“Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens. Just wait for the birth, for the the hour of the new clarity.” —Rainer Maria Rilke
For yogis, Rilke’s advice is close to the basic tenet of practice: There is a perpetual orientation of receptivity, as well as an awareness that the cycle of death and rebirth is constant. Yoga takes on both meanings of cleaving—it is a separation and a unification at one time.
The practice of yoga during pregnancy has become increasingly common, and can be incredibly profound for mothers both in their process of connecting to and birthing their baby. We spoke to women at various stages of their pregnancies to learn more about the ways yoga supported them through the process. Read on for a glimpse at how their practices and provided clarity in their transition to motherhood and as their children grow.
Whether I’m on the mat, in my playful Acroyoga practice, sitting in deep meditation or navigating my daily life, it all comes back to the breath. I didn’t learn how to take a breath until I was well into my 20s (thanks to my burgeoning yoga practice). As I prepared myself to become a mother, I used those deep breaths to allow my body to expand. As I labored, I used those breaths to open. As a mother, I use those breaths to remain peaceful and present with my children. And now, I get to share the power of the breath with my offspring. Witnessing my toddler using his breath when he is upset fills me with hope for the world.
My first labor experience with my son Zephyr was three days long and culminated with a cesarean birth. It was a wonderfully transformative process and I relied heavily on my practice to stay calm and in the moment. With the coming of Sequoia I spent much of my free time in meditation envisioning a successful vaginal birth and on the mat preparing for the mental and physical capacities needed in labor. In particular, I focused on long, deep moments squatting in malasana. During my labor I practiced a deep, personal, primitive meditation that allowed me to connect with my baby and helped my body to fully open. On October 17, as the sun was setting, my daughter came to me in the most natural way.
My practice is constantly shifting and evolving. Before I was pregnant, I was an avid Acroyoga practitioner, tossing and being tossed by some of my greatest friends. During my pregnancies, I used the power of the mat to keep my physical body strong, and my meditation practice to connect with the new life growing within me. Every day, I find a way to maintain my practice, even if it’s just a few minutes of mindful sitting at 2 a.m. as I feed my daughter and the rest of my family sleeps. And now I have two little Acroyogis that I get to toss around.
I used to practice yoga before I had children at least three times a week. After I birthed my first child, priorities changed and I stopped yoga completely. My second pregnancy has made me return to my daily practice and has made me introduce yoga to my toddler and my partner. Yoga gives me quiet time to heal my body. In healing my body, I heal my soul, which heals my mind, which helps how I mother, which helps my marriage.
In this pregnancy, my body already knew what to expect and my body began changing so much faster than when it did with my first. My hips spread, my ribs spread… and I knew that prenatal yoga would be a must to maintain strength. During yoga, I take the time to talk and breathe loving peaceful thoughts to my babe. It’s a needed time for us to bond as my child grows in me. Prenatal yoga makes me feel strong, capable, and ready for birth. My legs and arms are powerful, my mind is powerful, my heart is powerful, and I CAN and will trust my body in giving birth for the second time.
Plus-size doesn’t mean weak. Plus-size can also mean strong and confident. Society tells us that we shouldn’t do yoga because the clothes are too tight or others may stare, but yoga is more than the poses. It is the state of mind, learning to breathe, learning to be still, learning flexibility, and strength. Yoga has never been just about loving your body. It’s learning acceptance of body, mind, and soul. We all have issues that we struggle with self-acceptance. When we learn to see others as equal, we learn to love ourselves.
I still remember being on my second hour of pushing and my babe not being able to come out because he was sunny side up. Yoga breathing was key in focusing my pushing as he was being turned. I took a cleansing breath, and then a deep breath— as he turned he came right out and was put on my chest. He was so perfect and beautiful, and as tears were streaming down my face I knew I would never forget those deep breaths coming from so deep in my body and soul as I pushed with all my strength to bring new life into the world.
Before I gave birth, prenatal classes helped me feel more comfortable in my growing body, allowed me to spend time connecting to my ever growing baby, and stretch and relax in ways that I knew were safe for my body and baby. Yoga helped keep me sane as my body changed dramatically. I was also able to create a community of pregnant women and share our pregnancy experiences. My daughter was a real person before she came into this world. I felt like I became a mother before she was born, because I was creating her, caring for her, and loving her from the very beginning.
