Even though, at the time I’m writing this, I was in my first trimester only four months ago, it’s a bit of a blur. Perhaps because I spent a majority of those three months sleeping or binge-watching old episodes of Beverly Hills 90210. The mind-numbing exhaustion was overwhelming and I suddenly understood why most of my yoga students disappeared from classes for those first 14 weeks of pregnancy. I could barely lift my arms to initiate a sun salutation without needing to lie down for a few moments to let the nausea subside before trying another round.
Like most pregnancy symptoms, first trimester symptoms vary in their intensity and duration from person to person. Some people do not experience any nausea, while others have severe nausea throughout their entire pregnancy, a condition called hyperemesis gravidarum. Some symptoms appear across a spectrum, but one symptom seems common across the board: fatigue.
Doing yoga may be the last thing on our mind with so many other responsibilities at hand, but studies have shown that yoga is helpful at managing stress and helping to lessen other adverse effects of pregnancy, like swelling and even the possibility of gestational diabetes. And doing a restorative practice is highly encouraged during the first trimester, as it is a time when rest is key.
It makes sense when we understand what is happening in the body. While outwardly there are not a lot of changes yet, inwardly there are a whole host. The first trimester is when the baby’s most critical structures form, including the brain, the central nervous system, and the heart. The parent is also developing a brand-new organ, the placenta, which the body creates specifically for pregnancy and which is birthed shortly after the baby. The placenta’s job is to take over nourishing the baby around week 12.
The major considerations for any kind of exercise in the first trimester are to avoid overheating and to stay well hydrated. The baby is still extremely small at this point, and the uterus isn’t nearly as large as it is going to get, so there are not very many physical restrictions. Instead, it is important to practice with the overall intention of listening to our body and not overdoing anything. But we should be doing that whether we are pregnant or not, right?
Our practice will evolve over the course of our pregnancy, just as it does over the course of our lives. Be open to doing what you need to do on a given day. If you are feeling like moving a little, this mini sequence offers the perfect combination of rest and strength in preparation for the next two trimesters.
Props you will need: A bolster, one or two blankets, a set of blocks, and a strap.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the contraindication regarding not lying flat on your back during pregnancy. This is true later on (generally starting in the second trimester, though it varies from person to person) as the uterus begins to grow. Doing so can increase your heart rate and breathlessness because of the weight of the uterus pressing against a major vein—the vena cava. However, the baby is so small in the first trimester that this is not yet an issue, so enjoy the comfort of being on your back while you can!
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Take your feet as wide as your mat, letting your knees knock together. This leg position can provide a nice release for the lower back.
Next, inhale your arms into a wide T shape, and as you exhale, hug your arms across your chest with the right arm over the left, but make sure your shoulders are not scrunching up toward your ears. This should feel comforting, not suffocating. If your arms are long enough, you may even be able to touch your shoulder blades and be able to gently spread them against the floor. Remain for 20 breaths.
To switch sides, inhale your arms open into a T once again and on the exhale, cross with the opposite arm on top. Enjoy this self “hug” for an additional 20 breaths.
One of the more common symptoms we contend with during the first trimester is nausea. Postures in which your head is down and you are still can help alleviate it. If it feels good, child’s pose is also a great way to rest at any time during your prenatal yoga practices. As your belly grows, you will probably have to adapt this pose by taking your knees wider.
Come onto your knees, with your big toes together. Place a block in front of you. Start with your knees hip width apart, but widen as you need to for comfort and to accommodate your growing baby. Sink your hips back onto your heels and fold over your thighs. Rest your forehead on the block. You can keep your arms actively reaching forward or allow them to drape by your sides. Remember that this pose is meant to be restful. Remain here as long as needed! And return to this pose anytime.
Downward facing dog is one of the few inversions that is generally considered to be safe to practice throughout pregnancy, regardless of skill level. It is a great way to stretch your hamstrings and keep your arms strong. If downward dog makes you nauseous, though, skip it and do child’s pose or an extended puppy dog instead. You will have plenty of time to do downward dog later in your pregnancy.
