Safe Prenatal Yoga Tips for Each Trimester

February 2, 2016    BY Nishita Morris

Pregnancy can be both an exciting and a nerve-wracking time of all-encompassing change. The changes can vary dramatically from person to person, and also from one pregnancy to another. Even if you’ve read every baby book, mommy blog, and pregnancy magazine out there, you still might not fully anticipate what physical, mental, and emotional changes will ensue until you’re actually in the thick of it! And if you’ve had a regular yoga practice in the months or years preceding your pregnancy, you may also be wondering how your pregnancy will change your practice.

Prenatal yoga is often recommended by health care providers as an ideal physical activity for expectant mothers. And, with recent yoga-focused research showing that pregnant practitioners may continue their routines more intensively than previously thought, seasoned students may be able to keep up with their regular classes during pregnancy by integrating a few trimester-specific modifications for personal comfort and safety. These modifications may help newer students as well, especially if they want to try yoga but are unable to find prenatal classes in their area.

PLEASE NOTE: These yoga tips are NOT a substitute for professional medical advice. Before implementing these modifications or beginning any exercise program, especially during pregnancy, it is essential to consult with your personal physician for professional advice and feedback. If you then attend a non-prenatal class, it is highly recommended that you inform your instructor of your pregnancy before the start of class.

First Trimester Yoga Tips

• It’s always a good idea to place yourself near a door in case you need to leave at any time. (Morning sickness can last the whole day, and it reminds you of its presence at a moment’s notice!)

• Avoid hot classes, as excess heat can adversely affect fetal development. Pregnancy increases your metabolic rate and blood flow in general (hey, constructing brand new organs from scratch will do that to a person!), making it much more common to feel warmer than normal or get overheated easily. If you become too warm at any point, excuse yourself from the class to cool off. Bringing a small portable fan to place by your mat can also help you avoid overheating. Some studios will even offer this for students who need it, so be sure to ask. It is also a good idea to avoid breath work that can create internal heat quickly, such as bhastrika (bellow’s breath) or kumbhaka (breath retention). Always keep water with you to remain hydrated and to help with cooling down, if needed. 

• Be sure to rest in child’s pose or a comfortable seated position when needed. Now is not the time to push your edge as you may have previously done!

• Avoid closed-twist poses that crunch or squish your uterine area, including seated twists like marichyasana II and III or ardha matsyendrasana (half lord of the fishes pose). Substitute an open-twist variation of the pose instead by twisting away from your bent leg rather than toward it. Focus more on twisting the shoulders and upper back, rather than the lower torso. Revolved poses like parivritta parsvakonasana (revolved side angle pose), revolved lunge pose, or parivritta utkatasana (revolved chair pose) can compress the uterine area as well, so substitute for them by practicing the original pose rather than those revolved variations.

• Some schools of yoga recommend avoiding vertical inversions, such as headstand or handstand, in order to minimize the risk of falling. Others feel that it's fine to continue inversions if one is experienced, has had inversions as a regular part of a pre-pregnancy practice, and continues to feel comfortable with them. If you choose to continue with inversions, it can be comforting to have a wall or friend near for physical support. 

• Be careful to avoid overstretching or hyperextending joints beyond their normal range of motion. In early pregnancy, the hormone relaxin is produced to—you guessed it!—relax and loosen muscles, joints, and connective tissue around the pelvis in preparation for childbirth. It may be tempting to take advantage of this during your yoga practice, but try to stick with the range of motion to which you’ve been accustomed in order to prevent injury or long-term joint instability, especially in groin-focused asanas like baddha konasana (bound angle, or "butterfly"). This may also mean taking shorter stances in standing poses like virabhadrasana I and II (warrior I and II), in order to prevent unnecessary demand on the pelvic and hip joints. 

• In general, it helps to have a go-to "active" pose such as downward facing dog, puppy dog, goddess, or some other you enjoy and can easily transition in and out of, and that allows you to feel that your muscles are still active. Have this pose available as a reliable substitute if you are unsure how to modify something during class.

Second Trimester Yoga Tips

• All of the first trimester yoga tips can be applied here as well.

