Today's Daily Tip
Labor of Love
For others, the switch from practicing solo to having a baby on board can be a little bumpier. Releasing the ego can be a challenge for intermediate and advanced practitioners, Flashenberg says. Students may find it hard to accept how pregnancy changes their bodies and how their practice must shift. Some women can continue to practice fairly vigorously. But certain poses should be dialed back or phased out during pregnancy, particularly unsupported inversions, deep twists, prone backbends like Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and Salabhasana (Locust Pose), and strenuous backbends. That means forgoing Sun Salutations with Cobra or Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog) and instead stepping back to simple lunges. Also, certain pranayama techniques should be avoided, such as Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath) and anything in which you hold the breath, which is called Kumbhaka Pranayama (breath retention).
Attending classes can help you reconsider the temptation to overdo. "Prenatal yoga reminds you it's not just your body," Flashenberg says. "You're sharing it now, which means it's not the time to push yourself." She also notes that during pregnancy, the ligaments in your pelvic area and lower back loosen due to an increase in the hormone relaxin, which is thought to help widen the pelvis and facilitate labor. So it's especially important to avoid overstretching, or you could wind up injured for lack of the usual painful warning signs telling you to stop.
That's not to say prenatal yoga is for wimps. You won't master any new Handstand variations and you should avoid jump-throughs, but the level of intensity might surprise you. Classes focus on uncovering hidden sources of stamina, nurturing new ones, and maximizing hip flexibility. To that end, the most strenuous portion of the class is typically the standing segment, during which you can expect to work your edge by holding poses for a minute or longer—the length of an average contraction.
Prenatal teachers knowingly seed their classes with opportunities for students to safely explore and expand their threshold for discomfort. When Amy Zurowski, 32, a prenatal yoga teacher who lives in McMinnville, Oregon, takes her students into Warrior II, for example, she guides them through an imaginary labor. As they hold steady in the pose, thighs working overtime, they imagine themselves breathing through a contraction. Zurowski encourages them to stay present and accept the discomfort by gently reminding them that women have been birthing babies for hundreds of thousands of years. "As you ease out of your pose, perhaps with tired quads, you are more confident of your innate abilities as a woman and as a mother-to-be," she says.
Otherwise, classes typically start with gentle warm-ups, graduate to standing and some basic balancing poses, then move to the floor for seated poses. Savasana may be as long as 15 to 20 minutes, giving students time to set up props and sink into deep relaxation. After the first trimester, lying on the back for long periods of time is not recommended since it can slow blood flow to the baby, so blankets and bolsters are used to support students as they lie on their left side to rest.
Don't Forget to Breathe
Prenatal yoga conditions the mind even more than the body. "The primary benefit of prenatal yoga is breath awareness," Yellin says. "If you can use the breath as an anchor, it will draw your attention inward and downward, exactly the direction you want your baby to go."
Yellin gently reminds her students that the breath should always be their primary focus; the physical sensations arising from the asana are secondary. In this way, she explains, they learn to train their focus on the breath during labor and not on the contraction: "Using the breath as an anchor keeps a woman grounded, no matter how overwhelming the sensations might be."
Monica Paredes, a Kripalu Yoga teacher in Austin, Texas, relied on her breath during the birth of her son, Gabriel. On the taxi ride to the hospital, she took comfort in the vibration of chanting Om. Later, as her labor progressed, she relied on the Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) to steady her resolve. Looking back, she says, "My breath and intention were focused on trust and surrender. I dropped into my breath and let everything else go."
As a Kundalini teacher, Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa encourages her prenatal students to return to the breath as a touchstone during the intensity of labor and childbirth. She uses the mantra Sat nam with the breath. Loosely translated, it means "Truth is my identity." Say "sat" on the inhalation and "nam" on the exhalation. The mantra can quell anxiety during pregnancy and childbirth. Gurmukh says, "Added to the breath during pregnancy, it can help you realize that where there is truth, there is no fear, and where there is no fear, there is only love."
Own Your Birth
The benefits of prenatal yoga can extend well beyond the big moment. Yoga's time-honored teachings of acceptance and surrender can gently nudge practitioners past a birth that doesn't go according to plan. Flashenberg likes to remind her prenatal students that birth is like everything else in life: You don't always get to choose your circumstances, but you can choose how you react to them.
The acceptance she honed in her prenatal yoga class helped Jennifer Coffin, 36, a yoga teacher in Knoxville, Tennessee, come to terms with the birth of her son, Max. She'd set her sights on having a natural birth, but Max had other ideas. Toward the end of her last trimester, an ultrasound revealed the baby was about to enter the world feet first, a breech position often considered too dangerous for vaginal delivery. First, Coffin threw herself into a "fix it" mode, trying to goad him into flipping. She tried therapies from traditional Chinese medicine and practiced gentle inversions. But when he refused to budge, she acquiesced to a cesarean section. "I had to accept the fact that it was the safest option for me and my baby," she says. She credits her prenatal yoga training with helping her let go of the disappointment. "I would have fallen apart if it weren't for the mental and emotional strength I had gained from my yoga practice," she says.
In the end, childbirth, like parenting, comes down to trusting your intuition, feeling what's right, and not relying on what others think, Lasater says. "That's what the practice of yoga is all about...being fully, deeply, richly, and radically present with your own self."
Catherine Guthrie is a freelance writer who lives and teaches yoga in Bloomington, Indiana.
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