Can Yoga Help Relieve Back Pain in Pregnancy?

In a word -- absolutely! Read on to learn how yoga can bring strength and flexibility to your body and mind, relieving back pain in the process.
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You may have seen advertisements for prenatal yoga classes around your town, or perhaps you've heard from a girlfriend or family member that "you've got to try yoga" to stay relaxed and feel great during pregnancy. And it's true -- practicing yoga regularly can help you cultivate a calm state of mind during the emotional journey that is pregnancy. But yoga's benefits don't stop there. If you're experiencing pregnancy-related back pain -- and if statistics are to be believed, 50 to 70 percent of women are -- yoga is a must-have for your pregnancy wellness toolbox.

There are three main components to prenatal yoga and to all yoga. The first is the stretching and strengthening of joints and muscles, done through yoga poses called asanas. The second is postural alignment, or how the parts of the body hold themselves in relation to one another. And, finally, taking long, deep, mindful breaths, a practice called pranayama, is used in every yoga class on the planet. Simply put, all three of these aspects of yoga can help pregnant women cope with and find relief from back pain.

Stretching and Strengthening

Having both strength and flexibility in your muscles is a goal of yoga practice, and these qualities become especially important as your body changes in pregnancy. As your belly grows, the muscles of your abdominal core and lower back are pulled forward, away from your body's normal center of gravity. Yoga poses help strengthen your leg and hip muscles and build flexibility in your muscles, ligaments, and joints so the body adjusts to its new center line without fighting against its own tightness. "Yoga both stretches and strengthens muscles, so the lower back muscles gain the tone they need to support the growing baby," says Liz Owen, a Boston-based yoga teacher and the co-author of Yoga for a Healthy Lower Back: A Practical Guide to Developing Strength and Relieving Pain.

Postural Alignment

Every woman's posture changes during pregnancy, leaving her vulnerable to overarching her lower back into an exaggerated curve that compresses the vertebrae and causes pain. This problem can ricochet up the back, causing the shoulders to slump, the chest to collapse, and the neck to extend forward as the body attempts to "align" itself around an imbalanced lower back. Practicing yoga, Owen says, will help a woman "to cultivate awareness of how to sit, stand, and move in ways that support her growing belly and lower back muscles."

Mindful Breathing

As your pregnancy progresses, it can feel harder and harder to get a full, deep breath. That's because your expanding uterus is pressing up against your diaphragm, and your rib cage has to spread slightly to accommodate the growing baby. If you think of your rib cage as fireplace bellows that regularly expand and contract with each breath, a developing pregnancy gradually limits the rib cage, giving the bellows less and less room to move. But deep, mindful breathing, and trying to make your exhalations slightly longer than your inhalations, are both possible and important throughout pregnancy. It helps to "bring mindfulness and relaxation into your body and mind, which help cultivate calmness in your changing body" for pain relief, Owen says.

Research supports the idea that yoga can be a source of relief. A study published in the March 2013 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine focused on 60 women and showed that those who practiced yoga reported lower levels of pelvic and lumbar pain than women who were given pamphlets with tips for better posture. Another study, conducted in India in 2012, also showed that yoga significantly reduced stress levels among women experiencing complications from high-risk pregnancies. Still other studies have shown that women who regularly practiced yoga during pregnancy had lower pain levels and shorter duration of labor.

Getting Started in Yoga

Finding the right prenatal yoga class can feel like a challenge, especially with so many choices available. Start by asking your doctor or trusted friends for recommendations on where to take a yoga class. Then ask a yoga teacher or studio if she or it is certified in prenatal yoga by Yoga Alliance, the organization that sets standards for yoga teachers nationwide.

Prenatal yoga can help with lower back pain, but it may not be right for everyone, so it's crucial to listen to your own body. If the class is too challenging for you, or if you feel dizzy or unstable in any of the poses, stop what you're doing. "Yoga seems to depend on the instructor a great deal," says Adam Romoff, M.D., the associate chairman of ob-gyn at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "I don't tell patients to avoid prenatal yoga, I just tell them to keep their eyes open, and if they get any sense that things are too vigorous, they should talk with the instructor."

Don't struggle to keep up in class -- if your teacher isn't able to make adjustments that feel good to you, find another teacher or studio, or try an at-home DVD or online video that is works better for your body. Although any activity or movement is important throughout pregnancy, Dr. Romoff advises "a little moderation" with exercise late in pregnancy. A good prenatal instructor should offer variations on poses to help women adjust practices to their personal fitness level and stage of pregnancy.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi writes the Parents News Now blog for Parents.com, and she is the co-author, with 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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