What are the benefits of pre-natal yoga?
Whether it’s through strengthening the right muscles, training yourself to focus on breathing or helping you to locate your inner calm, taking pre-natal yoga classes can really help when it comes time to push.
I sit on my yoga mat looking out at nine pregnant bellies, nine expectant faces. It’s the start of another of the six-week pre-natal yoga courses that I teach.
I begin by telling them a little about myself and my own birth experience. “I had a very long birth — around four days,” I tell the expectant mothers, even before I can stop or edit myself. I go on, despite the looks of fear and shock on many of the women’s faces. I explain how I managed to endure several days of labour, including 16 hours of intense, established contractions, without using any drugs for pain management.
This is all thanks to yoga. Yoga gave me the tools to work with my breath and stay centred, calm and grounded despite the rigours of an unusually protracted labour. Because I remained calm, my baby didn’t go into distress. His little heartbeat stayed steady and strong throughout, which meant the doctors did not feel the need to intervene any earlier.
Understanding and relief now settle upon the women’s faces. I too feel a sense of relief for candidly revealing my self-perceived failure to achieve the wished-for “natural” birth when my birth plan was thrown out of the window and I ended up in the operating theatre.
Like many women, I have had to deal with this disappointment. However, I can also credit my yoga practice for ultimately providing me with the insight to be compassionate towards myself and move on. I have come to see this as the first of many great lessons in acceptance and surrender that accompany the path of motherhood.
Can yoga guarantee an easy birth?
A common belief is that regular yoga practice will make for an easy birth. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The kind of labour you have depends on many factors completely beyond your control. These may include your age, genetics and the conditions surrounding your labour: your birth support team, location and so on.
Of course, many of the special pre-natal yoga postures can help in opening the pelvis and positioning the baby optimally for birth, but there are no guarantees. Despite your best efforts, your baby may decide to position herself in breach or the placenta may end up low lying; or you may find, as I did, that you have a very slow first stage of labour (dilation of the cervix).
The greatest benefit yoga can offer is to transform our experience of our labour, no matter if it ends up veering from our hoped-for birth plan.
Byron Bay mum Annette Paysden took pre-natal yoga classes throughout her first pregnancy and found it helped her front up to her birth feeling mentally confident and empowered. “Due to circumstances beyond my control, I didn’t end up in my chosen birth-place, enjoying a natural water birth,” explains Annette. “But I found that I was able to draw on the calming techniques I had learnt in yoga and stay focused on channelling a positive outcome through to my baby.”
Annette’s labour was medically induced. This meant her body experienced the full onset of established contractions straightaway, without the time for incremental hormonal adjustment that normally happens with the natural, gradual escalation of labour pains. Despite this, Annette felt confident she could breathe through the pain and stay focused.
“One of the big things I got from yoga was endurance,” says Annette, “and that pain can be a good thing as it tells you where you are in your labour and it’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Make pain your friend
Alexis Stewart, a pre-natal yoga teacher in Sydney, uses yoga in some interesting techniques to help women prepare psychologically for labour. Alexis coaches her students to hold relatively strong positions and to stay through any uncomfortable sensations.
It’s not surprising that she can meet resistance from her students. “You can almost hear the inner complaining in the room,” says Alexis. “So this is when I encourage them to observe their thought processes.”
As a mother of a six-year-old, Alexis speaks from personal experience when she describes the intense experience of labour as something you have to “just go right on through the middle of”.
As a way of helping women prepare for this, she always includes one posture in her prenatal classes that she calls contraction practice. An example is a nerve stretch where the woman holds her arms out to the side for what seems like an inordinate amount of time until the pain is almost unbearable.
“I get them to stay and hold no matter what they’re feeling,” says Alexis, “and then, just before I let them release from it, I get them to move their arms back an inch which increases the intensity.”
The idea behind Alexis’ techniques is to teach women not to react to the pain, which is an almost Buddhist concept of staying instead in witnessing-mind. This practice of stepping outside ourselves then helps us deal with pain and not dissolve into fear and distress.
“If a woman goes into labour with a ‘poor me’ victim mentality, she’s never going to get through it without drugs and intervention,” explains Alexis.
Alexis has the women focus on three main things while they are holding the pose: the breath; relaxing the muscles that are not being used; and clear, quiet mental focus.
“I really notice a change in women over the weeks that they come to my classes. They begin to drop into the pose without all that chat on top,” says Alexis.
Good poses for developing physical strength as well as the mental fortitude necessary for labour are the Standing Poses. In particular, the Warrior Poses — Warrior II and Parsvakonasana — as well as the Horse Pose (a martial-arts-derived standing squat). These postures help to build stamina, courage and focus as the woman learns to steady her breathing and remain calm, even as she works her body strenuously.
Breathing for labour
Many women join a pregnancy yoga class hoping to learn special breathing tips to help them through labour. The yogic approach to birth actually advocates that there are no specific breathing techniques to remember. However, learning to breathe deeply and efficiently — the full diaphragmatic or yogic breath — will teach a woman the power of breath to help calm the mind when faced with a challenging situation.
“By turning inwards and focusing your attention on the breath, you will have a simple and natural tool for experiencing deeper states of consciousness,” writes natural birth pioneer, author and yoga teacher Janet Balaskas. Balaskas promotes breath awareness as a way for the woman to come to terms with “the deep and intense feelings” she may experience in labour.
She believes every labour has its own particular rhythm. “Concentrating on the rhythms of your breathing will help you to be at one with this rhythm, to be instinctive, to surrender to the vital forces working inside your body,” says Balaskas.
Perth-based yoga teacher and mother of two Kiah Hamersley found the breath a wonderful tool for dealing with the challenges of her labour with her first child.
