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Prenatal Yoga

Once your physician has given you the go-ahead to exercise, two questions remain: what to do, and when. Like walking or swimming, yoga has the makings of an ideal workout. "When you take yoga down to its most basic elements, it combines building strength with improving flexibility, and it helps you learn to breathe and meditate," says Mary Barnes, founder of Yoga for Two Prenatal Mommy and Baby, a prenatal yoga program in New York City. "It's perfect for pregnancy."

"In 'western' exercise, we tend to focus on one part of the body at a time, but yoga is the opposite; it involves the whole body and mind," says Barnes. One of the things she likes best about yoga during pregnancy is that when you become attuned to your body, you become more comfortable with it and what it can do. "Some women find that doing yoga also makes labor more comfortable," she says.

Rosalind Widdowson, the author of Yoga for Pregnancy, writes that yoga during pregnancy offers other health benefits as well. "Through some 30 years of yoga teaching, I've noticed that 'yoga mothers' did not seem as big as other mothers-to-be. How could this be? Well, a well-balanced yoga session helps with lymphatic drainage so they weren't so puffy. They weren't bothered by edema (fluid retention) and swollen joints. They had better muscle tone, so they weren't flabby."

These mothers, Widdowson continued, were different in more subtle ways as well. "They exuded a poise, grace, and confidence that elicited that enviable comment from others: 'You're absolutely blooming, my dear!' This was a far cry from those unfortunate women who seemed cowed by their oppressive condition -- the fatigued and exasperated mothers-to-be who carried their pregnancy like a burden."

Although the American Yoga Association does not recommends most yoga poses for pregnant women, other yoga experts say that a prenatal yoga class involving modified poses and breathing techniques is beneficial at any stage of pregnancy. Taking a class also offers a lot of advantages over prenatal exercise videos and home stretching.

Some classes function as extended mothers' support groups: They tailor yoga poses to help relieve pregnancy-related physical discomforts, teach pain coping skills, help pregnant women connect with each other, and offer discussions on concerns about pregnancy, birth, and motherhood. (Instructors are also careful to avoid poses that could be hazardous during pregnancy.) Your health care provider or insurance company may be able to direct you to certified prenatal yoga instructors in your area.

It's important to have a physical checkup before starting a prenatal yoga class and to share with your instructors any physical problems you might have, such as high blood pressure or a history of slipped discs. Your instructor will also give you prenatal safety guidelines, which include avoiding the following:

  • Inverted poses such as headstands or shoulder-stands, due to the possibility of air embolism
  • Any poses that involve lying face down
  • Breathing techniques that involve holding your breath
  • Floor-seated spiral twists (these can compress the lower belly)

If you can't find a prenatal yoga class in your area or just prefer to exercise in the privacy of your own home, here are some simple moves that you can do throughout your pregnancy:

Transverse Abdominal Strengthening

What it does: Strengthens the abdominal region and creates muscle memory that may help you push your baby out during labor

This move is similar to a yoga breathing technique called "bellows breath" but is done more slowly. Sit comfortably on the floor or on a chair, or stand with your back against a wall. Take a deep breath as if you are breathing right in through your navel, so your belly expands. As you exhale, draw your navel back toward your spine (imagine you're hugging your baby with your ab muscles) on a one-two-three-four count -- make a "huh" sound on each count. Release and repeat; aim to do one hundred. (You can also do this exercise after you have your baby to improve circulation.)

Seated Forward Bend on a Chair

What it does: A restorative pose to soothe tired shoulders and back Sit on the edge of a chair with your feet about 18 inches apart and flat on the floor. Open your knees very wide, so that your tummy will fit between your legs. Take a deep breath and bend forward so your shoulders rest on your knees and your head is between your knees. Let your arms dangle at your sides. Imagine your spine is a waterfall flowing from your tailbone to the top of your head. Take five to ten deep breaths and slowly return to the starting position.

Downward Dog

What it does: Relieves fatigue, stretches hamstrings and calves, strengthens arms and back

Kneel down facing a wall, about three feet away from it. Widen your knees until they're about a foot apart, sit back on your heels, and reach your arms toward the wall. Place your palms flat on the floor, your thumbs and index fingers touching the wall. Come up onto your hands and knees and, keeping your weight on your hands, turn your toes under and lift your hips and knees off the floor. Scoot your feet 8 inches apart, tighten your thigh muscles, straighten your legs, and lift your buttocks. Your body should form an inverted "V." Inhale, straighten your arms, and press your heels into the floor. Exhale and slowly lower to the starting position. Note: If your wrists are sore, do a modified version of this pose by standing in front of a wall and bending over from the waist so your body makes an "L" shape, and put your hands flat on a wall.

Cat Stretch

What it does: Opens the spaces between your spine, good for relaxation during labor (if you haven't had an epidural)

Get down on all fours, your knees positioned so they are directly under your hips. Place your hands directly under your shoulders, fingers forward. Inhale and look up, gently lifting your buttocks and slightly dropping your spine so you are in a "swayback" position. Exhale, look down, gently tuck your buttocks under, and curve your back up into an arched position. Repeat up to five times.

Note: If your wrists are sore, make a fist with your hands or lean on your forearms. In addition, take care not to jam your lower back -- find the level that feels good to you.

The Bridge

What it does: Energizes, relieves back tension, strengthens quadriceps

Lie on your back with knees bent, feet about hip width apart and flat on the floor. Rest your hands on the floor underneath your buttocks, with fingers interlaced. Inhale and lift your hips off floor, rolling your spine up one vertebra at a time until just your shoulders are touching the floor. Slowly roll back to the starting position. Repeat two more times. On the third time up, hold the position for five to ten deep breaths.

Note: Avoid this pose if it creates too much pull on the abdominals.

Squatting pose

What it does: Strengthens legs and elongates spine, also useful during labor to "open" the pelvic region and helps prepare for the pushing stage

Stand facing an open door and place one hand on each doorknob. Separate your feet to about shoulder width apart. Bend your knees and squat down as far as you can while keeping your feet flat on the floor. Inhale and gently part your knees. Exhale and lengthen your spine, moving your tailbone down toward your knees as your head extends upward (creating lots of space for your baby.) Hold until your back feels stretched. Release slowly and stand upright.

Note: Women with varicose veins should avoid this pose.

References

Interview with Mary Barnes, founder of Yoga for Two

Christensen, Alice. The American Yoga Association Wellness Book. Kensington Books.

Widdowson, Rosalind. Yoga for Pregnancy. Chancellor Press.

American Yoga Association. General Yoga Information: Yoga During Pregnancy. http://www.americanyogaassociation.org/general.html

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