This article originally appeared in SoMuchYoga.com with a few additions and links made by Liza Janda for this blog.
Pregnancy is an amazing, life-changing experience; and for many of us it’s a time during which we begin taking our health seriously.
Your obstetrician may recommend yoga as a means to stay active while pregnant. Yoga is a great choice for pregnant women because it’s easily adapted to suit both your level of fitness experience, as well as all the stages of pregnancy.
Yoga is not only effective, but it is completely safe if you follow certain guidelines; and, as an added bonus, it prepares your body for the process of labor and delivery. (1)
Pregnancy and Beyond – The Benefits of Prenatal Yoga
Whether you’re a seasoned yogi or have never attended a yoga class in your life, pregnancy is a great time to commit to a regular yoga practice.
Stay in shape: The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists encourages women with uncomplicated pregnancies to partake in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercise throughout and following their pregnancy. Staying active throughout your pregnancy not only helps maintain physical fitness and manage weight gain, but can decrease the risk for gestational diabetes and improve your psychological well-being. The ACOG recommends 20-30 minutes of low-intensity activity daily — whether this be a nice walk through a park or a gentle yoga session. (2)
Manage stress and anxiety: Many women report heightened levels of stress and anxiety during pregnancy, much of this is related to the surge of hormones. However, there are many non-physiological reasons you’re feeling stressed out — especially if this is your first baby!
Yoga has been proven to successfully reduce stress at all times in life, and can become a very powerful tool for the expecting mother. A study published by the Australian College of Midwives found immediately following a yoga class, pregnant mothers had significant decrease in their level of the stress hormone cortisol. The participants’ self-reported levels of stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue had a corresponding improvement. (3)
Improve sleep: Many women experience sleep disturbances during pregnancy; which alongside a general increase in fatigue can significantly impact your quality of life. Researchers from the San Jose School of Nursing examined the effect of a 7 week yoga program on the quality of sleep of pregnant women in their second and third trimesters. The benefits of yoga on sleep were restricted to those who began the yoga program before their third trimester, with fewer awakenings, less time spent awake at night, and less overall sleep disturbances. (4)
Relieve common physical complaints: Many of the yoga postures featured in prenatal classes are specifically designed to relieve pain in the hips and lower back resulting from the added stress of supporting your bundle of joy. Martins et al. compared the effects of a 10-week yoga program with those of a group performing standardized postural orientations. Those who completed the yoga program had lower median pain scores and showed decreased responses in pain provocation tests for both lumbar and posterior pelvic pain. (5)
Prepare body for labor and delivery: Beyond preparing the body physically for birth with strengthening exercises, yoga has the added benefit of helping to keep expecting mothers relaxed, and encourage mental focus which can aid in the birthing process. (6) A systematic review of the research conducted on yoga and pregnancy outcomes revealed that prenatal yoga can be effective in reducing the pain associated with labor, increase mothers’ satisfaction with pain relief, and reduce the length of labor and need of assistance during natural delivery. Overall, women who participated in prenatal yoga programs reported higher satisfaction with the birthing process.
Attending a weekly prenatal yoga class can also serve as a great way to build a sense of community. Spending time with other expecting mothers swapping stories and discussing the very normal fears and anxieties that come along with pregnancy in a supportive, calm environment helps to relieve feelings of isolation and can lead to lifelong friendships.
What To Avoid During Pregnancy
While the intensity of exercise you can tolerate while pregnant depends on your fitness history, always listen to your body!
- Experimenting with advanced poses
- Core workouts
- Intense twists, backbends or forward bends
- In later stages, lying on the back and stomach
- Holding your breath
Pregnancy is not the time to workout to exhaustion or breathlessness. It’s more important than ever to respect your body — and the baby growing inside you — by paying attention to signals that it’s time to slow down.
What To Expect From Your Prenatal Yoga Class
Your prenatal yoga class has several components which together to provide the greatest benefit for you and your baby:
1. Breathing Exercises
You will be introduced to several different types of breathing exercises which will help to reduce stress during your pregnancy, and can help you through the process of labor and delivery.
2. Gentle Stretches
Stretching can soothe sore, aching muscles; and can ease the pains of labor by creating openness in the hips. Certain stretches are likewise used to ease common pregnancy ailments, such as sciatica.
