Pregnancy is a beautiful time to be a yoga practitioner.
It’s also a necessary time to practice safety and caution on the mat.
Many pregnant women find themselves modifying for what feels natural for their growing bodies and bellies, but still it’s important to know some fundamental ground rules of keeping mama and baby safe, so that we can fully enjoy our prenatal practices.
Following are some of the most important considerations for your practice during pregnancy, as well as some personal tips that I’ve discovered during my own pregnancies.
Remember to always discuss any concerns or questions with your physician.
1. Telling the teacher.
Some expectant mothers are dying to share their news the second they’ve finished peeing on a stick, while others want to wait and enjoy having such a special secret all to ourselves. Regardless of our preferences, make sure to stay safe in a yoga class setting by letting the teacher know.
Also, as a teacher, I’ve had that extremely awkward situation of thinking a student was pregnant but not wanting to ask. (Come on, we all know what I’m talking about here.) Rather than putting you in danger and your teacher in a potentially disastrous situation, let her know if you need help modifying. (Thanks in advance. Love, all yoga teachers everywhere.)
2. Morning sickness.
The first trimester comes with so many beautiful new experiences, and a few less ideal ones as well. Morning sickness, for example, was one of my primary issues for my practice. If you experience morning sickness, don’t skip breakfast. Allow your food two hours to digest before practice, but make sure to eat something light that will sustain, like my personal favorite of toast with natural peanut butter.
3. Breath work.
Avoid breath holding and fast, belly breathing like Breath of Fire.
I’m sure there are yogis who will disagree, but I dislike jumping when pregnant.
For one, as our pregnancies get farther along, we begin to realize how much core work is involved in a safe, effective jump and core-work does become limited (more on that in a bit). For another, strong and athletic women who become pregnant might feel fine jumping and might even get the go-ahead from their doctors, but I just find it awkward.
5. Prenatal classes.
If new to yoga, then prenatal classes are a must. With guidance, experienced yogis may still attend all-levels yoga classes, but please keep in mind that just because a teacher is qualified, doesn’t mean she’s qualified and knowledgeable about the pregnant woman’s body.
Finally, keep in mind that most modifications begin after the first trimester. Always use caution and do what simply feels good to you during the first trimester.
For example, in my second pregnancy, that I’m now in the middle of, I wasn’t comfortable in any prone poses, especially backbends like locust, from fairly early on. So I avoided them. Better safe than sorry is my general yoga motto, especially when with child.
Second and Third Trimesters:
1. Backing off.
As pregnancy progresses, our ligaments and soft tissues are naturally meant to expand. This means that we’re more at risk for injury than our non-pregnant mat mates. Now is the time to tap into strength instead of sinking into flexibility (something many yogis are guilty of). For example, in your high lunge pose, make sure to press strongly through your lifted back heel, keeping the knee of your back leg strong and straight but not locked, and focus more on using the strength of your inner thighs squeezing in and the powerful lift of the hamstrings rather than how low to the ground your hips can get.
2. Forward folds.
Now is not the time to work on getting forehead to shin bones. Make room for your belly and baby by keeping legs at least hip-width distance apart and use a belt to get more stretch through your legs if desired. Additionally, proper form of lift in the lower abdominals and length throughout the spine will help dig into the stretch of the hamstrings.
3. Ab work.
Traditionally, pregnant women are advised to not do extreme ab work past 16 weeks. This means that you can still do boat pose, for instance, but that it should definitely be modified with either bent legs or toes touching the ground. Say good-bye to poses like crow pose that overly contract the abdominals and round the spine, but say hello to engaging the transverse abdominals and any lighter ab work that still feels good.
4. Back lying postures.
Generally, lying flat on the back is not for pregnant women after 18 weeks.
I love doing ab work along with my fellow yoga class students while propped up on my forearms. I also enjoy reclined bound angle pose while draped over a block for my shoulders and a block for my head, to help incline my spine. Point: be creative, be careful. And, please, no happy baby pose (ironic, I know).
