Prenatal Yoga 101: Everything You Need To Know About This Pregnancy-Friendly Practice
The ups and downs of pregnancy are part of what makes those nine months so miraculous, but it can also take a toll on you both physically and mentally. Not only does your body change dramatically (hello, pregnancy panties!), but your mind may be running a constant “to-do” list.
Enter: Prenatal yoga. What if you could calm your mind, strengthen your body, and prepare for childbirth, all during a 60-minute prenatal yoga class? Sounds pretty amazing, right? Well, this type of yoga is.
Here, we go over everything you need to know about prenatal yoga, including how to get started and keep you and your growing belly safe.
What is prenatal yoga?
Prenatal yoga is a form of gentle yoga that is designed to complement the growing needs of a pregnant body during all three trimesters. The focus is on restorative poses that keep you safe while practicing movement, stretching, deep breathing, and mental centering.
According to a recent study, as many as 26 different yoga postures are safe to practice throughout your entire pregnancy1. These included previously avoided poses such as Happy Baby pose, Corpse pose, Half Moon, Warrior III, and Tree. To make these safer during pregnancy, researchers recommended using blocks chairs or a wall to modify the pose.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists2 say that modified or prenatal yoga is one of the safest forms of exercise during pregnancy. They also recommend combining a yoga practice with other types of activity such as walking, swimming, or stationary cycling.
Are there any health benefits?
Mind-body practices such as prenatal yoga can be extremely beneficial during pregnancy, especially for addressing the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of this critical time. Here are nine health benefits of practicing prenatal yoga.
Keeps the body active.
Since pregnancy and childbirth involve a lot of change and challenge for the body, it’s important to stay physically active. “Prenatal yoga builds flexibility, mobility, and strength, which all play a role in supporting and maintaining a healthy body during pregnancy,” says Zoe Courneya, Life Time’s National Yoga Education Manager.
Stabilizes your mood.
Yoga is known for its ability to help reduce stress and manage the symptoms of anxiety3, according to a meta-analysis. But one study found that practicing integrated yoga during pregnancy has an added benefit of protecting against prenatal depression4.
Helps with mental centering.
Since prenatal yoga is about connection, Courneya says a consistent practice can also help you develop a deep awareness of yourself, your body, and your baby.
Reduces overall symptom burden of pregnancy.
Pregnancy can put a lot of added pressure on your lower back, and your body, in general. This often leads to pain in areas such as the lower back. It can also affect your stride. One study found that participating in a prenatal yoga program can have a positive effect on reducing the overall burden of pregnancy-related symptoms5 as well as improving the stride and gait5 during walking.
Focuses on pelvic floor muscles.
Kegel exercises are something many moms-to-be are very familiar with, especially if this is not a first pregnancy. Prenatal yoga classes often emphasize strengthening the pelvic floor muscles, which act as a hammock to support the pelvic organs.
Encourages breathing exercises.
All those breathing exercises you’ve been told to practice during pregnancy will come in handy, we promise. What makes a prenatal yoga class so beneficial is the breathwork is included in the practice. “Prenatal yoga emphasizes breathing as a tool to use when we encounter stress in our lives, and learning to breathe through new feelings and sensations helps you lessen anxiety and concern during pregnancy,” says Courneya.
Prepares the body for childbirth.
Many prenatal yoga instructors spend time teaching women how to open their hips and keep correct postural alignment, which helps with labor and delivery.
Increased well-being in young pregnant women.
A recent study examined the benefits of prenatal yoga for young women under the age of 24 and found that 45-minute sessions that consisted of postures, breathing, and relaxation exercises, including 15 min of group chat, helped decrease distress and increased perceived skills to assist with labor and childbirth.
Encourages community support.
Remember that village everyone told you to find? Well, a prenatal yoga class is an excellent place to connect with other expecting moms that can help support you during pregnancy and beyond.
Prenatal yoga basics.
If this is your first experience with prenatal yoga, you can expect a more gentle, less vigorous practice than other traditional forms of yoga, like Ashtanga. Classes typically fall under the general category of hatha yoga or focus on gentle and modified asana programs6 like Iyengar or restorative yoga, according to several studies on prenatal yoga.
While it might seem obvious—despite the fact that pregnancy can turn your brain into scrambled eggs—Courneya says a good rule of thumb is to be gentle with yourself. “You probably won’t feel good laying on your growing belly, and if there is a twist offered in class, be mindful as to how that feels since there is a lot of shifting happening in your torso,” she explains.
In addition to all the shifting going on, you also need to be aware of the impact relaxin has on the body. Relaxin, a hormone your body produces during pregnancy, softens the ligaments of the pelvis to make room for your baby and prepare for childbirth. That said, you shouldn’t push yourself past your comfortable stretching range, even though you might feel more flexible.
“When you’re stretching, be mindful to find engagement and activation of your muscles as well as releasing to find the stretch—this will not only free you from over-stretching, it will also support good overall physical balance in your body,” says Courneya.
Founder of Strala Yoga and mbg collective member, Tara Stiles, agrees: "As your body relaxes during pregnancy, you'll feel like you can twist in circles!" she previously writes in mbg. "So do much less than you can or might normally do here. You want to keep your middle pretty roomy and uncompressed."
Who should practice?
In general, prenatal yoga is good for anyone cleared by their doctor to exercise. Since the practice is designed to address the unique needs of a pregnant body, prenatal yoga might be one of the safest and most effective forms of exercise an expecting mother can do.
Not only do prenatal yoga classes support you during the pregnancy, but they are also great for those who want preparation for childbirth. “Physically, prenatal yoga can support your body by strengthening the abdominals and pelvic floor that are used while pushing baby through the birth canal,” says Courneya.
She also reminds us that yoga practice isn’t all about the physical. “We learn to breathe, we learn to rest when we need to, and we learn to listen to our bodies.”
Stiles also mentions that prenatal yoga is a great practice throughout your entire pregnancy—even postpartum. "You can practice this routine in any stage of your pregnancy," she says in our Prenatal Yoga class. "Whether you’re thinking about conceiving and starting a new family, whether you’re already pregnant or any stage along, even after you’ve given birth—this is great for recovery for postpartum."
The bottom line.
Pregnancy is an exciting, but hectic, time in your life. Developing a practice of prenatal yoga can help you tune into your body, so you can slow down, relax, and learn to be more mindful of your breath and body, as it goes through these drastic changes. Being part of a prenatal class also allows you to bond with other moms-to-be who are going through the same physical and emotional changes as you are.
Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., B.S., is a freelance journalist and contributing writer for mindbodygreen. She received her Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science from Central Washington University, and her Master's of Education in Counseling from City University of Seattle. Sara is both a mental health and fitness expert with over 20 years of experience in both fields, having written for Healthline, Insider, Verywell, LIVESTRONG, Men's Health, Bicycling Magazine, Runner's World, SheKnows, Yahoo Health, Greatist, and Headspace. She currently lives in Seattle, WA.