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How Is Prenatal Yoga Different from Regular Yoga?

Prenatal yoga is so much more than "yoga classes attended by pregnant women."

pregnant woman yoga pose Buff Strickland

Is prenatal yoga simply yoga classes attended by pregnant women, or are there specific qualities that distinguish it from regular yoga? The answer is that there are, in fact, important and identifiable differences that set prenatal yoga classes apart from classes that are open to anyone.

What Will I See in Prenatal Yoga Classes? What Won't I See?

Scorpion Press Karen Pearson

Prenatal yoga classes generally offer gentler, less strenuous sequences of poses and a greater use of props to support the body in poses. Your teacher may offer a number of variations and use props (belts, bolsters, blocks, or chairs) to make poses comfortable and available to you during each stage of your pregnancy; you may also use more props as your baby grows. What you won't -- and shouldn't -- see in prenatal classes are elevated temperatures (as in "hot yoga" classes) because they put you at risk for lightheadedness, dehydration, and other complications. You also won't see certain categories of poses, like those that require you to lie on your back or twist deeply, as they can put pressure on your organs and major blood vessels in a way that could be unsafe for your baby.

      What Yoga Poses Can I Expect to Practice?

      A skilled instructor will offer a sequence of poses that are designed to meet all the students' needs. Regardless of which stage of pregnancy the student is in, prenatal yoga poses generally target the back, particularly the lower back, an area that is especially vulnerable to pain and injury as a growing belly and shifting center of gravity tug the spine out of its natural curvature. "The postures are designed very specifically to strengthen the back as well as lengthen the muscles that support the low back," says Jane Austin, a pre- and postnatal yoga teacher based in San Francisco and the founder of prenatal yoga school Mama Tree. Austin teaches her students poses like Right Angle pose, where the body is folded at the hips into a right angle, with the hands resting against a wall and the feet planted strongly on the floor, to help lengthen the spine and relieve pressure and discomfort.

      Austin also recommends side-bending poses to counteract the way pregnant women roll their shoulders inward as their upper backs become strained by growing breasts. Side bending also helps stretch the muscles between the ribs. As the baby grows and the uterus pushes up on the diaphragm, it becomes more challenging to take a deep breath. "If those muscles are exercised and a woman takes a deep breath, her rib cage can actually expand," Austin explains.

      Are There Poses I Won't Practice?

      Expert prenatal yoga instructors know what poses to avoid. Many forward bends can compress the belly too much, says Karen Prior, a prenatal yoga instructor based in Oklahoma City and the creator of the Mamaste Yoga program. Twists and poses that are meant to strengthen the abdominal muscles are also not advised because they can put too much stress on the rectus abdominus muscles, the muscle group that runs straight up and down your abdomen, and lead it to separate, which may cause future back pain and the need for physical therapy to help repair the separation. Balancing poses should be done with care, or against a wall or other strong support, to avoid the risk of falling.

      How Can I Find a Prenatal Yoga Class?

      Now that you know some movements and practices aren't safe during pregnancy, your first question might be: Where can I find a safe prenatal yoga class? Start by asking your doctor or good friends for local recommendations. Then contact a yoga teacher or studio and ask if she (or it) is certified in prenatal yoga by Yoga Alliance, the organization that sets standards for yoga teachers nationwide. Once you've found a class, you'll notice a range of belly sizes in the room. Many women prefer to wait until the end of the first trimester to begin practicing yoga, particularly if they are experiencing severe morning sickness or fatigue or have a history of miscarriage. Others, especially those who have practiced yoga before, may find prenatal yoga to be helpful in easing nausea and fatigue. Many women practice well into their third trimesters and close to their due dates.

      Knowledge of the do's and don'ts of prenatal yoga is one of the most important reasons women should seek out a qualified prenatal class to attend during pregnancy. "Yoga classes are sequenced to offer counterbalance from posture to posture," Prior says. "When a woman sits out postures in regular classes, she does not receive a 'balanced' practice." On the other hand, "prenatal yoga classes offer a balanced sequence of joint mobility exercises, seated postures, standing postures, hip openers, breathing, and relaxation exercises -- leaving out the contraindicated postures, but still offering a balanced practice."

        Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a writer based in Arlington, Massachusetts. She writes the Parents News Now blog for Parents.com, and she is the co-author, with the yoga teacher Liz Owen, of Yoga for a Healthy Lower Back: A Practical Guide to Developing Strength and Relieving Pain.

        Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.

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