Pregnant? This yoga sequence will help you manage the various ailments and discomforts of pregnancy
Annette Paysden looked forward to her pregnancy yoga classes each week because they gave her a “complete feeling of wellbeing”, the likes of which nothing else gave her, not even sleep. “There seemed to be a calming effect on not only me but also my baby. I was fortunate to enjoy an easy, healthy pregnancy,” recalls the thirty-something Byron Bay mum. “I made a direct connection between my yoga and feeling so well.”
Like Paysden, many mothers-to-be find yoga improves their circulation and mobility and helps them manage the various ailments and discomforts of pregnancy. These may include back and hip pain, fatigue, fluid retention, leg cramps, constipation, insomnia, heartburn and varicose veins.
Before your baby is even born, their senses are developing and being stimulated as they move and stretch in their watery home, attached to you by their life-supporting umbilical cord. They can hear your heartbeat and external sounds, recognising your voice and your partner’s. They can feel the warm amniotic fluid on their skin or the sensation of you massaging your belly. They can distinguish tastes and even sense changes in light through their closed eyelids.
Yoga breath work also has the very tangible physical benefit of ensuring good oxygenation of the blood to nourish both you and your baby.
The connection between mother and child is inextricably formed as your body rhythms are naturally synchronised over the nine months. It makes sense, then, that your wellbeing has a direct effect on the healthy development of your baby in utero.
Yoga teaches you how to breathe more deeply and efficiently, which is one way it positively impacts on your physical and mental health throughout your pregnancy. “Through better breathing, you will find a deeper sense of relaxation and ‘de-stressing’, which will help both you and your unborn child,” says Brisbane yoga teacher and director of Yoga Baby, Suzanne Swan. Yoga breath work also has the very tangible physical benefit of ensuring good oxygenation of the blood to nourish both you and your baby.
When I fell pregnant with my own son, as a yoga teacher and long-time yoga practitioner, I relished the opportunity to experience the benefits of pre-natal yoga firsthand. Combining my own experiences with those of my many pre-natal students over the past five years, I have compiled this guide for adapting your yoga practice safely and effectively throughout the various phases of pregnancy.
Some golden rules
Yoga is so widely recommended for pregnancy by health professionals that you may be forgiven for thinking that any kind of yoga will do. However, it’s advisable to attend a special pre-natal yoga class if you can. This class will teach you only those poses and practices that will safely enhance your pregnancy. You’ll also have the added benefit of meeting other pregnant women and sharing your experiences.
Yoga for each trimester
In medical speak, pregnancy is divided into three separate trimesters of approximately three months each. The first trimester, or early pregnancy, extends from conception to 14 weeks; the second trimester or mid-pregnancy goes up until 28 weeks; and the third trimester or late pregnancy continues until birth at around the 40-week mark. There are specific physiological and hormonal changes in mother and baby that correspond to each trimester and can have a changing effect on your emotions and energy levels.
In the many books you can pick up about pre-natal yoga, the postures are often lumped together as equally appropriate for any time in your pregnancy. Although there are some core classical pre-natal poses (see above) that are beneficial for any stage, I would argue that as you journey through the three, often quite distinct trimesters of pregnancy, the yoga postures should be adapted to suit your changing needs.
A note on the pelvic floor
Whatever stage of pregnancy you’re in, you can never do too much pelvic floor work. Pelvic floor contractions or Kegels involve strengthening the hammock of muscles that connect the genitals and the anus. Toning these deep core muscles helps improve circulation to the pelvic area and will speed up your post-partum recovery.
You can incorporate your pelvic floor contractions as you practise your yoga poses, drawing these muscles up towards the uterus as you exhale. For example, in the cat pose, inhale in the neutral spine position, then exhale and tuck the pelvis under, doming the upper back to the ceiling, at the same time engaging your pelvic floor muscles as you draw the weight of your baby towards your spine.
The first trimester
As far as yoga or any exercise is concerned, this is the time when less is best. Your body is adapting to massive hormonal changes as the foetus implants in the wall of the uterus and undergoes rapid formation of its nervous system. There is a one-in-five risk of miscarriage during the first trimester, so rest and minimal exertion are the keys here. More often than not, you’ll be tired and nauseous and will feel like doing very little, anyway. In addition, you may be feeling anxious about the huge changes to come.
To help you rest deeply and surrender to the changes with a positive attitude, this is the ideal time to learn or refine your relaxation skills with practices such as meditation, visualisations and deep relaxations (yoga nidra is highly recommended). Focus on very gentle and restorative yoga to support you during this time of considerable emotional and physical upheaval. “Take time to nurture the space in which your baby is growing,” UK pregnancy teacher and author Francoise Barbira Freedman writes. “Relaxing is a physical expression of your care for your baby growing inside you.”
