More and more we see, hear and read news stories or studies about yoga’s benefits for ailments from diabetes to depression, and rightly so. Anyone who has practiced knows how much of a total body workout yoga can be, as well as a way to quiet down the mind and gain control of your body and breath.
Up there on the list of people who should give yoga a try are expecting mothers. Prenatal yoga can be a great way to not only work the body in an essential way for moms-to-be, but also provides a good preparation for the breath and mind for delivery and beyond.
Medical experts at the Mayo Clinic have even touted prenatal yoga as “a multifaceted approach to exercise that encourages stretching, mental centering and focused breathing.”
Looking specifically at a pregnant woman’s body, yoga can specifically work the areas with the most need in a class geared toward pregnant women. Below are some of the most important pains, areas of interest and common pregnancy issues yoga can safely and gently alleviate and improve.
1. The Breath: Breathing is not something we often think about throughout the day. It is a mechanical function of the body. We never really have to remind our selves to breathe, but we should, especially to prepare our body for the process of labor. Breathing is a very important part of delivering a baby, it helps to relax the body and take your mind from the pain and strain.
That is exactly what the breath work, pranayama, part of yoga will do, even if you are not pregnant. Yogis use what is called conscious breathing to help “still the mind.” Yoga breath work also increases the depth of the breath. By learning “three-part breath,” or “Ujjayi breathing,” we learn to breathe to our bellies, which really means we learn to use the abdominals to breathe and use our diaphragm and really work the ribs to breathe. This allows us to get more oxygen into our bodies. Also, the exhalation of the breath is a natural relaxation for the body. If you notice, when you take a deep breath, on the exhale you can feel the muscles move down and release, that is because they are doing just that.
2. The Pelvic Floor: The pelvic floor is a hammock of muscles that form a bowl attached to the pelvis. This muscle supports the vital reproductive and digestion organs, as well as the baby during pregnancy and plays a vital role in sexual intercourse for both men and women.
During pregnancy it is especially important to exercise your pelvic floor muscle as it has to support a greatly increased load at this time. Although pregnancy is not the only factor for a weakened pelvic floor, aging and inactivity can play a role; it can weaken from pregnancy and childbirth. Although not the cause, a weak pelvic floor can be the start of some health problems. That is why it is very important to work with these muscles, especially after childbirth. Like any other muscle in the body, the pelvic floor can be re-strengthened. The symptoms of a weakened pelvic floor include:
- urinary or stool incontinence
- constipation or incomplete bowel or bladder emptying
- diminished sexual satisfaction
- painful intercourse
- inability to reach orgasm
- sagging or prolapse of the uterus, bladder, or rectum
- low back or lower abdominal pain
A strong pelvic floor muscle can enable a woman to carry a baby more comfortably during pregnancy and will help both the mother and baby during labor and delivery. Stimulating blood flow in the pelvic area after childbirth quickens recovery from any stitches or episiotomy (an incision made between the vagina and rectum to ease delivery of a baby). Women who have had Caesareans also need to strengthen their pelvic floor muscles as it is the gravitational pressure of pregnancy that weakens the muscles, not the physical event of birth. In yoga, we often lift the pelvic floor to not only strengthen the muscle, but a strong pelvic floor brings lightness to a pose and this area can help lift a practitioner into inversions (which, are not practiced in prenantal classes) or balances. However, be cautious of contracting your pelvic floor in the first trimester, a strong contraction should be avoided in the early stage of pregnancy. Usually you start practicing this lift in the second trimester. To experience the contraction of the pelvic floor, it is the sensation of holding urine in mid-stream as you urinate.
3. The Posture: As the babies and bellies grow and change, so does the center of gravity. One of the things that allow humans to walk upright is the balance between the lower back muscles and our four abdominal muscles. However, when our abdominals are weak, this can cause our lower back muscles to over compensate and over work, causing pain and strain in the lumbar area. When the belly moves more forward with growth, this stretches the abdominals beyond their original shape, weakening them and this causing lower back pain during pregnancy when none may have ever been experienced before, especially in the third trimester. Although pregnancy is not the time to do major core work, it is recommended to gently work all four abdominals to keep them a little strong. Chakravakasana (Not Cat/Cow) is a great practice for our abdominals as well as other yoga poses your teacher can show you that will work deep into the belly. After your baby is born, it is common for women to find some separation has occurred between the right and left side of the abdominals, exercises that bring the belly toward the spine can help bring the abs back to pre-pregnancy shape.
