Tools for Teaching Prenatal Yoga: The Second Trimester


By Brenda Plakans  |  

The second trimester was my favorite for both my pregnancies. My energy level was back up after the wooziness of the first trimester, so I could exercise regularly; I had a “bump,” so I got all the positive attention of being pregnant without being too clumsy (yet). As a yoga teacher, it was frustrating not to be able to do all the poses, but it was an opportunity to deepen my own understanding of yoga by doing more supported poses and Pranayama.

Being pregnant is almost a yoga practice in itself. You have to practice vairagya (nonattachment) for nine months with so many things: fitted clothes, favorite foods, intense physical activity. You also become aware of your responsibility to the person growing inside of you, which requires a sense of selflessness. Instead of focusing primarily on the physical, many yoginis find their practice becomes more internal as the pregnancy progresses.

Debra Flashenberg, director of the Prenatal Yoga Center in New York City, says, “Often, the hardest thing for experienced practitioners is accepting and surrendering. They could have been practicing for years and years, and their egos are very much involved in their practice. They have to let go of something they’ve strived for and might be very proud of and accept that it’s not just about them anymore.”

An instructor has to teach prenatal students to get all the benefits of a pose through modification, and how to move from a physical practice to one that is calmer and more introspective.

Physiology of Months Four Through Six

By the fourth month, the pregnancy has become visible. The belly begins to stretch as the baby grows, and the breasts become fuller as the apparatus for nursing develops. The round ligaments of the belly are stretched, and the joints of the pelvis loosen to allow for this additional bulk. All of this new weight on the front of the torso puts a strain on the back as the muscles work to keep the body balanced.

In a healthy pregnancy, the blood pressure is lowered by hormones to accommodate the extra fluids that supply the placenta. This low pressure can cause dizziness, headaches, and mild swelling in the hands and feet. Combined with extra weight gain (10 to 15 pounds during this trimester), this slowed circulation is the cause of varicose veins and cramping in the legs.

Flashenberg advises that teaching to this trimester is about alleviating discomfort. She says, “I start the class by checking in with the students and sharing what their aches and pains are that day. Generally I hear requests for hip opening and chest opening, and [questions] about lower back pain. Or I hear from someone having neck or sleep issues. I can work the class around this, and the students will leave feeling more refreshed and more comfortable.”

Modifying Poses to Accommodate the Growing Belly

Despite the discomfort, a second trimester student probably has her energy back and can build her strength, as well as trying to relieve soreness.

“As long as a teacher understands the anatomical and physiological changes of the pregnant body, and what’s safe and not safe, you can really teach a well-rounded class,” says Flashenberg. “I don’t have a problem with asking these students to hold a pose for a few breaths, feeling the sensation and breathing into it. As long as you watch the students and listen to their breathing, it’s okay to challenge them in a safe manner.”

Standing poses (Utthita Trikonasana [Extended Triangle Pose], Utthita Parsvakonasana [Extended Side Angle Pose], Virabhadrasana I and II [Warrior I and II Poses], Utkatasana [Chair Pose]) and balance poses such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), and Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III Pose) are great for building strength in the legs and increasing circulation to prevent swelling in the feet and ankles—but have students do them at the wall or with a chair, in case they feel unbalanced.

Make sure you know what muscles are working and how to protect them. “Wide-legged standing poses, like Virabhadrasana II, put a lot of strain on the pelvic floor, and it’s already strained,” says Judith Hanson Lasater, yoga teacher, physical therapist, and author of Yoga for Pregnancy. She instructs pregnant students to modify the pose by sitting in a chair and putting their legs out in Warrior II, so their front thighs are completely supported by the chair. This adjustment allows for hip opening and some weight bearing, but it takes the pressure off the pelvic muscles.

Chest and hip openers are favorite poses for this trimester. The muscles of the upper back have the added weight of new breast tissue to support, so poses such as Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) and Viparita Namaskar (Reverse Prayer Pose) help release tension. After week 20, a pregnant student should no longer lie flat on her back for any extended length of time, due to the weight of the uterus and baby on the vena cava (a major vein carrying blood from the lower body back to the heart). Poses such as Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose), Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose), and Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose), which increase circulation to the legs, open the hips, and relieve the back, can be done on an incline by using blankets or a bolster to elevate the student’s upper body past 20 degrees.

This trimester is a good time to introduce such pranayama exercises as Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) and Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate-Nostril breathing). They teach a woman how to focus on her breath, which helps her relax, and they’re also good practice for breathing techniques that will help during labor and delivery.

Contraindicated Poses

As the belly grows, the abdominal muscles and ligaments are stretched taut; most strong abdominal poses such as Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose) or leg lifts should be avoided so that the muscles don’t separate or tear. Early in the trimester, the student can still do a few front-lying poses (Bhujangasana [Cobra Pose], or Salambhasana [Locust Pose] done with the upper body only); place a rolled blanket under the hips to make room for the belly. Later, these can be done with the chest and arms against the wall, the feet about 18 inches away, and the upper body leaning forward to make room for the belly.

Steer clear of any pranayama that involves retention of the breath (Viloma, or Interval Breath) or altering of the flow of air (Kapalabhati, or Skull Shining Breath), since either will affect the delivery of oxygen to the fetus.

Your student’s new shape will also require modification of any poses that involve folding or twisting. She should spread her legs slightly and bend at the hip crease for all forward bends, to avoid compressing the belly. Open twists can relieve some of the back pain, but now the twist will happen above the waist and should not be too deep. Also, avoid teaching inversions and backbends. Most of these restrictions will be obvious, because the size of the student’s tummy simply won’t allow much of this activity, but make sure your student knows what poses can be modified and what poses she just shouldn’t do.

The Fun Trimester (Usually)

Help your student enjoy the energy of this trimester by teaching her to modify favorite poses, or to substitute similar ones, so that she can still get the satisfaction of the stretch while acknowledging the changes to her body. Show her how the practice can deepen with close attention to how she arranges herself; she can still build strength and endurance while protecting her joints and growing belly.

Some things to remember for this trimester are:

  • Offer standing poses, with support. She doesn’t have to use a chair or the wall, but make sure she is aware of the option if she suddenly feels dizzy or weak. Let her decide how to modify the poses so she is in control of the practice; this will encourage her to listen to her body and build confidence in her ability to cope with the pregnancy.
  • Avoid poses that strain or put pressure on the abdominals. Navasana (Boat Pose) and Plank Pose can both wait until after she gives birth. Encourage twisting above the waist and modify forward bends to make space for her growing belly.
  • Encourage substitution. If she misses back bending, help her do a modified Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) at the wall. If she wants to do inversions, offer Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Bend) with the back of her hips at the wall and a block under her head. Figure out asanas that will give the satisfaction of a contraindicated pose but are less demanding on her changing body.
  • Include the baby in the practice, especially during relaxation. By the fifth month, the student is very aware of her baby’s movements. Often, the baby will be more active during the mothers’ quiet periods, so encourage her to connect with her child during relaxation poses. Continue to emphasize the importance of rest and of allowing her body to recuperate after a practice.
    By encouraging your pregnant students to back off from strenuous poses and concentrate on turning inward, you will help them enjoy the middle trimester and prepare them for the intense focus required in labor and delivery and, eventually, motherhood.
Brenda K. Plakans, mother of three-year-old Eamonn and six-month-old Alec, lives and teaches yoga in Beloit, Wisconsin. She also maintains the blog Grounding Thru the Sit Bones.