Yoga in pregnancy is really beneficial whether you are a complete beginner, or have a long-standing practice. It is highly advisable to find a yoga class for pregnancy as it will be tailored to the needs of your body in pregnancy, and also help prepare you for labour and birth. It may well be that your current teacher is experienced and trained to teach pregnant women allowing you to continue with your normal class.
If there are no pregnancy yoga classes near you, though, or no teachers who will allow you in your class, you are stuck with your own self practice. You will be guided by your own body in what feels right or wrong. There are some general guidelines of things to do and things to avoid when it comes to yoga in pregnancy. This blog aims to give some insight as to DOs and DON’Ts for yoga practice during pregnancy.
1. Yoga in the first trimester
Opinion is largely divided about practicing yoga at all in the first trimester. Some people advocate that you shouldn’t accept a woman into your class before 12-14 weeks into the pregnancy. This is largely due to a fear about miscarriage and the increased risks of it during the first trimester due to the fact the placenta has not reached maturity until this time. No teacher wants to be associated with a miscarriage and so will generally avoid this by simply not teaching anyone in the first trimester.
There is also some feeling that doing anything other than very soft and gentle postures could do harm. However there is no evidence to suggest that a yoga practice suitable for pregnancy is not also suitable for the first trimester. That said, just because there isn’t a study to back it up, doesn’t mean that your body and mind have different needs in this trimester.
Nausea, sickness and tiredness will often mean you don’t want to go to yoga. However, for some people it can be a great way to mitigate those symptoms. They key is to inform the teacher if it is a normal class, and just take it really easy if you are doing self-practice.
ADVICE: Keep your yoga practice very soft and research contraindications for yoga in pregnancy. Focus on meditation, pranayama and yoga nidra and listen closely to your body.
2. Prone postures
Lying on your tummy feels pretty weird from fairly early on in pregnancy and so most women will avoid it quite naturally. You won’t really cause any damage especially in the first trimester, but very quickly it will feel uncomfortable. Some women continue to sleep on their front, and their baby won’t be squashed as it is cushioned comfortably by amniotic fluid.
Most prone postures in yoga include some sort of backbend though and this is something to avoid – see below.
ADVICE: Avoid prone postures if they feel uncomfortable. Sphinx, cobra, swastikasana, bow should all be avoided.
3. Corpse pose in the 3rd trimester
During the third trimester, the weight of the baby, amniotic fluid, uterus and surrounding organs becomes heavy enough to compress the major vena cava. This is the main blood vessel that delivers blood to the body, placenta and baby. It is situated inside the pelvis between the spine and the uterus.
Assuming corpse pose after about 25-28 weeks of pregnancy is best to avoid so as enable optimum blood flow at all times to mum and baby. Most women will find that just a few minutes in this position will make them feel dizzy and strange, and so will naturally prefer to be sideways.
It is also good to lie on the left-hand side as it helps the baby get into the optimum position for birth – head down, facing towards the mum’s right-hand side.
The idea relaxation position is side-lying corpse pose on the left-hand side with a cushion or block under the head (so neck is in line with the spine). The lower (left) leg stays fairly straight and the upper (right) leg bent and supported under the knee and foot by 1-3 blocks. Some people are more comfortable with holding a block between their knees. They key is support and comfort.
ADVICE: Avoid lying flat on the back for longer than 2-3 minutes from 25 weeks.
4. Closed twists
Open twists are ok provided they are not too deep and are a great way to encourage the body to open. Yoga in pregnancy aims to open the body ready for birth. Open twists combined with hip openers are a wonderful way of opening the body.
ADVICE: Keep twists open and soft.
5. Back bends
During pregnancy the spine develops quite a severe lordosis in the lumbar region due to the extra weight of the baby and the strain on the abdominal ligaments and musculature. The strain means the body towards the end of pregnancy is in a near state of back bend all the time, with reciprocating adjustments for the rest of the spine.
The result is that anything other than the most minor backbends should be avoided so as not to exacerbate this. Postures such as cow should only have a flat back (rather than dipping the stomach). The warrior series should keep arms fairly low so as to minimise the lumbar involvement.
Of course doing forward bends and spinal curls is a fantastic way to help counteract this lordosis.
ADVICE: Avoid all but the most soft backbends.
Inversions are thought to draw circulation away from the uterus and all but downward-facing dog should be completely omitted from practice. If you are new to yoga in pregnancy then even a downward-facing dog is really too much and you should just stick with a puppy variation, or cat-cow with a flat back.
ADVICE: Omit completely from practice.
7. Heavy pranayama
Deep core breathing, diaphragmatic thrusts and holding the breath (either in or out) are all best avoided in pregnancy. The core muscles get very stretched in pregnancy and the organs get very compressed and deep breath work – such as the bellows breath (kapalabati) – will just exacerbate this.
Breathing deeply is still very beneficial – and goes a long way to prepare for labour and birth – but anything that forces the breath in and out will be too strong and likely make you feel dizzy anyway.
ADVICE: Keep breath soft and natural.
8. Hold it too deep or too long
In pregnancy, the body releases a hormone called Relaxin that cause muscles and ligaments to soften and stretch right from conception. The purpose is to enable to tissues to stretch to accommodate the baby, and also prepare the pelvis to be able to move for labour and birth.
A result of this is that postures that have previously felt very challenging (such as pigeon, or cow face pose) can suddenly feel much more achievable. However it is really important to reign yourself in and not hold postures too deep or too long.
You do get more flexible and have more stretch, but the flip side is you lose the strength and so it becomes very easy to overstretch and this can cause a lot of problems. Yin yoga in pregnancy is fine to practice but just make sure you stick to postures that don’t stretch too deeply, especially in the hips.
ADVICE: Don’t enjoy the posture too much and reign yourself in if you’re an experienced yogi.
9. Hot yoga
Due to the high temperatures involved in hot yoga, the body temperature can rise higher than is advised in pregnancy and so hot yoga in pregnancy should be avoided. This advice reflects advice to avoid saunas and steam rooms, jacuzzis and even really hot baths.
ADVICE: Stop going to hot yoga.
10. Permission to rest
Give yourself a break in your pregnancy and allow yourself to discover the softer side of your practice. Use blocks and bricks to support yourself and don’t push yourself even a millimetre further than feels comfortable. It can feel very frustrating to stop doing an intensive practice but pregnancy is a time to reflect on the marvels unfolding in your belly.
Therefore using props for uncomfortable postures, avoiding anything that causes pain and giving yourself permission to just lie down if that’s what you need will all enhance your experience of yoga in pregnancy.
In early pregnancy, a pregnancy yoga class can seem quite tame, especially if you are used to a fast-paced ashtanga workout. However, as your bump grows and you baby makes more demands of your body, you will find the soft and gentle approach becomes the highlight of your practice.
Eleanor Hayes trained with Birthlight in Pregnancy yoga and postnatal yoga. If you are pregnant it is really important to let your yoga teacher know as soon as you do so they can advise you of appropriate modifications and contraindications. Ideally you should join a pregnancy yoga class at the earliest opportunity.