Growing and carrying a baby is hard work! Especially so with common symptoms like low back pain, sciatica, sore and swollen feet and legs, and sleep disturbances, to name just a few. These challenges are very often combined with paid work, household responsibilities, and maybe a toddler or older children to care for. Pregnancy can also be a time of increased anxiety and stress, when moms-to-be might worry about the health of their baby, labour and birth, transition to parenting, relationship changes and financial challenges. So the last thing a pregnant person might then want to do is add something else to their plate! But doing the “work” of yoga can help so much to decrease or prevent common aches and pains of pregnancy, promote relaxation, aid sleep, build confidence for birth and parenting, and build a community with other expectant moms. It’s also fun and it feels good! On top of all of these benefits, the 2019 Canadian Guideline for Physical Activity throughout Pregnancy recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise (meaning you can talk but not sing) throughout pregnancy to improve physical and mental health and prevent pregnancy complications.
Different aspects of yoga practice are helpful for different pregnancy challenges, and of course each person will have their favourite parts and poses. Just spending time in an activity with the intention of self-care is beneficial in itself, and the added discussion of connecting and sharing that care and love with baby can help promote prenatal bonding. The mind-body awareness and relaxation techniques in yoga can help to decrease anxiety and stress, for instance by decreasing heart rate and the stress hormone cortisol. These techniques include things like increased body awareness, progressive muscle relaxation, various breathing practices (pranayama), and guided imagery, all of which can be used later to promote sleep, and provide comfort and relaxation in challenging times such as labour, and the everyday stresses of having a new baby. In my classes I offer a guided birth visualization, and centering and savasana practices specific to pregnancy, to encourage relaxation, bonding, and confidence for labour and birth.
The poses themselves, or asanas, can be so beneficial for reducing, and perhaps even preventing, many of the aches and pains of pregnancy. Now that I have been teaching prenatal yoga for more than two years, I’ve heard lots of feedback from clients who have said their low back pain and hip pain are decreased when they come to class, and that if they miss a class they feel more stiff and sore. For instance, just the simple poses of cat and cow (marjaryasana and bitilasana) and child’s pose (balasana), stretch the low back and alternately elongate the front and back of the spine, which go a long way to alleviate low back pain. An added bonus is that at term these poses also help keep the baby in an ideal position for labour, which may help shorten the length of a birth. Another great example is that a very tight piriformis muscle in the glut can cause or mimic sciatica, so stretches such as pigeon (eka pada rajakapotasana) can alleviate or prevent this. More energetic poses, such as the warriors (virabhadrasana), not only build strength and concentration, but can increase the self confidence needed to bravely enter the new and life-changing journey that is giving birth.
Pregnancy specific yoga of course avoids poses that require lying on the belly, strenuous core strengtheners and other contraindicated poses, and is often a more gentle class suitable for beginner or intermediate practitioners. Many of the same poses used in a Hatha class are practiced, but often with additional props and modifications for increased comfort and safety, as well as new meanings and connections to the unique physical, mental and emotional experience of being pregnant. Some women may still find that certain poses will create discomfort – for instance inversions can exacerbate heartburn, and symphysis pubis or sacro-iliac joint pain can be triggered by lunges and other poses where the legs are used asymmetrically. Make an instructor aware so any uncomfortable poses can be modified or avoided. Many women feel too nauseated to participate in yoga in their first trimester, so just do what you can. Remember, too, that a pregnant body is changing rapidly, and the baby’s position in the uterus changes frequently, so a pose that worked for you one day, might not work another. If you listen carefully to and respect your body’s cues, and tune in to your baby, you are loving yourself and your baby with your yoga practice. Enjoy and practice on!
Written by: Daya Lye