In the mid 1990’s, I was a children’s nurse in Birmingham, running a baby ward. Although I loved the children and families, I was disillusioned with the bureaucratic behemoth that was the NHS. I decided a change of direction was required.
Having already developed a love of aromatherapy, I was delighted to be accepted onto a new degree starting locally. For 3 years I studied full-time whist working part-time as a bed manager at the children’s hospital. In 2001, I graduated with a first class degree, BSc(Hons), Complementary Therapy – Aromatherapy and a determination to move into complementary therapy full-time. It would take another 4 years working P/T as a children’s Laser Nurse Specialist and P/T as an aromatherapist before I could realise my dream. In 2002, my partner and I found, and bought the building that was to become my complementary health clinic.
My partner and I never had children. Not quite a lifestyle choice, more of a misunderstanding(!), but I loved working with children. So how could I combine aromatherapy and working with children? Massaging other people’s infants and offspring is not really appropriate, so next I studied baby massage that I could teach to parents/carers. It was during my baby massage diploma at Manchester Metropolitan University that I heard about baby yoga from a tutor.
Baby yoga – seriously? I was fascinated. I immediately started to explore Birthlight and knew it was an area I really wanted to explore further. I enrolled on a residential baby yoga P1 training course at Princess Diana’s old prep school in Diss, Norfolk in early 2004. Our tutors were Francoise and Sally and I absolutely loved everything about it. Francoise and Sally were inspirational and this was also where my own yoga journey really began. I had dabbled in yoga before, but now began regular practice. I finished my baby yoga diploma later in 2004.
I was eager, if somewhat apprehensive, to start teaching baby yoga classes. I already taught baby massage and it was through these parents that I began to gather together groups to teach. It was also when I realised that my vision of a complementary health clinic was changing radically. My plans to rent the first floor as residential accommodation and convert the ground floor to treatment rooms all changed once I stated training in baby yoga.
I needed baby yoga and yoga in my life. And so the room that had once been a betting shop was converted into a small yoga studio, the area that was once a laundrette became reception with plenty of room for buggies and pushchairs and a ramp for disabled/buggy access onto the building. The ‘party loo’ (so named because its big enough to have a party in) had ample space for disabled loo and a wall mounted baby change and was a decent sized space in which adults could change into yoga gear for the adult classes. The first floor became 3 serviced consulting rooms for other therapists to rent, with one disabled access consulting room on the ground floor.
The clinic and yoga studio opened in December 2005. I split my working time approx. 60% teaching baby massage and yoga, 25% aromatherapy and eventually around 15% of my time was as a baby massage and aromatherapy tutor. In addition to my daytime baby yoga classes, we had adult hatha classes, adult Kundalini classes and after a few years, Iyengar yoga. With my OCD tendencies, Iyengar yoga quickly became my preferred style of yoga.
Word of mouth brought many parents to me for baby massage classes. I kept baby massage classes to a short 4 week course, encouraging the parents to then go onto baby yoga. I rented the studio space to local NCT teachers for the NCT antenatal classes which was also a good way of making prospective parents aware of the baby massage and yoga classes, as were the antenatal yoga classes taught by fully qualified yoga teachers. I found teaching classes with babies of mixed ages challenging, so developed an ‘inbetweenies’ class specifically for the mobile babies. I had classes 4 weeks-6months/non-mobile babies, then the inbetweenies for the mobile babies and subsequently, once I had undertaken the SMART yoga training, classes for walking babies/toddlers too.
Teaching baby yoga has been one of the happiest, most joyful and most satisfying jobs I have ever done. I have been able to incorporate many of my children’s nursing skills and I have never, ever got bored teaching it. My clinic is sited very close to the University of Birmingham and QE Hospital Birmingham, which is part of one of the biggest NHS trusts in the country. As such my ‘target’ group of parents tend to be middle class professionals and academics and frequently from a wide variety of ethnicities and different countries. In one class back in 2018, I had parents from 7 different countries; England, Sweden, Lithuania, Columbia, Germany, Portugal and China! Baby yoga can be taught even when your parents do not speak much, if any English.
