Jennifer Messenger Heilbronner, a communications professional and mother of two in Portland, Oregon, started taking yoga during her pregnancy with her first daughter, Ella. She enjoyed poses that helped ease the pain in her lower back and that increased the flexibility of her hips. She also appreciated the awareness this deep practice gave her of the life inside of her.
“I was there for yoga but I liked the subtle reminders that I was there for my baby, too,” Heilbronner says. “When we did cat stretches, the teachers told us to imagine wrapping our bodies around the baby, and it was really nice to have that visual in our minds as we worked.”
Obstetricians routinely recommend yoga to their patients, so if you teach regularly you will probably have a pregnant woman in your class at some point. Unless you’ve been pregnant yourself it might be intimidating to teach this population. And even if you never plan on leading a prenatal class, it’s a good idea to be familiar with the basics.
This four-part series on prenatal yoga will give you some basic information and an idea of how to teach pregnant students to prepare their bodies and minds for the demands of pregnancy, labor, and motherhood.
Physiology of Months One through Three
The first three months of pregnancy are especially taxing. Although there is little to see on the outside, the body is furiously assembling a life-support system for the baby inside. Hormones are released that build up the uterine lining, and blood volume increases to facilitate this construction. Blood pressure drops so that the heart can pump all the extra liquid. Muscle tissue begins to relax and joints start to loosen in order to allow the uterus to stretch as the baby grows.
The early part of this trimester (before week ten) has the highest risk for miscarriage, so physical activity during this period should encourage an optimal environment in the uterus to insure implantation of the embryo and proper attachment of the placenta.
All of this internal activity can leave a pregnant woman exhausted, so it’s important for a teacher to establish what the student is really prepared to do—a regular hatha class or something more restorative.
Who Are You Dealing With?
First of all, chat with your student to find out how she’s doing. What week is she in? Is this her first pregnancy? Does her doctor think things are going well? What is her yoga experience? Not only will this give you an idea of how to modify the class for her, but it will help the student relax and feel that her condition is being addressed.
“I am a person here to do yoga first, and a pregnant woman second,” Heilbronner says. “It’s just as if I had a shoulder injury that the teacher needed to be aware of and modify poses for.”
Once you have determined the student’s general health and her familiarity with yoga, you can figure out what poses will need to be adapted. An experienced yogini in her second pregnancy can handle a lot more than a first-time mother who has never done yoga, but you should be aware of the essential modifications to apply to both.
Good Poses for the First Trimester
A pregnant woman in her first trimester should be able to do most basic yoga poses, but it is crucial that she listen to her body and respect when she feels like exercise and when she just needs to rest.
“Teach in a way that teaches students to trust their instincts,” says Judith Hanson Lasater, a yoga teacher, physical therapist, and author of Yoga for Pregnancy. “If something feels bad, stop; if something feels really, really good, keep doing it. A pregnant woman’s intuition is why the human race is here, so I want them to learn to trust it.”
Most standing poses (Utthita Trikonasana [Extended Triangle Pose], Utthita Parsvakonasana [Extended Side Angle Pose], Virabhadrasana I-III [Warrior I-III Poses]) are fine in the first trimester. Even balance poses such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose) and Garudasana (Eagle Pose) are okay, provided they are done near the wall in case the student loses her balance. Strengthening the leg muscles and the pelvic floor is important preparation for later phases of pregnancy, and it encourages good circulation in the legs to prevent cramping as blood pressure starts to drop. Standing twists such as Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) and Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose), however, should be avoided because of the pressure they put on the abdominal cavity.
Open seated twists (Parivrtta Janu Sirsanana [Revolved Head-of-the-Knee Pose], Marichyasana I [Marichi's Pose]) all relieve aches in the lower back and encourage proper posture. Hip openers such as Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) and Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend) should be a key focus because of the flexibility needed for delivery, but you must remind your students not to overdo it; the hormone relaxin is softening all the joints and they are easily dislocated if stretched too far. Stretches on the back (Supta Baddha Konasana [Reclining Bound Angle Pose], Supta Padangusthasana [Reclining Big Toe Pose]) are good, but avoid any intense abdominal work (Paripurna Navasana [Boat Pose]) because of the delicate situation in the uterus right now.
Pregnant women should avoid most inversions because you don’t want to encourage circulation away from the uterus. And because of the low blood pressure pregnant women usually experience, inversions can cause dizziness. The one exception, however, is Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), which is fine for short periods of time. Because of the physical demands during the first trimester, these women should not do high-energy sequences such as intense vinyasa series and Sun Salutations with jump-backs. Avoid teaching them most backbends (although Setu Bandha Sarvangasana [Bridge Pose] is OK) because these stretch the abdominal muscles too much.
A vital part of a prenatal routine is relaxation. “One thing I want every pregnant woman to do is lie down every day for 20 minutes in side-lying Savasana (Corpse Pose),” says Lasater. “Rest deeply every day. Labor is the metabolic equivalent of swimming nine miles, so a mother needs to learn how to rest and listen to her body.”
Lay the pregnant student on her left side for Corpse Pose at the end of class (all side-lying poses should be on the left side, to avoid pressure on the vena cava vein, which moves blood from the lower part of the body—the uterus—to the heart). Arrange blankets and bolsters under her right knee, belly (if she is starting to show), right arm, and head so all parts of the body are supported. If she begins a habit of recuperating after physical activity now, she will fine-tune her ability to relax on cue, which is a crucial part of labor and delivery.
Building Strength, Encouraging Rest
During the first trimester, the sensations of pregnancy are still new, so a student might be tempted overdo a sequence. Encourage your students to practice with a new awareness of the baby inside and of her body’s need for rest. Your job as a yoga teacher is to help your pregnant students learn to appreciate the benefits of a gentler, more introspective yoga practice.
Here, in summary, are some important things to remember when teaching a woman in her first trimester:
- Practice basic poses with a few modifications. Build strength and encourage flexibility with familiar poses, but make props available in case the student feels unbalanced or tired.
- Avoid inversions, closed twists, and backbends. The student shouldn’t do anything that might compress the uterus or overstretch the abdominal muscles.
- Encourage a long relaxation at the end of class. This is a perfect time for the student to practice focused breathing and clearing the mind.
- Remember, a pregnant woman is not sick or injured. Help her discover the strength and power in her body. While you need to modify some poses, she is still a strong, capable student and does not need to be fussed over constantly. Give her some options and let her do the practice in a way that feels good to her. She is the only one who really can feel what is going on in her body, and she needs to learn to trust her own instincts. With a little encouragement and a lot of practice, yoga will become a crucial tool for her birthing experience.