Maintaining Fitness and Flexibility with Prenatal Yoga
Despite some popular beliefs and jokes between families and mamas, pregnancy is not a time to lie around on a proverbial lily pad and eat whatever you want! You can totally do that if you want, but you will probably feel better throughout pregnancy and on into labor if you move your body and eat healthy during pregnancy. It’s also extremely beneficial to the little one growing in your womb that you are as healthy as possible before and during pregnancy.
Prenatal yoga is one great way to stay in great physical shape during pregnancy. While yoga is a vast, ancient spiritual practice hailing from India, it has been popularized in the West for its physical benefits. You can find all kinds of hybrid yoga/pilates, yoga/HITT, or hot yoga-type workout classes in gyms and studios all around the world. But we don’t need to mess with the traditional practice of yoga to gain its physical benefits!
So let’s dive into the benefits of prenatal yoga for fitness and flexibility during pregnancy, as well as which style of yoga can help you feel your best!
Understanding the Importance of Fitness and Flexibility during Pregnancy
There are so many changes that occur in your body during pregnancy to be aware of. You have a hormone dance, physical changes, you grow a whole new organ, not to mention an entirely new human! Growing a baby is one of the most stressful and straining things a human body can go through. It takes up to 30% more energy just to grow the baby each day (it’s like running a marathon every day!).
This means that keeping your body as healthy as possible will only benefit you and how you feel, as well as your baby and how well they develop. Staying fit and flexible will help in so many different ways. You will feel better physically (and mentally and emotionally) throughout pregnancy, and this can help you have an easier labor and birth experience too.
There are a lot of opinions on exercise and fitness during pregnancy, so I will say that the number one thing you can do is find a birth team that you trust and then work with them to discover what’s best for you and your pregnancy. Every mama, pregnancy, and birth is unique, what works for one person may not work for another. That being said – prenatal yoga is generally safe for most low-risk pregnancies! This is great news for most pregnant mamas because yoga is so popular in the West, and that’s because it makes us feel so good! With a certified prenatal yoga instructor (and the blessings of your birth team), you should find great joy and relief in prenatal yoga classes!
Benefits of Prenatal Yoga for Fitness and Flexibility
As I mentioned above, yoga is a spiritual practice that encompasses so much more than just the physical asanas, or postures, but in this article, we’ll focus on the physical because that can’t be ignored.
If you’ve ever seen a fit yogi who has been practicing for many years, you may have noticed how strong they are. Yoga is not an easy physical exercise! It can be quite challenging to hold some of the more difficult postures for a long period of time. Many of the standing postures can really help build and tone leg muscles. A lot of the vinyasa require a strong core to hold or move the body in specific ways.
Yoga also cleanses the body. The movements can help flush the (look up ) system and help remove stiffness in muscles and joints. While yoga is a slower exercise than most cardio programs, the continuous movement warms the body and helps detox many organs and functions.
Yoga also helps with balance, joint stability, and good posture – all of which are important during pregnancy to prepare for birth. Good posture means a stronger core and hip stability can help with a balanced pelvis – both of which are helpful for a vaginal birth.
Tailoring Prenatal Yoga for Fitness and Flexibility
While prenatal yoga is safe for most low-risk pregnancies (confirm with your birth team before doing any exercise activity during pregnancy!), there are some definite modifications that will apply to most pregnant women. Pregnancy brings massive changes to the body, so care must be taken to prevent injury. Pregnancy is also a huge energy expenditure, so pacing yourself and learning to listen to your body move when needed, and rest when needed will further help prevent injury (or exhaustion).
Postures to avoid – avoid any postures that have you lying on your stomach. These postures may be comfortable for some women throughout the first trimester, but as your baby and belly grow, you will run out of room to lie on your belly! You can modify most of these postures in a hands-and-knee position instead.
Avoid any posture that constricts the belly – this usually means modifying your postures to a lesser version, i.e. not as deep a stretch or twist. Twists are often frowned upon in prenatal yoga, but you can safely twist from the upper spine as far as your belly will let you go. You may also run out of room in forward folds, so grab some yoga blocks to bring the ground closer to you and allow more room for the belly.
Avoid stretching too deeply – with so many hormonal changes happening in our bodies during pregnancy, it can be easy to overdo it. One hormone, relaxin, helps stretch our tendons and ligaments, particularly in the pelvis, to make room for the baby to go through the birth canal. So be sure to only stretch to 50-70% of your normal capacity.
Most importantly when it comes to safety in prenatal yoga consider these 3 things:
- Discuss with your birth team.
- Find a certified prenatal yoga instructor
- Learn to listen to your body
Every pregnancy is unique, so the safety measures will be unique across different women’s experiences as well. Following these 3 guidelines will be your best trajectory to ensure safe movement for you and your baby.
Fitness-Enhancing Prenatal Yoga Poses and Sequences
As a traditionally trained Ashtanga vinyasa yoga teacher, I truly try to honor the tradition of yoga in all of my teaching. One thing that this means is that I don’t teach any hybrid approaches, such as adding pilates, HIIT, or other non-yoga exercises. This doesn’t mean you still won’t feel a physical workout in traditional yoga Asana classes! There are some yoga traditions and postures that will enhance your physical fitness, and you don’t need to mess with them to do that.
Ashtanga Primary Series
Ashtanga yoga means two things – Ashtanga means “eight limbs”, so ashtanga yoga is the 8-limbed path as taught by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra text. There is also a traditional lineage of physical postures called Ashtanga vinyasa yoga. The first course in this series is called the Primary series, or yoga chikitsa, which means “yoga therapy”.
Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is a very challenging physical yoga practice that repeats the same sequence of postures over and over again and can build stamina and strength very quickly if practiced regularly. I would not typically recommend beginning this type of yoga during pregnancy, but with an authorized Ashtanga instructor who understands pregnancy, you may be able to modify it appropriately.
Sun salutations (A and B)
Traditional sun salutations, which are taught at the beginning of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga as well as in most traditionally based vinyasa classes, are excellent cardio work. These sequences of postures focus on one breath per movement and keep you moving throughout the flow, except when holding a downward-facing dog for 5 breaths. These postures warm up the body quickly and also include warrior 1 and chair pose in sun salutation B, which both add core and leg strength.
Hatha yoga is another tradition where postures are held for a longer time, not moving as fluidly as in vinyasa yoga (though these postures are also often taught in vinyasa yoga classes). Standing postures can be held for as many breaths as one wants in order to build strength and stamina. If you’ve ever thought yoga wasn’t hard, try holding Warrior 2 for an extended period!
Some strength-building standing postures are:
- Warrior 1 and 2
- Chair pose
- Triangle pose
- Pyramid pose
- One-legged standing pose
- Goddess pose
Yin yoga poses focus on energetic flow through our meridians (similar to the Chakra system) and focus on holding postures for a longer time. This also works on the flexibility of our joints, focusing on tendons and ligaments. Yin yoga can be practiced during pregnancy to help maintain flexibility, but it’s important not to overstretch.
You may hold a posture at about 50% of your normal, non-pregnant capacity, and only hold it for 3 minutes instead of 5, for example. You can also practice vinyasa yoga or Ashtanga yoga postures and hold the poses for a longer time to work on your flexibility.
Incorporating Core Strengthening
Strengthening the core looks different during pregnancy than at other times in life. Most people immediately think of crunches and a 6 pack of abs – well we aren’t going to worry about either of these! True core strength actually comes from working your deeper core muscles, your transverse abdominal muscles. Your rectus abdominal muscle is what creates the visual 6 pack of abs, but it doesn’t do nearly as much for core stability as the transverse abdominals.
During pregnancy, all of your core muscles stretch and therefore weaken. This can cause back pain, and belly pain, and make for a longer recovery time postpartum. Strengthening the deep core muscles during pregnancy, and then on into postpartum, can help with all of these issues.
Core work in pregnancy will look different than normal – as mentioned above, could you imagine doing crunches while pregnant?? Probably not, nor should you. Any core motion that works against gravity like this can cause further strain to the core and tendons and ligaments surrounding it and should be avoided. Instead, core exercises that work with gravity and allow the belly to hang down toward the earth are more appropriate.
Some great yoga postures to build and maintain transverse abdominal muscles during pregnancy are:
- Seated deep belly breathing – sit in a cross-legged or kneeling position. When you inhale, let the belly expand and the ribs and diaphragm fully fill up. Let your pelvic floor relax. As you exhale, exhale through your mouth as if you are blowing out a candle while you pull your belly in toward the spine. Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth, and repeat. Do this same style of breathing and belly activation in each of the following postures.
- Table top position deep belly breathing
- Modified plank
- Modified side plank
- Modified bridge pose (during 1st-2nd trimester)
The core can be activated and focused on during any posture as well. You could take any prenatal yoga class and focus on your breath and your core throughout the class in standing postures, seated postures, and restorative postures.
Using Props and Supportive Tools
Yoga asana can be practiced with just a yoga mat (and honestly, you don’t even really need that!), but there are many props and support tools that may be helpful in prenatal yoga practice. I suggest that all of my students have access to the following yoga props:
Yoga mat – While you could practice yoga on the floor or with a yoga blanket, a thicker yoga mat will likely be much more comfortable, especially during pregnancy. You can find yoga mats in all types of stores, but it’s ideal to find a sustainable mat that will last a long time and not have toxic ingredients in it. You could find a cheap mat at any fitness store to start off, and then once you realize you want to invest in a good mat I love the Manduka rubber mats. It will cost more, but for me, I spent just as much buying a new cheap one every year. I’ve had my Manduka mat for years now and I love it. They are thicker than a standard yoga mat too, which helps with comfort.
Yoga blocks – Yoga blocks help a lot in prenatal yoga when you need to begin creating space in the body due to the baby taking up more room. When you can’t reach the floor any longer in forward folds, yoga blocks help bring the floor closer to you. You can also use blocks to sit on in various seated postures, as well as under the hips for support. Yoga blocks also play a huge role in yin yoga and restorative yoga practices where you aren’t doing deep stretches, but more supporting the body in a relaxed state.
Bolster and other cushions – Bolsters and cushions will also play a huge role in relaxation postures, such as in yin yoga or restorative yoga. These can be softer, more comfortable options than blocks for certain postures.
Yoga strap – A strap can be helpful if you cannot reach your toes in certain postures. Straps can help keep you from straining or stretching too far by acting as an aid in finding your bind without overstretching.
Yoga ball – Also known as an exercise ball or birth ball, these can be found in any fitness store as well as online. I love working with the ball because it’s something my students can easily translate into labor. Sitting on a yoga ball is a great way to mobilize the hips, pelvis, and pelvic floor muscles without contraindications. Many yoga postures are static and you hold them for a while, which is great for your muscles and strength building, but may inhibit fluid movements. For use in labor, you can also lean against the ball and sway your hips from side to side or in circles, do cat/cows against it, or simply relax and breathe.
Consistency and Progression in Prenatal Yoga Practice
Beginning and maintaining a prenatal yoga practice can be a challenge at times – pregnancy is quite a journey as it is! I speak from experience here. Even as a yoga teacher and dedicated student, during pregnancy, I can fall off of my regular practice schedule. The most important thing is to listen to your body and intuition and have a plan with your birth team on what movement is best for you during your pregnancy.
Your practice may look very different in each trimester, and even from week to week. Some weeks you may feel stronger and have more energy and others you may be called to rest. Remaining as consistent as possible will have the best outcome for you physically and mentally. I recommend practicing for shorter periods each day, and more often. For example, it’s more beneficial to practice for 15 minutes each day, 5 days a week, than to try and squeeze in an hour-long class twice a week. This consistency will help you maintain your strength and flexibility without overdoing it.
I have a lot of ways you can practice with me in this way. My entire Chakra series consists of 10-minute practices you can easily integrate into your day. You can also simply sit on your mat and practice deep core breathing exercises and mindfulness meditation on days when you don’t have the energy to practice.
The bottom line is if you are here and practicing, you are committed to doing really healthy things for your body, mind, and spirit! You’re doing a great job mama, keep it up!
Heal the mothers, heal the world.