Many yoga teacher trainings only touch briefly on guidelines for working with pregnant students. If you want to teach prenatal classes, you should participate in a specialized program to get a comprehensive understanding of how to work safely with these students. Meanwhile, there’s a good chance that a pregnant woman will walk into your classroom. So it’s important to be prepared with some alternative poses and information about what’s safe—and what’s not—for these moms-to-be.
As with any sensitive medical condition, heed all advice a student has gotten from her doctor. Beyond that, there are some basic rules to follow. Generally, pregnant yogis should avoid closed twists (where the belly is compressed), any pose that cuts off airflow to the fetus, or any that put direct pressure on the belly. These rules become more important in the later trimesters.
In the interest of caution, some prenatal yoga experts never let pregnant women in their open classes. Karen Prior, founder of Mamaste Yoga in Plano, Texas, says she’s relentlessly strict about sequestering pregnant students in to prenatal classes. That’s because she doesn’t like to constantly discuss limitations, which she believes sends negative messages to both mom and baby. “We like to focus on what everyone can do,” says Prior.
Awtar Kaur Khalsa, who runs the San Francisco Kundalini Yoga Center, has a slightly looser take—although that doesn’t mean she takes the safety of her students lightly. “I don’t like to exclude people from the yoga class. It’s such an important time for a mother to be in an uplifting environment,” she says. Still, she adds, “Just as in any yoga class, it’s good to caution students not to let the exhortations of the teacher overwhelm their own sense of their needs.”
She says that during the first trimester, women can do almost anything that feels good, with one caveat: Khalsa advises that pregnant women steer clear of hot yoga, since fetuses can’t cool themselves down by sweating like we do. She’s also careful to give out alternative poses to keep students safe. When she takes the class through breathing exercises that require intense belly work, like Breath of Fire, Khalsa says she asks pregnant students to “breathe long and deep” or sit in meditation instead. Any Pranayama that includes holding the breath is also verboten.
Khalsa notes that it’s important to strengthen the pelvic floor and the transverse abdominal muscles, but gently. Instead of using Mula Bandha (Root Lock), Khalsa recommends her students do Kegel exercises to develop their pelvic muscles. Chanting or singing will help build abdominal strength quietly and “provide a soothing vibration” for mother and baby.
Deb Flashenberg, founder and director of New York’s Prenatal Yoga Center, points out that after the first trimester, pregnant women shouldn’t lie down flat on their backs because the extra baby weight can cause strain. She also recommends avoiding inversions—both because of the possibility of developing an air embolism (when an air bubble blocks a blood vessel) and because balance is more difficult with the added weight and shifted center of gravity.
Once the fetus is large, full standing lunges can be difficult, both in terms of balance and pressure on the joints. To work on equilibrium safely, our prenatal experts suggest gentle balancing poses, such as Tadasana (Mountain Pose), with bent knees and a little extra tuck in the tailbone to lengthen the lower back.
Eventually, it’s smart to limit Plank Pose and Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose). Of course, after a certain point these are no longer an option physically, but there’s also some risk of developing repetitive strain problems, which Flashenberg notes can develop more easily in swelling pregnant arms.
You may encounter some students who just don’t want to slow down, especially among those who already have a strong practice. Prior suggests being direct and clear. For example, on the issue of heat, she says, “There are women who do hot yoga through a whole pregnancy—no problem. There are also women who smoke and drink [she didn’t use this word: through] the whole pregnancy—no problem. We’re talking about taking no risks.”
The same goes for teachers who become pregnant. Instead of pushing yourself in class during pregnancy, says Prior, “use an assistant, and learn to use your voice.”
Of course, along with all the cautions, remember that there’s a good reason many women discover yoga for the first time during pregnancy—because of the wonderful benefits it gives. Yoga strengthens the body, opens the hips, and helps women learn to relax through intensity. Plus, “the sense of community in a prenatal yoga class is amazing,” says Prior. “You get students who otherwise never would take a yoga class. You have women who never would have met for any other reason. They become friends, and over the years, so do the kids.”
For women who discover yoga in pregnancy, Flashenberg adds, “A lot of them make it part of their lives. I think they become more conscious and, hopefully, become more conscious parents.”
Rachel Brahinsky is a writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco.