is “non-doing.”  See if you can just be yourself
4.    Acceptance: Accept however you feel in the moment. If you have a headache, accept that you have a headache.
5.    Letting Go: Also called “non-attachment” – if you find yourself judging, see if you can let it go; if you discover yourself not trusting, accept this fact and let it go. Whenever a thought comes into your view, label it “thought” and let it go. If you experience a feeling, label it as “feeling” and let it go.

Start by practicing a few minutes everyday and then notice how you feel. Many people start for a few minutes and find over time to want to sit for a longer period of time. Honor your body and do what feels best to you. For many people, having a guided CD or teacher works best in the beginning. For this reason, I developed the Baby’s Breath 2-set CD for women to use during pregnancy and then during the childbirth experience. One CD has guided meditation the other is just the music when a woman can meditate on her own. After practicing with the CD – just hearing the music can evoke a relaxation response.

7. Moms are so worried about gaining weight during pregnancy. So how soon a mom should start exercising after the delivery?

Moms can actually start to exercise on the recovery table by practicing deep breathing, kegels and abdominal strengthening exercises. Inhale and expand the belly, exhale and pull the naval toward the spine while squeezing the pelvic floor. Moms need to get into the habit of performing kegels whenever working the abdominal muscles.  

As far as aerobic and weight training, it is recommended to walk in the early days postpartum but wait until bleeding has stopped before practicing any high intensity exercise like jogging or weight lifting. For women who have cesarean delivery, recovery takes longer and most obstetrical health care providers prefer for the stitches to heal before women start exercising more strenuously. The key is to not do too much too soon. Women who exercise strenuously and diet strictly after delivery are more prone to injury and postpartum depression. Moderation is the key. Listen to your body, eat sensibly and exercise moderately.

8. What key points a mom should remember when exercising during pregnancy?

Listen to your body!! Sometimes our ego minds want us to do things that are counterproductive. If you are tired, rest. If you are hungry, eat. If you are thirsty, drink.  Many pregnant women find that exercising several times for short periods throughout the day rather than exercising for a long period at one time is best. Have a plan and be flexible. And since pregnancy is an aerobic experience just by overloading everyday, concentrate on core strength and flexibility. Having a strong core and flexible muscles during pregnancy helps to prevent back problems during and after pregnancy. I also want to remind moms that exercise does not make up for a poor diet. Choose foods that support the pregnancy and avoid those that are empty calories like soda, candy and some baked goods. Try eating lots of fruits, vegetables and grains. It is a lot easier to not gain excess weight than to take it off after delivery.

9. Can you tell us more about Motherwell Maternity Fitness Program?

I developed Motherwell while being a labor and delivery nurse and teaching childbirth education classes over 25 years ago.  Many pregnant women in my classes would tell me of uncomfortable symptoms like swollen ankles, back discomfort and fatigue. I believed that perhaps if they exercised, they would experience less symptoms and have a more positive experience. Now, this was before obstetricians were even recommending exercise to pregnant women. So, not only did I have to educate the women, I had to educate the health care providers as well.

I started teaching one class in Philadelphia in 1980 and now have over 100 instructors teaching Motherwell classes throughout the US and abroad. Through research conducted at Temple University, the Motherwell Program has been shown to decrease common discomforts of pregnancy as well as improve overall sense of wellbeing.  And since that time, many studies validated my belief that mild to moderate exercise during pregnancy is beneficial to both mother and baby. I also produced two award-winning videos : Motherwell Home Exercise Video for Expectant and New Moms ( discontinued) and Motherwell Yoga for Expectant Moms.

10. What are your future plans?

I recently combined all of the Motherwell programs into one: Motherwell Mindful Pregnancy and Parenting Fitness Course. This way, instructors learn all mind/body aspects of working with pregnant women in a variety of settings: personal training water fitness, yoga, pilates and shape up with baby. Motherwell has evolved into a mind-body fitness program recognizing the intricate relationship between mental thoughts and feelings on individual health.

I have a passion to help new moms not only recognize their own inner spirit but to acknowledge the spirit residing inside of their babies and to honor that spirit. Our job as moms is not to raise children into the adults we would like them to be but rather into adults that they were meant to be.  I would like to produce a Shape Up With Baby DVD hopefully with a corporate sponsor who will underwrite the cost.  I am also training many yoga students now to work with special populations including pregnant women and new mothers, people with chronic diseases and children. The more we can partner with others to spread the message of mind-body health, the more chance that people will empower themselves with knowledge and skills that will positively impact their lives and the lives of their friends and family.

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