By Erika Bugakova
The journey through pregnancy is a time of great physical, mental and emotional change for each individual, each in her own unique way. Despite one’s previous yoga experience, whether an advanced practitioner or completely new to the practice, yoga adapted for pregnancy can help ease the way through these changes, relaxing and balancing the mind, and strengthening the body to prepare for the joys and challenges which lie ahead, both during and after pregnancy.
As pregnancy is divided into 3 trimesters, the variations and yoga adaptations, which should be used, are also separated into three categories; early pregnancy (1-16 weeks), mid pregnancy (16-34 weeks), and late pregnancy (34-40 weeks). Yoga practice of course can similarly be continued in the postnatal weeks, using variations to regain strength, and assist the body in reaching its normal state, while at the same time adjusting to a new life with child.
However, before discussing each stage throughout pregnancy, there are a few main points to follow throughout the entire journey. First of all, and most importantly, during pregnancy, it is not the time to excel, push for new poses, and stretch further than before. All poses, and exercises should be done in a way, which makes the practitioner feel calm, joyful, and at peace. The body is the best indicator of trouble, and one should listen closely to its signals. Any pose, which causes any type of pain or discomfort, should be avoided. When practicing pranayama, the breath should never be held, just as inhalation and exhalation should never be forced. The heart and lungs throughout pregnancy are already working overtime, due to changes in the body and the need to support two lives, therefore exerting extra energy from them, through breathing exercises, or asana practice can only be detrimental.
Secondly, throughout pregnancy, extra attention should be paid to the alignment of the spine. Most people in everyday life have some sort of misalignment in the spine, which can cause great pain and discomfort. However, during pregnancy, with the addition of extra weight over time, and a shift in balance points, it is evermore important to continuously work to re-align the spine, preventing as much unnecessary discomfort as possible. While we will later mention specific exercises, which can be used at different stages of pregnancy to help keep the spine in proper form, one thing to always keep in mind is proper posture whenever in a sitting position. Though it may seem tiring, and the desire to slouch and relax will often arise, it is best to remain perfectly upright at all times to strengthen the back muscles and prevent discomfort later in pregnancy.
Finally, from the very beginning to after the baby is born, breathing will play a great role in pregnancy. Deep breathing is an excellent tool for toning the body, both inside and out, using very little effort. Breathing exercises help soothe the mind through difficulties, allow one to become more aware of the body, and its changes, and can help create a sense of well-being and comfort, which will not only benefit the mother, but those supporting her as well. Deep breathing is also essential in toning the pelvic muscles, allowing them to increase in elasticity, and become stronger to support the baby in the latter months of pregnancy. Working with pranyama to tone these muscles is the most effective way to ensure a smooth and easy birth, while at the same time helping to adjust to the emotional changes each stage of pregnancy may bring.
The first stage of pregnancy, from 1 to 16 weeks, contrary to what many may believe, is a time for the most relaxed yoga practice. During these first weeks, the most significant hormonal changes are taking place in the mother’s body, and the baby is experiencing the most vital stages of development as the nervous system is formed. Mothers often experience a great amount of tiredness, and nausea during this period, so it is best to back off from strenuous activity, and focus on slow, flowing, relaxing movement accompanied by deep breathing exercises.
As previously mentioned, proper alignment of the spine is essential during pregnancy, especially during the early months, as it will provide a strong foundation as the baby begins to grow. Several postures and series, which keep the body calm and relaxed, may be performed to correct any asymmetry in the spine early on. For example, a series based on the half bridge pose can be used. On each inhale; the hips and pelvis are lifted high into the air, slowly and gently; first straight up. On the second inhalation, the left hip and pelvic bone is lifted much higher than the right, and then the right side higher than the left. This series is repeated, and then followed by a few moments of complete relaxation. Relaxation periods should be done in the most comfortable way possible. Cushions and pillows may be used under the head, neck, lower back and/or knees to remove any discomfort or tension.
Two more examples of poses one may find useful during the first trimester are spinal rolls and triangle postures. Spinal rolls are a gentle way to again, help realign the spine, as well as tone and massage the abdominal and lower back muscles. These can be used as a replacement for deep-seated twists, which may cause discomfort during pregnancy. Triangle pose is one that can be safely performed throughout pregnancy, and has special benefits of increasing one’s breathing capacity and may also be helpful in preventing or relieving heartburn. This pose can additionally be performed in a dynamic series, from one side to the other to aid in further loosening the muscles.
One position to take precaution with is the shoulder stand. Even for one who has long performed this asana, in the first stage of pregnancy, it is best to take a lighter, adapted approach to avoid unnecessary strain. For the adapted version, a large pillow or cushion should be placed up against a wall, in order to support the hips, while the upper back, head and neck lay on the floor. Knees should be kept bent, and with gradual breathes in and out, the feet can press against the wall to lift the hips and lower back up off the pillow. This practice holds many benefits for the mother, opening the chest and abdomen, and stimulating circulation, particularly in the pelvic and leg regions.
While there are several other poses and variations, especially beneficial during this period of pregnancy, it is most important to keep relaxation and easy motions in mind.
