Why Prenatal (pregnancy) yoga?

(this article of mine was originally published on Rollercoaster.ie)

For many women, their introduction to yoga is often during pregnancy. From the minute the first trimester ends, doctors, midwives, parenting sites and magazines are all urging us to do yoga for a stronger body, calmer mind and – best of all – easier labour!  Yoga is undoubtedly ideal for pregnant women. It increases flexibility, strength, circulation and balance. It helps women to become aware of and appreciate their bodies. It introduces us to the power of the breath and can reduce many typical pregnancy ailments – from back pain to insomnia and even heartburn.
But, before you rush out to buy that yoga mat and sign up for a course, it is important to be realistic about the type of class you should attend, some guidelines for safety and what to really expect from a pregnancy yoga class. Not all classes answer all needs and some awareness of what you want can help you choose the right class for you.

Why Pregnancy Yoga?

A regular yoga practice is a wonderful tool for helping you to become more intuitive about your body. It trains you to focus on different areas of the body and introduces you to the breath, which is particularly helpful during childbirth. It can be a gift for yourself and for your baby and, if you are lucky, it may be the start of a whole new passion!
The benefits of Pregnancy Yoga are manifold but some of the most important are:

Improving muscle strength and tone

The philosophy behind yoga is that by daily practice, you will become more centred and relieved from stress and be able to tone the whole body at the same time. The postures, called Asanas, all target different muscle groups and parts of the body. Pregnant women who do yoga exercises appear healthier and have more flexible, stronger bodies. This can really help during labour when strength is vital.

Promotes a healthy pregnancy

A regular practice of yoga can keep blood pressure normal, prevent rapid weight gain, calm the mind and strengthen the pelvic muscles. In early pregnancy, it can help relieve morning sickness and reduce swelling in the hands, feet, and face.
There are specially adapted poses for most of the aches and discomforts that pregnancy can bring. From sciatic pain to back, neck and shoulder pain. There are even poses for sleeplessness, restless legs and heartburn.

Enhances mood and wellbeing

The emphasis that yoga places on deep breathing and bodily awareness triggers feelings of deep relaxation and well-being. The calmer and more relaxed you feel, the calmer your baby feels. Yoga builds inner calm and this can be very empowering, particularly after the baby is born when extra demands are placed upon us. It is during times of potential upheaval and change in life that we most need to tap into a place of calm and sanity deep inside us.

Great posture

Even if you have perfect posture, pregnancy can cause us all to slouch. Then there is nursing, pushing a buggy and lifting a baby. All this can take its toll on your shoulders, upper back, neck and, of course, posture. Some of the best yoga benefits are increased back and shoulder strength, which improves posture. Yoga also opens up your chest, making it easier to elongate the spine and stand tall.

Supportive atmosphere

Some women may join a pre- or postnatal yoga class simply to meet others in the same position. This is a great way to make new friends, all of whom are facing the same challenges. Even if you prefer a home practice, an occasional class can be good for morale.

Focuses the mind

It is amazing how focused and intense labour can be. The rest of the world may cease to exist for a while as you concentrate all your immense energy and power on the present moment. Yoga is a wonderful preparation for this. Breathing and concentration techniques are an essential element of most pregnancy yoga classes. These techniques focus on clearing the mind of abstraction and clutter and bringing the attention to one single point in the here and now – such as the breath or a meditation.

Easier labour

The best bit of all! All the above benefits will help in labour. By using, stretching and cultivating the muscles for birth, you make birth easier. The muscles are prepared by yoga to do their job efficiently in labour. Yoga also emphasises deep breathing and breath awareness. This helps you during birth by claming the mind and softening the muscles.  Deep breathing — long, full inhales and exhales — also brings oxygen to the entire body, which energises your system.

Learning to relax

Relaxation is not something that is highly prized in our society. Therefore, many of us only learn relaxation techniques for the first time in a pregnancy yoga class. Relaxation is a learned technique. It differs from sleep or rest in that it is active. A ten minute relaxation every day has proven benefits for mental and physical health. A pregnancy yoga class can introduce you to relaxation techniques that will help you to unwind if things get on top of you.

Choosing a class

There are several excellent classes on offer around the country, but it is important to evaluate what type of class will suit you.
A good well-rounded class should have a balance between breathwork, pelvic floor techniques, postures for strength and flexibility, explanation of principles and benefits and relaxation.
Also, the structure of the class will likely change as you head into the third trimester. Postures will become softer with lots of loose flowing movements such as belly dances and hip circles. There will also be emphasis on labour positions and breathing.

Some Dos and Don’t’s when choosing your class:

Do choose a specific pregnancy yoga class if this is your first time doing yoga.

If you have been going to a yoga class for a while, then check with your teacher what his/her policy is on you continuing their class. Some will be experienced in dealing with pregnant women in the class while others prefer that you take a prenatal yoga class.

Don’t do yoga during the first trimester when the body is vulnerable.

Most teachers will not accept students until they are in their second trimester.

Do check that the teacher is suitably qualified and has up-to-date insurance

Pregnancy yoga is a specialised area and requires particular adaptation of poses, breathwork and labour techniques. No qualified teacher will mind you asking to see copies of insurance and/or qualifications.

Don’t  feel you have left it too late to start.

Even if you have only a few weeks left to go, you will still find the breathing and labour positions useful. It’s never too late to do yoga!

Do ask the teacher about her approach and style in class.

Pregnancy yoga classes vary in their tone and approach depending on the style of the teacher. Some will emphasise breath, restorative postures and relaxation for most of the class; others will teach a more physical style of class that appeals to women who want to stay toned and fit; others will take a very nurturing and emotional approach. Don’t be afraid to ask your teacher what kind of pregnancy yoga they teach. No one teacher suits everybody and it is perfectly okay to switch to another class that meets your needs.

Don’t overstretch your body

The ligaments around the joints become loose and soft during pregnancy. If you feel any strain or pain, you should stop what you are doing.

Do consult your doctor if you are not used to exercise

Starting yoga is no different to starting any other form of exercise – the same advice applies. If you are not used to regular exercise then you should start slowly. If in doubt consult your doctor or midwife. No kind of pain or nausea should be felt during or after yoga. If this happens, you should stop and contact your GP or midwife.

Classes and resources

www.rollercoaster.ie – Lists pregnancy yoga classes around the country.
www.yoga-ireland.com – Search for a pregnancy yoga class by locality.
www.iya.ie – The Irish Yoga association lists IYA qualified teachers

If you already practice yoga at home and would prefer to use pregnancy books, some excellent books are:

  • ‘Preparing for birth with yoga’ by Janet Balaskas.
  • ‘Yoga for pregnancy:birth and beyond’ by Francoise Barbira Freedman
  • ‘Yoga and Pregancy’ by Sophie Hoare

After it’s all over

Yoga continues to have benefits after pregnancy, too. Postnatal yoga, which can be started about six weeks after the birth, strengthens abdominal muscles and your pelvic floor. It also helps you to get back to your pre-pregnancy shape faster.  And deep breathing and relaxation can be invaluable tools at this time when sleep may be at a minimum and energy is low.

It is a good idea to check with your pregnancy yoga teacher if she offers postnatal and/or mom and baby yoga classes. This can be a good way to get back into a practice and meet other class members.

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