Prenatal yoga sounds like a healthy practice to adopt during pregnancy -- and it is. But what specifically can 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 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 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. You can connect with your baby by imagining that "as you exhale, [you] sink your belly gently back toward the spine as though you are giving your baby a hug," says Jessica Berger Gross, mom to 5-year-old Lucien, in the November 2013 issue of Yoga Journal.
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, and 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.
It's probably not surprising that research has confirmed that a healthy mama is more likely to have a healthy baby. A 2005 study conducted in India and published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that women who regularly practiced yoga during pregnancy were less likely to have preterm labor or to deliver a low-birthweight baby. For the study, which focused on 335 women, one group of pregnant practiced an hour of yoga each day and another group walked for 30 minutes twice a day. Results showed that the group that practiced yoga had babies with better birthweights and were more likely to carry their babies to full term.
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 at the same time that you're easing your back pain and calming your body. As a yoga mom myself, I can speak from experience -- I looked forward to comparing notes with the moms in my prenatal yoga class as we all grew into our pregnancies. They made me feel like I was part of a genuine, supportive community.
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.