Pregnancy and Yoga
This image I am sharing with you is NOT intended for self-comparison whether you are currently, have ever been, or never intend to be pregnant. Simply, this is the story of MY experience that I hope may benefit you in some way.
A teacher for over 15 years and pregnant for 8 months when I took this picture, this is my first embodied experience with what pregnancy in my body feels like. I have taught yoga to many pregnant women as well as worked on their tissues as a body-worker. What I have witnessed and heard most often, are complaints of shortness of breath, back pain, edema, slow post partum recovery, and lack of abdominal contraction post delivery. Having now lived the journey first hand, I would like to share with you what I have learned.
First, every body is unique and must be approached as such. This is also true of pregnancies. Some woman have short torsos, therefore may have more heartburn or difficulty breathing earlier in their pregnancy. Other women have a great deal of elastin in their connective tissue and need more stabilizing in the joints in order to carry the weight of the growing baby pain-free. Also, if I failed to mention the overwhelming need for trusting ones instinct, I think this entire article would be pointless.
Prenatal shortness of breath is a result of an increase in the hormone progesterone to allow for greater lung capacity as well as to breathe more often for oxygen to be carried to the baby. As the baby increases in size, it will begin to push on the diaphragm, this may also cause the feeling of shortness of breath. I would like to emphasize that our individual body shapes may contribute to how one experiences breath in their body as well. If you carry your child high, the diaphragm will be compromised more so than if you carry low. What I believe to be true is that the more malleable the diaphragm is BEFORE pregnancy, the better off your breath will be when you actually are. The best way I know how to stretch a diaphragm is by practicing uddiyana bandha. This is an abdominal lock created on exhale by a hollowing out of the abdominal cavity and essentially sucking your stomach in and up. Not only will it stretch the diaphragm allowing for greater breath capacity, it also tones the internal digestive organs and increases the power of the core. Please note that this is NOT a pregnancy exercise! This is work to be done BEFORE you are actually pregnant in order to prepare the body for breath access once you are actually carrying a child. You should never withhold breath while pregnant, as it would keep breath from your baby. The work one does before pregnancy is vital to 9 months of carrying as well as to ones recovery process.
TO AB OR NOT TO AB?
The disclaimer I have for abdominal work and pregnancy is that if you are high-risk, the first trimester may be an “iffy” time for you to push your abdominal exercises to their limit. It also must be noted that the state of a women’s body BEFORE pregnancy has imperative value in deciding their prenatal workout. That said, I think the biggest crime passed down from doctors and teachers, is telling their pregnant patients and students to not do abdominal exercises. As the belly grows and carries more weight, it pulls on the back musculature and spinal bones. Let me be more specific as the abdominal web is vast including rectus, transverse, internal, and external obliques.
The rectus abdominals are the most superficial sheath, the popularly named “6 pack”. There are five pairs of muscles that run vertically over the abdomen separated by a sheath of connective tissue known as the linea alba extending from the xiphoid process (sternum) to the pubic symphasis. Some women experience the darkening of the linea alba during pregnancy. The rectus abdominals are responsible for postural support as well as flexing the lumbar spine. This is the set of muscles most at risk for diastasis (tearing of the abdominal wall) and should be avoided to make “over strong” so as not to tear as it needs to stretch to accommodate baby. Back bending while pregnant can also create diastasis by aiding in the stretching of the tissue. Still, it is valuable to have strength in the rectus in order to sit up from a chair relatively easily as well as be able to pick up your baby pain free, post birth.
My favorite abdominals to engage while pregnant are the oblique muscles. The external oblique tether to the ribs, serratus anterior (under the armpit) and attach to the iliac crest (hips) of the pelvis. The internal oblique lie perpendicular to, and just below the external oblique running from the thoracolumbar fascia (back muscles) to the pelvic iliac crest and 10th-12th rib. These muscles essentially hug the baby like arms around your belly. The stronger their support, the less force of pull you will experience on your spine. My prefered oblique exercises are the revolved abdominal series as well as side plank. I was able to be on my back throughout my pregnancy and did these exercises all the way up until delivery. This is not the case for all, but again I believe that the more you do this work pre pregnancy, the longer you may be able to do them prenatal. I am also happy to report that I had no back pain during any of my 9 months!