Since giving birth, my yoga practice has changed dramatically. I started to view yoga as one of the only true quiet times in my life. Even now while I sleep, I could be woken at any moment by my daughter. In a room full of people, I know that I will have an hour of “alone time” if I go to a yoga class. Postpartum, I’ve gravitated more towards restorative and meditative yoga practices. I’ve felt more emotional while doing yoga. I often spend most of class thinking about the love I have for my daughter and my husband, and my gratitude for my life and all that I am thankful for. My yoga practice has become more of a release, or a space to reflect, when it used to be a time to exercise.
My yoga practice was a pivotal part of the success of my labor and delivery. I was able to have the unmedicated vaginal delivery that I had hoped for. Yoga gave me breath, physical strength, and the ability to envision what was happening to my body and what I needed to have happen to give birth to my daughter. It helped me prepare both emotionally and physically.
I have a past that requires much healing. Early on in my pregnancy, I knew that I needed to enter into a place of peace and centered-ness to help the healing continue, and to protect my love. I would commonly use yoga techniques and poses to help break through the anxiety, especially in postpartum. I would have these overwhelming panic attacks that felt debilitating. I would envision myself breathing in the cleanest, purest, and calmest blue, and then I would breath out anxiety and pain in deep purple and black. Using my deep breathing I learned through yoga, I was able to gain comfort, and break through the panic attack. It is such an empowering experience to take charge of something that seems to have the ability to rule you.
Before this pregnancy, my yoga routine was more of a family event. My three daughters and I would go through a 30-minute set at home while diffusing some essential oils. They would start to get distracted and I would finish the second 30-minute set alone. I am still pretty fresh from childbirth, so I have not yet been cleared to return to my full yoga routine. However, I commonly use elements of yoga to process my day. I have 4 kids, so being able to find peace in the chaos of my day is a necessity. Core breathing has had the biggest impact on my ability to stay in a calm place. I still diffuse oils, and try to practice quiet moments, but at this point those are few and far between.
Yoga has become a way of life. A way of survival. A way of deep connectedness to my children. I breathe them in. I teach them to breath in life and breath out death. Its a powerful tool to overcome our fears, and remind ourselves that we are strong. As a victim of sexual abuse, this is especially important. We are capable of things far greater then we know. As they breathe in I speak to them about their greatness, and as they breath out I speak to them about the power I see them holding over their fears. They do the same for me. Then we speak words of empowerment of our new baby Jack. My children will know their worth. To me, there is almost nothing greater.
Pre-pregnancy, I practiced Vinyasa yoga two to three times a week in the studio and nightly on my own. Once pregnant, I had terrible morning sickness that made any form of inversion nearly impossible. Practicing at home became my primary form because I could create a flow without any Downward Dogs. Into my second and third trimester, I often chose harder classes because I enjoyed being physically challenged; I had stopped working my my third trimester as a dance teacher so I really craved that movement in sweat. I ended up going two weeks over in my pregnancy before I finally delivered— in my last weeks of my pregnancy, I developed a meditation practice that I had never had before but has stayed with me to this day.
Yoga in pregnancy allowed me to continue moving in a way that made me feel good about my growing and changing body. Classes made me feel powerful and expanded my breath capacity. I could connect with myself and my baby in the same moment while knowing I was providing calm and oxygen to my growing child. I loved feeling him move with me in class. He became predictable too: shifting to the left when doing forward bends, kicking when it got challenging and always moving during Savasana. I really began to feel like I was two people, not just one.
Yoga gave me the patience to make it through my long labor. I ended up laboring a few days before needing an emergency C-section, and in that moment where we had to change plans, my yoga brought me to realize what was most important: my baby!
In my first pregnancy, yoga allowed me to stay very physically active. I was teaching Vinyasa classes until I was full term. With my second pregnancy, I was immersed in a prenatal yoga teacher training, so I was soaking in all the amazing benefits of yoga as it can be catered to pregnancy, as well as deepening my understanding and respect for the wisdom of the female body and of the birth process.
Yoga was also really important during my postpartum periods. After the birth of my first son, I really needed community and I found that through mama-and-baby yoga classes. It was a place where I was allowed to just be in the rawness of being a new mama. With my second son, I relied on yoga to guide me through healing severe diastasis recti [a separation of the abdominal muscles]. While I was prepared for some of the aspects of new motherhood, the second time around, I was also a new mother to a busy toddler and an infant simultaneously, which was harder than I expected. That six months of adjusting to being a mama of two was an emotional roller coaster and I was stretched to my limit. I really relied on the mindfulness aspects of my yoga practice to ride the wave of this new phase of my life, and remind myself that everything is temporary while my family regained its equilibrium as a family of four.
