If you have recently become pregnant or have friends who are expecting, you’ve probably heard a lot of talk about prenatal yoga. Recent studies have pointed to the benefits of practicing gentle yoga before giving birth. And a recent controlled trial showed positive results after only a few sessions.
But if you are a yoga practitioner, you likely already know the benefits yoga offers: reduced stress, increased strength and flexibility, improved mental focus, and an overall sense of well-being (just to name a few). And if you already have an established yoga practice, you might wonder why you should bother with a prenatal class (particularly if you’re used to a more vigorous style of yoga, like power yoga or vinyasa). While many experienced yogini mamas-to-be do continue their regular practices throughout their pregnancies, there are specific benefits to taking a prenatal class—even if you aren’t looking for something more gentle.
Prenatal yoga is not necessarily gentle. Most prenatal classes will be focused toward level one students, including those who have never done yoga before. But this doesn’t mean that a prenatal sequence won’t give your body a workout. Part of the benefit of taking yoga while pregnant is that you get a chance to experience strong physical sensations in a safe place, where you can practice not mentally running from them. While holding a wall squat or a strong hip opener such as ankle-to-knee (agnistambhasana) for the typical length of one contraction, you get the chance to practice being present and to relax through the intensity (rather than tensing). With sufficient time, this can become a different way of looking at sensation so that strong sensations later (like, say, those labor contractions) become less frightening. This will help you minimize tensing against them, allowing your body to relax and open more—and voila, baby! In this way, a prenatal class will work with you, regardless of the level of your practice.
Modifications take into account your changing shape and hormones. This may seem obvious, but even a yoga basics class isn’t going to avoid postures that involve lying on your belly or flat on your back, which at some point you can’t do when you’re pregnant. In fact, many beginners’ modifications for more challenging postures involve lying on your back, which doesn’t work if your baby is pressing on the inferior vena cava (the large vein in the back of your pelvis). When this happens, your blood pressure is suddenly lowered—which isn’t good for you or baby, and can make you feel dizzy or nauseous. While not every pregnant woman has difficulty on her back, many do (especially later on). Prenatal yoga classes walk an amazing line in teaching alignment which is appropriate for your body as it changes with your growing baby, so that you can still experience the full range of postures at whatever level you can handle. In a prenatal class you get postures modified specifically for pregnancy—not necessarily to make the poses “easier,” but to make them more safe and accessible for you. It may seem like a small difference, but it’s a significant one. Plus, later in pregnancy your body starts getting ready for birth, and hormones cause your connective tissue to become more lax. This means you’re at a greater risk for overstretching (especially if you’re already flexible to begin with), which can lead to pelvic and joint instability and/or pulled ligaments. Prenatal-specific alignment, then, becomes doubly important!
And no, not every yoga teacher is going to know how to adjust classic poses to protect against too much mobility. Think, for example, of how many times in yoga class you’ve been asked to “square your hips to the side of your mat.” Many teachers simply don’t realize that this is a movement that can cause pubic bone pain if done too much.
The focus is on both of you, not just avoiding injury to the baby. I get it. If you’ve been practicing yoga regularly, you may not want to go to the preggo class while you’re in your first or even second trimester. And to be honest, you may not always need to skip your favorite vinyasa class in favor of a pregnancy-specific practice. But that fast vinyasa class isn’t going to focus on how things inside your body are shifting on a daily basis. This is not to say you shouldn’t practice strong yoga. But you need to do it with an eye to how things feel right now, and adjusting postures almost daily in subtle ways.
And there’s the aspect of prenatal yoga that involves actually talking directly about all those aches and pains that aren’t typically mentioned in regular classes, but are common during pregnancy (like that sciatic pain in the butt, or achy ribs, or the full-on exhaustion we might feel in the first trimester). Prenatal yoga addresses all of that, helping you find ways to work with it in a strengthening and supportive way.
Bonus childbirth prep While it may not be true of every prenatal yoga teacher, if your prenatal teacher is passionate about childbirth prep, it’s a good bet she has received additional training in some aspect of the field. Maybe she’s a birth doula or a childbirth educator, or is acquainted with hypnobirthing. If that’s the case, then your prenatal yoga classes may focus both on yoga (asana, stretching, physical body awareness) and on mental focus and other such techniques for during and after birth. At my studio (Om Births in Watertown, Massachusetts), our teachers discuss how yoga postures can be used during labor, and students take home information from each class to help them work with body and breath for a better birth experience. Those who begin attending class early on are able to gradually reinforce the physical side of their childbirth classes, instead of trying to take in all the information in one eight-hour marathon childbirth class. (I have taught those classes, and my own brain leaks out of my ears by the end, so I can imagine how my students feel.) Prenatal yoga is like getting birth prep in bite-sized portions—if you don’t like one forkful, you don’t have to swallow it. Take what works for you, and begin envisioning your own birth experience on your own terms.
(Please note that prenatal yoga classes are not a substitute for birthing classes!)
Lastly, and yes, I’m going to shout this one: YOU GET TO MEET OTHER PREGNANT WOMEN!!! Wondering how you’re going to find other like-minded mamas with whom to raise your children or discuss things later that are not related to pregnancy and birth? This is your class! Prenatal yoga is a chance to open up and share a common experience with a community of women. My prenatal classes always begin with some time to chat about how we all feel, and to share ideas about what has been working for each of us. It’s a time for developing collective wisdom, but also the start of your mommy network (without all of the judgment that might come from sectors and aspects of the rest of our culture). Looking for doula referrals? Wondering about where the best prenatal massage can be found? Believe me, there is no better resource than the pregnant women in your area. Each year I watch moms form deep, lasting friendships. This is your New Moms group, your kid’s play dates, your mommy sangha (spiritual community). These are the women from whom you’ll get and give hand-me-downs, who will attend your kid’s birthday parties, and who will remind you to get back on your mat and/or meditation cushion when things get tough.
Wondering how you’re going to find other like-minded mamas with whom to raise your children or discuss things later that are not related to pregnancy and birth?
So yes, mamas, you could just take a beginners’ yoga class or stay in your advanced vinyasa class for awhile. But a specifically designed prenatal class has so much more depth and warmth to offer you than just postures that make space for a bigger belly. I personally encourage every expecting mom to find the class that resonates with her. If one doesn’t fit, then look for another one—just as you would with a regular yoga class. When you find the right community, you’ll know it, and you’ll be so happy you did.
Happy Birth Day, and enjoy the journey into motherhood!