If you’re expecting a baby, attending prenatal yoga classes can be very beneficial. The body changes significantly during pregnancy, and prenatal-specific practices help us to find strength and stability during this time of change. They can also provide us with tools for safely and effectively modifying our favorite poses as we accommodate our individual bodies and their needs. These tools can accompany us into traditional yoga classes and home practices as well.
Below are five beneficial prenatal poses (including one for meditation) that you can begin incorporating into your yoga practice immediately (as long as you've been cleared by your medical provider for exercise). These poses can be adapted for all trimesters, and no previous yoga experience is required.
Warm-up With Cat/Cow
Cat and cow are a famous duo in the prenatal yoga world. The natural movements of cat and cow are often used to alleviate discomfort in the hips, neck, shoulders, and/or back. Cat/cow is also a great warm-up, and it can help you connect with your breath.
Start on all fours. If your knees are sensitive, use a little extra padding (like a blanket) underneath the knees. If kneeling is not possible for you, you can practice cat/cow seated.
From all fours, stack your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. For greater stability, place a block between your thighs at its narrow or medium setting. Squeeze your inner thighs gently into the block. Think of lightly cinching an invisible drawstring between your two frontal hip bones, and zipping up an invisible zipper between your pubic bone and navel—or of gently lifting your baby toward your spine. This will engage your transverse abdominis, which will help you to avoid compressing your lower back.
Inhale, then on an exhalation, press your hands and the tops of your feet straight down into the floor, tilt your tailbone down toward the floor; and again, engage your abs as you round your spine and gaze downward in cat.
On your next inhalation, move into cow by slightly tipping your sit bones up toward the ceiling and gently lifting both your chest and your gaze. Roll your inner shoulders toward your outer shoulders, broadening across the chest.
Continue moving between cat and cow, exhaling into cat and inhaling into cow.
Avoid going into an extreme cow position. If you have lower back pain or sciatica, alternate between cat and neutral instead of cat and cow. It’s okay if you don’t feel a stretch, as this exercise is more about getting the body moving.
Repeat cat/cow 10 to 15 times a few times a day. If you have wrist discomfort, try rolling (or folding) up the end of your yoga mat and elevating just the heels of your hands on that roll (to decrease the amount of wrist extension required), or placing your forearms on a pair of blocks (two under each forearm to give you more space).
Feel Strong in Warrior II
Note: If you have pain at your pubic bone or feel discomfort in your front hip joint, refrain from practicing this pose.
Pregnancy can feel like something of a non-stop whirlwind, both emotionally and physically. Whether it’s your first pregnancy or not, there’s always an element of the unknown.
Questions like “Will my baby be healthy?” “How will the birthing process unfold?” and “What will my life be like once the baby arrives?” can all arise.
Warrior II can do a lot more for us than simply strengthening and stretching the muscles of the legs. It can also help us channel the courage of a warrior during uncertain times.
Facing one of the long edges of your mat, step your feet three to four feet apart (probably on the shorter side of three feet if you are later in the third trimester—or at any other time you feel physically unstable). Turn your right foot and leg in a little so that the heel is closer to the back edge of your mat than your pinky toe is; and turn your left leg out 90 degrees so that your toes point toward the front of your mat.
In the first trimester, you can bring the feet into heel-to-arch alignment if that’s comfortable for you. As you progress in your pregnancy you may need to change the distance to heel to heel, and even a bit wider if that gives you more stability. Keep in mind that the wider apart the feet are, the more demand you place on the pubic symphysis (where the two halves of your pubic bones meet).
Inhale as you bring your arms up to shoulder height, and then exhale as you bend your left knee as far as is comfortable, without your knee extending past your ankle.
Keep your back leg straight and strong. Hold here for 20 seconds, or as long as one minute if you practice this pose regularly. You should build up time gradually as you practice, and feel empowered to come out of the pose whenever you desire.
As you practice, notice the precise moment when holding this posture feels a bit more challenging (but not painful), and then try holding for another breath or two. You may find that your body is capable of doing much more than you initially thought. This type of mind-body training can be carried into the birthing process.
Warrior II on a Chair
In the later stages of pregnancy, or any time this pose feels uncomfortable or unstable, you may want to try it using a chair. Sit on the chair as you would normally. Swing your left leg to the left and place your left foot on the floor. Straighten your right leg behind you (to the right) so that your entire pelvis is on the chair.
