Tools for Teaching Prenatal Yoga: The Third Trimester
By the last three months of her pregnancy, a mother is constantly aware of the baby inside her. Not only can she feel every kick and twist, but this little person is big enough to dramatically affect her body's functioning. A yoga class can provide an escape from both the physical and mental demands of this trimester; the student can work on poses that relieve some of the strain on her body, and she can practice the mental focus required for giving birth.
"In the third trimester, because space is so compromised in a mama's body, the work of yoga is to make space in her body for her baby," says Jane Austin, a prenatal teacher at San Francisco's Yoga Tree Studio. "So doing poses that create a sense of openness, rather than of contraction, become the focus because she is preparing for her body to completely open."
Austin suggests letting the practice be a time to open mentally, as well. "We can hold that space for women to realize that it's not just their bodies that are changing, but who they are is fundamentally changing," she says. I tell them that every cell in their body is changed by being pregnant."
Teaching a combination of modified asana, breathwork, and relaxation techniques will help a pregnant student anticipate her due date with confidence that she is well prepared for the challenge of labor.
The Physiology of Months Seven Through Nine The third trimester is the final stage of pregnancy, culminating in labor and the birth of the child. By this point, the mother has probably gained between 20 and 30 pounds. (Although only a quarter of this weight is the actual baby—the rest is mostly the support equipment that keeps the baby alive.)
Extra weight can cause great discomfort. The pressure of the crowded uterus on the internal organs results in heartburn, frequent urination, lower back pain, cramping in the front and side abdominals, and shortness of breath. The large, unyielding mass of her belly causes interrupted sleep, difficulty moving, and clumsiness. The mother has unstable joints due to the hormone relaxin, which allows her pelvis to widen so that she can deliver, and may she experience dizziness as well as swelling in the hands and feet because of slowed circulation caused by the hormone progesterone.
In the last couple of months, the body prepares for the delivery. The mother will experience Braxton-Hicks contractions, or sporadic tightening of the uterine muscles, in practice for the muscle contractions during labor that push the baby out. The baby will drop down in the uterus toward the end of the ninth month, which can make walking and sitting difficult. In the last few weeks of the pregnancy, her cervix will begin to slowly open (dilate) and her pelvic floor will soften until she goes into labor—usually indicated by membranes rupturing (water breaking) and/or contractions becoming intense and more frequent.
All these dramatic changes, coupled with discomfort and anxiety about giving birth, can make this last trimester stressful for the mom-to-be. Debra Flashenberg, a teacher at the Prenatal Yoga Center in New York City, says, "Teaching women to trust their instincts is hard. Encourage them to listen. Let them really turn off the thinking mind and let their bodies lead them. Feel what's going on with the breath and get really internal."
Building a Mental Catalogue
A yoga teacher can guide a student to explore poses that help her relax but also find strength. This work will later serve her during the intensity of birth. Roxi Thoren, an architecture professor in Eugene, Oregon, who is expecting her second child, found that having a mental catalogue to draw on during labor was one of the most useful aspects of her yoga class. She says, "I could think, 'Oh my lower back hurts, there's that pose or that stretch that will help.'"
The biggest concern with asana in this trimester is protecting the joints and maintaining balance. Even an experienced yogini will have to adapt to her quick weight gain and unbalanced shape. Basic standing and balance poses (Utthita Trikonasana [Extended Triangle Pose], Utthita Parsvakonasana [Extended Side Angle Pose], Virabhadrasana I and II [Hero I and II Poses], and Vrksasana [Tree Pose]) are good for building strength in the legs, reestablishing proper alignment in the spine, and encouraging circulation—but be sure to do them near the wall or with a chair, in case the student loses her balance.
"Challenging poses are not off the menu," says Austin. She suggests using the breath as a guide and a gauge of how the sequence is going for the student. "If, at any time, she finds her breath is compromised, she needs to shift the shape of the pose—she doesn't need to come out of the pose, but she needs to shift or take a rest so she can keep the smooth, steady breath."
Hip openers (Baddha Konasana [Bound Angle Pose] and Upavistha Konasana [Seated Wide-Legged Forward Bend Pose]) are also important asanas in this trimester because they help relieve aches in the lower back and create space around the pelvis. Not only do these poses help release the lumbar spine and open the hip joints but they are good positions to make the mother more comfortable during labor, too. Pelvic tilts can alternately tone (by lifting) and soften (by lowering) the pelvic floor, while Marjaryasana (Cat Pose) can help shift the baby lower in the uterus and may even encourage proper positioning (head down, face to the back).
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