With both of my labors, I was forced to come face to face with my fears and to truly surrender to a birth process that was larger than any plan I had made for a “natural birth.” In the moments of my births, the practice of mind-body awareness were definitely beneficial. More than anything, yoga has helped me to find peace with my birth stories— especially after my second birth, when I became overly critical of myself for needing an epidural, after making it 9.5cm (nearly time to push out my baby). I see now how fear played a role in those moments and have been working on practicing ahimsa, non-violence—or as I see it, compassion toward myself as I made sense of the wild ride that is birth. And as I have untangled the stories of my sons’ births, I have found myself more passionate than ever on sharing how a body-center and mindful approach to birth can be useful.
While practicing yoga and meditation, I can look at my thoughts and emotions and practice letting them go. So much is changing during pregnancy physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. These changes have brought up many feelings of fear, doubt, excitement, and happiness. Practicing meditation and yoga provides me with the opportunity to sit with these feelings. Meditation also helps me to understand that thoughts are just thoughts, and just because I think something doesn’t mean it’s true. If I practice regularly, I feel more centered and calmer.
Both yoga and meditation help me to sit with and explore pain. I feel like in the intense experience of childbirth, this will be incredibly helpful. I’m hoping to have a natural birth, and plan to use meditation and yoga during the childbirth process. I don’t necessarily think meditation and yoga will make the experience any less painful, but these techniques will definitely change my response to the pain and intensity of childbirth.
Yoga has played a large role in my life, but during pregnancy I hold it closer to me like a good friend that I meet up with for morning coffee. Without it I wouldn’t have the energy or mental clarity I need to make it through the day. Balancing my breath and feeling the ground beneath my feet helps me push through the morning sickness that lasts all day, the exhaustion that seems to hit me when I least expect it, and the strength to stay calm when my daughter is having a rough time. In the early morning before my home is stirring with life, I find the time for myself.
I practice mostly Vinyasa yoga which is flowing of the movements and breath between poses, and continue to do so during pregnancy. As I get further along, I move towards Hatha yoga— holding poses for longer and breathing into the uncomfortable space that comes up. Being able to hold a pose and keep calm with my breath and heart rate are important. For me, Hatha yoga helps me prepare for the intensity of labor.
Yoga and mediation have been my opportunity to connect with my body, my emotional state and of course, my baby! They have helped keep me grounded during the many changes I’m experiencing. In the past four months, I got married, pregnant, moved states, found a place to live and a new job. That’s a lot of changes! Yoga has helped me to stay grounded by giving me the opportunity to think about just the yoga and leave all my stresses behind. It keeps me in the present moment, and I always feel I’ve refilled my ‘Polly tank!’
My yoga practice is more gentle now and my growing bump makes it challenging to get into some postures. I’ve also found it harder to not get carried away in my thoughts during meditation since being pregnant. I can’t necessarily practice as much as I’d like to, but I try to take 10 to 15 minutes out of my morning to find a quiet spot and practice. I notice when I have practiced, and even more so when I haven’t! When I practice yoga, especially during my prenatal yoga class, I feel connected and empowered in believing in myself and my ability to give birth and be a mother. It’s a great feeling to leave a class or end a practice and feel, ‘Yes! I can do this!’
I was on a meditation retreat in India when I made an offering at a fertility temple. At the time I wasn’t in the market to become a mother, but I just felt so compelled to make an offering at this beautiful site, so I asked to create abundance. Six weeks later, I got pregnant. Surprise!
Yoga has played a central role throughout my whole process. I continued my daily morning meditation practice throughout my pregnancy and postpartum, as well as my asana practice after the first trimester.
Yoga and meditation definitely played a role in the outcome of our birth story. In birthing, you really have to surrender to the unknown, which is what we all ultimately have to do in this life, and what yoga is all about. Birthing a human is like a practice round for that—our ultimate surrender back to the source. It helped me feel courageous going into the scary places, the uncomfortable, the unfathomable.
This piece was made possible in collaboration with Sophia Emigh.
By Shira Atkins