• In poses where the torso rests on or comes close to the thighs, such as uttanasana (standing forward fold), chair pose, or child’s pose, it helps to create space between the legs to allow physical room for your belly. Simply bring your legs wider apart in these poses (for example: start with hip-distance apart for poses where the legs are traditionally together, wide-kneed for child’s pose). This extra space will also provide greater standing stability.

• Take balancing poses near the wall. During pregnancy, your center of gravity gradually shifts as your uterus expands. Knowing how this will affect your personal balance can be unpredictable. You may or may not need the wall, but having it nearby can provide a greater sense of stability and security.

• Prone, or face-down positions, may start to feel uncomfortable. Substitute for poses like bhujangasana (cobra pose), sphinx, salabhasana (locust pose), and dhanurasana (bow pose) by remaining in tabletop and taking a few rounds of cat and cow or alternating arm/leg extensions. 

• In general, backbending may be uncomfortable now. Pushing too far into a backbend if it is not so accessible for your body can compromise the joints and muscles of the lower back at any time, but during pregnancy it can place unwanted pressure on the abdomen and uterus as well. As your belly expands, deeper backbending may place a strain on the midline of your abdominal muscles, which can lead to a condition called diastasis recti. This condition is characterized by a separation of the left and right rectus abdominus and may hinder core recovery after birth and lead to back pain, hip pain, hernias, and/or cosmetic issues. Non-weight-bearing backbends such as ustrasana (camel pose), or gentle backbends like bitilasana (cow pose), allow for greater control over the depth of the backbend. In these poses, it is easier to focus on bending just at mid spine and above. This will still provide a nice opening sensation in your chest and shoulders, but will keep you from going too deep into the backbend. 

• Any supine poses or strength drills (such as Pilates-style core exercises) that are done lying flat on the back may not only feel uncomfortable during this trimester, but can compress the inferior vena cava (a major vein that controls blood flow between the lower body and the heart). Compression of this vein can ultimately lead to a risky drop in blood pressure, characterized by sudden feelings of dizziness and nausea. Not all women will experience these symptoms, but their presence during a pose is a clear indicator that you should come out of the pose and avoid it in the future. Instead, during active supine poses you can substitute active standing poses such as goddess pose, garland pose, or squat variations, all of which strengthen and lengthen the core, hip, and pelvic muscles that aid in childbirth. If you are looking to substitute less active supine poses, you could try a restorative side-lying pose, using a block between your thighs to support your back and hips, or supported seated postures, such as baddha konasana, with blocks under the knees. A wide-legged child's pose can also be a gentle substitute while the rest of the class is practicing less active supine poses. 

• Do savasana (final relaxation) on your side, and feel free to use plenty of props for added comfort. 

Third Trimester Yoga Tips 

• Continue to use the tips from the first and second trimester suggestions above.

• It is generally recommended to avoid all inversions by this stage, as it could affect the baby’s positioning once the baby is head down in the uterus. Inversions also may not feel very good at this time, as they can exacerbate common third-trimester symptoms like heartburn. 

• Faster-paced classes may feel uncomfortable now, as the baby's larger size makes it harder to catch your breath. Toward the end of pregnancy, you may decide to slow the pace and intensity of your asana practice, focusing more on specific prenatal postures and breath work in preparation for labor and delivery. You may want to sit on blocks or bolsters in poses like malasana (garland pose), or practice goddess pose or a wide-legged utkatasana (chair pose) against a wall. Slow, deep, and meditative pranayama practices can help keep your nervous system grounded during labor and delivery. The last trimester may be a good time to focus on gentle pelvic floor awareness practices as well, as these exercises focus on important muscles that aid in delivery. 

Most importantly, enjoy experimenting with your asana practice during this very joyous time!

Nishita Morris
Nishita Morris is a health, wellness, and outdoor enthusiast! She completed her graduate (Master of Public Health) and undergraduate (Bachelor of Science in Health Promotion and Behavior; Bachelor of Science in Psychology) education at the University of Georgia. She is also a Certified Health Education Specialist. Her interests include workplace health, the mind-body connection, stress management, and nutrition. In her free time, Nishita enjoys reading, writing, comedy, and doing just about... Read more>>

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