A conversation with Julia Ayearst, Certified Yoga Therapist, and Stephanie Cullen-Conroy, Community Registered Dietitian.


Healthy Beginnings is The Stop’s perinatal program for new and expectant parents in our West Toronto community. The program runs weekly, offering a healthy meal, educational workshops, support from local health partners, food vouchers for our Good Food Market, a childminding service, and the opportunity for participants to connect with one another. Participants of the program often experience challenging life circumstances, including low income, single parenthood, poor housing, mental health issues, marginalization, recent immigration, and language barriers. 


New to the program is a monthly Yoga and Nutrition session, led by Julia and Stephanie. Julia joined the Healthy Beginnings program in early 2023, as a longtime admirer of The Stop and someone who has fused her passions of yoga and helping new parents adjust to life during and after pregnancy. Stephanie is a Registered Dietitian (RD) with Davenport Perth Neighbourhood & Community Health Centre, and through a long-standing partnership with The Stop, offers her skills through her role as the designated RD for the Healthy Beginnings program. In 2023, Julia, Stephanie, and TaniaThe Stop’s Senior Coordinator of the Healthy Beginnings programjoined forces to provide holistic education and activities for program participants 


Julia and Stephanie sat down with us to discuss their session, the value it brings to our community, and what they hope to achieve. 



How does the practice of yoga impact or benefit new and expectant parents?   


J: For the physical body, gentle movement is wonderful for releasing discomfort both during and after pregnancy. But beyond aches and pain, you can really start to have an impact on physiology and emotional wellbeing when you couple that movement with the proper breath worksynchronizing breath and movement is beneficial for things like anxiety, depression, and fatigue as well as other common postpartum issues such as incontinence and diastasis recti. We know that breathing slows down the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and can cause your parasympathetic nervous system to switch on, moving you out of fight or flight mode and into rest and digest mode which is critical for healing.


Whether they know it or not, many new parents are walking around in a state of hypervigilance, and if you’re pregnant maybe you’re concerned, because it can be daunting to think about becoming a parent, so there can often be strain on the system. Integrating short practices once or twice a day can have huge impacts. When we’re thinking about community members who access this program, it’s so important to make sure these tools are available and easy. Breathing is something everyone has an intimate relationship with; it doesn’t have to be complicated. Carving out intentional time for yourself, especially in a time where you’re learning to care for somebody new, can be incredibly beneficial.


Julia’s tip: Try this straightforward technique to help with sleeping or relaxation. Lay with your legs up a wall and an eye pillow on your face (if you don’t have an eye pillow, you can use a face cloth or something else to cover your eyes) and stay there for 5-10 minutes of breathing. Do this for 10 minutes a day, and you have a daily yoga practice. Yoga is about bringing the mind back to the present moment and finding stillness, peace, or clarity—all of which happens when we breathe deeply.  


Why do you believe nutrition is so important for expectant and new parents


S: Good nutrition is a key foundation for a healthy pregnancy. Our diet gives babies the nutrients they need to grow and develop while giving parents the energy they need to feel their best. Improving the quality of nutrition during pregnancy has been associated with better birth weights and affects the infant’s immune system and organ development. Maintaining a healthy diet postnatally will continue to promote positive health outcomes for both parent and baby by lowering risks of health problems like high blood pressure or low iron, or discomforts like constipation, and heartburn. More recently we have been exploring the gut and brain connection as a way of understanding health, especially mental health. Though more research is needed to know exact outcomes, basic nutritionregular meals, enough variety in food sources, and sufficient fluidsis pivotal to being able to manage emotions, think clearly, make decisions, stay patient, feel energized, and navigate life.   


Can you talk about any specific needs or issues that you’ve witnessed new and expectant parents experience in the Davenport community and/or Toronto more broadly?


J: A general feeling of overwhelm is commonly shared, because more and more, we’re raising babies on our own. I’ve met a lot of newcomers in the program, who are recent immigrants, and they don’t have support networks. That’s a precarious position to be in while you’re getting ready to have a baby. When you’re a newcomer or relying on these programs, you can often be more at risk because you may not have financial security and can’t buy yourself a community. Somebody that has resources is going to be able to pay for a doula to come and hold their baby so they can get some sleep. Whereas if you don’t have the funds, and you don’t have family or close friends around you, you really are on your own. 

Additionally, aches and pains, which are universal and related to carrying a baby, sleeping in weird positions because you’re sleeping with a baby, and other physical challenges are commonly faced.



What do you hope the Nutrition and Yoga sessions will achieve?


S: Julia and I see a natural, simple connection between the health of the body, the mind, and capacity to take care of yourself and your family. We hope to streamline our sessions to be more accessible: making better use of new parents’ time and promoting wellness as something that is available to everyone. Wellness culture promotes harmful and misguided beliefs and behaviours that puts wellness in an unreachable place for many. It tends to elevate and idolize alternative approaches, directs the responsibility of health solely on the individual, and ignores the social determinants of health which have a far greater impact on health outcomes, such as someone’s income, employment status, or access to health care. We are here to meet program participants where they are at and give them practical tools and resources that don’t require spending money, following an eating plan that is not culturally relevant, taking unneeded supplements, or feel oppressed for not matching a particular picture of health. We hope that program participants leave our sessions with at least one new tool, strategy, or practice and the confidence and self-empowerment to use in their daily lives.


If you have any questions or would like to learn more about the Healthy Beginnings program, please contact tania@thestop.org.  


This interview has been edited for brevity.