Pregnancy is a beautiful time to be doing yoga. Not only does it prepare your body for labor and post-partum, but it can keep you strong, supple and spacious as your body shifts shape to make room for your little loved one.
Some notes for prenatal practice
- It’s wise not to attempt anything new that is too exerting or that poses a fall risk. Now is not necessarily the time to work on a brand new arm balance or inversion (unless of course you feel totally comfortable with that, which brings me to the next tip.)
- Your intuition is Q U E E N . Not even your doc knows what it’s like to live in your skin. Within reason (and I’m not saying you shouldn’t listen to your doc), if something is intuitively RIGHT, or intuitively GOOD to you, it almost definitely IS. Go with your gut. On the other hand, if you’re feeling intuitively wary — that’s probably for good reason too. Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right.
- Don’t overheat. The pregnant bod gets hotter more easily than usual, and overheating is not comfortable or safe for babe either. If you’re used to a slippery, sweaty practice, consider pregnancy your invitation to take it down a notch. Then again, see #2.
- Holding breath = not good. This doesn’t really need an explanation, right?
- Take care not to overstretch. The hormone relaxin can make it easier to open and lengthen — particularly in the hips, groin and pelvic area. It is definitely possible to stretch to a non-optimal degree that adds length (think, flaccidity) to your connective tissues that will not necessarily re-tighten post-labor. Rule of thumb would be, don’t go beyond the stretching you were capable of prior to being “with beb.”
- Deep twists are not advised. In addition to being plain uncomfortable later on in the pregnancy, deep twisting can pull on your abdominals in a way that makes them separate (see Diastasis Recti below. Not fun.).
- Back bending is fine as long as… it feels GREAT to you. As with most things, don’t overdo it. Don’t try going deeper than you’ve ever gone, and you may even want to back off from the depth you had before pregginess happened. If you’re body is signaling that something may be up, then something most surely IS UP, and that’s your cue to take it easier.
- The choice to lie on your back is yours. Make it an informed choice. When the weight of the tum gets unwieldy, lying on the back is known to put pressure on the vena cava, which can disrupt blood flow to baby causing serious consequences and even fetal or maternal death. This isn’t to be taken lightly. That said, some mums make it the whole term without feeling pressure upon lying on the back. If you’re not certain about what you’re feeling, it’s best to play it safe. Either elevate your upper torso in a semi-reclined position with the aid of a husband (remember those?) and pillows, or lie on your side < Don’t skimp on the pillows, and one between the knees can make it even more
- Overall, movement is good! And why not? Would you rather feel weak and immovable as a pregnant person or strong and limber? Strong and limber for me, please — during pregnancy and long, long after, should I be so lucky.
On movement in general
It is good to keep moving!, particularly on those days when you’re feeling tired, cranky, queasy… You don’t always want to hear it, but movement is good for bringing more ease to the body, taking your mind of off the uncomfortable bits, and elevating your mood. I say this as a person who hardly moved during my first three months of pregnancy, so take it with a grain of salt, as they say. I must admit that when I did coax myself out of fetal position, usually to walk in the woods or stretch, I felt better for having done it — not great but definitely better.
Move more slowly, more mindfully than usual. Take extra care of your bod and babe, and don’t risk overdoing it (‘cause for what?). If the practice feels great, you can always increase the intensity but do so incrementally, and be prepared to back off if you feel overexerted.
On the flip side of the above, you are not a fragile thang. That you’ve survived the pregnancy thus far is proof that you are a powerful, creative, adaptable being. Don’t assume that being protective of little booh-bah means taking it overly easy all of the time (unless that is what you’re desperately needing, in which case, take a throne, mama!). When you’re generally up to it, a brisk walk, a light stretch, some core engagement and fluid movement are all things that are very likely to make you feel better, not worse.
In many cases, miscarriages happen because something went wrong chromosomally (<<click for more info from the National Institutes of Health). Generally speaking, in a pregnancy that is not high risk, moving your body around does not cause miscarriage. Don’t be overly alarmed by well-meaning onlookers who chime in about the precautions you should be taking. Only you and your doc (assuming he or she is a good one) know best.
The first trimester holds the highest risk for miscarriage. As such, some of the yoga establishment (ex., the Jois family of the Ashtanga lineage) recommends not practicing (Ashtanga yoga) during these first three or so months. Let your intuition and your OB-GYN or midwife help you to make this call. Each woman is different, and the practice can almost always be modified to match your needs. I spent the first three months of my pregnancy befriending the bolster and practicing reclined heart openers (AKA, lying on the couch with pillows) — it was all I could do to cope with the unceasing tide of nausea and esophageal acidity I was suffering from. Then again, I know plenty of yogis who felt well enough to do their usual inversions and sweaty vinyasa the whole duration. Err on the side of gentle[-r] but keep on doing whatever makes you feel great.
If you are older than 35 or high risk for any reason, seek your doc’s input. There is nothing wrong with taking a few-month break, and many moms report bouncing back stronger than ever after the down time.
