When it comes to labor and delivery, usually the most anxiety-provoking aspects of pregnancy, many women spend weeks, if not months, fretting over whether they'll be able to deliver the baby. But women who develop a prenatal yoga practice before giving birth may learn how to minimize anxiety over labor. "Yoga practice encourages a deep, intimate connection between the mom and baby, and it empowers a woman to trust her own instincts by listening to her body," 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. "Both are very helpful for the minute-to-minute changes that happen during delivery." Labor is, ultimately, unpredictable, Owen says, and the ability to stay focused and calm in the moment is something that yoga, through its deep breathing exercises and body-strengthening poses, can teach women to do almost automatically.
Research has connected "self-efficacy," or the level of confidence a woman has in her ability to perform a task, with easier and more satisfying labor and delivery experiences. One 1999 study found that high self-efficacy during the third trimester, when labor is looming, plays an important role in labor pain perception: Women stay in control of their bodies even during the most physically painful parts of the process. A 2009 study conducted in Taiwan directly connected regular prenatal yoga practice with the high self-efficacy that contributes to smoother deliveries. "Any kind of learned behavior of relaxation, breathing, or concentrating on a focal point can help," adds Adam Romoff, M.D., an ob-gyn at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
When it comes to labor and delivery, the mind-body connection is paramount, and prenatal yoga is one way to help women access deep stores of emotional strength and confidence that they can put to use during contractions and pushing the baby out of the womb. Poses like a deep squat (in Sanskrit: malasana) can help relax and open the hips, providing control over strong, toned pelvic and hip muscles so they won't tense up when under stress.
"A woman's ability to birth a baby is directly related to her ability to let go of gripping in her muscles," says Jane Austin, a pre- and postnatal yoga teacher based in San Francisco and the founder of the prenatal yoga school Mama Tree. Prenatal yoga poses, she adds, are designed to build strength where it's needed, as in the legs and lower back, but also to cultivate the skill of being able to release tension, tightness, and, ultimately, pain from the body. Austin cites what many in the field call a "fear-tension-pain" cycle that can act like a toxic domino effect, sabotaging a woman's efforts to let her body take charge of labor -- a task, after all, that a woman inherently knows how to perform. Labor is "a physical opening in the body that's unlike anything else we'll ever do, and we get scared," Austin says. But with regular yoga practice, women's "bodies will open. If they can soften any gripping that occurs, the [birth] experience can be gentler," Austin says.
Yoga's other benefits during labor include helping increase a pregnant woman's physical stamina if labor lasts a long time (though regular yoga practice has also been shown to shorten the length of labor by as much as two hours). The increased stamina comes from the physical discipline required to hold postures long enough to get strength-building benefits. It also comes from the mental focus that results from yoga's concentration on breathing exercises that help the lungs expand to their full capacity -- which can feel challenging in late pregnancy.
Yoga poses may also help optimize the baby's position for birth, by allowing the pelvic bones and ligaments to open and move apart from each other. This allows the baby's head to find more room to nestle at the bottom of the uterus as birth nears. Some yoga poses, like pelvic tilts, might even encourage a breech or posterior birth baby to turn into the head-down position that most hospitals require for a vaginal birth.
Despite all these reassuring benefits, though, labor is complicated, and every woman's personal experience with it is different. Austin urges women not to believe that yoga is helpful only for women who choose to experience "natural," or drug-free, vaginal childbirth. Prenatal yoga can help a wide range of women, including those having an unexpected Cesarean section and those having a natural home birth or drug-free hospital birth. Doing yoga during labor and birth, Austin says, isn't meant to pressure women into winning some contest for pain endurance or a fight against medical complications that may arise. Instead, she says, prenatal yoga is "about being present with your experience. It's about honoring where you are in that moment."
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.
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