By Tracey Lawson
Yoga includes the practice of physical poses which helps to bring about the union of mind, body and spirit. As well as the postures or Asanas, yoga focuses on breath and relaxation to aid this union and also the connection between the individual and the greater consciousness. Practicing yoga has many other health benefits and is especially helpful for women who are pregnant. Gentle movements, meditation and breathing exercises help to develop mechanisms for coping with stress, keeps the body active and supple and improves focus and concentration.
Pregnancy is a special and precious time in a woman’s life. Many changes occur, both physically and emotionally. A woman’s body changes in many ways during pregnancy and the increase in hormones can change moods and emotions as well. It is a time of stress physically, emotionally and mentally. Yoga practice can help a woman connect more fully with those changes.
Pregnancy is a time when exercise becomes more difficult, especially in later pregnancy, the final trimester. Ligaments become loose, bellies become big and pregnancy related issues such as sciatica, varicose veins and constipation can become evident. Pelvic floor muscles are exposed to more pressure and load and need to be kept toned to help the uterus contract and they are also crucial to bladder continence. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can also be a risk factor of pregnancy. It is recognized that yoga can reduce pulse rates and blood pressure by balancing the autonomic nervous system and stabilizing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Pre-natal yoga classes are specifically designed for pregnant women and are advisable, if available, as opposed to a regular yoga class where the teacher may not be able to tailor the exercises for a pregnant woman. Gentle, low impact exercise is important throughout pregnancy and may even help in birth preparation, by keeping pelvic muscles toned and supple, along with yogic breathing.
Health benefits associated with yoga are numerous and include decreased fluid retention due to improved circulation, improved concentration, increased flexibility, greater strength and endurance, improved self-awareness, better posture, open hips, relaxation, spinal lengthening and alignment and feelings of calmness. Yoga practice can improve posture, balance and stability during pregnancy. It can also increase the body’ immune system and it tones not only muscles, but also the glands and internal organs of the body.
The vegetarian diet suggested as part of yoga practice, can relieve constipation, if not avoid it in the first instance, and provide nutritional energy for both the woman and her unborn child.
In early pregnancy, pranayama can be tried to relieve the nausea associated with morning sickness. Pranayama also provides high quality oxygen to both the woman and her baby and strong breathing improves overall fitness too. Energy levels are raised and fatigue can be decreased as a result of yogic breathing. The practice of controlled breathing will aid pain relief during labour and birth. Safe poses in the 1st trimester include Warrior poses, Pigeon Pose and Triangle Pose. Also in this early stage, Cobra Pose can be attempted if a woman is comfortable. Backbends should be avoided throughout pregnancy, even at this early stage.
During pregnancy and in preparation for birth, poses such as Bound Angle or Butterfly Pose (Baddha Konasana) are useful to help the pelvic area remain supple and open. Cat Curls help bring flexibility and tone to the spine and back, and Frog Pose stretches the lower pelvic area as well as being a position used to centre the mind and rest.
Wide leg squatting also strengthens the pelvic area and tones and strengthens the legs, ankles and mid-back. Legs up the wall is a good pose for relaxation but in the later stages of pregnancy, should be only held for short periods of time as lying on your back when heavily pregnant can put pressure on the major blood vessels supplying the uterus. It improves circulation to the legs, opens the pelvis and can relieve sciatica by taking the weight off the legs. An alternative to this is to place legs on the seat of a chair to support calves. Many other yoga poses not outlined above, can also be practiced safely with options.
During pregnancy, the hormone Relaxin is produced to allow the uterus to expand but as it affects other ligaments and connective tissues, there is an increased risk of injury. This means that some yoga postures need to be avoided or practiced with options which take this into consideration as it makes a woman vulnerable to overstretching. Other poses which need to be avoided include strong abdominal working poses, for example – Boat Pose and strong twists should be done with care, if at all. Inversions, such as shoulder stands, in later pregnancy are not recommended due to the softening of the uterus’ supporting ligaments. The force of the uterus on the diaphragm in inverted poses makes breathing difficult. For obvious reasons, prone poses are not advised, particularly in the later stages of the pregnancy.
Poses should be done more slowly during pregnancy, especially in the last trimester, as balance can be affected and the centre of a woman’s gravity is changed in later pregnancy. It is advisable to use the wall or a chair for support when attempting balance poses such as Tree Pose.
Yoga practices can also be utilized during labour and birth. Breath control assists with pain relief and delivery and can be calming at a time usually associated with anxiety and stress. Hip circles can help relieve back pain and assist the baby to move down the birth canal as they create space in the pelvis. Squatting is a popular birthing position as it opens up and creates space in the pelvis, increasing the chances of a quicker, easier labour. Cat or Horse Pose, when regularly practiced in the later stages of pregnancy, can assist a baby to turn into the correct position if it is in the posterior position (where the baby’s spine is toward the mother’s spine). This avoids the baby being turned manually by health professionals, and also the extra pain associated with posterior presentation labours.