There is no avoiding the truth–pregnancy changes your yoga practice.
Every day of my recent pregnancy has offered a new lesson in what I can and cannot do.
I’ve found a new appreciation for props, and I’m having to get more and more creative about getting my foot to the front of the mat from downward facing dog. Most days I’m skipping vinyasas entirely and taking multiple breaths in every pose.
A far cry from my old days as a floating and flying ashtanga practitioner.
There’s nothing unique about my current struggles, though, as many pregnant yoga practitioners go through this. At the same time, a familiar and consistent practice is often an anchor amidst the turbulent seas of change in everyday life, and it can be a big adjustment to have to make so many changes.
Whether you’ve been doing the same practice for decades or are more open to taking different styles, nothing prepares us for how much the body changes during pregnancy and the shifts in our practice that will become necessary. It can require some serious letting go.
The good news is that while we may not be jumping back to or flying in crow pose any time soon, with our doctor’s approval, we can still do yoga throughout our entire pregnancy. In fact, practicing yoga while pregnant can have a number of benefits.
According to Dr. Sarah Hebl, an OB-GYN based in San Francisco, “Yoga is an excellent [resource] throughout pregnancy and the postpartum period. Yoga improves flexibility, balance, and circulation; tones and strengthens muscles; reduces stress and anxiety while improving overall mental and physical health and well-being. It [also] has minimal negative impact on joints when done correctly and safely.”
On top of all of this, she adds that “[yoga] develops excellent deep breathing and relaxation techniques, which are very important, especially during labor and delivery.”
A systematic 2012 review of numerous studies on the effects of yoga during pregnancy and labor confirms Dr. Hebl’s words, noting that yoga benefits not only the person who is pregnant, but also the baby. It can have positive effects on birth weight and babies being born at term.
The Difference Between Prenatal Yoga and Practicing Yoga While Pregnant
The term prenatal yoga is specifically used to describe a style of yoga designed for those who are pregnant. It focuses on improving strength and flexibility, and offering breathing techniques that can be helpful during labor.
Prenatal classes tend to be less strenuous, though the practice can be stronger or more gentle depending on the teacher and the needs and desires of the students. It can be an excellent resource for those who want to learn how to accommodate their changing bodies in a movement setting. As an added bonus, it’s also a great way to meet other expectant parents!
But not everyone takes prenatal yoga classes during their pregnancy, and for different reasons.
Many prefer to continue with their regular vinyasa classes, with modifications. Or maybe prenatal yoga classes aren’t offered where they live, or the schedule or teacher doesn’t jibe with them. More often than not, people also put off taking prenatal yoga until the very end of their pregnancy. I remember the first time I took a prenatal yoga class and the teacher asked everyone around the room to introduce themselves and say how far along they were. Nearly everyone there was 37 weeks or more, except me, who was just 20 weeks at the time.
If you're attending a vinyasa class while pregnant, these six tips below can help you to customize your practice so that you can move in a way that best serves you. Whether you are a beginner or an advanced practitioner, the most important thing for you to do is to honor your body. Pregnancy is the most advanced vinyasa practice you will ever do. It is a time for deep listening and learning how to go with the flow, which are great tools for how you will eventually parent that little growing baby inside of you.
Two important caveats. Firstly, pregnancy is not the time to start new physical endeavors or meet big fitness goals. It is a time of maintenance and support. If you have never taken a vinyasa flow class, it is recommended that you take a prenatal or beginner’s yoga class first to learn proper modifications and then get your doctor’s permission to do stronger exercise (like vinyasa) if you wish.
Secondly, every pregnancy is different. With your last child, you may have been able to do vinyasa the whole way through, while with your current pregnancy you may need to move much slower. Please, honor that! Remember, the yoga is in taking care of ourselves, not in what level class we can do. In that way, we do an advanced practice without ever unrolling a mat.
The number one rule for engaging in any kind of physical activity when pregnant is to listen to your body—not to what guidebooks or websites or teachers say (although do your research, too, and be smart!). Even listening to your own thoughts can at times be risky, as ego can have its own agenda. Listen to what feels right for you.
Pregnancy is a really special time, when your body will often tell you exactly what you need if you are willing to listen. In fact, our bodies are pretty much always doing this, though we may be more inclined to heed their advice when we feel someone else is affected by our decisions.
The reason vinyasa flow classes can be a good training ground for this work is that you can learn to slow down and tune in, regardless of outside influences or pace. By really paying attention to your breath and how much space you have, you will know what is appropriate for you. Sometimes that will be different than what the teacher suggests.
I recently took a class while pregnant in which the teacher kept telling me I could lie on my stomach supported with bolsters. Although this is a common modification, it did not feel good. If I had been moving too fast, I could have ignored the signals that it was not right for my body. Instead, I kept a steady pace and really tuned in to my breath. I tried the variation briefly and immediately knew it was not right for me. So I skipped it.
Own your choices. Let this practice be training to build confidence in your decisions during pregnancy, during birth, and after your child is born.
The next most important consideration when practicing yoga while pregnant is to make space for your little passenger, which means not doing anything that will compress your abdomen. The better-known contraindications are poses that involve deep twisting—like a closed prayer twist in a lunge, and deep spinal flexion (rounding the back), particularly if you are rounding into contact with another body part (like knee-to-nose work).