5. Prone poses.
All stomach-lying postures should be avoided after the first trimester.
6. Extreme backbends.
All extreme backbends should be avoided.
If you comfortably and easily performed a full wheel before pregnancy, feel good about still doing it through the first trimester, if it feels good. However, come second trimester, say adios.
Camel is another one that can still be done within reason, but this is still a deep backbending posture.
In short, make poses like supported bridge pose and cat-cow your best yoga friend.
Another category of postures to unfortunately avoid is all deep twists.
I have mild scoliosis and I usually use twists for therapy. During pregnancy, though, it’s better to add in side-bends to stretch through your low back and side-waist muscles.
Mild twists that keep your belly open, like modified lizard pose, are still a go.
8. Heated yoga.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I taught and practiced Bikram-style yoga. I actually had a nice correspondence with Bikram’s wife, who has a detailed set of instructions for pregnant women. Still, as my pregnancy progressed (and not far, mind you), the heat and class in general did not feel right for my body. I’m personally of the mindset that classrooms that get this hot and humid should be avoided, but you might find many yogis who disagree.
That said, mildly heated rooms can be safe for pregnant women as long as they’re staying hydrated, and not just during class. Also, it’s important to avoid raising your body temperature by taking wild-legged child’s pose and rests as needed, even if what we really want is to go through one more flow.
Remember, now is the time to experience our body’s overwhelming strength and endurance, but, equally, to learn the value in not pushing ourselves too far. (Learning to back off is a great skill in mastering ego for all yoga practitioners.)
In general, only yogis who practiced in heated rooms before pregnancy should even consider it after.
Inversions can be practiced safely and confidently in a yoga practice up to about 36 weeks if already a comfortable inversion practitioner.
The most important consideration is safety from falling.
I love practicing headstands, and I still do. Even though I don’t need the wall, I still practice with one close by. (Things like this.)
After 36 weeks, though, when the baby is hopefully in the “head down” position, inversions like even downward-facing dog should be modified and avoided. Instead of down dog, take puppy’s pose, by dropping to your knees and forearms. You’ll still get a great stretch through your lats and shoulder muscles (and, actually, I think I can dig more deeply into these areas in puppy pose).
Balancing postures come with the same inherent risks of inversions, when it comes to falling.
Our bellies are larger and our centers of gravity have shifted entirely. Be mindful of your special, expanding body and give yourself the opportunity to balance—and fall—but do so safely by a wall or by taking a modified version of a favorite poses. (Like keeping your foot on the shin in tree pose as pregnancy progresses and not all the way up to the groin.)
11. Vinyasa yoga.
Vinyasa flow yoga can still be wonderfully enjoyed during pregnancy, but listen to the body’s cue when you need to slow down. Skip a flow or drop into child’s pose, or be open to taking a slower moving class than normal, especially later in the second trimester and in the third trimester when we easily tire and overheat.
12. Say no.
Above all else, this is your body and your pregnancy. No teacher on earth wants you to step out of your comfort zone unsafely, especially when pregnant. Recognize and check that “need to please others at the expense of self” mentality, as it will come in handy to learn to say no willingly after you’ve had baby too.
And these are by no means all of the modifications or practice changes you might encounter during your time with child.
I began modifying my pigeon pose early on in both of my pregnancies, as my belly first didn’t feel comfortable overtop of my shin and, then, as my babies began to kick at my heel. (I love working my shin more towards parallel to the top of my mat, but also staying higher up and not placing my forehead lower than propped onto a block.)
Another modification I’ve discovered through personal experience is that I typically like placing my hand on the outside of my foot during extended side angle pose, but now I contentedly place my hand inside of my front foot and on a block—it just feels right!
And what is more “yoga” than feeling our way into our bodies when on the yoga mat?
Have fun experimenting with what works for you and for your baby.
Happy practicing, mamas!
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Darko Kovac at Pixoto