Yoga can also help alleviate the pressure the lower back is under during the shift in gravity. By stretching the upper leg muscles and the lower back, tension will start to release. Partnered with the smart abdominal work, your body will feel less pain as it goes through the journey of pregnancy.
4. The Feet: Surprising to most, the foot actually has 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. And although our feet get us around the entire day, we rarely take the time to take care of them, or check how we are using them, especially as that center of gravity moves over the nine months.
With the shift of the center of gravity in your body as your pregnancy progresses, this changes our stance and pressure in our feet and joints. The two most common problems become over pronation and edema. These problems can lead to pain at the heel, arch, or the ball-of-foot. Many women may also experience leg cramping and varicose veins due to weight gain.
- Overpronation can be treated by brining attention back to the feet and walking with awareness. Try and walk barefoot as much as you can. Although you can use insoles, this only masks the problem while you are wearing shoes.
- Edema, swelling, can be treated by:
- Elevate your feet as often as possible. If you have to sit for long periods of time, place a small stool by your feet to elevate them.
- Wear proper fitting footwear. Footwear that is too narrow or short will constrict circulation.
- Have your feet measured several times throughout your pregnancy. They will probably change sizes.
- Wear seamless socks that do not constrict circulation.
- If you are driving for a long period of time, take regular breaks to stretch your legs to promote circulation.
- Exercise regularly to promote overall health; walking is the best exercise.
- Drink plenty of water to keep the body hydrated. This helps the body retain less fluid.
- Eat a well-balanced diet and avoid foods high in salt that can cause water retention.
For more information about the feet, check out the article “How to Improve your Posture Through your Feet.”
5. The Hips: Prenatal yoga can help bring back flexibility and comfort to the groups of muscles and bone structures in the front and back of the hips. Hormones released during pregnancy soften and relax joints and cartilage between bones in our pelvis to prepare it for child birth. However, getting the muscles ready is good to facilitate an easier birth for mom and baby.
In front, we have our hip flexors, which work to flex, or bend, the hips. This brings our knee and thigh up and in line with our hip joint and toward our chest. Lunges are a great example of the work of the hip flexors. It is imperative to keep these flexible so we can easily open our legs with out too much strain for delivery, as well as bend the knees close to the chest to assist with birth. Yoga can also stretch the ligaments in the pelvis, hip and leg areas, all making the positions and pushing in labor easier.
Our muscles are, however, antagonistic, which basically means when one works, the other does the opposite to allow the action. So, in order for the hip flexors to contract, the back of the hips need to relax. This is why it is essential to work the front and back of the hips in stretching, relaxing and strengthening to find balance. Again, low lunges are the perfect way to stretch the hip flexors while contracting them on the other side and the same for the muscles in the back of the hips. However, your yoga teacher can give you many poses for this area of the body.
What else can yoga do?
Research suggests that prenatal yoga can have many benefits for pregnant women and their babies. Studies have suggested that practicing yoga while pregnancy can also improve sleep, reduce stress and anxiety, increase the strength, flexibility and endurance of muscles needed for childbirth.
It can also decrease nausea, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches and shortness of breath, and decrease the risk of preterm labor, pregnancy-induced hypertension and intrauterine growth restriction — a condition that slows a baby's growth.
But don’t forget, yoga is also a perfect workout after you have your baby as well. When you feel ready to move, starting out with gentle yoga, simple breathing and stretching is a great way to start your body moving again. As you may have already guessed, or experienced, finding time to practice as a new mom is hard. A good time to start is take 15 minutes while your baby is napping to work with a gentle yoga sequence each day can work miracles for energy and body strength. Also, as your baby eats, try practicing pranayama, the relaxation from deep belly breathing and action of the muscles helps to speed up the recovery time.
As always, check with your physician before you begin any new exercise practice.
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