“Yoga is about creating harmony within oneself and to create that harmony while pregnant meant my practices had to honor as well as include the process my body was going through to make a newborn child.”
Many avid yogis have practices that consist of headstands, arm balances, and leaving the mat happily drenched in sweat. For some, envisioning a time when the body cannot sustain this level of activity, such as during pregnancy, is daunting. When pregnant, a woman experiences a bevy of physical changes that require a different approach to practice. Knowing how to properly approach yoga during this time is essential for the health of both mother and child, but continued practice can also deliver deep physical and emotional benefits during a woman’s journey to motherhood.
Physically, yoga is known to ease the discomforts of pregnancy, such as shortness of breath, mood swings, fatigue, and swelling, according to Linda Sparrowe, author of The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health. Pranayama, the practice of yogic breathing, offers a means through which to manage the pain of contractions, and meditation can help improve the ability to relax into the present.
Yoga also helps support mental and emotional balance during this time of transition. My prenatal students tell me of their nearly primal connection to the earth as they sink into a deep squat and breathe into their growing belly, preparing to bring a new life into this world. Group yoga classes offer soon-to-be mothers an opportunity to lean into a sense of community and cultivate a spiritual practice that allows time to develop a connection with their babies. Holding postures such as Warrior Pose can help women gain confidence and build endurance in preparation for motherhood, says Angela Gallagher, a prenatal teacher and childbirth educator in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
How a woman chooses to practice during her pregnancy is deeply personal. Sharmila Desai, an advanced Ashtanga yoga teacher and mother of two, followed her teacher’s advice to not engage in any asana practice during her first trimester. Instead, Desai channeled her energy during her pregnancies by walking, swimming, and practicing seated yoga postures. (Read more about Desai’s daily wellness routine and her advice for expectant mothers here.) Others may decide to continue a more physical practice with modifications throughout the entire pregnancy. “Deeper intimacy with the body allows pregnant women to rely less on rational thinking and more on intuitive wisdom,” explains Gallagher.
Shari Barkin, M.D., a pediatrician at Wake Forest University/Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who practiced yoga during her two pregnancies, supports general guidelines that beginners should practice only prenatal yoga while pregnant, while someone with a strong yoga practice prior to pregnancy may be able to continue a fairly strong practice with modifications after the first trimester. Barkin cautions against beginning any new kinds of strenuous activities during pregnancy.
The first trimester is an essential time for the baby’s formation, as the fetus is implanting into the uterine wall and the risk of miscarriage is highest. At this time, experts such as Barkin recommend doing a gentle physical practice or none at all.
“In the traditional Ashtanga yoga practice, practicing asanas in the first trimester is not recommended, and women are encouraged to avoid taking unnecessary risks during this important time,” writes Desai in the book she co-authored with Anna Wise, Yoga Sadhana for Mothers. For those that do make the choice to incorporate physical postures early on in pregnancy, Barkin recommends only gentle movements like cat and cow, hip openers, and forward folds during early stages of pregnancy.
Pregnancy produces a hormone called relaxin, which generates greater flexibility and mobility to make space for the baby but can also lead to instability and lower back pain, so women need to be careful not to overstretch during this time. “Pregnancy is not a time to strive for more flexibility, although it may occur,” says Stephanie Keach, Director of the Asheville Yoga Center and mother of two boys.
“Do not do inversions, twists, or jumps in your first trimester,” Barkin says. “Step back; don’t jump back in Sun Salutations. It’s important not to jar or threaten implantation of the fetus and placenta.” Barkin also recommends practicing Camel Pose or Bridge Pose, which pulls less on the stomach muscles, instead of Full Wheel. It’s important to listen to the body “especially sensitively during this very important time for your baby,” says Elena Brower, a yoga teacher and mother based in New York City. “No twisting, nothing too vigorous. Maintain with gentleness what you’ve always done.”
Breathing techniques such as Ujayi Pranayama, also known as victorious breath, in which one breathes in and out the nose, and Nadi Shodana, or alternate-nostril breathing (when breath is circulated through one side of the nose, exhaled out the other side, and then alternated, as demonstrated in the video below) are especially beneficial practices during pregnancy, says Keach. Both these techniques help balance the body’s energy flows and maintain calm by creating an even flow of breath in and out the nose. Keach advises against “any kind of breath retention or hyperventilation that could limit the baby’s oxygen supply,” such as in breath of fire and kapalabhati.
As a woman’s belly becomes more noticeable, she may feel light-headed and need to eat more frequently to maintain stable blood sugar levels, says Colette Crawford, R.N., a nurse and prenatal yoga teacher based in Seattle. By the second trimester, nausea typically subsides, and experienced yogis with a strong practice may choose to invert again during this time. “This is when I felt strongest,” says Brower. “I loved my practice during this very beautiful and robust time of pregnancy.”
Women should be aware that higher levels of endorphins, the body’s “feel-good” hormone, are produced as pregnancy progresses, making it more difficult to feel injury, writes Desai in Yoga Sadhana for Mothers. She also advises that women should not practice closed twists or poses that put weight on the abdomen such as Locust Pose.
By the third trimester, balance and breathing become difficult as the body holds more weight. In the book Relax and Renew, Judith Lasater, Ph.D., P.T., advises women after the first three months of pregnancy to practice Savasana by lying on the left side with padding between the knees instead of on the back. Also, to avoid compressing the belly, pregnant women frequently modify standing poses such as Chair Pose by taking their feet into a wider stance. “This may be a good time to spend extra breaths in postures that are noted for helping during labor, such as baddha-konasana [Bound Angle Pose] and upavistha konasana [Wide-Leg Seated Forward Bend],” Desai writes, as well as sequences that “encourage the baby into an optimal position for birth, for example, going on all-fours and circling the hips.”
Practicing yoga during pregnancy is especially personal and can be unspeakably rich and rewarding; it allows a sacred opportunity for a woman to deepen her relationship to the wisdom of her body, her baby, and to herself.