May 4, 2011

How Yoga Is Saving My Back During Pregnancy.

I’ve been meaning to start writing about yoga and pregnancy for a few weeks now, but I couldn’t really make up my mind as to what my ‘angle’ would be. When I threw my back in the middle of last night and I could barely move, I realised how yoga will simply be saving me in many ways during the next five and half months.

In February, when I found out I was pregnant with my first Franco-English baby, the first two things I investigated online were what I could eat and not eat, and what asanas I could do and not do. I was quite nervous as I had just started my teacher training in Vancouver, and I wondered how much I would be able to perform now that I was carrying an extra little yogi.

Like many women in our day and age, I was rather ignorant about pregnancy, and the main source of information I had was the internet. It is an extremely helpful tool but it can also feed our little neuroses ad nauseum. The first article I found on the web about yoga and pregnancy was from the Yoga Journal. The advice I remember most and which shifted my attitude, is that pregnancy is not the time to improve your practice. I bade farewell to type A/Ashtangi girl and this felt really good. Suddenly, yoga becomes fun again when you don’t have anything to prove.

This got me thinking for a while. Why do we so often have to wait for a stranger’s advice to give ourselves permission to take it easy? Why can’t we lower our expectations a notch, relax into our practice and enjoy a bit more? instead of pushing ourselves and striving for half an inch deeper or a few breaths longer into an asana. I hope that I’ll be able to keep mindset whenever I’ll return to my mat with my fully restored energy and fitness levels.

Next thing I read was all the types of asanas to be avoided during pregnancy: inversions, twists, abdominal crunches, deep backbends, and any backbend where the belly is on the floor like cobra and Shalambasana. What the internet didn’t really tell me was why and when I should stop practising those asanas. My baby was then the size of a peanut -according to lovely pregnancy website which gives me an update on the size of my growing offspring by comparing it to fruits and vegetables- and I didn’t know how an inversion, a twist, or a backbend would affect it. I discussed it with my teachers and they recommended I err on the side of caution, even if technically I could do most of these asanas pre-bump. Risk of miscarriage is highest during the first trimester and I didn’t feel like doing anything outlandish anyway.

The challenge I encountered during teacher training was of a different nature: hormones. From week five, I felt pretty miserable with extreme fatigue, breathlessness, insomnia, nausea and a fair share of hysteria to top it all. I could hardly find any relief from my symptoms anywhere. The dinner table became the ground for a battle of wills where I was trying to outwit my food aversions, the bed was no longer welcoming as I would lay there awake for hours, and my yoga mat was the last place I wanted to find myself. My first downward facing dogs in the morning were accompanied by nausea and it felt as though being inverted would make my stomach act up. I had no energy, and no breath. I came back from forward folds feeling faint, and at the same time, I had to find a bit of brain power to modify all the asanas I had given up. My very best friend was child’s pose – even if deep down type A girl felt slightly ashamed.

One of my teachers at the training, who had been teaching a strong vinyasa class for years, was also pregnant and admitted that she gave up her own practice during her first trimester because it didn’t feel good. She limited her yoga to the classes she was teaching. However I noticed that even if I didn’t enjoy most of my practices, I did feel better afterwards and it also allowed me to catch up on my sleep during Savasana. If it weren’t for the training, I’m quite sure I would have parted paths with my mat during this time, but I realise now that in many ways my practice kept me together.

Out of curiosity, I went to a prenatal class even if only nine weeks gone. It felt odd to be surrounded by women with big bellies when mine was still flat as a pancake. The teacher was wonderful and celebrated with us what is after all one of the happiest times in a woman’s life, even though half of the class was in tears because of the hormones. It was a beautiful experience and I started bonding with the little plum inside. My first thought then was that I should have gone earlier. If you’re feeling miserable during your first trimester and your usual yoga classes don’t appeal anymore, go to prenatal. No-one will judge you by the size of your belly. Prenatal class is not something you earn with a bump or a pouch. Also, it might be a way of finding somebody with whom you can share your anxieties.

I came back to England at the end of my first trimester, already feeling much better now that my small tomato had its own placenta. As I predicted, I do find myself isolated here in the beautiful English countryside. I have no access to yoga classes and rely entirely on my self-practice. Having lost my type A drive, I find it difficult to take a break from our new schedule which includes moving house, planning a wedding, doctor, midwife and scan appointments, and writing blogs and recipes. So despite my best intentions, I’ve only practised three times in more than two weeks, when my conscience has reminded me that ‘I gotta do some yoga today!’.

Last night, however, I had a rude awakening at 3.00 in the morning in the shape of a pain in my back. I felt it slightly over the weekend, but that night it became almost intolerable. My boyfriend woke up and asked what was wrong and I answered that I had thrown my back and could barely move. I didn’t understand why. He turned the light on and started massaging deeply the muscles around my spine in between and below my shoulder-blades – my money is on the rhomboid. He cleverly noticed that it corresponded to my bra area; elementary my dear Watson!

Leslie Kaminoff

It was painful but as the muscles were warmed up after the massage, I made myself move into seated twists, side stretches, cat and cow and thread the needle. I went back to sleep and this morning although my back muscles are sore, I can move. As I was flowing through my stretches last night I remembered an experience Leslie Kaminoff had with his lower back. He was immobilized for two days by lumbar pain and on the third day he decided to try putting his body into motion despite the aching muscles. ‘The body likes movement’ he explained. He went for a run at the gym and was then able to play basketball with his friends later that day. Although our first instinct when pain freezes us, is to not budge an inch until it gets better, getting gentle movement to the aching joints can sometimes help speed recovery. Leslie Kaminoff’s story and my boyfriend’s late night back rub saved me from a few days walking like a robot.

One of the many things I didn’t expect from pregnancy -like for example a very clichéd obsession for pickles and ice cream- is that because my bra cup size suddenly changed from B to C, I would need a strong upper back to carry what I’m now calling the ‘milk factory’. I’m pretty sure I will find myself making a whole lot of discoveries of this type before and after giving birth, so I definitely need to be better prepared.

No half-baked excuses should keep us away from the mat for too long when pregnant. Our backs need love and support, our abs and pelvic floor should get ready for birth but also sometimes we just need time on our mats to keep our sanity, when hormones drive us to the edge. One of the most important benefits however is that it simply makes us and our baby happier.

Picture credits:

Pregnant Woman with back pain: ayushveda.com

Pregnant Woman side stretch: maurayoga.wordpress.com

Plums: elements4health.com

Leslie Kaminoff: yogaanatomy.org

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