Friday Featuring … Yogic Expectations Part 2: Pregnancy
or, “Navigating your own path”.
It seems like everyone in the yoga world has an opinion about how women should practice yoga when they are pregnant, when they should start, how they might adapt an existing practice, and why. For pregnant students, it can feel impossible to be confident in choosing a class or practicing at home, even when they are seasoned yogis. Teachers are on one hand desperate to create a safe and welcoming space in their classes, to build community and to be able to cater for every student’s needs, and on the other hand, fearful of doing harm, of turning students away or insulting their capacity to make their own decisions.
Earlier in the year, I posted about the unexpected lessons that I took away from my exceptional Pregnancy Yoga Teacher Training with Uma Dinsmore-Tuli. These have significantly informed my approach to my own pregnancy (including my yoga practice) and to my teaching. Being the optimist that I am, I also committed to posting one of the pieces of homework from the course: a one-page handout of key precautions for pregnant women practising yoga. I anticipated that I would do so the following week. But, as it does, life has taken over, and here I am at 38 weeks, hoping that the following basic suggestions and additional thoughts are useful for new yogis, those who have a practice, and perhaps for teachers looking to refresh or add to their knowledge.
Before we get there though, a note: You’ll see that many of the suggested adaptations aren’t physical, and where they are, I haven’t (and am not qualified to) include a long scientific explanation of why they might be a good idea. Instead, I’ve attempted to step back and consider the experience of pregnancy (and being human) in the round (if you’ll forgive the pun!).
We rightly advocate that every person’s experience is their own, as are the choices that they may make. From my training and my own experience, there’s no denying that pregnancy does bring about significant physical, emotional and energetic changes. So, my view is that this time is a particularly useful opportunity to consider carefully and with curiosity how we approach and adapt our practice (and lives), and so learn and grow. The following suggestions come from that place:
For pregnant and non-pregnant people (i.e. as always):
- Listen to your body and rest if you need to. Your experience in your body and mind always trumps the teacher’s suggestions.
- Come as you are – bring your joy, excitement, tiredness, fear and overwhelm with you to class and use the space and time as your refuge.
- Walk, swim or do other aerobic activity to compliment your yoga practice. Relying on yoga to provide all dimensions of wellbeing is asking too much of the practice.
- Ask yourself how the practice can really serve you and pursue that. Using a relevant example (and there are plenty more below), you might prioritise seemingly “easy” poses, during which you can engage the individual parts of your pelvic floor, thus supporting your longer-term continence, over holding plank to “maintain” your abs.
For women in their first trimester (to about 14 weeks):
- This is a question which elicits the full range of views: from “the teacher’s insurance won’t cover them” and “you wouldn’t want to risk a miscarriage” to “you aren’t sick, you’re just pregnant, keep doing whatever you were doing before” and “people around the world work on farms and have babies in fields, so why would we change our approach in yoga?”.
- My tendency is to be conservative – the reality is that a pregnant women’s body is changing. During the first trimester, it is preparing to nourish the baby and building a whole new organ (the placenta) to support this. Blood volume is increasing, which can lead to breathlessness. Some women experience nausea, low blood pressure and anaemia. Hormonal changes are inevitable. These factors can mean unprecedented levels of exhaustion, which are likely to be combined with pretending to your colleagues, friends and family (even yourself) that everything is “normal”, adding a not-insubstantial layer of effort.
- There is also a more vulnerable period at the end of the first trimester, when hormonal changes mean that the risk of miscarriage is thought to be slightly higher, meaning that backing off from strong physical exertion is sensible.
- So, if you have a regular practice and it serves you to do so, keep practicing, but add an extra layer of mindfulness to your movement and pose choice and start now in preparing yourself to adapt. Life and your body are not going to be the same.
- If you are totally new to yoga, make sure there is some movement and meditation in your life, and start a pregnancy yoga class when you are ready.
For all pregnant women:
- If you can, find a class specifically designed for pregnancy. This should mean that the teacher has been trained in catering for the physical, emotional and energetic needs of pregnant women, including addressing some of the more common discomforts of pregnancy (see below) and preparing for labour and the post-natal period. If this isn’t possible, see if you can find a beginner or slower-paced class. This isn’t because pregnant women are ill or less capable or “strong” than everyone else, but because these classes allow time to build sensitivity and awareness, meaning women are more likely to move intuitively through transitions and into poses which are nourishing for their bodies.
- Prioritise rest. Embrace the use of props. Know that it takes the average person a minimum of 20 minutes to enter a state of relaxation. Consider incorporating yoga nidra or another form of relaxation into your practice if you don’t already. For later stages of pregnancy, for labour itself, for the post-natal period and for the rest of your life, it is a gift to be able to find a position of comfort and a mindset which allows you to be able to restore yourself, and perhaps to alleviate insomnia and anxiety.
- Use the practice to connect with your baby. Your yoga practice is a precious period during which there is nothing that you need to be doing for anyone else, and which can allow you to turn your inner awareness to the little one growing inside you, building your unique bond.
- Practice using your exhale breath to let go. Include pelvic floor exercises in your practice, but if you have a practice of engaging your strength (for example, via mula bandha) on the exhale breath, practice reversing this and using a lengthening breath out to relax. The capacity to surrender may be very useful for your labour, and an over-toned pelvic floor might not be.
- Practice using your breath to create space and comfort in your body.
- Practice making noise – sigh, use mantra and chanting, flutter your lips, hum, buzz, make the sound of the ocean as you breathe. Again, this might be very useful for your labour.
- For all the reasons above, to avoid ongoing and later discomfort and simply to make room for the baby and help them into an optimal position, avoid:
- Fast and heating practices. Respiratory capacity is lower while body temperature, breath-rate and heartrate are increased already. A good rule of thumb is to avoid sweating.
- Jumping and hopping. Instead, practice transitioning from the floor to standing and back again via your hands and knees, without engaging the front of your core, and take your weight in your hands.
- Overt core work.
- Deep twists, backbends and forward bends. Instead, focus on breathing into the space between the shoulder blades, and poses which open up the upper chest.
- Long-held poses. Focus more on steady, nourishing transitions, rocking and circling movements and muscular support of your joints. This will help prevent over-stretching and taking advantage of joint laxity from hormone-impacted ligaments.
- Inversions such as handstand, headstand, shoulder stand and pincha (forearm stand). People experience balance differently in pregnancy, and simpler, wall-supported balance poses can be grounding and empowering choices. Working the arches of the feet maintains strength throughout the body.
- Holding your breath or pumping the belly with the breath.
- (Once it is uncomfortable) lying on your belly or your back. Lie on your left side if you can. Prop yourself well for any resting position.
For pregnant women with specific discomfort:
If you experience specific discomfort or some of these more common conditions, you might find the following adaptations useful:
- Lower back / pelvic girdle pain (including symphysis pubis dysfunction): move with your legs together (this includes getting in and out of bed and off the ground); squeeze a block between your knees to assist with this. Adapt one-legged and wide-legged poses – shorten your stance, use a wall or avoid them altogether, but do include poses which strengthen your legs (e.g. chair). Replace sitting directly on the floor with kneeling on props or sitting on a birthing ball.
- Heartburn: replace poses where your head is below your belly (e.g. downward facing dog) with poses where they are in-line (e.g. all fours). Prioritise poses where your arms are raised, or chest opened.
- Carpal tunnel (a build-up of fluid in the hands and wrists): prop your arms so that you don’t take your weight in your wrists, go easy on mudras (hand gestures) and practice noticing the resting position of your hands e.g. when you are seated or lying – can you uncurl your fingers?
- Varicose veins / haemorrhoids: avoid sitting in one position for extended periods – prop yourself, change position often and avoid kneeling with calves and thighs pressed together.
- Low blood pressure: slow everything down even more, especially transitions from the floor to standing and back again, avoid lifting your arms above your head.
Generally, don’t brave it out, adapting early means that the discomfort is far less likely to linger post-natally.
And there it is. I hope this is a useful start to a large topic. Please do add your suggestions below!
And do make time to breathe, make space, be compassionate.
As well as conducting training for teachers of therapeutic yoga for pregnancy, birth and post-natal recovery, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli is the author of the excellent resources, Teach Yourself Yoga for Pregnancy and Birth and Mother’s Breath: a definitive guide for breath, awareness and meditation practices for mothering, as well as the massive tome, Yoni Shakti. With her husband, Nirlipta, she founded the Yoga Nidra Network. Their website has a huge array of Yoga Nidra resources.
You can read more about Uma here and find upcoming classes, workshops and trainings (as well as books, DVDs, audio files and other resources) here.