These young women are mostly well educated in successful, professional careers. They are used to being in control and in charge. They have done all the research about their pregnancy and birth and child development. But when faced for the first time with the precious human being that is their child, it is a very different matter. All the reading and research in the world does not prepare you for the brick wall that is sleeplessness and a small, screaming infant who initially, you have no clue how to help. Baby nurturing is a completely different set of skills to learn that needs to be learnt by doing, not just reading. The techniques we can teach in baby yoga can go a long way to helping these new parents. One thing I aim to teach every new parent I meet, it is ‘Tiger in a tree’ hold! And never underestimate the value of the empathy and support that these mothers get from each other. It is priceless and I believe, a huge part of the importance of the baby yoga classes.
I have also taught baby yoga to classes funded by schemes such as Sure Start. Valuable lessons I have learnt in these environments;
- Make sure the team who employ you understand what baby yoga is. Parents won’t come if they don’t see the relevance of ‘yoga’ to them and their baby. Trying to teach extremely active 3 and 4 years olds alongside newborns and toddlers with special needs in a space 10 foot by 8 foot ain’t gonna work, especially if the parents think they don’t need to be there too!
- People don’t aways value something that is free. Attendance was always better and more consistent where the parents had made a contribution – even if only a token contribution of say 50p.
For many months, via a local charity I was also a volunteer teaching baby massage and baby yoga skills to parents of children with special needs which was a privilege.
I instigated baby yoga classes for Dads and partners who worked during the week. Once a month on a Saturday, late morning (so as to reduce clashes with sporting fixtures) those parents who have to work in the week can come along and ‘see what the mums get up to’. They can come on their own, with their partner, or the partner’s can wait in reception if required for breast feeding, but wanting to let the dad take the class on their own with the baby. The all- male class is a fascinating dynamic – very different indeed to the mums classes.
My first ever dad’s class, the dads did not know each other and the studio had something of the atmosphere of a dentist’s waiting room at the start of the session! 10 very apprehensive men not saying a word to each other or their children. How wonderful to see their reactions develop during the class. Especially in those who at first seemed nervous and awkward with their little one. When their child beamed a big smile as dad bicycled their legs or chuckled out loud when swung in his arms, the dads’ reactions to their baby’s response were truly heart-warming to see. The connection between child and parent is indeed a spiral of joy.
I have developed my own style of teaching over the years. Now, rather than formal lesson plans, I have a basic plan at the beginning of each week for all classes and a general plan of how I will aim to develop their baby yoga skills throughout the weeks. But I always allow the classes to be flexible and mostly led by how the babies react during the class. I have learnt so much from other baby yoga teachers over the years both on CPD courses and informally. I have enjoyed developing the odd new song for classes and have collected an eclectic mix of soft balls and washable soft toys to use in classes over the years. Silent, soft toys are helpful to occupy the babies when their parents are in deep relaxation. But I must say the most valuable tool I use when I do use them, is without doubt a pot of bubbles. Best baby distraction ever and a great tool for teaching toddlers about their breath.
There are babies I have had in my classes who are now in their teens and families where parents have bought their 1st, second, third and once even 4th and 5th baby to classes. I have taught parents with twins. One parent brought their child to my classes from when baby was 4 weeks of age right up until he went to school at 4 and a half! I have taught parents and aunties and grannies and au pairs. Many of my baby yoga parents from over the years have become friends.
In April 2008, my life partner Allan died after a very short illness. He was 55 I was 45. We had been together 22 years and I was devastated. But my business was only just over 2 years old. I could not stop for long. 2 weeks after Allan’s funeral, I returned to work. The parents were as supportive of me as I had been to them and were generous in allowing me cuddles with their children. The joy of teaching baby yoga helped heal my grief-stricken heart.
Over the years I have faced many other challenges and several close family bereavements, but also plenty of happiness. I met a wonderful man in 2013 and we married in 2014. Yoga and baby yoga have helped me though it all. It has been a hard decision to retire from running classes, but one that is right for me now. I shall though be forever grateful to Francoise, Sally and the entire Birthlight community for enabling me to be part of this wonderful world.
Yoga gives me inner strength, an inner peace and baby yoga is definitely good for the heart.
Julia Richardson (née Fearon) Feb 2023
PS. Julia’s dolls will not be retiring but have gone to new homes to carry on sharing Baby Yoga