Various yoga postures are a great, low-impact way to increase strength while pregnant. Prenatal classes utilize many standing poses to not only help you bear the extra weight of your growing baby, but also to build up endurance to use during labor.
Every class closes with some form of relaxation: Either in the form of deep breathing while resting in a comfortable posture, or you may want to incorporate meditation.
Meditation has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety; and provides us with extremely powerful tools to call on during periods of intense pressure — such as giving birth. Additionally, guided meditations can be a rewarding means to develop a bond with the baby growing inside you.
Yoga For Every Stage Of Pregnancy
First Trimester prenatal yoga poses
While you may not look pregnant, you definitely feel pregnant.
The First Trimester of pregnancy is punctuated by a landslide of physiological changes as your body sets out the framework to support your bundle of joy: hormones surge, blood volume increases as blood pressure drops, and your muscles and ligaments start to relax and loosen to accommodate the growing baby inside you.
All of these changes — while not immediately evident to an outside observer — can lead to an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion.
Not to mention that wonderful pregnancy catch-phrase: “Morning sickness,” which you may be all too personally familiar with by this point.
Things To Focus On:
- Strengthening legs and muscles of the pelvic floor
- Open, gentle twists for posture and back pain relief
- Hip openers
The second trimester is often referred to as the “honeymoon phase” of pregnancy: nausea subsides, your energy levels return to normal, and you’ll begin to feel your baby’s first movements.
However, it’s not all sunshine and roses, as your baby grows the uterus will begin to put pressure on your diaphragm, which can lead to a sensation of breathlessness following even the most mundane of activities — such as climbing a flight of stairs.
Your expanding belly will also begin to shift your center of gravity, making balancing a trickier task, and exerting extra strain on the back and hips.
Things To Focus On:
- Standing poses
- Avoid stressing pelvic floor (wide legged)
- Focus on chest & hip openers
- No breath retention in pranayama (breathing exercises)
Twist only above the waist (from the shoulders)
The honeymoon is over and you may be feeling just about done with being pregnant. Fatigue sets in once again as your body goes into overdrive to prepare both you and your baby for labor. Meanwhile, aches and general discomfort are at an all time high.
You’re going to want to once again modify your yoga practice in consideration of these changes. The third trimester is not the time for intense exercise, but it does present the ideal opportunity to explore the more subtle aspects of yoga: such as guided relaxation and breathing exercises. These will help prepare you mentally for the hard work you have ahead.
Things To Focus On:
- Creating space in body, openness
- Hip openers to create space in hips and relieve low back pain
- Pelvic tilts to encourage baby downwards
- Emphasis on relaxation and breathing
- Modified Sun Salutation For Pregnancy
- The traditional Hatha Sun Salutation can easily be modified to accommodate any stage of pregnancy.
Begin standing with feet hips distance apart or wider — choose a position which provides you with the best sense of grounding and balance.
On an exhale, bend over the legs into a forward fold — bending the knees if needed.
Inhaling, place the hands on the ground on the inside of your right foot as you step your left foot back — lowering the knee to come into a low lunge.
Exhale to bring your right knee back in line with the left for table-top position.
Inhaling, arch the back and look gently upwards.
On the exhale lower the buttocks to come to child’s pose — opening the legs to create space for the belly.
Inhale as you rise up onto all fours, stepping the left leg forward for low lunge on the opposite side — once again with both hands on the inside of the left foot.
Exhale to step the right foot forward, coming back to forward fold.
Inhale, bending the knees and slowly rising back up to your starting position.
If you’re unable to find a prenatal yoga class in your area you can always attend a regular class that is appropriate for all levels, or look for ones labeled “gentle” or “restorative.”
Make sure you let your teacher know that you’re expecting (especially in those early months when it is not readily apparent) so that they can indicate which poses you should modify and how to do so appropriately.
Alternatively, there are many classes available online for free or with subscription. I love this option because it gives you the flexibility to practice whenever you’re feeling up to it, and it gives you the liberty to choose which type of class fits with your present physical and emotional condition.
A simple search on YouTube will turn up thousands of videos available for free. Try including additional terms into your search to narrow down the results; such as including which trimester you are in, or qualifying “beginner” if you have never done yoga before.
Here is a video I recently recommended to a friend who is a beginner yogi in her first trimester: