Yoga is a great form of pregnancy exercise suitable for most women. Antenatal yoga helps in building up muscle tone, developing flexibility, aligning your body correctly for good posture, boosting your energy levels and also helps you to breathe well and relax. This can not only help ease pregnancy discomforts and worries, but can also play an important role when it comes to being physically and mentally prepared for labour itself: The breathing and relaxation techniques can be of particular benefit during labour, helping to ease discomfort and keep you calm. And of course, anything that helps keep you fit and relaxed will also benefit your baby.
Unlike many other forms of exercise, you can easily adjust your yoga practice to accommodate your changing body throughout the whole of your pregnancy, and pregnancy-specific courses of antenatal yoga are widely available. What's more, these yoga classes can be a great place to meet like-minded mums-to-be, so it's no wonder that antenatal yoga is becoming increasingly popular.
As with any other exercise you should consult your doctor before embarking on a fitness regime in pregnancy.
While there are plenty of sports that it's not recommended that you take up when pregnant, antenatal yoga is very accessible to beginners and many women first turn to it during pregnancy when they are looking to switch to lower-impact forms of exercise. As a beginner it's best to look for a specific antenatal (or prenatal) yoga course in your area. An instructor will be able to give you more individual guidance than an instruction book or DVD, and, crucially, will be able to correct your poses.
If you already practice yoga and go to regular classes then the first thing you need to do when you fall pregnant is to tell your instructor about the pregnancy and how far along you are. If you practice yoga on your own at home then you might want to consider getting a simple book or DVD specifically for antenatal yoga at your level of experience. During the first trimester you may be able to continue your practice almost as usual (unless you practice a very demanding, energetic or 'hot' yoga), however there will already be some poses that you are better off avoiding. You may also find that you don't feel up to practising, or at least not on the same level as before you are pregnant, particularly if you are suffering from morning sickness. Listen to your body and adjust your exercises accordingly, if your body is telling you to rest, then rest.
Taking care in pregnancy
If you're going to do practice yoga during pregnancy you should ideally look for very specific help, either from your regular instructor, from a specific antenatal yoga guide that tells you what asanas to avoid and how you can modify others for pregnancy, or through an antenatal yoga class.
Remember that whether you're an experienced yoga practitioner or a beginner, pregnancy isn't the time to try to challenge yourself in your yoga practice, but a time to recognise and stay within your limits: You want to avoid straining, constraining and twisting your abdomen, and - as with any other exercise - you want to avoid overdoing it. Hormones produced during pregnancy act to soften your bones and loosen your joints in anticipation of the stretching that will be necessary at birth, but a knock-on affect of this is that your joints become more vulnerable to overstretching and damage, which can be very painful and difficult to heal. It's very important that you take care not to overstretch when you're practising antenatal yoga.
Whatever your yoga level, special yoga supports, cushions or rolled up towels can all take the strain out of certain positions: Don't feel you're cheating by using supports, it's the sensible thing to do.
Here's a brief overview of types of yoga and poses with which you should be careful:
- 'Hot yoga' - Forms of 'hot' yoga which are done in very hot rooms (any class based on Bikram yoga) should be avoided for the same reason that saunas and hot-tubs should be avoided: the excessive heat could pose a risk to your baby's development.
- Ashtanga yoga - Ashtanga yoga is not a suitable starting place for pregnant novices. Many ashtanga yoga masters recommend that even experienced practitioners forgo ashtanga practice in the first trimester of pregnancy, after that, if you do decide to practice you should certainly modify your practice to take into account your pregnancy, and preferably seek specific advice about practising ashtanga when pregnant.
- Inverted poses - You'll want to avoid most inverted poses unless you practice at a highly advanced level.
- Back bends - Slight back bends won't be a problem for many, but do let yourself into the bend gently and don't let your back tighten. Deep, or full, backbends should be avoided.
- Jumping / jump throughs - This can give an unnecessary jolt to your uterus, step more gently between poses rather than jumping.
- Take care with balance poses - As your centre of gravity changes you also have to be cautious with balance poses. Poses which may have been easy for your before may now pose a real risk of falling, and damage to yourself and/or your baby. Many balancing poses can be adapted with the use of a support, such as a chair or wall, so that they are still safe.
- Prolonged periods on your back - During the second trimester your doctor may advise you not to spend long periods of time lying on your back, as this could potentially reduce the oxygen flow to your baby. Sleeping on your back, for example, is generally not recommended. Short periods of time on your back, such as a two or three minutes, however, don't pose a problem unless they are uncomfortable.
- Twists - Deep twists can squash your uterus, so it's best to twist far more gently during pregnancy, and to twist from the shoulders.
- Some breathing exercises - You want to ensure a continuous and stable oxygen supply to yourself and your baby, so any breathing exercises which compromise that, such as breath retention, should be given a miss.
- Any pose that feels uncomfortable - As your body changes, your growing bump, extra weight and changing balance will make some poses uncomfortable or simply impractical, such as those where you need to lie on your belly. Once you're into the second trimester you'll want to skip poses requiring you to lie on your tummy.