The second stage of pregnancy, from 16 to 34 weeks, is a time to energize and strengthen the body, preparing it support a growing baby and build self confidence throughout this period. One of the most energizing series in yoga, the sun salutations can easily be adapted for pregnant women, to invigorate, strengthen and tone the entire body. Key adaptations are the following: when lowering down, rather than a forward bend, the knees should be bent, hands taken down to the floor and then walked forward into downward facing dog. Also, plank and eight-pointed pose should be avoided, as they put too much strain on the abdominal muscles, and, may not be physically possible at this point. These poses in the series may be replaced by child’s pose, with knees spread apart to make room for the growing stomach. Throughout the series, rest can be taken whenever necessary, even between each posture, in child’s pose.
Standing dynamic twists can also provide mothers-to-be with a satisfying stretch and energy boost. Twisting side-to-side, moving arms up and down, or diagonally greatly tone the side abdominal muscles, which will help support the uterus as it expands. Here is an excellent point to incorporate breathing with practice, associating each inhalation or exhalation with one movement, making sure to bend the knees while rotating for side to side.
During this energetic period of pregnancy, triangle poses, warrior poses and tree poses are all excellent ways to continue building strength in the spine, stretching the sides and abdomen to make way for growth, and to help maintain balance as the body expands and the natural center of balance is shifted. Experienced yogis may practice all of these postures in their original form, so long as now tiredness or discomfort is felt. However, it is also possible to alter these postures with the aid of a chair as prop. During the triangle pose, the chair may be used to raise the leg, or may be placed under the knee towards which you are bending, to provide extra balance and stability; the same can be done with tree posture. Similarly with the warrior poses, a chair may be placed under the thigh of the forward facing leg, to help support the weight of the body, giving less pressure to the knee joints, and assuring proper spinal and pelvic alignment.
As with all practices, attention should be given to sitting postures, in this stage, with much concentration on expanding and stretching the pelvic region. This is also a time to seriously begin working the pelvic muscles, to help support the growing baby. These can be done in cooperation with breathing exercises. While positioned in cat pose, raise the tailbone as high as is possible, and focus on individually tightening and releasing the pelvic muscles one at a time. Inhale and squeeze the anal muscles, exhale, inhale and focus on the urethra, exhale, inhale and tighten the vaginal muscles. This cycle can be repeated several times. Additionally, these same strengthening muscles can be performed in a seated position as well.
Finally, late pregnancy, from 34 to 40 or more weeks, is a time to focus on staying in shape, keeping relaxed and comfortable as the baby prepares to make its way into the world. As previously mentioned, alignment and the back are essential focuses, especially during these last few weeks, when the body is much heavier. Many adaptations can be made to poses to protect the lower back from unnecessary pain and discomfort. Sun salutations, for example, can be adjusted in the following manner. During standing positions, the legs should be placed a bit more than hip-length apart, and the knees always kept slightly bent, with the spine straight of course. A similar change can be made to the downward dog pose. Legs wider apart, and knees kept slightly bent. Here, the bent legs can be lifted to the side, one by one, to provide a great hip and groin opener. Furthermore, when performing the runner position, in the series, the foot should be placed outside the hand, rather than between the two hands, and the knee and leg can gently fall to the side, also opening up the hips, and pelvic region.
Another important, energizing pose, is the warrior, which can be performed with the aid of a wall. Face a wall in warrior I position, and place forearms on the wall. In the position, 4 breaths should be taken, and the practitioner should press against the wall on each exhalation. Next, the arms are folded, and placed along with the forehead against the wall. Deep breaths to expand the rib cage should be observed here. If feeling tired, these positions may also be done kneeling on one knee, facing the wall.
These poses energize, strengthen the back, and stretch the back leg muscles.
Of course, several other positions exist which can be used during this period of pregnancy. The majority of them will focus on relieving and preventing discomfort to the spine, widening the pelvic region, and keeping the mother relaxed and happy as she prepares for the final stages of birth.
As a last point, throughout pregnancy, the body goes through several changes, and there are bound to be some unpleasantries, which can be relieved with the aid of yoga. Below are listed some of the most common.
Heart Burn: opening up the chest can relieve Heartburn, raising the sternum and opening up the shoulder blades. In early pregnancy, this can be done by sitting, facing the back of a chair, pulling the shoulders back, and deep breathing for 6 breaths, then allowing the body to flop forward over the chair to relax. In late pregnancy, a large cushion can simply be placed behind, and lay back to pull the shoulders back, and open up the chest, while taking deep breaths.
Backache: The most effective positions for relieving back pain are child’s pose with arms extended forward, knees spread apart. And following by a cat series, on all fours.
Weak Bladder: starting on all fours, and crossing the right leg over the left can help this problem. Then weight should be made even between the hand and left knee, breathing deeply, tightening the pelvic muscles on the inhale, and even more so on the exhale. After 6 breaths, release the muscles. This should be repeated 3 times a day for maximum benefits.
Insomnia: Especially during the late stages of pregnancy, it may be difficult to relax and fall asleep. Leg exercises are very effective in helping one to sleep. From a cat position, extend the legs up and back, alternatively, keeping the head and spine in line. Also, from a dog pose, with knees wide and bent, walk the feet up towards the hands, and back away, back and forth a few times. This should be followed by a few minutes resting in child’s pose.
Using yoga throughout the pregnancy process can truly help create a joyful and pleasant experience for the mother. Keeping fit, relaxed, and in tune with your body and your growing baby will allow for minimal stress, pain and discomfort as one makes this amazing journey, no matter what previous experience one has had with yoga.
Erika Bugakova is a certified Yoga teacher. She teaches Yoga classes in the Canadensis, Pennsylvannia area.