Many doctors recommend prenatal yoga to their patients, and with good reason. Research has shown the benefits of yoga for overall health, with some studies also specifically looking at its benefits for pregnancy. Here’s a guide to first, second and third trimester yoga, with some basic poses to try at home, and video classes…
What Is Yoga?
Yoga is not just a physical exercise – it is a spiritual and mental practice as well, and can even extend to a way of life, with diet and meditation playing a major role in this ancient system as well. However, during pregnancy, you can make it whatever you want it to be. You can simply reap the physical benefits, including flexibility and opening the hips, or you can reap the relaxation and deep breathing benefits, which will help during labor.
Yoga has been around for thousands of years in India, but was not recognized in the West for its many benefits. However, the last few decades have changed that with scientists, medical doctors and fitness experts embracing yoga as a healing, beneficial practice. It has been proven in Western researchers for its many benefits, including:
- Increased flexibility
- More strength
- Better balance
- Improved posture
- Toned muscles
- Healthier joints
- Less stress and anxiety
- Better sleep
- Calmer mind
- Improved lymphatic system
- Improved respiratory function
- Better circulation
- More energy
- Lower blood pressure and cholesterol
- Stronger immune system
- Improved memory
- Better mood
- Better digestion
- Increased bone strength
- Better sex
What Not To Do When You’re Pregnant
It is important to err on the side of caution when doing any physical exercise during pregnancy. However, there were a number of yoga poses and techniques that were considered dangerous to practice when pregnant, that have since been okayed by the experts. A US study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology looked at 25 healthy pregnant women in their third trimesters. They practiced 26 yoga poses, including stretches, twists and standing poses, during guided one-on-one sessions. Researchers found that downward facing dog, happy baby and corpse pose were all safe to practice, as long as women had healthy pregnancies and no high blood pressure or gestational diabetes. Those poses had previously been considered dangerous to practice during pregnancy. The study avoided inversions, however, because those poses risk falling.
Therefore, prenatal yoga still does not include inversions, as well as poses that require you to lay flat on your belly, including locust and bow pose. Having said all that, in the first and second trimester, it’s important to be even more cautious and would generally be advised to avoid strong twists and bends.
While all pregnancies vary, and some mothers-to-be breeze through this trimester, while others struggle to keep anything down. To understand what’s happening, and why this time can see the biggest adjustment, let’s look at what’s actually happening. For the first three months, the body has to suddenly develop a life-support system for the baby. Hormones are released, blood volume increases, blood pressure decreases, and joints and muscles loosen to accommodate a stretching uterus. This is a delicate time when pregnant women are at their highest risk of miscarriage, so precautions need to be taken when doing any form of exercise. During the first trimester, women tend to be tired because of the physical exhaustion from the body internally working over time. That means a gentle hatha or restorative class (with prenatal precautions) are some of the more appropriate yoga options.
It’s important during this stage of your pregnancy not to over stretch your abdomen. One of the particularly beneficial during this stage to work on strength, so focusing less on flexibility in poses, and more on engaging muscles. That means using every opportunity to delve further into the strength of a pose. In standing poses, for example, when your instructor says, ‘lift your knee caps’, use your upper thigh muscles to do that. Or if you are instructed to subtly draw your ankles towards each other in a warrior pose, use your inner thighs to get that extra engagement.
If you are in a regular yoga class rather than a specific prenatal class, make sure you firstly tell the teacher you’re pregnant, and how far along you are. But secondly, you can make your own little adjustments. For example, in forward folding poses, don’t compress your belly – make sure you create space. In uttanasana, you could use a yoga block for your hands in order the create that space, and in child’s pose, open your thighs apart to create space for your belly in between them.
In balancing poses, the most important thing is not to fall or over strain your core to save yourself from falling. If you are comfortable trying balancing postures, like tree pose, do so near the wall so that you always have the option of steadying yourself or stopping yourself from falling or straining. You will notice during these poses that your balance is different, because your center of gravity will be shifting, so be prepared to feel less balanced than you did before in yoga and work through it slowly and carefully.
