The benefits of prenatal yoga
Prenatal yoga classes are more popular than ever. When paired with a cardiovascular exercise such as walking, yoga can be an ideal way to stay in shape during your pregnancy. This age-old practice keeps you limber, tones your muscles, and improves your balance and circulation, with little, if any, impact on your joints.
Yoga is also beneficial because it helps you learn to breathe deeply and relax, which will come in handy as you face the physical demands of labor, birth, and motherhood. In fact, one of the first things you learn in a yoga class is how to breathe fully. The breathing technique known as ujjayi requires you to take in air slowly through your nose, filling your lungs, and exhale completely until your stomach compresses.
Learning how to do ujjayi breathing primes you for labor and childbirth by training you to stay calm when you need it most. When you're in pain or afraid, your body produces adrenalin and may produce less oxytocin, a hormone that makes labor progress. A regular yoga practice will help you fight the urge to tighten up when you feel pain, and show you how to relax instead.
Along these same lines, according to a report in the April 2009 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, rigorous studies have found scientific proof that yoga helps the body deal with stress by slowing heart and breathing rates and lowering blood pressure -- which can benefit new moms after the baby's born, too.
The benefits of yoga aren't limited to your physical well-being. Taking a prenatal yoga class is a great way to meet other pregnant women — to become part of a community, Being in a positive, supportive environment with others like you can give you a regular emotional boost and keep you motivated to continue exercising.
First-trimester yoga tips
Seek out an instructor who is specifically trained in prenatal yoga, but if that's not possible, make sure your instructor knows you're expecting. You probably don't have many restrictions this early in your pregnancy, but remember to follow rules of safe pregnancy exercise such as drinking lots of water before, during, and after exercising to keep your body hydrated.
Breathe deeply and regularly as you stretch. If you're a pro at yoga, recognize and accept that your regular routine will require modifications as time goes on.
Listen to your body and trust what it tells you. If you're feeling pain or discomfort, make an adjustment or ask your instructor to recommend an alternative position.
Second-trimester yoga tips
Your joints are beginning to loosen up now, so proceed with caution. Be aware, too, that your slowly expanding girth will affect your sense of balance. Don't try to hold poses for a long time, and remember to sink into yoga positions slowly and carefully to avoid injury. Take your time and don't overdo it. Avoid lying flat on your back now, too, to keep blood flowing properly to your uterus.
Third-trimester yoga tips
You're probably feeling less graceful now that your belly is bigger, so perform standing poses with your heel to the wall or use a chair for support to avoid losing your balance and risking injury to yourself or your baby. Props such as blocks and straps can also help you move through different poses with greater stability.
And remember: Don't hold poses for a long time; it's important to keep moving.
Best poses for pregnancy
Cobbler's or Tailor's pose (baddha konasana): This sitting pose helps open the pelvis. If you are very loose-jointed in your hips, make sure your "sit bones" are well grounded on the mat or blanket (gently pulling the flesh on each side of your bottom out a bit will help you find the right position). Place pillows or rolled-up towels under your knees to avoid hyperextension of your hips.
- Sit up straight against a wall with the soles of your feet touching each other.
- Gently press your knees down and away from each other, but don't force them apart.
- Stay in this position for as long as you're comfortable.
Pelvic tilt or Cat-Cow: This position helps relieve back pain, a common problem during pregnancy.
- Get on your hands and knees, arms shoulder-width apart and knees hip-width apart, keeping your arms straight, but not locking the elbows.
- Tuck your buttocks under and round your back as you breathe in.
- Relax your back into a neutral position as you breathe out.
- Repeat at your own pace.
Squatting: Denise recommends that her prenatal yoga students squat every day to relax and open the pelvis and strengthen the upper legs. As you start to feel heavier in pregnancy, use props such as yoga blocks or a few stacked books on which to rest your bottom. Focus on relaxing and letting your breath drop deeply into your belly.
- Stand facing the back of a chair with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed outward. Hold the back of the chair for support.
- Contract your abdominal muscles, lift your chest, and relax your shoulders. Then lower your tailbone toward the floor as though you were going to sit down on a chair. Find your balance — most of your weight should be toward your heels.
- Take a deep breath and, exhaling, push into your legs to rise to a standing position.
Side-lying position: This is a good resting pose for the end of a practice.
- Lie on your left or right side with your head resting on your arm or a blanket.
- Put a body pillow or blanket roll between your thighs to give your hips some support.
- If you're in a yoga class, your instructor may guide you through some breathing exercises.
Other good poses during pregnancy: Try the standing postures Warrior I (virabhadrasana I), Warrior II (virabhadrasana II), and Tree (vrksasana). These poses help strengthen your joints and improve your balance. Warrior poses can also ease backache and sciatica.
Downward-Facing Dog (adho mukha vrksanasana) can energize your whole body, but it's best not to do this position in your third trimester. Your yoga instructor may recommend variations on any of these classic poses.
Yoga safety precautions during pregnancy
As with any exercise, you need to take certain general precautions when you're pregnant.
You may want to skip any movements that require you to lie flat on your back for longer than a few minutes, especially after the first trimester. Lying on your back can put pressure on your inferior vena cava, the vein that returns blood from the legs to the heart, which can cause dizziness, shortness of breath, and nausea. But some women are comfortable lying in this position well into their pregnancies.
Your yoga instructor may leave the decision up to you.
If you've never done a headstand or shoulder stand before, skip these poses.
"Pregnancy is not the time to start an inversion practice, although many women who are used to these poses can continue to perform them well into their second trimesters. Use caution or avoid these poses altogether during the third trimester.
Skip positions that stretch the abdominal muscles too much, such as deep forward and back bends and deep twists. You're more apt to tear and strain muscles now because the pregnancy hormones that allow the uterus to expand also loosen other connective tissue.
Steer clear, too, of Bikram or hot yoga classes, in which the room is heated to 90 degrees or higher, since this could cause dangerous overheating.