From hands and knees, place your hands slightly ahead of your shoulders. Curl your toes under, lift your knees off the floor, and on an exhale, press your legs toward straight or keep your knees bent if your hamstrings feel tight, coming into downward facing dog. If your spine is rounded and there is a lot of weight in your hands, keep a bend in your knees. Press through the entire circumference of your hands. Firm your outer upper arms (your triceps) in toward your ears. Find a gazing spot at the back of your mat or between your feet, keeping your neck long. Lengthen your entire waist evenly around. Press your thighs back as you reach down through your heels, but know that the key to a healthy downward dog is a long spine—it’s not about getting your legs straight or heels down. Stay for 10 breaths.
As your uterus grows, your abdominal muscles inevitably spread and weaken. Your lower back also begins to overly arch from the additional weight. The longer your core muscles can function well, the longer you may be able to ward off lower back pain, which is incredibly common in pregnancy and may be linked to the change in posture. Core work such as crunches or curls are generally contraindicated as the baby grows, because they compress the uterus, but core stabilizers like plank or table are excellent ways to engage abdominal muscles while still maintaining space for baby.
From downward facing dog, inhale forward into plank pose. Line up the heads of your shoulders with your wrists. Gaze between your palms to keep the back of your neck long. Arrange your feet so that they’re about hip width apart. Press strongly into the floor with your hands. Reach your sternum forward as you reach back through your heels. Keep the sides of your waist lifted, supporting your lower back. Lengthen your tailbone toward your heels; keep your thighs actively lifted. If you find your body sinking toward the floor or you get particularly tired, feel free to lower your knees to the floor.
Aim to stay for 10 full breaths. At the end of your last breath return to downward facing dog or child’s pose.
Strength- and stability-boosting poses are highly recommended during pregnancy because our bodies are particularly flexible during this time. Relaxin is a hormone that is produced throughout pregnancy and birth, loosening the connective tissue throughout the body to prepare it for the changes of growing and delivering a baby. This can lead to joint instability. Standing poses can be an excellent way to get strong. They are also powerful poses that can show us both our physical and mental resilience, which are essential aspects of the child-bearing journey.
Stand in the center of your mat, facing the long edge. Inhale your arms out to a T, and step your feet out wide, aligning your ankles underneath your wrists.
Place your hands on your hips. On an exhale, turn your right leg out from deep within your hip socket so that your toes point toward the short edge of your mat. Slightly angle your left foot and hip inward, lining your feet up heel to heel (or wider) or back heel to front arch if that feels more stable.
On an inhale, lengthen through your spine, and on an exhale, bend your right knee, tracking it over your front ankle. On your next inhale, extend your arms wide at shoulder height again, and on an exhale bend your right elbow and place your forearm on your right thigh, palm facing up (or bring your right hand to a block in front of or behind your right shin, depending on what feels best), and reach your left arm up to the sky. Firm your right hip underneath you as you press your left thigh back. Open your torso to the side, and if it’s comfortable look up at your top hand. Stay for 15 full, deep breaths.
To come out, bring your torso upright on an inhale and straighten your front leg. On an exhale, parallel your feet and switch sides.
Another area of the body that feels the strain during pregnancy is the pelvic floor. The pelvic floor is like the bottom of a handbag, supporting the contents of your reproductive and digestive organs. You want it to be both taught and supple: If it’s too loose, the contents may bulge out (which is called a prolapse); if it’s too tight, it may contribute to pelvic floor dysfunction and challenges during childbirth, including the risk of tearing. Wide-legged squat poses are excellent for toning the pelvic floor as the pelvic floor muscles have to draw up against gravity.
Still facing the long edge of your mat, step your feet wide and turn your legs out about 45 degrees so that your toes are pointing toward the right and left corners of your mat. On an inhale, reach your arms overhead and on the exhale, begin to sit into your squat. Lower your arms to shoulder height and externally rotate your upper arms, keeping a slight bend in your elbows, palms up. This is a shape of receptivity.
Stretch your inner thighs by lengthening them from groin to knee. Simultaneously draw your outer thighs back from knee to hip sockets. Keep lifting your sitting bones away from the floor, gently drawing your lower belly up and in. Keep your breath smooth and your face soft. Stay for 10 breaths. On an inhale straighten your legs, and as you exhale step your feet together.