“There was a distinct point in my early labour when panic and despair — at how long it was all taking! — threatened to sabotage my resolve to birth naturally,” recalls Kiah. “At that point, I turned to focus on my breath, which quietened my mind, allowing space for positive thoughts to surface and keep me going.”
Balaskas recommends a pregnant woman prepare for labour by learning to develop longer exhalations. She points out that during labour most women tend to breathe out through their mouths during strong contractions. In my own pre-natal yoga classes, I have found coaching women to breathe out through the mouth with the “falling out breath” — a kind of sighing breath — to be quite effective to mimic this natural process.
Many childbirth educators suggest that making low, deep sounds can help a woman from being overwhelmed by the intensity of labour pains. Conversely, if a woman reacts to the contractions with high-pitched, panicky sounds, then this will effectively inhibit the progress of labour by closing the cervix and may even bring the woman — and, by association, the baby — into a distressed state that will further jeopardise the smooth flow of labour.
See Pranayama tips for labour (below) for some examples of sounded-breath work that will help you prepare to use sound positively in labour.
Pranayama tips for labour
Breathwork to help you through labour
- Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath). This involves softly “sounding” the breath through the back of the throat by contracting the muscles in the throat to produce a hissing sound. This way of breathing is extremely grounding and centring and can be used by a woman in the breaks between contractions.
- Long exhalations. This is good to practice in a supported, restorative position such as supta baddakonasana (reclined cobbler pose). It involves counting the exhalation, starting at an easy, natural length and then gradually increasing the count by one, every second exhalation, till eventually you may end up doubling the original length of your out-breath.
- Chanting “om” is beneficial in both developing sound awareness and lengthening the exhalation. Continuous omming, in which you chant the mantra for several minutes, is very calming.
- Bhramari (The Humming Bee Breath) involves making a series of long, humming sounds: “Mmmmmm.” It has a direct impact on the pituitary gland which influences the relaxation response, counteracting our stress response.
Relaxation and body awareness
When my pre-natal students are in a resting position, such as a Child Pose, just after having completed a more challenging posture, I like to remind them to stay present and focused on the sensations in their body. I explain how this is a good analogy for the experience of birth. The resting positions in yoga class are just like the short respites between labour contractions, in which she can hold a conversation and experience no pain whatsoever.
This time between contractions should be used wisely by the woman for conscious relaxation, helping to conserve her energy and prepare for the next contraction. The technique of “body scanning”, where she progressively scans her awareness around the body, relaxing the body part by body part, is particularly effective here, keeping her calm, and preventing her from spiralling into panic or exhaustion.
The Supported Child Pose is a good position in which a woman might choose to rest between contractions. Lie along one or two bolsters that support your chest, not your belly, while your buttocks press back onto your heels. This posture helps release the lower back and is also an ideal position for placing a heat pack on your sacrum to soothe pelvic and lower back pain. From here, you can be ready to push up into the more active all fours position (see Active Birth Positions below) for the next contraction.
The Active Birth movement has been around since the 1970s and is a natural birthing philosophy that promotes the use of “active” — standing, kneeling, squatting — positions for labour and delivery. These positions, rather than the more passive way our grandmothers birthed in sitting and supine positions, assist the uterine contractions and bearing down efforts by working with gravity, helping to reduce pain and providing greater pelvic opening.
Interestingly, many of the suggested Active Birth positions are actually yoga positions. If a woman plans to have an active, natural birth, practising yoga throughout pregnancy will be the ideal preparation. She will be able to call upon her tool bag of positions to try at different stages of her labour and her body will be more agile and limber to hold these positions for prolonged periods of time.
“My second labour was such a different experience — so unpredictable in its rhythm. It waxed then waned and midway through, everything just stopped,” remembers Kiah. She realised she had to get out of the comfort zone of the warm bath and employ some Active Birth positions in order to try to get things moving again.
“My prenatal yoga practice was wonderfully inspiring in this situation. Using hip rolling and deep squats, the yoga helped me to be intuitive and proactive in a situation that would otherwise have had me feeling panicky and vulnerable.”
Active birth positions
Squat (Malasana): Many women actually end up delivering in this position. During pregnancy, it is also a good position to practise pelvic floor exercises as well as for a woman to visualise relaxing her pelvic floor and “breathing her baby out” when the time comes. A woman can modify the squat by placing a blanket under her heels or even leaning up against a wall with her sacrum to provide more support and help her stay longer in the position in comfort.
All Fours (Cat): This is a position of choice for many women who experience a “back-pain labour” associated with a posterior-positioned baby. In yoga classes, we can practise holding ourselves stably in this position in “neutral spine” (not arched or contracted) and then alternating with cat contraction (tucking pelvis under and rounding upper back to the ceiling) to help limber the spine and flow the breath. Many women also find circling or rocking the hips in this position beneficial in riding the waves of contractions.
Rocking Lunge: Kneel on all fours and then step your right foot through to the outside of the right hand. You can keep the hands on the floor or, if you can balance, raise up to place the hands on the front thigh. Rock forward and back gently and rhythmically. This position can be useful to help advance labour during the First Stage.
It’s clear then that while yoga may not guarantee you the perfect birth it does help a pregnant woman to be in the best possible shape for whatever challenges her birth may throw at her. She can bring to the labour room some effective tools that include breath awareness, labour positions and the mental perspective that provides a calm confidence and ultimately an acceptance of the often unpredictable process of birth.
Ana Davis is a writer and yoga teacher based in Byron Bay. She conducts prenatal and postnatal yoga teacher trainings in conjunction with the Byron Yoga Centre. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.