Generally speaking, yoga is an excellent practice for pregnant moms. It can relieve muscle tension, reduce stress, alleviate anxiety, relieve lower-back pain, improve sleep and strengthen and tone the body in preparation for the physical and emotional challenge of giving birth. But not every pose is safe for expectant moms — and unfortunately, many teachers aren’t adequately trained to know which poses to avoid or modify.
I confess that when I first started teaching, I had no idea how to safely work with pregnant women and would silently pray no pregnant moms would walk through the door. Fortunately for me, way more than a few women with beautiful baby bumps found their way into my classes, forcing me to get out of my comfort zone and learn how to work with women through all three trimesters of pregnancy.
I’m currently six months pregnant myself, so I’m more in touch with my body and my yoga practice than ever before. While I’ve had to adapt, modify and avoid certain poses, my body is feeling stronger and healthier than ever! So yoga-on my beautiful mamas!
1. BELLY-DOWN POSTURES
Once pregnancy has been confirmed, it’s best to avoid any poses that involve lying or placing pressure directly on your belly (prone position) like cobra or locust pose (salabhasana). Even though your little one might only be the size of a lentil, we don’t want to place unnecessary compression on your baby. Instead swap cobra pose for cow pose or sphinx pose (first trimester only). Once you move into your second and third trimester, lying on your belly won’t even be an option!
2. LYING ON YOUR BACK
Once you reach 20 weeks of pregnancy, poses on your back lasting for more than 90 seconds should be limited. As your baby and uterus grow in the second and third trimesters, extra pressure is placed on your vena cava, the main vein that carries blood from your lower body back to your heart. During exercise, this can lead to lowered blood pressure and dizziness. Modify postures like corpse pose (savasana) by propping your back up on bolsters supported by blocks or by lying on your side instead.
Your belly is your baby’s home for the next nine months and your job is to protect that beautiful house. Core exercises like crunches and boat pose (navasana) compress the abdomen and should be avoided during all three trimesters. However, you don’t have to shy away from all core exercises. Creating a strong and stable core can help you prevent lower-back pain during pregnancy and build stamina for labor and delivery.
In general, safe core exercises include extended table, plank (with proper form — no dumping into the lower back!), forearm plank and side forearm plank. However, check with your doctor if you have or suspect you have diastasis recti, which is a separation of the outermost layer of abdominal muscles that affects about 1/3 of pregnant women. This determines which core exercises you are able to safely perform.
4. FORWARD FOLDS WITH FEET TOGETHER
As your pregnancy progresses and your belly grows, you’ll want to modify deep forward folds like standing forward bend (uttanasana) and seated forward bend (paschimottanasana) to make more space for your baby and protect your lower back. Instead of practicing with your feet together, take a wider stance and use blocks under your palms during standing forward bends to avoid going too deep and straining your lower back.
5. TWISTING POSTURES
Similar to crunches, “closed” twists (twisting inward) compress the abdomen and should be avoided during pregnancy. Examples of twisting postures to avoid include twisting chair, twisting crescent, revolved triangle, revolved half moon and seated twists. Open twists, however, are fine because they don’t compress your baby’s warm and cozy home.
6. PRETZEL POSES
While you won’t find “pretzel pose” in any of the ancient yogic texts — you can probably figure out which kind of poses I’m referring to — you know, those crazy, twist-yourself-into-knots poses? I try my best to avoid those altogether (because who really needs to wrap their leg around their head?), and I would certainly avoid them during pregnancy. During pregnancy, our body produces a hormone called relaxin, which relaxes the ligaments in the pelvis to help create space for your baby to pass through. As a result, there’s an increased risk of overstretching your ligaments in certain poses, which can lead to SI joint instability and lower-back pain. Be mindful not to over-stretch in any given pose during your practice.
7. DEEP BACKBENDS
While gentle backbends can be very therapeutic during pregnancy, avoid deep backbends like upward bow pose (also known as “wheel” or urdhva dhanurasana) unless you have been safely and comfortably practicing them pre-pregnancy, as they can put you at risk for diastasis recti (abdominal separation).
I’m admittedly an inversion junkie and at six months pregnant, I’m still safely and regularly practicing inversions including handstands and forearm balances. However, the general rule of thumb is that if you didn’t have a strong inversion practice before you got pregnant, now is not the time to start. The most obvious risk includes toppling over, but other risks include compressing your cervical spine (the small vertebrae in your neck) in poses like headstand as you are now carrying more weight than your body is used to.
9. HEATING BREATHING TECHNIQUES & BREATH RETENTION
Heating breathwork techniques like “breath of fire” (or kapalabhati) should be avoided. Breath retention practices like kumbhaka pranayama should also be avoided during pregnancy. Breathing practices like diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing) and ujayii breathing, however, are highly recommended! These types of calming, cooling breathing techniques are great to carry with you into labor and delivery.
I just completed a hypnobirthing course where they encouraged expectant moms to “breathe the baby down” through the birth canal rather than forcefully pushing, which studies have shown can lead to less vaginal tearing.
10. HOT YOGA
During pregnancy, as blood flow increases, your core temperature can also rise. Practicing yoga in a heated room with extreme temperatures should be avoided so as not to put yourself and your baby at risk for dangerous elevations of core maternal temperature.