What do you think about backbending during pregnancy? It seems that in the Ashtanga vinyasa tradition, there isn't much taboo against it, yet the opposite seems to be true in the Iyengar tradition. Any thoughts?
—Joanne Myrup, Taos, New Mexico
Sarah Powers' reply:
The debate among different systems about which poses to do during pregnancy can cause any woman to feel frustrated and hesitant about how to proceed. I had been doing Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga for seven years before I had my child. After reading up on yoga for pregnancy, I decided my practice and intuition were the best guides, since every body has a unique system and therefore different experience of pregnancy. Of course, there are guidelines that can be useful as long as you test them yourself to see if they ring true for you.
Each trimester brings different issues. In the first trimester, when the cell division is at its most rapid and eons of evolution are coalescing in our bellies, we may feel fatigue or extreme nausea. If this is the case for you, when you have a reprieve from your symptoms, the gentle stimulation of circulation in baby backbends may be helpful. Poses such as Salabhasana (Locust Pose), Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), and Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) may feel invigorating. Supta Vajrasana (Reclined Thunderbolt) and Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero Pose) will be soothing if your knees allow these.
In the second trimester. when the energy often feels enhanced by the pregnancy and the body, although swollen, is not uncomfortably large yet, stronger backbends may feel expansive and juicy. If you practiced Ustrasana (Camel Pose), low lunges, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), or even Urdhva Dhanurasana (Backbend, Upward Facing Bow Pose) before you became pregnant, they can now be incorporated into a sequence.
Phase out the baby backbends from the first trimester as you become five or six months pregnant. But you can modify Cobra Pose—I have found that many women enjoy resting the pelvis on a bolster and holding a straight-armed Cobra for a few minutes. This backbend can feel very nourishing to the connective tissues along the sacrum and spine, a place were stagnant energy can cause discomfort. You may find it available to you until the seventh or eight month.
In the final three months, when one may fear back strain from the combination of relaxing, easing the joints, and the enhanced lordosis of the lumbar spine, you may find Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero Pose) with a bolster feels appropriate. Ustrasana (Camel Pose) may also feel good. If you can't reach all the way back to your heels, there are several variations you can try like keeping your hands on your buttocks, resting them back on a couch or low chair behind you to give the feeling of opening the chest and stretching the back muscles. I do not think one needs to worry about the increased lordosis in the spine unless one enters into pregnancy with a disc displacement.
Around the sixth month, it is common to start feeling uncomfortable whenever you lie on your back. At that time I felt an internal signal to stop practicing Bridge Pose, since I no longer felt comfortable lying flat. I later received a suggestion from my birth assistants to stop lying flat on my back, even during sleep, because it could cause reduced blood flow to the belly. So again, let your own intuition guide you and inform you about what to do in all of the poses in your practice.
In the end, as I always advise for anyone practicing yoga, strain should never be endured. This is a time of learning to respect and honor your body in its amazingly mysterious wisdom, of making space in your body and in your life for this new addition. I know of no better way to enhance these feminine insights than by continuing a devoted yoga and meditation practice throughout one's pregnancy.