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Yoga and pregnancy

“The bodies of women afflicted by disease will be useless. Therefore, all the women in the world have a special right to yoga. They should practise to eliminate illnesses that prevent healthy pregnancy.” (Yoga Rahasya, IV:xvi)

Pregnancy

Pregnancy is a momentous period in a woman’s life, but it can also be stressful. Keeping the mind and body in sync is never an easy task under typical circumstances, and changing hormone levels coupled with a new life growing inside can make the balancing act even more difficult. For many pregnant women and their partners, the ancient practice of yoga can help with the new challenges pregnancy brings. Although it has been around for thousands of years, yoga definitely has a place in the modern world.

Yoga isn't just stretching

There is a tendency to view yoga as “stretching” and as a form of physical exercise. With this particular stage in a woman’s life, we should appreciate that the practice of yoga can be beneficial on many levels. On a physiological and psychological level, the benefits are most likely similar to the physiological benefits of exercise in general, and of exercise on pregnancy. It is also interesting to consider the effect that yoga has on the emotional and spiritual state of the woman. Anecdotal evidence will suggest that mothers who practiced yoga throughout their pregnancy are able to maintain not only their health and wellbeing, but also bring peace and freedom to the body, heart and mind of themselves and their child. Following on from that, hospitals and doctors can do much to waylay fears and to help mothers prepare physically for the birth, but little is done with regards to spiritual preparation; that is, to help mothers understand and appreciate the enormity of what they are about to do – bring another life into the world.

Yoga practice in the West primarily involves ASANA (poses). Depending on the approach to yoga (eg, Iyengar, Ashtanga), the poses could be held or linked with other poses to form sequences, and moving the body through these ancient poses most certainly brings physical benefits. In addition to physical movement, most yoga approaches emphasise breath awareness. The breath is the doorway through labour. The student’s own breathing pattern can be developed and integrated. If you are able to observe when you hold your breath in yoga class then that will carry over into labour. Once you are aware when you are holding your breath, you can consciously breathe and let go.

Other techniques of yoga include PRANAYAMA (seated breath work), relaxation and meditation, all of which can be undertaken by a pregnant woman, under guidance, and which carry with them additional benefits. What we need to appreciate is that there are many different approaches to yoga, and this makes it difficult to claim that a particular pose, or technique, is appropriate or inappropriate for a pregnant woman. So while opinions on what is appropriate vary, most yoga practitioners agree on the following points:

  • The start of pregnancy is probably not the best time to begin yoga for the first time ever. If this is the case, it should certainly be with the guidance of a yoga expert, and one who understands yoga and pregnancy.
  • The teacher should be informed of the pregnancy, and any issues that may be of importance with regards to the pregnancy itself.
  • Yoga practice should be avoided between weeks 8-13.
  • Postures that compress the abdomen should be avoided, as should anything involving breath retention.
  • Postures should not be taken to the point of fatigue.

In addition, the following rules should be adhered to:

  • Avoid any supine poses after the first trimester, although not all experts consider this a hard and fast rule. Many women are comfortable lying on their backs well into their pregnancies. The best advice I can give is to listen to your bodies. Should you feel dizzy or short of breath, lie on your side.
  • Avoid poses that overstretch connective tissue.
  • Perform standing poses with care and use a chair/wall etc for support and to help with balance.
  • With forward-bending poses, maintain length of spine and flex at the hips, thereby maintaining as much distance as possible between the breastbone and the pubic bone in order to make breathing easier.
  • When practicing twisting poses, twist more from the shoulders and back to avoid putting any pressure on the abdomen.
  • Avoid prone-lying poses as this will compress the abdomen.
  • Ultimately, ensure that you are familiar with the American College of Obstetrician and Gynaecologists guidelines on exercise and pregnancy, and apply them accordingly.

The most important thing to remember is to listen to your bodies. Yoga, unlike many other fitness pursuits, has very few "do''s and don’ts." Regular yoga practice will increase your ability to feel what your body needs. If a particular pose feels uncomfortable, causes any pain, or puts you off balance, then don''t do it. Seek alternatives whenever any unease is experienced.

If appropriately taught and practiced, yoga is an excellent way of preparing for the birth of a baby. We need to value that even just the physical side of yoga can affect you on different levels. If we take a very simple posture such as the Tree Pose, functionally it can help improve balance, hip stability (support leg) and hip mobility (bent leg). If we examine the symbolism of the pose, above all things, a tree is rooted to the ground. Its trunk, however tall or thin, short or broad, is stable and secure. Without roots, a tree would be carried off by the wind in its branches. The pose can teach you how to ground yourself, and so it can be executed while visualising the toes of standing leg lengthening away along the ground like the roots of a tree. So, the pose can be used emotionally to provide the feeling balance at a time when you may be feeling unstable and unsure of your future as a mother. Spiritually, the sense of feeling grounded and connected with the earth can provide you with a sense of being at one with something greater, of being part of a larger support structure, being part of Mother Nature and playing your role in the constant cycle of life.

Fathers-to-be can also be part of the yoga loop. They are also feeling stress at this exciting time, and both of you could enjoy yoga together. It is a great way to bond and relax together, and practicing various yoga poses together can enable better non-verbal communication, which is an important skill during labour.

Yoga’s holistic approach to life has special value during pregnancy. It is different from other exercise programmes because it tends to be process-oriented rather than goal-oriented. Ideally it''s best to find a pre-natal yoga class. A pre-natal yoga class will provide a sense of community. It is a place where you can let your hair down and get in tune with your changing body. Every week a time is set aside for you and your baby, in which you will experience a strong supportive community where confidence is built. In a pre-natal yoga class, everyone is at different stages in their pregnancy so you can see where you have been and where you are going in your body. Pregnant women, to different degrees, all share sciatica, foot cramps and swelling. Yoga can relieve many of these symptoms. Dreams can be shared in class if appropriate. So when searching for a pre-natal yoga class, look for a multi-level class, which focuses on the whole process of pregnancy.

Yoga classes

If there isn’t something suitable in your area, another option is a basic beginner level yoga class. Enquire about classes frequented by pre-natal women and new mothers. And, beyond that, if you already practice yoga, you may value something that is more personal, so seek out a Yoga teacher for personal tuition. It is important to remember that this is a time of nurturing, and paving the way ahead for you, your family and your newborn child.

For further information on qualified Yoga teachers, contact

The British Wheel of Yoga (www.bwy.org.uk) or Birthlight Yoga (www.birthlight.com).

Courtesy of Fitness Professionals UK

Related products

Motherwell Maternity Fitness Plan

Milk Thistle

Yoga Set

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