Preparing for Labor: Prenatal Yoga Techniques and Exercises
Prenatal yoga is a beautiful practice for connecting with yourself and your baby during pregnancy. You may find relief from pregnancy discomforts, more peace in your emotional state, and peace of mind. In addition to all of those amazing benefits of a prenatal yoga practice, the physical postures can help prepare your body for labor.
While the female body is meant for labor and knows what to do physiologically, our modern sedentary lifestyle often means we have unhealthy bodies, bad posture, and weak muscles – all things that could contribute to a more difficult birth path. Beginning a prenatal yoga practice now could help with some of these things and assist in easier, faster labor.
Benefits of Prenatal Yoga for Labor Preparation
Whether you are planning a hospital or home birth, an unmedicated birth, or a medicated birth, prenatal yoga can help your body prepare for the marathon of work that is labor and birth. Labor usually goes smoother when uninterrupted, when it is allowed to begin on its own without induction (reference). Once the body goes into labor naturally, the dance of hormones takes over and the body goes to work!
Labors for first-time mothers tend to be longer, some over 24 hours long, and as you can imagine, enduring this feat takes strength and stamina! Think of labor and birth as an event you need to train for – enter prenatal yoga. Practicing yoga regularly throughout pregnancy can help with the strength that you gain from various standing postures, and stamina from breathing with your postures through vinyasa and continuous movement.
Being able to move comfortably into different laboring and then pushing positions is important to the birth process, allowing the baby to navigate through the birth canal as needed (reference). Working through hip opening and pelvic balancing postures can certainly help with flexibility and make different laboring positions more comfortable.
Any labor, but especially a long one (I can attest to this at 56 hours of labor!) requires relaxation, a state of calm and continuous ease. The hormone dance of labor can actually stall contractions if the mother feels threatened, disturbed, or in fear. This is often why births where medical staff are intervening often with various checks and interruptions can actually lengthen the labor (reference). Having practiced yoga during pregnancy and being able to find a calm space within, where you are connecting to yourself and to your baby, can help you remain in a calm space as you undergo this feat of labor.
Breathing Techniques for Labor
Our breath is directly connected to our nervous system (and obviously all of our bodily systems), and you can use breathing (pranayama) to keep yourself in a calm state, as well as overcome the intensity of contractions. A common breath practice from Lamaze classes often depicted in the media with a “hee-hee-hoo” pattern is well-known, but certainly not the only method.
Learning how to breathe properly is the first thing to know, and a qualified prenatal yoga instructor should be able to teach you this. Full belly, diaphragmatic breathing activates the entire diaphragm, allowing full breaths, and therefore more oxygen flow throughout the body. Full belly breathing also helps relax the pelvic floor muscles.
Furthermore, the throat chakra and sacral chakra are directly connected energetically. Physiologically this means that your jaw, mouth, and throat are directly connected to your reproductive system. If you keep your jaw, mouth, and throat relaxed, you can better relax and open your pelvic floor. In my classes, I like to teach inhaling through the nose and then opening the mouth with a relaxed jaw sighing out the breath, and eventually vocalizing with an “ahhhh.” This is a great practice to allow yourself to vocalize so you feel comfortable doing so in a room full of birth workers!
Pelvic Floor Exercises for Labor and Birth
As mentioned above, the pelvic floor is a very important physiological factor in smoother labor and delivery. The pelvic floor muscles must relax in order for the baby to work their way through the muscles, widening the pelvis, and coming through the birth canal. Understanding how to activate and relax the pelvic floor also helps in postpartum recovery. Activating and restrengthening the pelvic floor after birth helps with issues such as prolapse, pelvic pain, urinary incontinence, and other common postpartum issues. (This is not medical advice, I would recommend seeing a pelvic floor physical therapist for diagnistic and healing assistance with any pelvic floor issues post-birth).
If you do see a pelvic floor physical therapist, they may give you specific exercises to assist in your recovery, and some of these exercises may mirror certain yoga postures! This is why yoga can be so beneficial to birth preparation as well as postpartum healing.
Labor Positions and Movements in Prenatal Yoga
Free movement during labor can help babies navigate the birth canal how they need to. Mamas in hospital scenarios are often placed on their backs for the ease of procedures, etc. but most don’t know that you can move as much as you want! It is your right to move during labor, you need only tell your birth team what you want to do (or just do it!). Lying on your back during birth can work against gravity and slow labor down, but the following laboring positions can assist the baby:
Hands and knees – works with gravity to help baby get in an optimal position, may help with pain from back labor (personal testimony here!), allows mama to rock, move, and sway during contractions, knees in/calves out can help open the bottom of the pelvis in later stages of labor
Squatting – helps to open the upper and middle parts of the pelvis during labor, works with gravity to help baby move downward, allows mama to grab onto a bar, partner, etc. for leverage during pushing
Side-lying – can open the pelvis to help with baby positioning, can offer rest and relief in between contractions
These positions are all foundational body positions in certain prenatal yoga postures that I teach in most of my classes. So practicing yoga regularly can get you used to these various positions, so they don’t feel new or uncomfortable if you find yourself intuitively wanting to try them during labor.
Relaxation Techniques for Labor
We already discussed breathing for helping you to relax during labor, but there are additional ways that a prenatal yoga practice can help you learn how to relax. If you begin a meditation practice and learn how to quiet your mind, you may be able to remain calmer in the moment when new sensations arise or when fears come up. Labor and birth is a mind game more than anything! Mind over matter truly rings true in this experience, and if you can remain present, calm, and breathe through pain and fear you can certainly birth a baby!
If you explore more of the esoteric side of yoga during your pregnancy, you may find mantras that you can repeat that keep you calm, or certain meditations focusing on a specific chakra or philosophy that help you stay present and in a spiritually calm state of being.
Partner Yoga and Labor Support
You may also find some prenatal yoga classes that work your partner into your practice. If your partner is present at birth and helping to support you, it can be very helpful for both of you that they understand the labor process and how they can support you during labor. If your partner learns the breathing techniques that you learn in yoga, they can help remind you to breathe if you lose your focus.
They can also rub your back, squeeze your hips, or offer stability in positions such as hands and knees or squatting. In squatting, you might lean your back against your partner with their arms supporting under yours. If you labor sitting on a yoga or birth cball they can help offer stability, or again you can lean against them. There are various ways for your partner to integrate themselves into various yoga postures/positions, and it’s encouraged for you to try out different things to find whatever works for you
Incorporating Prenatal Yoga into Birth Preparation
Whether or not you have other birth preparation activities planned for your pregnancy (such as chiropractor, pelvic floor therapist, etc.), integrating a regular yoga practice can help you. Prenatal yoga can be safely practiced in all 3 trimesters with the appropriate modifications. Here are suggestions for using prenatal yoga as birth preparation:
– Practice often! Less time each day, more often is more effective than longer classes for less often.
– Find a yoga instructor locally or online teaching specific labor preparation techniques
– Inquire for a certified prenatal yoga instructor who understands the birth process and the pregnant body
Preparation for labor and birth is like training for a marathon, and you wouldn’t do that lying on the couch watching Netflix! There is a time for rest and relaxation in pregnancy, certainly, but movement is also important and will help train you for this birth marathon. When choosing movement programs during pregnancy, always work with your birth team for what is appropriate for you and your body.
You can start a prenatal yoga practice by searching for local prenatal yoga classes or instructors in places like Facebook, Eventbrite, and other local community groups. You can also practice online with me here to get started –
Self-guided week-by-week pregnancy journal, purchase here.
Heal the mothers, heal the world.