I’m pregnant, and I’m a yoga teacher. Everything I am going to share with you is my individual experience and a bit of knowledge. Please, do not take any words or tips as dogma. We are unique creatures.
After the second visit to my doctor, my pregnancy became a high-risk pregnancy, and I had to give up my asana practice. I was only allowed to walk for 40 minutes a day and wasn't allowed to do any exercise. I’m not going to tell whiny stories of pain, fear, losing hope, etc. I am very grateful for everything that happened to me and every tip I am sharing could be done during any pregnancy complications.
1. Do your pranayama
Yoga is not only about asana; there are seven more limbs of yoga you could practice. Pranayama is the fourth limb. Prana means energy - the vital energy which we draw into ourselves from the surrounding universe. Since this energy is obtained primarily by breathing, we may translate prana as "breath". The method of respiration affects the whole organism. Calmness can be induced by deep, steady inhalations and exhalations. The mental disturbance is accompanied by irregular breathing - rapid, shallow and uncontrolled. During pregnancy, it is crucial to stay calm, positive and relaxed. Here are few techniques I have been using for a very long time. Before doing any of these techniques, it's nice just to sit for a couple of minutes and focus on normal and natural breathing.
The complete breath, or yogic breathing, is one of the simplest and yet most rewarding of all yoga breathing exercises. Stay in sitting, standing or supine position (during the first trimester and half of the second I could easily rest on the spine). To begin, exhale as much as possible, then for the complete breath, inhale as much as possible. Continue by exhaling and inhaling as many times as you want. If it's done slowly and evenly, it will not only increase oxygen intake, but it will also produce a sense of calm and stability. Some instructors will suggest filling the lungs from below - expanding the lower, then the middle, and finally the upper parts of the lungs. I found that for pregnant ladies, the simpler the technique, the better, so I would stay with just inhaling and exhaling at my maximum capacity.
The following technique can help during the first stage of labor and can be practiced in any comfortable position. Place the tip of the tongue behind the front teeth close to the gum and inhale, then relax everything, open the mouth and exhale the air out. Repeat as many times as you like. The face should be soft and relaxed if possible.
Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, is one of the best breathing exercises for calming the nervous system. This is a concentration exercise, and is the single most important preparation for meditation. There are dozens of variations it can be practised, I will describe the simplest. It will need to be practiced in a sitting position, with the spine straight, elbows resting on a table; eyes are closed if possible. Press the right nostril shut with the right index finger, exhale and inhale three times; then press the left nostril shut with the left index finger and again exhale and inhale three times. Breath is slow and even with no noise, jerks, or pauses. This simple exercise can be repeated for 5 minutes at a pace of 3 to 4 second exhalations and 3 to 4 second inhalations.
According to many scripts, one of the primary purposes of yoga is to train the body and mind for meditation. Sometimes, during pregnancy, it’s hard to stand and absorb the amount of information you are bombarded with, particularly with many being pregnancy horror stories. Meditation will help you to be more accepting of a situation of which you have very little control. It will help you to stay focused and balanced, to overcome fears and to connect with yourself and the baby. Meditation helped me remain positive, preventing me from going into the depths of unknown. You can start with just 5 minutes a day, and gradually increase the time to 10, 20, 30 minutes. There are many different techniques to meditation, but at the beginning, it's easier to start with the guided meditation. One of my favorites is a "Mountain Meditation" by Jon Kabat-Zinn which you can find for free on YouTube.
If guided meditation is not for you, then start with focusing only on your breath, just observe what's going on with the body when inhalations and exhalations happen. Breath and consciousness should become one. Move in with the breath, then move out with the breath: in-out, in-out. You may be able to find the point between two breaths. Keep observing, keep exploring yourself from within. This is a Buddhist method and it is known as Anapanasati Yoga. It is believed that Buddha's enlightenment was based on this technique. Buddha said, "Be aware of your breath as it is coming in, going out - coming in, going out."
The most common question is about the position of the body. To remain alert in meditation the body has to be erect, stable, comfortable and still. It is hard to meditate in standing position because you do not want to be concerned about tipping around in a gravitational field. It is hard to meditate in the corpse pose because you may doze off instead of being alert. So the best position to meditate is to sit and sit erect, there is no need to meditate only in the lotus position (Padmasana), especially if you already have any knee or hip joint issues. There are more accessible and safer poses, like sitting in a chair (Maitryasana), kneeling on the floor or a bench (Vajrasana), sitting in the easy cross-legged posture (Sukasana). Now you have everything to start your meditation routine; you just need to start.
