Maco Yoshioka is the founder of Madre Bonita, a nonprofit group that offers postpartum fitness programs for women using elastic exercise balls. Yoshioka, 40, who studied sports physiology at the University of Tokyo, says she became aware of physical and mental difficulties for new mothers when, in the late 1990s, she herself became a single mom at age 25, experiencing many discomforts, such as exhaustion, lack of stamina and sore joints. She stresses the importance of care for women in this period, to help them ward off postpartum depression and stop them from becoming abusive toward their children. Madre Bonita classes are now being taught at 50 locations across the country by 24 accredited instructors, including Yoshioka.
I understand that you studied sports physiology in graduate school. Were you always interested in the human body?
I was most influenced by a workshop I attended in my undergraduate years, held by butoh dancer Akaji Maro of the group Dairakudakan. The way they used their bodies was so different from the way we learned to use our bodies in school, like in physical education classes. When you really use your body to the maximum, you feel mentally refreshed as well. Through my undergraduate studies in literature, I was also exposed to the human potential movement in the United States, which explored the connection between the body and the mind. But back then in Japan, if you talked about yoga or bodywork, people would consider you suspicious, associating you with Aum Shinrikyo (the now-disbanded doomsday cult). I dropped out of university a year into my graduate studies, but what I’ve found most useful is the knowledge of sports physiology and anatomy I acquired from books when I was studying to get into graduate school. It helped me to create my postpartum fitness program.
You got pregnant quite early in your life — when you were in Greece, right?
I was naive. I entered graduate school thinking I would become a researcher, but I was disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm among my fellow students, feeling that everyone else was writing papers for the sake of writing papers. My professor then sent me to a two-month academic exchange program in Greece, where graduate students from all around the world would get together at the Olympic Studies Center to research various aspects of the Olympics. That’s where I met somebody — a Greek man — and I thought about marrying him.
Did the man come to Japan?
Yes, but not till very late — after my son turned 1. Initially I was thinking I would fly to Greece right after I gave birth and live there, but it wasn’t that easy. You have a little baby, and your body is completely exhausted. And I couldn’t feel the same way about him anymore, because we weren’t able to live together during the toughest time of my life — right after giving birth. So I decided to be a single mom.
I understand that the difficulties you experienced back then led you to develop your own fitness program.
Yes. At that time, I felt that my stamina had decreased, and my cardiopulmonary function had been depressed. I was only 25, and I was out of breath after climbing just a few stairs. And because breastfeeding requires you to stay in the same position, you start having muscle pains everywhere — in the lower body, the neck and the back. Your muscles have been weakened, and your posture is not correct, so you are chronically in pain. I felt strongly that I needed to do some aerobic exercise to regain my physical strength. But then, you can’t jog, because your pelvis has been damaged from labor, and you can’t really go swimming when you have a little baby nearby. That’s when I came across an exercise ball. You don’t harm your joints with it, and you can increase the load on your muscles. You can also hold your baby while you are on it — my son would often sleep while I was holding him on the ball. So I started experimenting with it.
Was there anyone else who gave postpartum exercise lessons back then?
There were some mama-san fitness programs and post-natal aerobics classes, where you would take your baby to the class and let him or her lie on the floor while you exercised. But the purpose of those programs was just to give women a stress release. The participants were like, “OK, we’ve had a good sweat, so let’s go grab something and gripe about our husbands!” I couldn’t stand that. Why do we have to be so vulgar after giving birth? And you start referring to each other as “someone’s mom,” not by your name. That seemed so childish to me. I thought there should be a scientific, anatomically correct program helping women to recuperate. I also wanted to meet women who behaved like adults, so I started doing the classes myself.
So you started giving classes and named your group “Madre Bonita” — meaning “Beautiful Mother” in Spanish — in 2002. Why did you name it that?
There are lots of images of “beautiful moms” or women who “stay beautiful even after becoming a mom” in the mass media, in fashion magazines and all that, and I hate such images. What I think is beautiful about mothers is that they start to grapple with their ugly side as well. The relationship with your partner changes dramatically after your child is born. Women often put up with hardships (of child-rearing) without communicating that with their partners, and they get stressed out, irritated and disappointed. All kinds of ugly feelings emerge — jealousy, exasperation over their careers, etc. — and if you go out and do some shopping, get a pretty baby sling or stroller, you can temporarily forget those feelings. But you are just escaping from the problems. Instead of preaching to the women that they should talk to their husbands, I thought I should give them physical strength first.
How did you come up with the format of the program, which comprises a total of four 120-minute sessions every week?
It evolved into this style after I incorporated feedback from my students. Each session comprises three parts: first and foremost, aerobic exercise. Next, we do what we call sharing — where we do the adults talk. We time the session rigorously, breaking down the part further into three themes — life, work and partnership. Those are the three major issues for postpartum women. Everyone is given a piece of paper, and within two minutes, you draw a picture on something that symbolizes your ideal on one of the three themes you have chosen. Then you exchange the drawing with another participant, and then start drawing a “mind map” around the symbol, listening to what the other says about herself for three minutes. We give them that much time to find the words for their thoughts. At first, it’s so hard for them to speak their minds; when they are at home, stuck with the baby alone all day long, they lose parts of their vocabulary. But when they have others listening to them, they regain the ability to articulate their minds.
Do you think it helps the women communicate better with their partners?
Exactly. And it helps them when they prepare to get back to work and they need to explain their wishes and requests to their employer. The third component of our program is self-care. We teach participants how to ease stiff shoulders and how to breathe properly to regulate their automatic nervous system. These are the skills they can apply to themselves even after finishing the course.
Do you think there is particularly strong social pressure in Japan for women to be full of “maternal love”?
Well, I think the culture of taking maternal love for granted exists in Japan — even though in reality, women don’t suddenly get surges of maternal love after giving birth. Some women are attached to the idea that they must be full of maternal love, so I want to change that.
How can you change that?
When you are stuck at home alone with your baby — and there are a lot of women like that — you get all your information from the media, like TV and books. But you would be less affected (by the stereotyped ideas of “ideal” women) if you have more chances to talk with real women who can speak their minds — and who happen to be moms.
You recently translated into English “Sango Hakusho (The Postpartum White Paper),” which the group put together by surveying participants of its classes. Why did you release the English version?
I once had an opportunity to speak at a symposium of social entrepreneurs in Thailand. In Southeast Asia, having a safe delivery was the top priority, and the kind of postpartum services we provide were considered a luxury. And then a year later, I had another opportunity to go to Seattle, where I talked about how postpartum depression affects one in 10 women in Japan. Participants came up to me after the session and confided that it’s a big problem in the States as well, and that, even in places like America where you have easy access to psychiatric care, there is a level of social stigma attached to postpartum depression. So I thought there’s a lot we can share with people outside Japan. (T.O.)