Congratulations! You’ve got a bun in the oven and rapid changes are on the way. Not only is your body undergoing marvelous and radical transformation, but most likely other areas of your life (career, relationships, home) are shifting to make room for this new being. Whether you’re a novice or veteran yogi, practicing yoga during your pregnancy is a wonderful way to create some time for self-connection, grounding, and nourishment.
Practicing sensible yoga while you’re pregnant can strengthen your body, relieve stress and anxiety, and help you to focus your mind – all great preparations for labor and motherhood. Understanding the physiological changes of pregnancy will help you to effectively modify your practice to suit your unique needs. Here’s a trimester-by-trimester guide to address some of the larger changes you will experience. As with any physical activity, practice within the guidelines prescribed by your doctor.
Keep in mind: every pregnancy is unique. Pregnancy is an ideal and magical time to really listen to your body and connect with what feels good to you. Above all else, let your own body be your guide, and enjoy the journey!
Trimester number one is usually characterized by fatigue as you (literally!) grow a new organ – the placenta – to nourish your baby during pregnancy. Though your little tyke is about as big as an egg, your body is working hard to prepare the way. Choose a class style that matches your energy. If you’re just starting yoga, hatha or a designated prenatal class will be great places to begin. If you’re a normal power and flow practitioners, consider adding hatha to your mix to give yourself some space and time to rest and recuperate.
Starting in the first trimester, your hormones will be changing. Often, this new hormone cocktail will generate nausea (morning sickness). More subtly, other hormones will be at work to help prepare the body for delivery. Although you may not notice your newfound flexibility until as late as the third trimester, the hormone relaxin could start to work as early as the first trimester. Relaxin, which loosens the ligaments in your pelvis in order to help the baby make an exit, affects all the connective tissue in the body democratically. As a result, mothers may notice they have newfound flexibility through their joints. Though it may be tempting to finally get into the full splits, refrain from zealous over-stretching as we will want those ligaments to return to a stable length to support your joints after the baby is born.
Since relaxin can loosen your joints, recruit your smaller muscles to stabilizers to mindfully stabilize your joints. Explore engaging your adductors (hugging your legs to the midline) and abductors (pressing your feet apart to engage the outer hip) to steady your pelvis. Also, keep your feet hip distance apart in standing poses to best support your weight.
Heating and overheating
There’s nothing wrong with a good sweat. Normal sweating indicates that your systems for self-regulating your temperature are working well. However, since increasing the core body temperature has been linked to birth defects, it’s important to listen to your body so that you can gauge the difference between a satisfying work out and undue heat stress. If you love strong power and flow practices, tune in to make sure you’re not pushing to far.
Hot Yoga. Unless you are a seasoned hot yoga practitioner, refrain from practicing hot during your pregnancy. During hot yoga, you are practicing in an environment that is akin to a moist sauna and the body’s normal ability to regulate heat can be challenged. Practicing in a room temperature environment will give your body more ease regulating your temperature.
Your amazing circulatory system
During your pregnancy, you will generate 40% more fluid in your body (one of the reasons that prenatal ladies appear a bit fuller – it’s not fat, but fluid), which means that your circulatory system is working extra hard to pump it all around. With your heart on double duty, keep your cardiovascular activity reasonable and stay in tune with what feels good for your body. For example, give yourself permission to skip some of the sun salutations, breathe at your own rate, and avoid holding your breath in pranayama.
The most obvious change during this time is the growth of your babe. As your uterus expands, the baby will encroach upon your internal organs – including your lungs. As your breath capacity will naturally be a little compromised, take your time in class and let go of the need to keep pace with the class. Breathe in the timing that you need and feel free to take more breaths than “dictated” by the vinyasa pattern.
Another good rule of thumb: don’t squish the baby! Take this credo into your practice and play with modifications such as:
- Take an open twist (away from your thighs) rather than into your thighs
- Twist through the upper spine; avoid compressing the lower belly
- Rather than laying your belly in backbending during sun salutations or when they class is lying prone, stay on your hands and knees and do cat cow. Or you can place a bolster under your hips so your belly has space to hang unencumbered.
- Keep your legs hip distance apart in forward folds to make room for your belly.
- To avoid overstretching the belly (and the linea alba), refrain from deep backbending
One more note: there’s a vein called the Vena Cava that runs along the right side of the abdomen behind the internal organs. When lying on your back or your right side, the weight of the baby can compress the vein and lead to a feeling of light-headedness. Modify supine poses accordingly so that you not lying flat. In Savasana, it can be lovely to lay on an inclined bolster, or cuddle a bolster laying on your left side.
Pelvic Floor and Optimal Fetal Position
Contrary to popular belief, sometimes our pelvic floor can be too tight! We want strong and supple pelvic floors that know how to contract as well as release and expand. (Letting go will be important during labor, after all!) Use this time to get to know your pelvic floor. Get a perineal massage, send your breath into your pelvic basin, and find opportunities in class to soften the adductors and widen and relax the pelvic floor during your practice. We often shy away from really experiencing our pelvis, and pregnancy is a wonderful opportunity to get in touch with this marvelous trampoline.
During pregnancy, the lower back will naturally become more lordodic. This is a natural adjustment to the weight of the baby. Poses that take weight off your spine and let your pelvis move into an anterior tilt (cow pose, baddha konasana with forward fold, etc) will feel great. Avoid slouching on the couch or other poses where the pelvis tucks under. And ladies – you are off the hook from tucking your tailbones. Enjoy your natural lumbar curve in all your poses. As your pregnancy progresses, this anterior positioning will help the baby to find his or her optimal fetal position by laying the spine along your belly with his or her head down.
A note on inversions
Some schools of thought counsel avoiding inversions in the first trimester. The first trimester is the most delicate time of a pregnancy, and it’s important to check in with your doctor to see if there’s any reason you should avoid being upside down. Bluntly, it’s not likely that anything that you would reasonably do in a yoga class would impair a normal pregnancy. If a pregnancy is risky, then caution will need to be taken for all your physical activities. While pregnancy isn’t the best time to start a new inversions practice, you are free to continue your current inversions practice if that still feels good. Exercise reasonable caution as your pregnancy progresses and your weight, center of gravity, and joint stability shifts. However, abstain from inversions once baby has found his or her optimal fetal positioning in the third trimester.
In a nutshell…
Top suggestions for practicing when pregnant:
- Don’t squish the baby
- Avoid squishing your vena cava (squishing occurs through lying flat or on right side)
- Breathe at your own rate
- Take your time
- Get in touch with your pelvic floor
- Every pregnancy is different; trust your feelings and your body!
Congratulations, and enjoy!