Before doing any physical activity you should talk to your doctor and discuss what kind of activity you’re able to do (walking, running, swimming, yoga, etc.). In regards to yoga, it’s tricky because not everyone has enough understanding of what yoga is today. By saying "Yes!" your doctor could picture some gentle stretches, slow movements, long holds, meditation, but in your mind, it is a vigorous vinyasa class with lots of core work. It’s important to be clear and honest with the doctor and yourself.
In the second trimester, most of us finally start feeling much better; nausea is gone; suddenly there is more power in the legs and arms, and it seems as you are yourself again, well, at least, very close to the person you were before pregnancy. And this is the best time to start doing something, especially if during the whole first trimester, you were lost in between the sofa and bed.
Firstly, you need to think about the spine. Yes, SPINE! Just imagine the belly is growing bigger (think your belly is big now, oh, wait until it gets really big), and you carry the baby inside your body for six more months, then you take care of him/her 24/7. It is going to be a real challenge for the spine, so it's best to start now. I do only one exercise for the spine, and it works great. The feet are about meter width apart or as it feels comfortable, start with the hands on the waist, inhale deeply and fold forward half way down till your torso is parallel to the floor, spine is straight, move the shoulders away from the ears and keep the face soft. Stay in this position for five to ten breaths. Then you can rest a little. Or if ten breaths is not enough then keep playing with the arms:
- Move the arms back and lace the fingers, the base of the hands are together and elbows are straight (can be bent a little if it is uncomfortable), a towel or strap could be used to keep the arms closer towards each other if hands can't connect; hold it for another ten breaths.
- Move the arms to the sides and keep them on the shoulder level; maintain for ten more breaths.
- Move the arms forward; palms are facing each other; shoulders away from the ears; hold another 10 or more breaths. You can add some alternate arms pulses, to have more active practice.
Second priority is your pelvic floor. Strong pelvic floor muscles will help to support pelvic organs and to maintain its health. The simplest way to get closer to the pelvic floor muscles is to squeeze the anus.
In yoga, there is an incredible technique, called Ashwini Mudra (horse gesture). It has options with kumbhaka (breath retention), but in pregnancy, it is better to stay away from any kumbhaka and always breathe. In sitting position, close the eyes and relax the whole body. Take few deep breaths, then shift the attention to the anus, rapidly contract the anal sphincter muscles for a few seconds without straining, then relax them. Contraction and relaxation could be performed ten to twenty times, smoothly and rhythmically.
If Ashwini Mudra doesn’t work for, try to draw the line between the anus and genitals and then simply make this line shorter by pulling the perineum (space in between two dots) inwards. Also, it is possible to hold the contraction for a while and then relax.
Any posture that pulls the hips together will make pelvic floor exercises easier, and any posture that pulls the hips apart will make it more difficult. I prefer sitting poses which I mentioned in meditation section.
This exercises will help with hemorrhoids condition if there is such and teach how to relax the pelvic floor, so at some point in labor, it may help to prevent the tears.
4. Asana practice
All right, your pregnancy is not risky, you feel great, and your doctor said it's ok to do whatever you like. Great! You decide to do yoga. That's amazing, because if you take a prenatal class, you most likely will work on everything I have written above (just do not forget to mention all contraindications you have).
What if you decide to go to a typical hatha yoga class? That's good too; notify the teacher you are pregnant! Many teachers know the modifications and will warn you if you need to stop doing something or will give you the options. Here are some tips how to keep yourself safe in the class:
- It doesn't matter what you are doing, always have space for your belly, do not squeeze or squash it;
- Be careful with increased flexibility, pregnancy is not right time to crack a record;
- You can do twists, a simple one, not from the belly but from the upper body;
- If you feel confident enough you can practice inversions; I did inversions in my second trimester but always near the wall, just in case. Closer to the third trimester I stopped because the baby was pressing on the diaphragm and I had difficulty breathing;
- I didn't practice backbends because I felt pain in my abdominal muscles, but I know many pregnant ladies who had been practicing backbends and they were fine.
Last but not least, listen to your body all the time. As I mentioned, this is your pregnancy, despite all the tips and recommendations only you and your body know what is best. If you used to practice six days a week but now you have strength to do yoga or other activity only two times a week, that's fine. Pregnancy is not a competition. Many times, instead of doing Warrior II I would go for a walk because that's what my body wanted at that present moment. Honour your body. There is no evidence that yoga can ease the labor. Yoga may help you to feel better during pregnancy and after, but labor is like a lottery ticket. You never know, and no one can predict. My pregnancy teaches me to surrender, to be more open to all possibilities and circumstances which are coming. I would love to finish up with the beautiful words by Snatam Kaur:
May the Long Time Sun
Shine upon you
And the pure light
Guide your way on
Guide your way on
By Maryna Samushyia