Yoga in Pregnancy – Vanessa Dixon

This blog post is about yoga in pregnancy. I’ll answer some common questions and give some tips for both beginners and seasoned yogis about how to adapt your practice to your changing bodies.

But before we begin, let’s address the issue of cultural appropriation. This is a complicated subject and I want to acknowledge this. My belief is that a person without Indian heritage who practices yoga is not necessarily practising cultural appropriation but that we have to be careful about how we do so. Acknowledging the history and the heritage of the yoga we are practising is a good place to start. Cultural appropriation involves power, colonization and often exploitation. I encourage you to be aware of these dynamics if yoga is not a part of your own cultural heritage. Here is a link to an article that addresses this issue and contains some suggestions about how to practice yoga respectfully: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/susanna-barkataki/is-my-yoga-cultural-appro_b_9191342.html

As for me, I am white person of European descent. I completed my yoga teacher training in 2003 and worked for a few years as a yoga teacher after that. Now as a midwife, I often get questions about yoga in pregnancy.

Yoga is a great form of gentle exercise in pregnancy and can help alleviate many of the common discomforts that pregnant people experience such as backache, swollen feet, leg cramps and constipation. Yoga is also helpful for people who experience depression, anxiety or insomnia. Yoga may also help with optimal fetal positioning (encouraging your baby to be in a good position for your labour to start and progress). Finally, yoga can help you prepare for labour through strengthening your body and by practising slow, deep, focused breathing.

If you’ve never tried it, the idea of yoga can be intimidating. But yoga is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some people use yoga to stretch, work out, strengthen, breathe, meditate… Sometimes my own yoga practice consists of doing nothing other than lying on my back, hugging my knees to my chest and rolling around a bit on the floor. For me it’s a time to slow down, focus on being present and tune in to my body.

Here are my answers to some common questions.

Is yoga safe in pregnancy?

Yes, but be careful. The hormones of pregnancy, such as relaxin, soften your joints, tendons and ligaments making it easier to overstretch. A lot of lower back pain in pregnancy is due to hypermobility of the lumbar spine – not stiffness – be aware of how certain movements are making your body feel. Focus on strength, stability and gentle stretches.

The key to safety of any exercise in pregnancy is being tuned in to your body. You may have different limits in pregnancy than what you’re used to. Listen to the cues your body is giving you. If your hamstring says ease off, then ease off. If something just doesn’t feel right, stop.

In the second and third trimester your centre of gravity will shift and balancing poses will likely feel more difficult. Be careful with balancing poses and consider gentler versions of your old favourites. Headstands may not be your friend in pregnancy.

What poses should I avoid?

Avoid direct pressure on your abdomen. Any poses that have you lying directly on your stomach should be avoided
Avoid lying flat on your back (especially on a hard surface) after 20 weeks of pregnancy. If you are on your back – you can use a pillow of folded blanket as a wedge under one of your hips to shift the weight of your uterus and improve blood flow
Avoid deep twists. Gentle twists are okay if they feel okay to you.
Avoid deep back bends. Gentle backbends are okay if they feel okay to you.

What about inversions?

An inversion is any pose in which your heart is higher than your head. They are excellent for improving blood flow to your heart, lymphatic drainage and relaxation or, they can be very energizing. As I mentioned above, be careful with inversions that are also balancing poses. Headstand, handstand and shoulderstand aren’t inherently dangerous in pregnancy but because your centre of balance will be very different you should practice these poses with caution or avoid them altogether. Downward dog (pictured below) is an excellent and safe inversion for stretching and strengthening. Adding a slight bend to your knees in downward dog will protect your knees and lower back.

You will hear a lot of different opinions about inversions later in pregnancy. They can be very useful for turning a breech baby. Some people have been told to avoid inversions because of the theoretical risk that inverting their body might turn a head down baby to the breech position. However, experts in optimal fetal positioning recommend forward leaning inversions for all pregnant people throughout pregnancy to make space for the fetus to settle in to the optimal head down position. There’s no definitive answer here. You are certainly safe to practice inversions that feel good to you up to 34 weeks of pregnancy and it is probably fine to do gentle inversions all the way up to the time of your labour (and during!). Do your research and do what feels right to you. You may find that inversions make your heartburn worse.

Do I need to go to a prenatal yoga class or is a regular class okay?

If you’ve never practiced yoga before a prenatal class is probably your best bet because the poses will be adapted to pregnant bodies. If you feel confident in your yoga practice, you can go to any class as long you feel confident adapting poses for your changing body and opting out of poses that are not recommended in pregnancy. For example, in the first trimester your child’s pose (body resting in a forward bend in kneeling) won’t change much but as your body changes you will find you need to spread your knees to make space for your growing belly and eventually to use a bolster to support your chest as you lean forward. In general, many poses can be adapted for pregnancy by widening your stance. For example, by spreading your legs wider in forward or seated folds. If you are going to a regular yoga class it’s a good idea to chat with the instructor beforehand and tell them that you are pregnant so that they can help you modify the class.

Is hot yoga (Bikram, Moksa) safe in pregnancy?

I recommend avoiding hot yoga classes in pregnancy. Motherrisk warns of the increased risk of neural tube defects with prolonged exposure to high temperatures, risk of dizziness and fainting due to lower blood pressures in pregnancy and increased risk of injury due to the combined effects of the heat and the hormones of pregnancy making your muscles and joints looser and more prone to overstretching.

How soon can I get back to yoga after I have my baby?

While we typically say that you can resume all your usual physical activities 6 weeks after you have a baby, it is okay to start some gentle stretching within a few days of giving birth. This can be a really nice way to take a few minutes for yourself to release tension from your body or relax before sleep. As always, your direction should come from the cues your body is giving you about what feels good and when to ease off.

Feeling inspired to try some yoga?

Yoga classes can be expensive but you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to learn the basics or be guided through a yoga practice. Classes offered through community centres tend to be more affordable. There are also some great books out there. I like, Yoga for Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond by Francoise Barbira Freedman. There are also lots of free yoga instructional videos on Youtube. I’m a fan of the Yoga with Adriene videos. Here is a link to one of her prenatal classes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cKnStmV1dI

I hope you feel encouraged and inspired to try some yoga and I hope that you will enjoy the benefits of moving, stretching, breathing and mindfulness. Remember to stay safe by listening to your body and have fun!