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The Benefits of Yoga During and After Pregnancy

When you think of yoga, visions of a skinny guy twisting himself into a pretzel probably come to mind. But if you're expecting or just gave birth, contorting your body probably isn't a priority. (Pregnancy and childbirth provide enough shape-shifting for most of us!) Don't worry -- this 5,000-year-old practice of breathing and moving exercises that strengthens the entire body and soothes the spirit is perfect for everyone -- even pregnant women and new moms!

Here are four reasons why yoga is a great option for you:

  1. Body knowledge: Yoga is a wonderful tool for becoming better acquainted with your body, says Jyothi Larson, author of Yoga Mom, Buddha Baby (Bantam). A regular practice also trains you to focus on different areas of your body, which is particularly helpful during childbirth.
  2. Mood moderation: Yoga's emphasis on breathing and moving simultaneously helps you breathe more deeply, says Larson. For some women, it triggers feelings of deep relaxation and well-being. The calmer and more relaxed moms are, the calmer their babies are.
  3. Posture perfection: Pregnancy can cause even the straightest arrow to slouch. Then you start nursing, pushing a stroller, and lifting a baby and your posture may really suffer, says Larson. Some of the best yoga benefits are increased back and shoulder strength, which improves posture. Yoga also opens up your chest, making it easier to stand up tall.
  4. Moral support: Joining other women in a pre- or postnatal yoga class is a great way to make new friends, all of whom are facing the same challenges you are. Even if you prefer to practice at home, an occasional class at a studio lets you tap into this network.

The most important element in yoga is your breathing. Something that separates yoga from other kinds of exercise is the fact that each posture is linked to an inhale and an exhale. Why so much heavy breathing? Breathing and moving together sets the pace of your practice. It also helps you move more deeply into postures, says Larson. Deep breathing -- long, full inhales and exhales -- also brings oxygen to the entire body, which energizes your system. Here are the basics of yoga breathing:

Inhale through your nose; fill your belly, ribs, and upper chest with air so that they puff out in front of you.

Exhale through your nose and tuck in your belly button as the air is being released.

Make sure to pick up these items before you get started:

____ A sticky mat

Mats provide a barrier between you and the floor and prevent your hands and feet from slipping.

____ A blanket

Blankets are used as padding to make certain poses more comfortable. Choose one that's made of nubby material and folds easily; wool and Mexican-style blankets usually work best.

____ Blocks

Blocks can help novices experience poses they may not have the flexibility to achieve. If you can't touch your toes, for example, you can use a block to bridge the distance between your hands and your feet.

____ A strap

Straps can help deepen a stretch or bridge a gap, similar to the way blocks do. If you can't keep your feet together in a pose, for example, wrapping a strap around them can bring them together.

____ Comfortable clothes

It's important to wear clothes that move with you so you don't have to constantly readjust them. Cotton and Lycra tops and bottoms are clingy yet comfy.

To inspire you, we asked Jyothi Larson and a yoga instructor who teaches at studios around New York City to design a new workout for you. Try it out -- you'll feel rejuvenated and refreshed after every session. Here are the eight simple yoga movements recommended for you:

Pose #1: Neck Roll

What it does: Warms up and stretches the neck

What to do: Sit up tall in a cross-legged position. Inhale. As you exhale, slowly tilt your head to the right until you feel a stretch in your neck. Take three deep breaths while holding the stretch. Then bring your head back to the starting position and do the same on the opposite side. Repeat three times on each side.

Pose #2: Shoulder Roll

What it does: Opens up the chest and back

What to do: Hold your arms out to your sides and place your fingers on your shoulders. Inhale. Bring your elbows forward, then lift them toward the ceiling. Exhale and return to the starting position. Do the same exercise in the opposite direction. Repeat three times.

What it does: Loosens calf muscles, encourages circulation

What to do: Sit up tall with your legs tucked underneath you. Press your toes and the balls of your feet on the floor. Repeat as often as you'd like.

Pose #4: Cat and Cow

What it does: Increases flexibility and strengthens abs

What to do: Get down on all fours with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips. Inhale and push your pelvis back and down, gazing up at the ceiling. As you exhale, bring your head between your shoulders, round your back, and tuck in your navel. Repeat three times.

What it does: Opens up the pelvic area and chest

What to do: Get down on all fours, keeping your knees slightly wider than your hips. Moving slowly, gently rest your bottom between your heels and your forehead on the floor. Arms can be in front of you or at your sides. Repeat as often as you'd like for as long as you'd like.

Pose #6: Pelvic Tilt

What it does: Strengthens the muscles in your lower back, buttocks, and abdomen

What to do: Lie down and bend your knees. Inhale, tilting your pelvis and pubic bone upward; then bring the pelvis back to the starting position. Pregnant women should do this standing against a wall. Repeat six times.

What it does: Stretches and strengthens the chest and upper back

What to do: Sit in a cross-legged position, shoulders back, spine elongated. Grasp one part of a strap in each hand and lift your arms over your head. Arms should be wider than your shoulders. With straight arms, bring the strap behind your head until you feel a stretch. Inhale and exhale three times. Repeat as often as you'd like.

Pose #8: Relaxation

What it does: Opens up your hip and groin area and helps relieve backaches

What to do: Take a pillow and lay it down lengthwise behind you. Lower yourself onto it so your head rests at the top. Pregnant women should do this sitting up.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.