Yoga in Pregnancy

Training over the weekend is not how you would normally want to spend that cherished time at the end of the working week. Not, that is, unless it’s learning how to teach yoga to pregnant women.

I have been teaching yoga for over four years now. I never really meant to become a yoga teacher and I certainly never foresaw that I might be teaching yoga to help women through their pregnancy.

I had been attending a class regularly for a couple of years and my yoga teacher had set up a yoga school. I signed up, thinking that it would be a good opportunity to deepen my understanding of what yoga is all about. By the end of the year, I knew that I wanted to share my passion for yoga and believed that the only kind of yoga that I wanted to teach was Ashtanga vinyasa. This is a strong, dynamic form of yoga postures which builds strength and flexibility and it was the one for me!

The truly inspiring thing about yoga is that it constantly challenges my preconceptions, as well as my body. This means that, four years after qualifying, I am teaching much less Ashtanga Vinyasa to strong, fit, healthy, younger people. Instead I teach people who are in their 70’s and 80’s, people with Multiple Sclerosis and other conditions and now, hopefully, women who are pregnant. The beauty of yoga is that can be adapted so that almost anyone can benefit, as it works, not only on the body but also the mind. Yoga allows us to connect with our body in a way that few other exercise systems can. This is particularly important during pregnancy when, as those women who have carried children know, the body goes through so many changes, and can seem as though it has a life of its own. It makes me realise how far I have travelled in my own yoga journey that I now want to make yoga as accessible as possible.

However, back to yoga for pregnancy. I had managed to avoid teaching pregnant women as they had usually come to class, in their first trimester, and had not done yoga before. While training we had been advised that it was not a good idea to accept anyone into the class, under these circumstances, and they should be re-directed to a specialist class. It is never a happy experience to send anyone away but I just did not feel experienced enough at that point and knew that I could not give the women the attention they deserved, in a general class.

So, what made me change my mind? The inevitable happened, I suppose. Liz, who had been coming to my classes for a couple of years, took me aside, and told me she was pregnant. It was her second pregnancy and she told me that she wanted to continue with yoga, but just needed a little bit of advice. I gave her a broad idea of what she should be avoiding and tried to do as many postures as possible, which would suit her, without impacting on the rest of the class. Even so, I think that there were probably rather a lot of hip opening going on while Liz was pregnant, but no-one complained.

I felt a little less anxious about the thought of teaching pregnant women after that, but it had not been very challenging because Liz had experience of yoga. Just over a year ago, however, it happened again but in very different circumstances. Eileen had been coming to an Ashtanga class for some time and explained to me early on in her pregnancy, that she wanted to do yoga throughout and wanted to stay with the Ashtanga class. This was going to be a challenge and I knew that I had to be much better prepared this time to keep Eileen safe but still allow her to do as much as she could. All within an existing class which was high impact and constantly flowed from one posture to another. So, I was just getting my head round this when Chrissie, who had also been coming to the same class for a while, informed me that she too was pregnant. It felt a bit scary but I had more experience teaching since the time that I had to accommodate Liz within the class. I was sure that I could do it this time and tailor what we were doing in the class to meet their needs.

One of the benefits of Ashtanga is that you do the same postures in exactly the same sequence, every time. All those at the class were relatively experienced and I was able to let them get on with it several times throughout the class. Eileen and Chrissie and I developed different ways of doing the more challenging postures and they had a bit more relaxing time too, unlike the rest of the class.

So what can yoga do for you when you are pregnant?

Firstly and most importantly, yoga can help you to connect to your breath. We all breathe, but not always well, so you would normally expect, at the start of a class, to spend some time becoming aware of the breath and how you breathe. During pregnancy, breathing can become difficult due to upward pressure on the diaphragm and carrying excess weight. Over time you will learn breathing exercises which will help you deal with tiredness and anxiety.

You will do some yoga postures, specifically modified, with the emphasis on safety and comfort. In the postures, you will not be straining, you will not be in pain, nor should you be distracted. The postures will encourage good posture, which will help to keep your back healthy as your bump grows, to promote good circulation and to open the joints. There is a particular sequence which promotes joint flexibility and might just help too with puffy joints; it is likely that the joints will be under some strain as a result of the increasing weight. This sequence also helps to keep the lymphatic system working well and relaxes the muscles. You would expect to do a lot of hip openers, shoulder and chest opening and some gentle forward and back bends and some open twists (ie, you keep the front of the body open as you twist round to the side).

The shoulder and chest openers help you to think about your breath. The forward bends (which have to be done in such a way to accommodate the growing belly) are helpful in aligning the spine and making space between the vertebrae. The back bends are helpful in releasing the lower back where there can be pain and discomfort. The twists are helpful in opening up the front of the body and tone and firm from the inside out in the area of the waist and abdominal muscles.

A lot of the emphasis will be on comfort and relaxation. Relaxation can be beneficial for us all but in pregnancy it can be particularly special. It allows you to go deep inside yourself to develop a sense of calmness and to give you time off from all the concerns you have about pregnancy.

There are different techniques that can be used to promote complete relaxation in the body and you would expect these to be explored so that everyone can find something to suit them. I often think that people come to my yoga classes for the relaxation more than anything else.

It feels like you are giving a very special gift when you do relaxation at the end of a class. At the end, people come to sitting very quietly and deliberately obviously having enjoyed the experience. When you get a smile, it’s one of understanding; they are communicating how much they have gained from the time they have had going inwards and learning the true meaning of relaxation.

One of my favourites is Yoga Nidra, nidra meaning sleep, but not in the conventional sense. This is a way to completely relax the muscles in the body and the mind, resulting in a feeling of rejuvenation. Yoga Nidra allows us to release tension in the body, thereby we can be relaxed and gain peace of mind.

The important thing about your yoga class is that it gives you time to focus in on you and your unborn child. By coming to a class you are giving yourself permission to relax and gently work your body to prepare it for labour.

A yoga class should help you to be more comfortable while pregnant and encourage good habits in breathing and posture. You should learn postures to help with particular problems, like hip pain. All the work that you do leads inevitably to the act of delivering the baby. Good breathing practices can result in less stress during labour and may help to reduce the time taken in labour. Specific postures are taught to help reduce pain and help you to be more in control.

One of the ancient yoga texts says:

“Grace, beauty, strength, energy and firmness adorn the body through yoga” (Yoga Sutra III, 47)

I hope that I can achieve just a little of this in my classes!

Yoga in pregnancy should be practiced only under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Read more at the3rdi magazine

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