During my early pregnancy with my son, I found restorative poses were my saviour as they worked to gently rejuvenate my energy, foster calm, deep breathing and release tension with minimal effort. Supported child pose along a bolster and viparita karani (legs-up-the-wall pose) were invaluable in helping to ease nausea and fatigue.
The second trimester
For many women, this is the most joyful time of their pregnancy. Your energy levels begin to return and you welcome the feel-good endorphins, or natural chemicals, that often characterise mid-pregnancy. You are usually showing by this stage, but your bump is not too big or cumbersome yet. This is a good time to work with that newfound energy, building your strength and stamina with dynamic standing postures such as the warrior poses (virabhadrasana I and II), parsvakonasana (extended side-angle pose) and even the non-traditional horse pose (standing squat). These poses help strengthen your legs in preparation for labour and maintain your fitness and muscle tone throughout your pregnancy.
From now onwards, your yoga will be all about creating space for your growing uterus. For example, make sure you always position your feet hip distance apart when standing in tadasana (mountain pose) and place your hands on props when in standing forward bends to accommodate your belly and broadening pelvis.
It’s also important that you are aware of your posture by lengthening into your lower back to help compensate for the stresses your growing belly places on your spine. Two simple movements for easing lower back pain caused by increasing weight of the belly are cat pose and right-angle stretch.
Swan teaches Active Birth Yoga, which helps provide you with the awareness of how to hold yourself correctly when you stand, walk or sit. “When your posture is in harmony with gravity, your uterus will properly align itself to your spine,” Swan says. “You may experience lightness or freedom along the spine and this may be felt as less tension in your upper back, neck and shoulders.”
The third trimester
This is when many women feel tired and heavy as their baby grows towards its birthweight. You may be sleeping poorly and have a number of physical aches and pains.
A common complaint of late pregnancy is aching hips. Simple stretches such as gomukhasana (cow pose) will help immensely. On those tired days, the gentler seated floor stretches (see classical pre-natal poses) and restorative poses (see first trimester) are wonderful rejuvenators. Use the props to make you as comfortable as possible in all the poses. For example, the warrior poses can be adapted as more gentle movements by using a chair to support your weight.
In late pregnancy, you will intuitively begin to draw your focus inwards as you mentally prepare for the birth. You will enjoy meditations and birth visualisations, as well as anxiety-reducing pranayama (breathing) and powerfully centring and calming sound work and chanting (especially om chanting).
I am endlessly impressed with how fit, agile and calm my regular pre-natal yoga students appear right up until they give birth. It leaves me in no doubt that yoga helps you to be in the best possible shape for the challenges of birth and early motherhood. It also provides you with a valuable tool for living in the now, to savour and honour each step of the way on the exciting journey that is pregnancy.
The dos and don’ts
If you are attending a general yoga class or practising some yoga at home, it’s important to be aware of these safety guidelines.
- Avoid postures and movements that constrict, compress or strain the belly, such as strong twists, full forward bends or dynamic backbends.
- Be careful not to overstretch. During pregnancy, your body is flooded with the hormone relaxin, which loosens the ligaments and joints.
- From around 12 weeks onwards, avoid lying flat on your back for prolonged periods of time. This is due to the risk of compressing the vena cava, the large vein that returns blood to the heart, which may cause faintness and dizziness and ultimately restrict blood flow to your baby.
- Avoid the active inversions such as headstand, shoulder stand and handstand unless you are very experienced in yoga. However, restful inversions such as viparita karani (legs-up-the-wall pose) can be safely practised throughout pregnancy.
- Stay in touch with your intuition and come out of any position that doesn’t feel right or in which you become breathless.
- If you have a history of miscarriage or any complications with your pregnancy, make sure you consult your doctor or midwife before commencing or continuing a yoga program.
The classical pre-natal poses
These postures help open the hips and pelvic outlet, tone the perineum and create space in the uterus.
- Squat pose (avoid this pose if baby is in breech position after 34 weeks or if you suffer haemorrhoid, vulval varicosities or painful varicose veins.)
- Bound angle pose
- Wide-angle seated pose
First trimester yoga
The restorative and relaxation poses.
- Legs-up-the-wall pose
- Supine hero pose
- Supported child pose
Second trimester yoga
- Warrior II pose
- Cross-legged twist pose
- Tree pose
- Cat pose
- Right-angle stretch
Third trimester yoga
- Cow pose
- Triangle pose with chair
- Warrior II pose with chair
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