By this stage, you will be very aware of the little person living and moving inside. Every kick and movement can be felt, and, let’s be honest, the body is under a large amount of pressure. This is the time when lower back pain can crop up, as well as sore feet and over-curving the back. Yoga is one of the most beneficial things you can do at this stage for your comfort. What you want to try and focus on if you are suffering from some of those issues is relieving them through specific poses and sequences. Not only that, but I yoga class or session can be a much-needed escape from the mental pressures of the third trimester as labor approaches. You can use this time to look inward and prepare yourself mentally for giving birth, practicing focus and breath. During your third trimester, exercise is safer than it was, particularly in the first trimester. The biggest obstacle to get over is the big bump that can get in the way, and the extra weight you have to carry and hold in poses. However, you should still avoid inversions, strong twists, backbends, intense abdominal work and any poses that involve lying on the belly.
Basic Poses To Try At Home
But before that, an important warning! If you are trying yoga for the first time, we would always advise going to a class or booking a private session with an instructor or yoga therapist. Not only will they keep you safe, but they will ensure you are practicing the poses correctly and gaining the most benefit from them. It is also important, whether practicing on your own or with a teacher, to listen to your body the entire time. If anything doesn’t feel right, stop or adjust it. Make sure you always feel comfortable and balanced.
Learning to breathe is perhaps the most beneficial things you can learn in yoga to cope with pregnancy and make labor easier. It also improves your yoga practice and helps you hold poses for longer and move deeper into them. To begin with, we’ll look at ujjayi breath, which is the basic breath foundation of yoga, and is paired with asanas (postures), used throughout flows. However, there are a number of breathing techniques you can try, and there’s a video below, specifically designed for pregnancy.
Ujjayi means ‘victorious’ and is also known as ‘ocean breath’ because of the sound it creates. It is designed to be energizing and relaxing at the same time when practiced correctly. The breathing should be long and smooth and sound like rolling ocean waves. This is accomplished by slightly constricting the throat, creating a subtle resistance to the passage of air. From there, gently inhale the air, as if you are drawing it all the way into the bottom of your belly, and then gently push it out on an exhale. The inhale and exhale should be the same or similar lengths and will ensure you oxygenate your whole body, instead of taking those shallow breaths that become common as we age. Ujjayi takes practice, so don’t expect to master it on your first try. Practice it every day for five minutes and try to remember to use your breath when practicing a yoga sequence.
Sit on your mat with your legs out in front. Straighten your back and roll your shoulders back and down. Slowly and gently bring your feet out, letting your knees open and float towards the floor. Bring the bottoms of your feet together and take hold of your ankles or around your feet with your hands. Make sure your back is still strong and straight and that you’re not straining your spine or neck. You should feel a stretch along your inner thighs and groin. You can hold the pose here or gently lift and lower your knees to increase the stretch, which is a technique called ‘butterfly’.
Take a beanbag and some cushions and place them behind you. Lay back onto it so that you are relaxed and your chest is open but you are still on an upwards angle. Make sure your head is also supported by the props. Place a cushion or yoga block under each knee and relax into the pose, allowing your shoulders to melt towards the outside of the beanbag. Close your eyes and stay here for three to five minutes.
Cat & Cow Sequence
This sequence of two poses lightly stretches the back, shoulders and abdomen. It’s a great sequence to relieve back pain, and, at the same time, it warms up the body, which lubricates joints and loosens muscles. Start in tabletop, placing a blanket underneath your knees if they are sensitive. On an inhale, gently lift your tailbone and head, dropping your belly down. On an exhale, round your shoulders, dropping your tailbone and head towards the ground. Continue moving with your own breath, keeping the poses slow and steady.
Pregnancy Yoga Sequences
As well as having specific yoga classes for each trimester, there are also pregnancy yoga sequences that focus on certain outcomes, like strength, stability, flexibility, stress or back pain. Here are some options to choose from, depending on what your biggest needs are.
Strength & Stability
Common sense would tell you pregnancy and labor need strength and stability. Everything, from your pelvic floor muscles to your back muscles need to be kept in shape to help you along the way and minimize the risk of soreness and injury. This is a great sequence to practice a couple of times a week…
Insomnia & Restless Legs
Your body can react in different ways to pregnancy and you might find you’re struggling with different difficulties. Restless legs is one of those possibilities, and some women do find insomnia to be a problem as the months progress towards the due date. Try this one if these are the sorts of issues coming up for you…
Lower Back Relief
One of the most widespread and common problems that surface during pregnancy is back pain. It is a sudden and foreign thing for the back to suddenly have to support all this extra disproportional weight. It is therefore important to look after your back and practice relieving poses to improve your comfort level…