Prenatal yoga sounds like a healthy practice to adopt during pregnancy – and it is. But what specifically can prenatal yoga do to help you feel great and stay calm during the most important nine months of your life? Read on for seven important ways yoga can make a positive difference in your pregnancy.
"Our bodies are always changing," says Jane Austin, a pre- and postnatal yoga teacher based in San Francisco and the founder of prenatal yoga school Mama Tree. But in pregnancy, the body experiences "an accelerated pace of change," she says, and needs help adjusting and compensating. "Prenatal yoga practice is designed to support the changes that happen in a pregnant body," Austin says, by offering women healthy, safe ways to stretch their muscles and strengthen their bodies – their lower bodies in particular – to ease the process of supporting a growing belly.
Prenatal yoga "tones the physical body, especially the pelvic floor, hip, and abdominal core muscles, in preparation for the birthing process," 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. A properly toned muscle has the right balance between length and strength – it is neither too lax nor too tight. Building and maintaining muscle tone during pregnancy, with yoga poses like lunges and gentle backbends, can help minimize the aches and pains of those nine months, and are key in bringing your body back to a toned condition after delivery, Owen says.
A top priority in Austin's prenatal yoga classes is teaching women "they can trust that their bodies will open" up to labor and birth. "When we're afraid, we tighten up," she says, and that tightening leads to what she calls a "fear-tension-pain cycle." This can sabotage a woman's efforts to remain present and calm in labor, especially if she hopes to experience childbirth with minimal or no pain medication. Working to connect with yogic methods of deep, mindful breathing can help the body loosen and relax, and help women get to a "mammalian place," Austin says, where they can let their bodies do what they instinctively already know how to do: give birth.
Even the act of going to a prenatal yoga class once (or more) each week is a gentle reminder to take the time out of a busy work and home life to care for and bond with your growing baby. As your pregnancy progresses, your body's different responses to yoga poses will be a reminder of other physical changes happening in your body. Certain poses, such as Hero pose, in which you sit back on your heels and then sit up straight to lengthen your spine, can become meaningful if you breathe deeply while in it.
Prenatal yoga may be the cure for what ails you if you're suffering from common pregnancy discomforts such as lower back pain, nausea, insomnia, headaches, shortness of breath, and carpal tunnel syndrome. By stretching and toning muscles, you can help blood circulate throughout the body in a healthy way. Also, deep breathing can bring much-needed oxygen to your baby and to your own muscles. A 2012 University of Michigan study showed that mindfulness yoga, which combines physical poses with meditation practices, can bring measurable relief to the depression that can accompany the emotional journey of pregnancy. Of course, not all symptoms are guaranteed to disappear altogether, but the multidimensional approach of yoga to both physical and emotional health can help your body take the uncomfortable aspects of pregnancy in stride.
One of the greatest benefits of prenatal yoga may be joining a community with other expectant moms. "The class becomes a pregnancy support group of sorts, where women connect with other women who are making the same choices and lifestyles changes," says Karen Prior, a prenatal yoga instructor in Oklahoma City and the creator of the Mamaste Yoga program. Sharing the pregnancy journey with new friends can help ease your anxiety about impending motherhood while also easing your back pain and calming your body.
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.