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.