Lastly, there are the transverse abdominals. These run horizontally just beneath the internal oblique muscles from the hips to the ribs, even connecting to the diaphragm! Think girdle or cumber bun. They are responsible for providing pelvic and lower back stability as well as assist women in pushing during delivery. If targeted during pregnancy as well as after, the transverse abs will support the return to your pre-pregnant belly. The rectus abdominals are equally responsible for the return of the belly as the transversalis. However if you are someone who experiences diastasis, you will heavily rely on the transverse to support your spinal posture. I do not wish to perpetuate the obsession with a “flat belly” 2 weeks post delivery as the image in Hollywood likes to encourage, but that would be a topic for an entirely different article. What I do promote is retaining stability and strength throughout one of the most physical transitions a birthing mother will experience.
Edema is most often present during the third trimester and manifests as swelling in the ankles, legs, and hands. The swelling is a result of an increase in body fluid (blood and water) that collect in the tissue. It is also due to the growing uterus putting pressure on the vena cava (vein on the right side of the body that pumps the blood from the lower extremities back to the heart) that slows the return rate of blood causing it to pool, forcing fluid from the veins into the tissues. This is why pregnant women are encouraged to lay on their left side. Note that constant pressure on the left hip while attempting to avoid edema may result in hip joint pain from the imbalanced weight distribution. This requires pelvic and hip work such as the pelvic primer series to keep the pelvis in alignment. Not to mention the necessity for open hips during the labor process! This is also where inversions may come in which can help reduce edema. Another great topic of debate, as it is unknown what actually occurs to the blood and oxygen supply of a fetus while a mother is inverting. I have yet to hear of a women miscarrying due to inversions and have met many women who have chosen to invert while pregnant. I have also worked with many women who experience dizziness while inverting, an obvious sign that it is not meant for them. From the picture you can tell that for me, it worked. I loved being upside down with my daughter swimming in my belly. I especially loved learning how to balance the weight distribution that allowed for continued use of my abdominals. The choice to invert is extremely controversial and should be approached delicately. I would not recommend beginning an inversion practice while pregnant, but if you have been upside-down pre-pregnancy, you are more likely to know if it feels appropriate as you have a sense of comparison. There are much more mild inversions than handstand. Maybe try viparita karani (legs up the wall pose) to alleviate leg and ankle swelling.
Along with stretching the legs frequently and avoiding junk food, walking is probably the best tactic for avoiding edema. On average I walked 4 miles a day up to my 9th month and was lucky to never experience swelling.
Probably the most delicate of topics to address and as echoed throughout, ones rate of recovery is relative. The state of a women’s body pre-pregnancy has as much to do with hormone rebalance, uterus contraction, and the general return to pre-pregnancy conditions, as do genetics and discipline. As I write this I am just 2 months in to my own healing. I whole-heartedly believe that my recovery time has been aided by my physical discipline throughout my pregnancy. I must admit that I am quite stubborn in nature (an attribute gifted to me by my grandmother who is currently two weeks shy of 105 and played tennis well into her 90’s) and my natural tendency was to immediately move my body again. The wonderful thing about nature is that it will always tell you when you are in or out of balance. With post pregnancy, the body will continue to bleed when you have overexerted yourself. A tell tale sign of how you must address your own healing process. There is also a huge difference between vaginal and cesarean birth recovery, the latter taking much longer. I have heard it discussed that natural births have a shorter recovery period than most.
There is still much left to be desired for our societies expectations of women and their individual physical/emotional/hormonal journey into motherhood. I myself have been tagged with the feeling that eyes are especially upon me to see, “How does the Yoga Chick look now?” What I find to be of greatest importance is my physical and emotional ability to be present for my daughter. That includes a constant negotiation between sleep, working out, and eating well. Some days I get the combination right, others end with a spoon full of ice cream. I was not prepared for the “pulling all-nighters diet” which tends to lean cravings toward the direction of sugars. This alone can challenge the entire equation. When I am able to make space for my yoga and other exercise that is when I emotionally feel the most balanced and able to be the mother I wish to be. This is also the most important time to listen to your intuition, and ask for support.
Here is where you will find previously mentioned exercises to aid and support your journey for both pre and post natal life.
Along with these exercises, you may want to schedule pregnancy massages and/or invest in a cheaper option, Yoga Tune Up Therapy Balls! You can roll your own back, leg, and shoulder pain away any time of day or night!
Visit the Resources page for information on pregnancy related products I have personally found value in.
For more pregnancy resources