You’ve probably heard the hype: yoga is good exercise during pregnancy. It really is. But, for many women the thought of bending, twisting or going upside down while carrying their precious bundles in their bellies seems an impossibility.
Most studios now also offer prenatal yoga classes designed specifically for pregnant women. What’s more, we produce more of a hormone called relaxin when pregnant, which can help with flexibility gains. In a study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology, researchers observed 25 women in their third trimester. Postures varied from downward dog to twists and standing poses.
While the researchers felt inversions and lying flat on the belly were not advisable, they found no evidence to suggest other yoga postures posed any risks to mom and baby. Vital signs like heart rate and blood pressure remained normal during the yoga classes, too. So, dust off your mats, because yoga is beneficial throughout pregnancy − right up to (and even during) labour.
Your tiny bump is barely visible at this stage, and won’t be getting in your way just yet. You could go to almost any yoga studio and do the class − provided you let the teacher know you are in the early stages of pregnancy. Remember you still need to be fairly careful during yoga. While you should be able to do almost any pose in a class, it’s essential to listen to your body.
Women with high-risk pregnancies should also seek the advice of their doctors before starting any exercise routine, as any heavy impact or bending could be dangerous. In general, heavy twisting poses, like revolved triangle or anything that puts pressure on the abdomen, should be avoided. Inversions, like handstands and heavy back bends that overstretch the abdominal wall should also be avoided.
Due to changes in blood pressure, you might feel light-headed – especially when lifting the head after its been below the heart. Standing poses on one leg should be done with caution, especially if you feel like you might fall over. But, they’re still important as they strengthen the pelvic floor and leg muscles, which is useful in the later stages of pregnancy. Hip openers are also great for preventing lower back pain later in pregnancy.
Certain breathing exercises can help with anxiety you might be feeling about the journey ahead and can also help quell nausea.
By this stage of pregnancy, the risk of miscarriage is greatly reduced, which means you can safely do a greater variety of exercises. Energy levels are generally highest in the second trimester, so you might feel you want to do more. When it comes to yoga, all twists (not just the deeper ones) and lying flat on your belly are now discouraged.
Now is a good time to sign up for prenatal classes, if you haven’t already. The teacher will introduce you to exercises and stretches that are specific to your needs. Pelvic floor exercises, which are common in yoga classes, will be amplified in a prenatal class.
The main aim of yoga in this trimester is to alleviate discomfort with a focus on chest and hip openers. The muscles of the upper back can suffer due to increased breast tissue, so poses that open the front chest can help alleviate discomfort and improve posture.
Learning breathing techniques will help you relax and make labour easier, but be sure to check which are beneficial as certain breathing techniques are contra-indicated in pregnancy. Strong abdominal poses or poses where the legs are lifted by the abdominal muscles should be avoided as they can cause the muscles to separate or tear.
By this time, you are fully aware of the person growing inside you. The main aim with your yoga practise now is to make space for your baby and make sure there are no restrictions.
Your yoga instructor might show you how to use props at this stage of the pregnancy, to help support the spine.
Now is the time to focus on the mental aspects of yoga more than the physical. However, there are many more experienced yogis who still safely invert and backbend during this time.
While complete inversions like the handstand aren’t viable, putting your legs up is beneficial − especially if they’re swollen. A simple legs-up-the-wall pose is great for relieving swelling. It’s important not to lie flat on your back during the third trimester as the weight of your baby pushes on the inferior vena cava, restricting blood flow and causing low blood pressure. To avoid this, lie on your side during final relaxation. In fact, lying on your left side will increase blood flow to your baby.
Squatting regularly opens the hips and helps to bring the pelvis into position for natural labour and birth.
If you’ve had a natural birth, you can get back to your yoga routine fairly quickly. If you’ve had a C-section, you’ll need to wait until you’re healed. Either way, get clearance from your healthcare provider before resuming your practise.
Mental and meditative yoga practises can be used at any time. Regular yoga practise can help you get your body shape back and helps to tone and strengthen the abdominal muscles and core, which have taken a bit of a knock. Yoga can also help to alleviate post-natal depression.
Yoga benefits at a glance
- Helps relax the mind and musculature
- Stimulates the parasympathetic (or calming) nervous system
- Improves overall wellbeing and mood
- Provides time and space for mother-child bonding
- Improves posture
- Improves circulation and blood flow
- Improves lymphatic drainage
- Improves lung capacity
- Helps to calm or revitalise through specific breath work
- Helps prevent lumbar lordosis, or over arching of the lower back, common in pregnancy
- Helps prevent kyphosis or rounding of the upper back
- Opens the hips
- Strengthens the legs
- Improves balance
- Strengthens the arms and shoulders
- Improves core and pelvic floor strength
- Improves overall flexibility
- Provides some mild cardiovascular benefit
- A sense of community and sisterhood is established at group classes.
Ashleigh Caradas is a Johannesburg dietician with almost 15 years’ experience in private practice. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Science from the University of the Witwatersrand and a Medical honours degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Cape Town. Her practice is dedicated to clearing up misconceptions about popular diets and helping her clients find the right fit for their particular body type, preferences and goals.