You can also take a blanket or bolster under your hips if you feel too much stretch in your pelvis or feel unsupported. Bring your arms out to the sides. Stay here for five breaths. Then return first your right leg and then your left leg back into a regular seated position. Repeat on the other side.
Prepare for Birth With Squats
Note: Squats should be avoided if you have a cervical cerclage, if your baby is in a breech position after 34 weeks (to avoid the downward movement of baby), if you experience pubic symphysis discomfort or pain, or if you have hemorrhoids or vaginal varicose veins.
Malasana, or a squat, is another excellent tool for your prenatal toolbox. Practicing this pose regularly can help to strengthen your legs, open your hips, and release your lower back.
Separate your feet a few inches wider than hip-distance apart. Depending on the structure of your body, your toes may face forward or you might need to turn them out. Ground down into your heels, and bend your knees over your center toes as you squat down toward the floor. If you are unable to ground your heels, place a yoga wedge or blanket under your heels so that you can move your weight back and down into your heels rather than into the balls of your feet. Hold your squat, or sit on one or two stacked blocks or a bolster. You can place your hands on blocks, gently press your elbows into your thighs with your hands in front of your heart, or hold onto a chair or bar.
Build your time in this pose. Begin holding for one or two breaths and work up to no more than 10 breaths. In supported versions of the pose, you can hold for a longer period of time.
If a low squat is inaccessible, goddess pose is a great alternative. From a wide-legged stance with your feet two to three feet apart, turn your toes out to a 45-degree angle; bend your knees and aim them toward your third toes. The hips stay high here, as opposed to squats where the hips are lower than the knees. For extra support, do this pose while sitting on a chair or a firm exercise ball.
Wind Down With Wide-Legged Child's Pose
Child’s pose is a versatile pose that can be adapted for each trimester. For instance, the knees can be separated in order to make room for baby. Child’s pose can be used as a resting place, both in yoga practice and during labor. There is a sense of comfort that comes from being low to the ground and supported by the earth. Child's pose releases the pelvic floor, and during labor, a version of the pose with the hips in the air over the knees (rather than back over the heels) is sometimes used to take the pressure of the baby's head off of your cervix.
I often use this pose in my prenatal classes to teach students to be mindful of how they can “breathe into” (expand) the back of the rib cage, while simultaneously relaxing their pelvic floor by being in this shape.
Start on all fours. Bring your big toes together and spread your knees as wide as your mat. Sit your hips back in the direction of your heels. Keep your hips moving back as you walk your hands forward and rest your forehead on the ground. If your belly touches the floor or you feel compression in your belly, lift up and place your head on a block.
Another option is to rest your chest on a bolster, which can feel better if your chest is sensitive.
Stay in this position for as long as it feels comfortable for you.
Elevate Your Awareness With Mindful Meditation in Sukhasana
Mindful meditation is the icing on the cake. It ties together the entire prenatal yoga practice by focusing on the mental aspects of pregnancy and labor—such as imagining baby as they grow each day inside of your womb or visualizing contractions as they arise, and concentrating on the sensation (rather than allowing the mind to be swept away by the pain). And it’s an excellent chance for moms to be present with their babies.
Sitting in sukhasana (easy pose), you release your inner thigh muscles and strengthen your paraspinal muscles as you use them to maintain your upright position.
If sitting this way is difficult or causes symptoms of sciatica, virasana (hero pose) is also an excellent option.
During meditation, it is important to connect with the sensations in your body, whether easeful or uncomfortable (although if the position itself is causing pain, do come out of it). By staying present and curious about what's happening in your body, rather than judging or reacting to those sensations, you will be better equipped to handle the challenges that lie ahead in labor and in parenting. During labor, this practice may help you stay in the moment with each contraction/expansion, rather than fearing the next one or the coming hours.
Sit cross-legged and elevate yourself with a blanket or bolster, allowing the knees to be lower than the hips. You can also set up with your back against the wall for more support.
Place the palms of your hands face down on your thighs or wrap your arms around baby. Once seated comfortably, close your eyes and scan your body from your head to your toes. Stay aware of each sensation as you bring your attention from one body part to the next.
Then become aware of your breath, noticing where you can feel the movement of the breath. Notice and be present for each inhalation and exhalation. When a thought comes to mind, be aware of it, feel it, and then let it go, returning to your breath. Begin with three minutes of mindfulness meditation, and work your way up to 20 or so.
As you incorporate these prenatal yoga poses into your daily practice, you can do two or three of them at a time. Or you can practice all of them as a full sequence, which may take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes.