Not into the whole namaste thing? We get it. But if you're expecting a baby, you should maaaaybe give it another shot. Because yoga could make your pregnancy — and delivery — go much more smoothly. Another perk? It could be better for your baby’s health too. Read on to find out what the research and the experts are telling us about the many (many, many) reasons it's worth practicing yoga while you're pregnant.
The mind-body benefits
Sure, it may be a more logical step for an existing yogi to either continue practicing yoga during pregnancy or switch to a prenatal class. But you don’t have to be a yoga fanatic to reap the benefits of prenatal yoga.
A study in The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found numerous benefits to practicing yoga during pregnancy. It triggers the parasympathetic nervous — or rest and digest — system during the third trimester of pregnancy. It also consolidates sleep at night and lowers levels of alpha-amylase, a marker for stress.
The study was small; there were 38 women in a yoga group and 53 in a control group. They noted that alpha-amylase levels decreased significantly immediately after practicing yoga during all evaluation periods in the yoga group. The pregnant yogis also slept longer at night.
A 2012 review of other research that was published in Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine found that prenatal yoga offers benefits during pregnancy. It is also beneficial to the parent and baby during labor and as far as birth outcomes.
“Overall, the evidence that yoga is well suited to pregnancy is positive, but methodological problems with the published literature and a general insufficient wealth of published trials make it impossible to draw any firm conclusion,” the author of the 2012 study said.
Certified prenatal and postnatal yoga teacher and licensed massage therapist Katie Carola tells SheKnows that practicing yoga during pregnancy helps people get in tune with their bodies and emotions. It helps remind them that their bodies were designed to birth a baby and to combat society’s message of fear of childbirth, she said. [Disclaimer: I took prenatal yoga classes from Carola.]
“I like to say you wouldn’t run a marathon without training for it. Yoga does the same for labor and birth,” Carola explains. “When a woman regularly practices prenatal yoga, she learns to move with her breath, get in touch with her emotions and breathe through them and trust her body. A woman’s body instinctively knows how to birth a baby. Through prenatal yoga, women are provided with a supportive space to learn specific poses and breathing techniques that aid in decreasing stress and anxiety during pregnancy and birth.”
As for the most recent study on prenatal yoga, Carola wishes the study looked at the effects that doing prenatal yoga had on the length of labor and also the outcomes as far as which people had vaginal births compared to cesarean sections. She would've also liked to know more about their satisfaction with how yoga helped them cope during labor.
Where to start
What poses work best in prenatal yoga? Tree, Triangle, Cat, Cow, Bound Angle and Legs Up the Wall were just a few of the poses people in the prenatal yoga class did.
Carola says to avoid poses that involve lying flat — especially after 14 weeks in. that’s because the weight of the baby can cause pressure on the inferior vena cava and cause supine hypotensive syndrome.
“In our prenatal yoga classes, women are set up for Savasana [final relaxation, also known as Corpse pose] in either a semi-reclined or a supported side-lying position using yoga blocks, blankets and bolsters to allow for safe and comfortable relaxation,” Carola says.
Some of the best poses for labor are Cat/Cow, Squad, Goddess pose, Extended Puppy pose, Low Lunge and supported Savasana.
Don’t forget to focus on your breathing technique too, Carola adds. “One of the most beneficial things we have found in the effects of prenatal yoga class is feedback from our students of how they found the pranayamas [breathing exercises] taught to be useful in labor and delivery,” she said.
The best aspect of prenatal yoga for me was the use of blocks, especially in Lunge positions. Modifying the poses made that attainable and more comfortable. Many people may be more hesitant to use these props during regular classes, but in prenatal yoga, it was the norm — and I loved that. Not only did the blocks help stabilize me — that got harder as my belly got bigger — but they allowed me to stretch better and stay in proper form.
At the end of the class, during Savasana, Carola would bring bolsters to us and arrange them in a few different ways that are ideal for pregnant yogis. I would have been fine just lying there on my back, but the use of bolsters made the rest time really restful. It just added to the beauty of prenatal yoga.
I haven’t taken a traditional yoga class since I had my son. I transitioned into Carola’s postnatal yoga class, which focuses on core work (it’s harder to get to with a baby but I still try to attend regularly). While there aren’t as many accommodations as far as the use of blocks and bolsters (use them regardless of your condition), it is still nice to be part of a class that takes into consideration the tremendous undertaking my body went through to produce my favorite little human.
I’ll probably get back into traditional yoga classes, but I will always be grateful for my time in prenatal yoga. It mentally and physically equipped me for labor and connected me with a group of moms who made becoming one all the better.