One set of poses that will change considerably as your body does is backbends. While most backbends are still okay for most people at this point in pregnancy, a lot of them require you to hold your head up as you take it back (think camel or upward facing bow), which is not fun if you start to feel nauseated. This restorative backbend uses the floor to support the head, making it a great alternative to the more active shapes, especially because it can be held longer.
Place a bolster lengthwise in the middle of your mat. Have a block near the end of the mat and a strap within reach. Sit on the bottom edge of the bolster and strap your ankles fairly snugly. Lie back on the bolster and then scooch up until your shoulder blades and head are on the floor. Place your heels on the block to completely lengthen your body.
If your lower back feels tender, try placing the block on a higher setting or keep your feet on the floor and your knees bent. Bend your elbows into a cactus shape with your palms facing up. Remain here for three to five minutes, taking long, deep breaths into your upper chest.
To come out, slip your feet out of the strap and place them on the floor with your knees bent. Roll over to your left side (it’s advisable to roll to the left side during pregnancy, so as not to put pressure on the vena cava) and rest your head on your left arm. Press up to seated slowly, letting your head come up last.
Twists are another category of poses that have a reputation for being discouraged during pregnancy, but keep in mind that there are different types of twists. Open twists are typically considered okay throughout and are helpful for opening the upper chest and increasing mobility in the spine. This particular twist is sometimes nicknamed the “pregnancy twist” because of how much openness it allows in the chest and abdomen while still allowing spinal rotation.
Lying on your back, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor as wide as the mat. Have your arms in a T or cactus shape, depending on how much space you have. As you exhale, drop your knees to the left. There is often a temptation to bring the thighs together in this pose, but this defeats the purpose of the shape, which is a milder rotation of the spine without compressing the abdomen. Keep your legs and feet wide. If it is comfortable for your neck, turn your head to the right. Stay here and breathe deeply for 10 rounds of breath.
Come back through center on an inhale, then switch sides on an exhale.
While it can feel defeating not to have your usual pep during the first trimester, remember that it is temporary and that periods of decreased energy are essential to refuel you for the next leg of your journey. Pregnancy and parenthood are marathons, not sprints, and it is as though nature anticipated the long road ahead by giving you opportunities to slow down and get your bearings. Forward bends are excellent poses to support this energy of slowing down and turning inward.
Sit on your mat and straighten your legs out in front of you. If your spine is rounding, sit on a blanket or two, which can help you find more length. On an inhale, reach your arms up to the ceiling; on an exhale, fold over your legs. Either hold your feet with your hands or place a strap around your feet and hold that instead. Flex your ankles strongly. Whether you are able to keep your legs straight or need to bend them, imagine pressing the backs of your thighs into the floor, which will encourage your pelvis to tip forward more and ultimately lengthen your spine. Although your head is down, keep reaching your chest toward your feet, finding as much length through your spine as possible. Remain in the pose for 25 breaths.
On an inhale, lengthen through your spine as you bring your torso upright.
This savasana variation will become a fast friend during pregnancy. It is nicknamed queen’s pose in prenatal circles, as the bolster represents your throne. When you’re feeling nauseated, it can be especially helpful to take savasana upright. And why not feel regal and powerful as well? You are creating a life, after all!
Place one block on its medium setting horizontally at the top of your mat. Place a second block on its lowest setting in front of it to create an L shape. Lay a bolster diagonally over the blocks, making the back of your throne. Fold a blanket and position it on the top of the bolster as a pillow. Now sit directly in front of the bolster and lie back on it. Reposition the props as needed to support your body shape. Straighten your legs and let them fall open. If you have something to cover your eyes, like an eye pillow, towel, or T-shirt, that can be nice for savasana.
Take a big breath in through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Let all effort go here; you are working hard enough these days! Allow the props to fully support you and enjoy this well-deserved rest. Remain here for seven minutes if possible. Roll to your left side to come out of the pose when you’re done.
Remember that pregnancy is an incredibly physical process. Your body is working overtime to create a brand-new being, and the first trimester is especially hard work. That’s why it is so important to take care of yourself, and one way to do this is by maintaining a consistent yoga practice. It will not look the same every day, but neither will you. Remember that the most advanced yoga practice involves listening to your body. Congratulations on being the best parent you can be by taking care of yourself so you can take care of your baby.
Photography: Andrea Killam