Disclaimer: As always, consult with your healthcare provider before engaging in any type of exercise program during pregnancy.
Pregnancy is a special time in a woman’s life that is ripe for nurturing, slowing down, and reflecting. Practicing yoga during pregnancy can prepare a woman’s mind and body for the wild, magical journey of pregnancy and childbirth. Physically speaking, prenatal yoga can build stability in the lower back, strengthen the uterus and pelvic muscles, and improve circulation, all of which supports the body during pregnancy and childbirth. From an emotional perspective, prenatal yoga helps to create mental space for reflection and cultivating connection with that deep intuitive self that is necessary for mamas when riding the turbulent waves of childbirth and beyond in a conscious and loving way.
Yoga Classes for Pregnant Women
The ideal yoga class for a pregnant woman is that which takes into consideration the physiological effects of pregnancy on the woman’s body and discomfort(s) that may arise with each trimester. The three pregnancy hormones–relaxin, estrogen and progesterone—undergo significant fluctuation that is often associated with emotional and physical instability. Along the way there is a dismantling of connective tissue, ligaments and tendons to create space for the growing baby, placenta, and uterus. Given this “loosening” effect on the pregnant body, it is important to approach one’s practice mindfully without expectations of what the practice should look like.
Some expectant mamas who have a strong practice prior to pregnancy continue their practice with little to no modifications as they journey through each trimester. Nonetheless, even if you had a well-established practice pre-pregnancy, you may find that you want to modify certain poses to protect your growing baby and to address any pregnancy-related discomforts such as nausea, swelling, fatigue and back pain.
Personally, yoga helped me through a difficult pregnancy characterized by chronic nausea, fatigue, and swelling towards the end. Nonetheless, each woman has her own unique experience. An important theme across all trimesters is to listen to your body and to practice with self-compassion, letting go of any attachments that define how your practice “should” look at any given time. And, if interested, to connect with yoga instructors familiar with the pregnant body to learn about yoga poses to avoid while pregnant.
So, why do we care about modifying or avoiding yoga poses altogether while pregnant?
The highest risk for miscarriage occurs in the first trimester. This is the time of embryo implantation and attachment of the placenta to the uterus. So, yoga poses to avoid when pregnant and in the first trimester might be worth exploring. While yoga is considered a form of healthy exercise to engage in during pregnancy, there are some yoga poses we may want to modify or avoid during pregnancy.
There are general recommendations for pregnant women, broken down by each trimester. For example, in the first trimester yoga poses to avoid during pregnancy are deep twists and those that engage the abdomen to curtail any potential impact on the implantation process. And, certain belly down poses like cobra might be fine as long as the lower belly is not compromised. Second trimester recommendations include spreading feet wide apart to make space for the growing belly and continuing to minimize deep, closed twists. By the third trimester, pregnant women should consider asana modifications that emphasize creating space for the belly and baby and avoiding compression of the belly. Supine poses at this stage should also be considered.
How do we know what yoga poses to avoid when pregnant?
Following is a list, albeit not exhaustive, of yoga poses to consider avoiding while pregnant based on my personal experience and training. Nonetheless, should you have questions, it is always recommended to consult with your healthcare provider or a yoga instructor knowledgeable with modifications for pregnant women.
1. Abdominal poses: Consider avoiding poses that require contraction of the abdomen (e.g., boat, low boat), especially during the first trimester. Transverse abdominal exercises practiced in the second and third trimester, however, can support a healthy and strong back and will aid in pushing during labor.
2. Backbends: Intense backbends such as full wheel can potentially overstretch the abdominal muscles, so should be practiced with caution or skipped altogether. Emphasis should be placed on safe backbends that target opening of the upper back rather than exacerbating the already present arch of the lower spine, and opening the chest to counteract rounding of the shoulders and upper back, a byproduct of the growing and expanding belly.
3. Breathing techniques: Consider avoiding breathing techniques that require breath retention or quick, rapid movements of the belly like breath of fire or bellows breath. This said, I practiced alternate nostril breathing but without breath retention during my pregnancy as I found this practice to quickly ground me in my body and clear the clutter from my mind, preparing me for my sitting practice. You may also want to consider modifying ujjiyi given that often times, expectant mamas experience stuffy noses due to inflamed mucous membranes. Also, when in labor the tendency is to breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth.
4. Deep or closed twists: It is best to refrain from closed twists (think revolved triangle, lunge), which are optimal for the nonpregnant body as they work to compress and cleanse the internal organs. However, for pregnant women, deep twists could affect blood flow and oxygen traveling to baby. Instead, focus on open twists with baby pointed forward, which aligns with the idea of creating space for baby to grow and expand in utero.
5. Full inversions: Inversions such as headstand and shoulderstand could send mixed signals to the baby. You want head facing down. Milder inversions with head below the heart such as downward dog and separate leg forward fold are fine, but if you experience nausea or feel discomfort when bringing head down, either come out of the pose early or refrain from practicing it.
6. Jumping transitions: Jumping forward and back in sun salutations may disturb the implantation process during the first trimester. Again, connect to your intuition and tune in to what feels right for your body. Hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy can have unexpected effects on the body. Some mamas will implement little to no modifications (including inversions) all the way up until their due date.
7. Prone or belly down poses: Some belly down poses, such as cobra, are fine if you are mindful of grounding below the belly (pubic bone) and lengthening through the lower back. This way, the belly and hence baby do not endure the weight of your body. As always, if you are unsure, either skip the pose altogether or consult with a teacher who is familiar with asana modifications during pregnancy. Bow pose and locust pose tend apply direct pressure to the uterus (especially without the assistance of hands as in cobra pose) and should be avoided.
Personally, I put my practice on hold during the first trimester and spent time in nature taking long walks, and cultivating my sitting meditation practice with the use of mantras and affirmations. The majority of my practice during the second and third trimester was spent at home doing my own flow incorporating the above recommendations to avoid certain yoga poses. Due to chronic morning sickness and fatigue, and towards the end of my pregnancy significant swelling in my feet and ankles, I did not have the energy for a vigorous practice. My practice became more about rejoicing in the experience of being able to step onto my mat when I could, and integrating mindfulness meditation techniques with the yoga poses. Slowing down and paying attention to the subtleties of each pose and cultivating that intuitive wisdom paved the way for me to experience a conscious and vibrant pregnancy and childbirth.