Instead of doing closed twists, you can twist toward the other direction, or keep your arms wide in an “open twist.” Other adjustments happen organically over time as you adapt to your growing belly. For example, in early pregnancy, lying on the stomach is okay, but as the belly grows, it is no longer appropriate (or comfortable!).
When stepping your foot forward to come into a lunge or warrior I pose from downward dog, you will begin to step your foot around your front hand. Similarly, taking your feet wider in poses in which they are generally together, like mountain pose (tadasana) and chair pose (utkatasana) will not only provide stability, but create space when you fold into standing forward fold (uttanasana).
When modifying for pregnancy in a vinyasa class, there will be many moments when the class is going down and you are staying up. For example, when other students come onto their backs to do belly strengthening work like half boat pose (ardha navasana) or leg lifts (urdhva prasarita padasana), you may be better served by working your core with a neutral spine, as with tabletop while lifting alternating legs and arms. Or when they are on their bellies doing prone backbends, like cobra and sphinx, you could do cow tilt or camel. Later in the sequence, if students come onto their backs to do cool-down postures (like supine hip openers such as thread the needle), you can remain upright and do seated versions that have similar effects (like double pigeon).
It might feel odd at first, as if you are sticking out like a sore thumb (or a big belly), but remember: Own your choices. You do not need to go with the herd. Go the way that is right for you. And who knows, by doing these modifications, you may be unconsciously giving another expectant student permission to do the same.
I came from the ashtanga tradition, where students would not even bring their water bottles into the shala, let alone drink during practice. I carried this habit into my daily vinyasa practice, but that changed the minute I became pregnant.
Overheating is a major risk during the first trimester. During pregnancy, we should be drinking a ton of water throughout the day and during practice. Place your mat in the coolest part of the room. Monitor your temperature and be willing to stop, rest, and even step out of the room so that your body can cool down.
The good news is that most of us are completely wiped out during those first 14 weeks, and we tend to slow down and rest in a way that keeps the body from overheating. But still be vigilant! You will have plenty of time to sweat it out after baby is born. As your pregnancy progresses, continue to take small sips of water throughout your practice. If you are battling with heartburn, the smaller the sip the better.
And take breaks! As many as you need, and then take a few more for good measure. This is a great time to practice self-care, so that you’ll know how to nourish yourself after your little one arrives.
There is great power in taking breaks. The more we can rest, the stronger we will be. When it comes to vinyasa flow classes, the best time for rest is when everyone else is doing all of those vinyasas. There are many definitions of the word vinyasa, but I’m referring to the combination of chaturanga, upward facing dog, and downward dog that is traditionally done between poses in vinyasa flow classes.
There are a few reasons to avoid too many vinyasas during pregnancy. First, they are heating, and as discussed, overheating is something to avoid (especially in early pregnancy). Next is logistics. Chaturanga is done fairly low to the ground and pretty soon your belly will make that challenging. Jumping back and forward are not encouraged as there is a risk of falling. Balance typically becomes compromised as the body changes shape—but also because of relaxin, a hormone secreted throughout pregnancy that loosens connective tissue.
Deep backbends, such as upward facing dog, may create too much stretch across the abdomen, and relaxin can also contribute to lower-back instability, which bigger backbends may aggravate.
Lastly, energy levels play a big role. Vinyasas can be energizing, but if practiced on an “empty tank,” they can be depleting. The best solution is to either modify the vinyasas (with something like a cat/cow tilt), or skip them altogether. In some ways, skipping the vinyasas today and knowing they will be there tomorrow (after birth) is good preparation for prioritizing after the baby is born.
We do not need to do everything, and the most important task is taking care of baby and self. Everything else can wait.
As a pregnant practitioner, props will become your best friends. Try to get to class early so you can grab all the props you need, and do not be ashamed if your mat looks like a child’s playpen.
My prenatal tool kit includes: two blocks, two blankets, two bolsters, and a strap. The joints of the body, especially the knees, typically become very sensitive throughout pregnancy. It can be helpful to keep a blanket in the middle of your mat for extra padding.
Folding forward will become logistically more challenging as time goes on, so bring the floor to you by having two blocks at the front of your mat. It can also be helpful to place your hands on blocks in downward facing dog if your wrists are feeling sensitive. A strap is always a good idea for binds if clasping has become an issue—or during seated forward bends, when your toes seem to have moved quite far away!
Throughout practice, bolsters are great to sit on during seated poses: to bring the floor to you in poses like camel, when you can place a bolster on your calves and reach for that instead of your heels; to create a cradle for the belly in pigeon by placing a bolster under your back thigh; and to create a supported savasana, with a bolster propped up on an angle, supported by two blocks underneath.
I've heard it said that our relationship with props is a direct indication of how we accept support. Let this be good practice for asking for help once the baby is born.
Most of the changes during pregnancy are unavoidable. Such as the way our energy levels fall and rise and fall again. Or how our belly continues to grow and grow and grow. Or how breakfast just can’t seem to make it past our esophagus. While we cannot control what is happening within us, we can make wise choices to support these changes and maybe even find some comfort along the way.
Remember that the deeper practice of yoga is not about how many vinyasas we manage to do. It is about honoring where we are on a given day and staying centered amidst the flux of the outside world. Having a baby may likely be the biggest change, both physically and emotionally, that we will ever experience. It is also the most advanced yoga we can ever practice.
Photography: Kyle Rebar