In times where either body or mind is put under stress, yoga can be a very powerful tool for resilience and healing – pregnancy is one of those times. Here, senior yoga teacher Louisa Craig explores why, and offers guidance on poses for pregnancy
According to research, practising yoga during pregnancy can have a positive impact on both psychological and physical distress. Yoga gives expectant mothers both strength and calm during a life-changing period. It is a tool that all mothers can use, both expectant and new, to look after themselves this Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, and onwards.
A prenatal yoga class focuses not only on the mother-to-be but also on the unborn baby and upcoming labour. Prenatal yoga relieves the physical discomforts of pregnancy, in addition to preparing expectant parents mentally and spiritually for childbirth.
The reality is, although the path to parenthood is often a joyful, treasured time, it is not uncommon for women to experience heightened levels of stress during pregnancy. Hormonal and physical changes, concerns around childbirth, and the challenges of preparing for a newborn can provoke anxiety in expectant parents. This is particularly true of the last year, where the uncertainty and risks surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic has caused heightened levels of stress in soon-to-be mothers.
A regular yoga practice can help to manage these stressors. Breathwork is a key part of prenatal yoga classes, as deep breathing exercises serve to slow the heart rate and reduce blood pressure. This in turn reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, enabling the practitioner to reach a state of relaxation. These yogic techniques can be used throughout pregnancy in moments of discomfort or distress. Becoming aware of internal tension and learning how to release this in prenatal yoga classes can then be replicated during labour.
Furthermore, participating in prenatal yoga classes is a great way to connect with other expectant mothers. The shared experience of these women fosters a sense of community and support, which can help to alleviate worries about parenthood. In this way, prenatal yoga classes enhance the experience of pregnancy and empower expecting mothers to connect to the inner wisdom of their bodies and motherhood.
Prenatal yoga also addresses some of the more common physical ailments associated with pregnancy. Issues such as hip pain, sciatica, SI joint pain, swelling and nausea can be improved by a regular yoga practice. Gentle yoga poses and relaxation techniques can help to ease areas of pain, while the use of props, such as bolsters, blocks, blankets and belts help you to move mindfully in and out of poses. Yoga props give mothers-to-be additional physical support and alleviate any discomfort while reducing the chance of injury or strain.
As the unborn child grows, pregnant women need to adapt to the additional weight and build muscle in order to be able to support themselves. Poses that build lower body strength, like Warrior one and two, are particularly important for this reason.
A regular pregnancy yoga routine can also strengthen the muscles that are used in labour and during delivery. Most prenatal yoga classes will include movements that work the groin, pelvic floor, abdominal core muscles and hips to prepare the body for childbirth. In this way practising yoga during pregnancy increases endurance and builds stamina, thereby contributing to an easier birthing experience.
Recommended yoga poses for pregnancy
Mula Bandha/ Root Lock: This pose tones and strengthens the pelvic floor muscles, which are put under severe strain during pregnancy. Practising this position can help to prepare the individual for childbirth and will improve physical recovery afterwards. The act of childbirth is often associated with pain or discomfort. Preparing the expectant mother as much as possible beforehand helps to overcome such anxiety around giving birth.
Bridge Pose/Setu Bandhasana: This gentle backbend stretches the chest, neck and spine while strengthening the glutes and back. Staying in the position for a short period of time (three minutes or less) releases pelvis congestion, improve digestion and alleviate stress when integrated with conscious breathing. Bridge pose can be modified by using a block beneath the sacrum for support; holding this position for a longer period of time may help to turn a breech baby. It’s worth keeping in mind that this pose does not always feel good, particularly during the third trimester. Always respect your body and how it feels at any given time.
Goddess Pose/ Utkata Konasona: Goddess pose strengthens the entire lower body, particularly the glutes, hips, thighs. Toning these areas is important to sustain the weight of a growing belly! Moreover, this pose opens the hip, facilitating a more comfortable labour. Practitioners should stand with their legs wise and heels turned in, toes turned out. Knees should bend in the same plane as the toes. If needed, a chair can be used as a supportive prop. Holding this position for a few minutes at a time allows the body to become accustomed to the position of childbirth.
Head to Knee Pose/ Janu Sirsasana: This seated stretch prepares the pelvis for labour and delivery. Using a strap around the foot of the outstretched leg, the practitioner gradually pulls their chest forward, stretching the hamstrings and pelvic muscles. Using the breath to ease into the pose also strengthens the spine and lengthen the sides of the body. For additional support, use a blanket or bolster to sit on.
Warrior I/ Virabhdrasana I: A standing pose, Warrior I both strengthens multiple areas of the body and improves balance. Holding this position works the legs, arms, and shoulders. It is an empowering position that builds confidence in the practitioner, a must for expectant mothers! This position also stretches the hamstring and pelvis muscles, easing off any tension that arises with pregnancy.
Warrior II/ Virabhdrasana II: This standing pose also builds strength in the legs while simultaneously opening the hips and upper body. In doing so, Warrior II elongates the back and alleviates back pain. Focusing on the breath during this pose can help to improve mental resilience.
Shavasana/ Corpse Pose: Lying in Shavasana, supported with props and cushions helps the practitioner to fully relax and unwind. The cushioning acts as gentle support, allowing the body to fully relax. Expectant mothers should focus on every inhale and exhale of the breath, observing their bodies rise and fall without judgement. Staying in the present moment in this way releases physical tension and stress. A blanket may be placed over the practitioner for further comfort.
Remember, listen to your body and stop if any posture causes discomfort. Always seek the advice of your doctor regarding your individual physical readiness before starting any exercise program.
Yoga Alliance Professionals is the UK’s leading professional body for yoga teachers and trainers. Set up in 2006, the organisation supports yoga instructors to excel in their career and provide the highest quality yoga the industry has to offer.