Any google search about yoga, pregnancy and safe forms of exercise throws up a myriad of often conflicting information. There are no absolutes rules about a yoga practice during a normal pregnancy. It is a unique experience for each woman, and general guidelines change week to week as your body changes. It becomes more important than ever to actually practice the clichéd advice of ‘listen to your body’.
Generally speaking, you can continue with flow, restorative and yin classes once you find out you are pregnant. Many women take these precious first three months to acclimatize to the many hormonal changes that take place in their body, and to ensure their body is getting adequate rest. I generally advise women to start pre-natal classes from the 12th week onwards. If you are fatigued, or nauseous, keep your practice very simple. You should be supporting your body and mind, not exhausting it.
Don’t assume that your regular yoga teachers know you are pregnant, so please communicate this with us before an open yoga class. There are suggestions we can make to keep you comfortable, and modifications to some postures that may benefit you. However, I highly recommend beginning Pre-Natal yoga classes early on so that you can learn how to nurture yourself through the practice of yoga. Connecting with the warm, supportive community of other expectant mothers is probably the single best reason to enjoy pre-natal classes.
Here's 13 tips to help you navigate your yoga practice whilst pregnant, based on my experiences practicing through two pregnancies, and teaching hundreds of pregnant mamas since 2005.
- Backbends like cobra or locust pose that are practiced on the belly can be very easily substituted with camel pose on the knees, or other simple spinal extension exercises on the hands and knees. In Pre-Natal class you will learn how to safely modify sun salutations to accommodate your growing belly.
- Avoid crunch style sit ups and core work that can overwork the Rectus Abdominus muscles (the ‘six pack muscles’). In some cases, this can lead to a separation of these muscles down the front line of the body called Diastasis Recti. Plank and forearm plank with moderate holds remain good for most women throughout pregnancy so long as they aren't holding their breath, and can be easily modified as your pregnancy progresses on the knees. An awareness of recruiting Transverse Abdominis, the muscle that ‘hugs’ across the belly, can help to minimize the separation of the Rectus Abdominus muscles. But, for now let go of the crunches.
- Standing postures such as Fierce Pose, Warrior 1, and 2, Triangle, Extended Side Angle, Wide legged squats and Wide legged forward bends are great for most women. We want the body, especially the legs to be strong to support the extra weight of another human. Occasionally, women experience discomfort at the front of their pelvis as the softening of the ligaments that hold the pelvic bones together begin to separate in preparation for birth. Unfortunately this can cause most standing postures, (and even sitting and walking in some cases) to be very painful. Seek out a healthcare professional such as a Physical Therapist or Chiropractor who will have some techniques that will help you.
- Balancing postures such as Tree, and Warrior 3 among others provide an opportunity to remain mindful, day to day, of the changing shape of your body and constantly shifting centre of gravity. They also help to build stamina, strength and focus.
- Begin to phase out those closed twists where you are forcing the belly against the supporting or lifted leg. This would include postures that encourage you to bind the hands under the legs or behind the back. In other words, give your baby lots of SPACE! Steer your baby towards open space, and enjoy gentle twists of the spine in that direction instead.
- Minimise lying flat on the back for extended periods of time, to reduce the possibility of the Inferior Vena Cava artery being compressed by the weight of the uterus. This causes vital blood supply to be diminished as it moves from your legs back towards your heart and may cause a drop in blood pressure and dizziness. Savasana, can be enjoyed instead with the back propped up on a 45 degree angle, with blocks and bolsters, or with the use of props, resting on the left hand side where the artery is not compressed. Many of my students prefer to sit with their backs against the wall in a comfortable cross legged position for meditation and relaxation instead.
- Downward Dog as an inversion is generally safe, though this can aggravate heartburn, and shouldn’t be practiced if there is any dizziness or blood pressure abnormalities. Childs pose is another option to stretch the deep muscles in the back, hips and shoulders. Downward dog facing the wall, with the hands pressing into the wall at hip height to open up the back line of the body from the shoulders all the way down to the heels is another good alternative.
- Remain cautious with over stretching in all postures. The hormone relaxin can make the ligaments that support the joints unstable. If you are already very flexible, pull back away from your 'edge' and find more places to cultivate strength to avoid injury.
- Stay hydrated during class and don’t overexert yourself in any physical activity to the point where you can feel your temperature rise uncomfortably. Don’t wait for an invitation to rest. No more hot yoga.
- Inversions are really at your own discretion and can continue to feel great for experienced yoga practitioners. Remember though, in headstand or shoulderstand there is a lot of extra weight pressing into your head, or shoulders and your body needs to be strong enough to support it. Furthermore, women find that an ever expanding chest can limit your ability to breathe with ease, and, turning upside down does nothing to improve that with the weight of the baby further pressing into the diaphragm and lungs. I don’t teach inversions in pre-natal class, and pregnancy is certainly not the time to begin learning them. But I continued to enjoy them sparingly throughout my own practice when pregnant, with no ill effects.
- The Pelvic Floor needs to be strong, resilient and pliable. I suggest that all pregnant women see a pelvic floor physiotherapist during their pregnancy to understand this part of their being with great clarity. The days of prescribing Kegels to all women in Pre Natal yoga classes is over! This may even be the opposite of what some women need. Most pelvic floor awareness and strengthening can be done by correct attention to breath, and integrating correct breathing into everyday movement patterns.
- Fluid movements are fantastic during pregnancy. We are fluid bodies, at least 65% water, and even more than this when we are pregnant. Moving the hips, and shoulders with circular, lubricating motion feels wonderful and helps to connect you with the watery environment that your baby embodies. I often ask my students to imagine the sorts of movements, or embryonic yoga postures their baby is doing, and to move in a similar rhythm and flow. These types of movements are very beneficial for women to help assist them through the intensity of labour and delivery.
- Your pre-natal yoga practice gives you an excellent space to learn to trust your breath. To learn specific breathing techniques that will help you for pushing in labour, you will need to attend a birthing course. However, the concentration and mindfulness that centres around a breath movement practice served me very well when I was in labour. My birth 'plan' was upended and I found myself in a rather scary emergency situation. All I had was my breath to support me and keep me calm. In the operating theatre, despite the whirring of machines, bright lights, scrambling doctors, and rapidly fading fetal heartbeat I still had my breath. I knew how to keep it steady and calm like the gentle wash of waves upon the shore. That's all I had. That was something that couldn't be taken away from me. That pulled me through. And luckily for us, it was a happy ending.
Remember to always follow the advice of your midwife or doctor in relation to the unique circumstances of your pregnancy. I teach Pre-Natal yoga classes every Saturday at 10:15 am at 889 Yoga and look forward to seeing you there, and assisting you with any questions that you may have.