Diastasis Recti (DRA)
Diastasis recti is real. It happens when the most superficial abdominal layer, the rectus abdominis, splits away from the centermost vertical line of your tum, the linea alba. Up to 70% of pregnant or post-natal mamas suffer from this inconvenient and sometimes uncomfortable condition. In the most severe cases, it causes pain, leading you to lose abdominal control, and then never quite resolves back to pre-pregnancy shape. In many cases, the split goes largely unnoticed but causes some aesthetic and structural difficulty when it comes to tightening back up after giving birth.
What causes DRA?
Too much abdominal pressure can over-stress the rectus abdominis causing it to split. The pressure can be a result of many factors: from weak abdominals to postural misalignment to insufficient breathing habits. For a more thorough look at DRA, the super-smart and incidentally hilarious biomechanist Katy Bowman has written a book on the subject, and her website contains some great information.
How to prevent it?
Use a combo attack of (properly executed):
- core work (see below),
- moderate stretching,
- good postural alignment,
- efficient breathing mechanics,
- and the avoidance of very deep twisting.
How important is core work during pregnancy?
You’ll hear conflicting advice about core work, with some yoga teachers emphasizing its importance during pregnancy and others describing its dangers. Here’s where I fall on the matter>>. Core work is essential for supporting your back, keeping the abdomen strong and “in place,” and maintaining continence during and after pregnancy; however, the core work you do has got to be the right kind — with precision attention to alignment, breathing, intensity level (don’t overdo it), annnnd it’s GOT to keep the transverse abdominis (TVA) center stage. What’s the TVA? It’s your deep-most abdominal wall (more on this below). Crunches all day long may or may not strengthen you and may or may not exacerbate DRA.
Mula bandha, or the lifting of the pelvic floor (much like kegels but spanning from the anus to the genitals), AKA the root lock, is the KEY to a healthy, strong core before, during and after pregnancy. You don’t want to go mula bandha crazy, gripping and squeezing until you gain an inch (that’s never cool anyway), but you do want to habitually engage, lift — and also release — the muscles of your pelvic floor, without strain or excess exertion.
Without proper engagement of the pelvic floor, it is damn near impossible to engage the abdominal wall, or TVA. That’s because the TVA begins deep down at the pelvis and inguinal ligament and is effectively linked to the musculature of the pelvic floor.
What does proper TVA engagement feel like?
Sit down for a sec and notice where your belly touches your pant line. On an exhale, draw the abdomen closer to your spine / farther away from your pant line. Did you “suck in”? Sucking in involves holding the breath, tilting the pelvis back, lifting the abdominal contents upward and, inevitably, straining a bit (hello abdominal pressure). We’re after something more subtle. Try the exercise without shifting your ribs or pelvis. Breathe softly in and out while you do it. …Did you find it? For even subtler engagement, practice mula bandha first, then slowly lift the engagement up to navel height.
You can think of the TVA as a cellophane wrapping that holds your abdominal organs in place. Each of us can develop the ability to “hug” our organs in a healthy, supportive way. This opposed to the hold-your-breath-out-till-you’re-blue-in-the-face, too-strong bear hug of a heavy weight lifter’s engagement of the TVA — that’s the valsalva maneuver and it’s more than you need during pregnancy. Also remember, holding breath bad.
What about uddiyana bandha?
Some evidence suggests that sucking in, squeezing the abs too forcefully in and up, can cause or worsen DRA. While some soft upward lift can feel like excellent support during pregnancy, it’s not advised to use this bandha too strongly. Many yoga teachers advise against its use during pregnancy at all. I am finding that a moderate mula bandha and a light engagement of the abdominal wall feels like enough to support me throughout the day and during yoga practice.
So what can I do for core?
The truth is, you can be engaging your deep core anywhere: sitting, standing, waiting in line, watching the tele. All it takes is bringing awareness to the pelvic floor and engaging the soft hug of your abdominal wall. But what else is safe to do during pregnancy?
Cat pose – Not only does it help to access the abdominal wall, but it facilitates healthy breathing.
Chaturanga on your knees – Like a modified push-up, this movement keeps the core and shoulder girdle strong without asking too much of your poor back and shoulders. (And look, if chaturanga-chaturanga feels just great to you, then I am not here to kibosh.)
Bird-Dog – From hands and knees, and with an inhale, lift your right leg parallel to earth as you reach your left arm forward; on the exhale, bring your knee to your elbow. Repeat!
Plank pose – If plank is too tough, or if you feel strain on your back, alternate one knee down at a time.
In a nutshell
Here’s a lesson from yoga — appropriate for pregnancy and just as good when you’re no longer pregnant: Trust your inner knowing. The whole of the yoga path leads aspirants back to the same place, the inner knower. As the sage Vasistha advises Rama, “the highest wisdom dawns in the heart.” When in doubt, do a little reading, or ask someone you trust, but always, always be your own most trusted guru.
From darkness to light,