As any mother can attest, pregnancy is filled with growth and transformation. Women experience profound physical, emotional and spiritual shifts along with an increased sense of responsibility for self-care and attention to preparations for baby’s arrival. Yoga provides tools to navigate each part of this birthing journey with a greater sense of steadiness and ease.
The mother’s quality of life is essential to good pregnancy outcomes. Pregnancy is an ideal time for maintaining or adopting a healthy lifestyle, and yoga has been extensively researched as a safe and beneficial activity for uncomplicated pregnancies. Studies show that prenatal yoga supports easier labors, births and recoveries. Yoga postures, or asanas, help to condition and balance all bodily systems, and yogic breathing techniques calm the nervous system, allowing it to be in an alert and open state. Meditation strengthens the mind and expands consciousness through sustained attention and mindfulness. All of these are valuable for a smoother pregnancy and birth.
In general, expectant mothers should avoid hot yoga, inversions, closed twists, deep backbends, intense abdominal work and any posture that will compress the abdomen. This is a good time to remember that yoga is non-competitive and non-judgmental. Modify or rest whenever appropriate to avoid overexertion and overstretching. Now is a time to listen to your body’s innate wisdom.
Yoga in the First Trimester
While it’s often not apparent on the outside, the first three months of pregnancy are filled with subtle, profound changes in the body such as dramatic shifts in hormone levels to support the uterus, placenta and fetus. Blood volume increases to meet the demands of both mother and baby. Heart rate increases and swollen tender breasts are common. Also, symptoms often include nausea, fatigue, headaches and constipation.
Restorative Pose (Photos: Sherrell Photography)
Restorative postures, breathing techniques and meditation can relieve symptoms, help manage mood and energy, and promote a calm mind. The quiet, supported postures of restorative yoga invite inner awareness and an intimate connection to the new life forming inside.
If symptoms in the first trimester are minimal or subside, then most basic yoga poses are suitable and can be modified as pregnancy progresses.
Yoga in the Second Trimester
In the second trimester, early pregnancy symptoms gradually diminish and mothers often experience a surge of energy. The increased size of the breasts and uterus bring weight gain and major structural changes in posture, stretched abdominals and low back strain. In this stage, pregnancy hormones that stimulate lengthening and laxity in ligaments, cartilage, bones and cervix allow for the pelvic outlet to expand for birth but can leave joints unstable and vulnerable.
It is important to balance out the changes in the body by learning proper posture and safe and effective strengthening for the pelvic floor and abdominals, especially in functional movement. Asanas such as Cat/Cow, Child’s Pose and Down Dog at the wall can relieve tightness in the lower back, while spinal balances such as Bird Dog can encourage core stability.
To prepare for the remainder of pregnancy and childbirth, focus on building strength and stamina with postures like Warrior II, Intense Side Angle and Half Moon, which boost confidence and courage to face the unknown.
At this point in pregnancy, mothers should avoid exercises and postures that require them to lie flat on the back longer than two minutes. Doing so can compress the inferior vena cava, a major vein that returns blood back to the heart. Prolonged or repeated compression of the vein can reduce blood flow to the placenta, which can impede fetal development. Supine poses can be modified with yoga props such as blankets, bolsters and blocks. Lying on the left side during Corpse Pose allows for optimal blood flow from the vena cava, reduces pressure on the liver and kidneys, improves digestion and encourages optimal fetal positioning for easier delivery.
On a more subtle level, the second trimester often brings more sensations from the baby. Flutters, kicks, and baby hiccups naturally turn awareness inward. This is an excellent time to focus on the growing baby; visualizations can invite mothers to feel life inside. Gentle, rhythmic movements coordinated with the breath can bring more attention to the rocking sensation the baby might feel and help one imagine holding and rocking a baby in arms.
Yoga in the Third Trimester
In the third trimester, energy levels might vary. Back pain, postural challenges, poor circulation, interrupted sleep and swelling can be mediated with modified physical activity. Women must learn to adapt to the new shape of their bodies by modifying and discovering what brings comfort. It is helpful to cultivate mindfulness of comfort in preparation for labor. The third trimester is also a good time to educate and mentally prepare for childbirth.
Prenatal yoga classes often reinforce concepts learned in childbirth education classes, offering postures that mimic birthing positions, encourage optimal fetal positioning and provide labor-coping techniques. Seated Bound Angle and Birth Squat postures help open the hips. Goddess builds strength and brings attention to the pelvic floor. Hand and knee work, such as Cat, Cow, Hip Circles and Rocking Lunges, can simulate birthing positions. Experienced as gentle, rhythmic movement paired with the breath, these poses bring the mind into a more internal meditative space that soothes discomfort, calms the mind and accesses the innate intelligence of the body.
Meditation, yogic breathing and vocalization can help balance thoughts and emotions surrounding the anticipation of birth and parenthood. The focus should be on relaxing, softening and opening. The constancy and familiarity of the breath invites security and helps mothers find calm composure in any situation. Furthermore, using slow, soft, steady inhalations and exhalations can decrease the odds of fetal distress by helping mothers remain relaxed themselves. Vocalization on the exhale, such as “Ohhhh,” “Ahhhh” and “Mmmmmm,” can help relax the jaw, and since there is a neurological connection between the jaw and pelvic floor, doing so helps to relax the pelvic floor, which can help ease the path for childbirth.
Pregnancy and childbirth are rites of passage filled with a sense of self-discovery. Yoga invites mothers into an experience of sustained moment-to-moment presence to address new, profound and sometimes challenging experiences with empowerment so they can celebrate the gift and miracle of life. A sustained yoga practice fosters healthy habits beyond pregnancy and into the parenting years.
For additional support, in-person studio classes or livestream yoga classes allow for community connection, person-to-person interaction and individualized attention. Virtual classes also permit birthing parents to be in the comfort and safety of their home without challenges of additional childcare, yet still allocate time for self-care. ❧
Note: It is best to have a conversation with your obstetrician, your midwife or a member of your healthcare team before beginning yoga or any other exercise program. If you are aware of complications, follow your healthcare provider’s guidelines and wait until the pregnancy is firmly established before initiating yoga practice. Once cleared, find an instructor with specialized prenatal training or a prenatal yoga class that offers exercises specifically designed for the pregnant woman.
Marnie Memmolo, ERYT200, RPYT, AWC, YACEP has been specializing in pre/postnatal yoga, Pilates, pelvic floor health and Ayurveda for more than 20 years. She leads group, private lessons and workshops through her virtual yoga studio, Maha Moon. Connect at MahaMoon.com.