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Prenatal Yoga for Seasoned Practitioners

Whether you are a yoga teacher or a yoga practitioner, it’s likely that you have many questions when it comes to practicing yoga during pregnancy. What is safe? What is not safe? What is comfortable? What is beneficial?

Many yogis want to continue their practice as usual once they become pregnant but fear that some of the advanced asanas and breathing techniques will harm their baby. I’ve personally been down this road before, twice. With my first pregnancy I was super cautious and I remember being afraid to go upside down, lay on my back, twist, etc. With my second pregnancy I was a bit more adventurous (and more educated) in my asana practice. I continued to practice jumping from Adho Mukha Svanasana to Uttanasana, Bakasana, Sirsasana and twists until they no longer felt good. I even tried Stand Up Paddle Board Yoga for the first time while I was 6 months pregnant! I am grateful to share that I had still had a healthy pregnancy baby and birth the second time around.

While there are a few things to eliminate from your practice once you know you are pregnant (kumbhaka, kapalabhati and agni sara) you can otherwise continue your practice as usual until you feel the need to make a change. These changes come at different times and degrees for everyone. If you’ve been on the yogic path for a while, it’s probable that you’ve developed a keen sense of intuition. Follow that. If it doesn’t feel “right” then it’s probably not right for you at this time.

During your first trimester it is likely that you will feel pretty normal and can continue with your practice as usual. It is also likely that you will feel like crap and not want to do anything other than nap and eat saltines. Please honor your body's call for rest. Accept that your body is changing and is doing a lot of work to grow your baby. Did you know that if your fetus were to continue growing at the same rate as it does in the first trimester for the entire pregnancy your baby would weigh 1.5 tons at birth? So yeah, you might need to take it easy in the first 12- 14 weeks.

It is important to know that the hormone relaxin is in your system during your entire pregnancy and even after your baby is born (look for a blog on postpartum yoga soon!). This hormone plays an integral role in allowing your pelvic ligaments to stretch in order to accommodate your growing baby. But relaxin is not localized to the pelvic region. It flows through your entire body and makes all of your connective tissues more flexible. That may sound like a good thing but it can lead to injury if you’re not careful. While it is completely safe to continue your asana practice while you are pregnant it is not a good idea to add new poses to your practice or to try to increase your flexibility during pregnancy.

Once you are in your second trimester your uterus will begin to rise above the pubic bone. This means that you will have to begin making modifications to make space for your belly. This does not mean that you have to skip all twists, backbends and forward bends. It does mean that you will not be able to take these postures as far as you could before your pregnancy. For example, instead of taking your left arm outside of your right thigh in Parivrtta Parsvokonasana, you could take your left hand to the ground or a block inside of your right foot. As you get further along and need more space you would move your left hand toward the left side of your mat. Your body changes quickly during pregnancy so each asana practice will be different than the time before. Even if you find prenatal yoga classes to be too easy for you it’s a good idea to take several classes so you have an idea of how to make space for your baby in your home practice.

Note that due to the center of gravity shifting daily and hormone fluctuations, you should expect for your balance to be off sometimes. When this happens you can take a wider stance in standing poses and use the support of a wall or partner when practicing Headstands or Handstands. These inversions are safe for pregnancy but it is common to feel lots of pressure in your head due to the extra fluid in your body.

Another important thing to be aware of is diastasis recti. This is a common condition in pregnancy where the two sides of the rectus abdominis (six pack) muscles spread apart. While it is normal for this separation to occur we do want to try to keep it to a minimum. For that reason it is important to be careful with backbends and core work when your belly gets bigger and when you return to your practice after your baby is born. Skip all core work that involves crunching or isolating the rectus abdominis muscles. Know that as your pregnancy progresses it will be quite a bit of core work just to keep your spine in a neutral position.

One of the most common complaints during pregnancy is lower back pain. Ujjayi breathing during asana practice will help to keep the spine in its neutral position and support the lower back. This means that you will be using the bandhas. So yes, it is safe to use mula bandha, uddiyana bandha and jalandara bandha during pregnancy. Just be sure to avoid holding your breath and if you feel that you are not getting enough oxygen through ujjayi pranayama then return to a normal breath. Ujjayi breath will not only help to keep your back comfortable but it will also help you maintain balance as you move from pose to pose.

As you move into the third trimester your yoga practice will evolve into mentally, physically and spiritually preparing yourself for birth. While it could still be safe for you to be practicing advanced asanas (as long as they still feel comfortable) you might get more out of the postures, movements and breathing techniques that you will likely need during labor and delivery. For example, Malasana can widen the inferior opening of the pelvis up to 30% more than when you are standing or laying down which will lead to an easier delivery, 1:2 Ujjayi breathing is ideal for aligning with your body’s natural urge to push, Bhamari pranayama is wonderful for breathing through contractions, Puppy Pose can help bring your baby into an optimal position for birth.

There is not a lot of research that supports or opposes specific yoga posture’s safety or efficacy in pregnancy, but here is what we do know according to Mayo Clinic: Practicing yoga in pregnancy can reduce stress and anxiety; increase the strength, flexibility and endurance of muscles needed for childbirth; decrease lower back pain, nausea, headaches and shortness of breath. An article published in the American Journal of Perinatology states that women that practiced yoga regularly during pregnancy are significantly less likely to develop preeclampsia, pregnancy induced hypertension, gestational diabetes and intrauterine growth restriction. The same article states that those that practiced yoga during pregnancy demonstrated significantly shorter active labor times and were less likely to delivery babies that are small for gestational age.

In a nutshell, yoga is wonderful for pregnancy as long as it feels good and is practiced with caution and intuition. So roll out your mat, take a deep breath and make some space for your bump! If you have questions about specific postures or need a suggestion for modifications please leave a comment below and I will get back to you soon.

This is me 6 months pregnant with my second child in 2013.

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