You probably already know that doctor-approved fitness during pregnancy is good for you: It helps alleviate pesky pregnancy symptoms like constipation, back pain, bloating, swelling and fatigue. And according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), staying active helps moms mentally, too, increasing energy, mood and ability to sleep (which can be extra tricky when you’re expecting).
But prenatal yoga may just be the ideal exercise for pregnant women. Here’s what you need to know before starting a prenatal yoga routine.
What is prenatal yoga?
Yoga is a form of exercise and meditation where breath and specific body positions are used to help connect the mind and body. Prenatal yoga focuses on positions that are specifically designed for pregnant women’s bodies.
How is prenatal yoga different from regular yoga?
Common positions in regular yoga — such as those where your feet are spread far apart — may be too stressful for your joints and pelvic area when you’re expecting. As your baby grows, there’s a lot more weight pushing down on your bladder and pelvis.
Pregnancy hormones also loosen your ligaments, making joint and bone problems (especially in the pubic bone) a source of discomfort. In addition to modifying positions for pregnancy, prenatal yoga also emphasizes breathing, stretches and strengthening moves that help your body prepare for labor.
Can prenatal yoga be the first time I ever do yoga?
Yes! You don’t have to be a yogi before you conceive to jump on the prenatal yoga bandwagon. As long as your doctor has given you the green light to stay physically active during pregnancy, yoga is an ideal activity for all expectant moms: It’s gentle and designed for pregnancy, which means it helps prepare you for the mental aspects of childbirth (and beyond).
But remember, it’s always a good idea to check with your practitioner before starting any new exercise during pregnancy.
What to expect in a pregnancy yoga class
In a prenatal yoga class, you’ll likely be encouraged to use accessories (bolsters, blocks, wedges or folded blankets) to achieve the proper alignment. You can typically expect:
- An introduction. Your yoga teacher will want to know your name, how far along you are, any aches and pains you're having, and what body parts or poses you’d like to work on. You'll likely get a chance to mingle with other moms during this time: Most studios encourage their students to chat before and after class, and many ask moms to share a little bit about their pregnancy experiences — worries, hopes, dreams — with the group before class gets started.
- A short period of relaxation. Like regular vinyasa classes, the session typically begins with a quick period of rest and focus inward (a practice you might find useful during labor).
- A brief warmup. You'll slowly get your body moving, so your muscles and joints are ready for class.
- A standing vinyasa flow. This will incorporate pelvic floor and abdominal toning movements, then hip and chest opening poses, all the while emphasizing deep, diaphragmatic breathing (not the shallow "hee-hee-hoo-hoo" breathing associated with Lamaze). Generally, many of the poses you perform are similar to those performed in regular vinyasa class, they'll just be modified for your safety.
- Gentle stretching. Your teacher will lead you through a few stretches to further lengthen and relax your muscles. This should feel good!
- A modification of savasana. After all your hard work, your instructor will direct you chill out in "savasana," where you'll lie on your back with your eyes closed. The pose will be modified depending how far along you are: In your second trimester, you’d lay on your back with a bolster to prop your upper body up at a 45-degree angle, while in your third trimester, you’d lay on your side with a bolster and blanket for support. Expect to hold this position for six or seven minutes: It’s a peaceful pose intended to bring about total relaxation. And it’s well deserved!
Benefits of prenatal yoga
Prenatal yoga is an ideal low-impact fitness routine to start when you’re expecting, even if you’re not used to regularly working out — and it boasts plenty of benefits for you and your baby. It can help:
- Lower your blood pressure. Studies have shown that a pregnant woman’s heart rate and blood pressure lowers after doing prenatal yoga — even more so than after doing other low-impact exercises like walking.
- Cut your risk of preterm labor and other complications. High stress levels have been shown to increase miscarriage and preterm birth rates, and yoga is a great stress-reducer. Women who do yoga — including breathing exercises, posture positions and meditation — for one hour a day have been shown to have a lower preterm labor rate, as well as lower risk of pregnancy-reduced hypertension, compared with women who spent the same amount of time walking.
- Stabilize your moods. Another study showed that integrated yoga — that is, exercise-based yoga combined with meditation, deep relaxation and breathing exercises — significantly decreased levels of depression in moms-to-be.
- Manage your weight. Like all physical activity, yoga keeps you active, which helps you to better manage your prenatal weight gain.
- Improve your delivery experience. The breathing exercises you’ll practice in yoga can be calming when it comes time to push baby out. Plus, the many stretching and strengthening moves can improve your delivery experience and your recovery (from either a vaginal birth or C-section), since your core and other important muscles will be stronger and more toned. In fact, one small study found that women who participated in a yoga routine involving just six sessions before birth spent less time overall in labor than those who did not. They also reported they felt less pain and more comfortable during and immediately after labor.
Staying safe in a prenatal yoga class
First and foremost: If you aren’t taking a yoga class that’s specifically for pregnant women, let your instructor know you’re expecting before you start class. That way she’ll be able to point out which moves you should avoid or modify. Otherwise, keep these tips in mind:
- Drink enough water. This goes for anytime you’re working out, no matter how much of a sweat you break.
- Stay off your back. Avoid any exercises after the first trimester where you’re lying on your back, since your baby’s growing weight puts pressure on your vena cava (a major vein that brings blood to your heart), interfering with circulation and making you feel dizzy and nauseous.
- Skip hot yoga. Don’t do yoga (or any other exercise, for that matter) in any extreme heat, in part because exposure to excessive heat could result in neural tube defects, and also because it can cause you to feel dizzy and nauseous. That goes for both Bikram yoga and exercise outdoors on a hot day.
- Avoid deep abdominal work, backbends and twists. Your center of gravity can be off during pregnancy, and backbends and twists may cause you to fall. As with most things during your pregnancy, if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, stop right away and call your doctor:
- Any kind of fluid leaking from your vagina
- Dizziness, shortness of breath or feeling light-headed
- Calf pain or swelling
- If you’re further along in your pregnancy and you feel your baby moving less
- If you feel like your baby is pushing down, or if you feel pressure in your pelvis
- If you have belly cramps or backaches
Pregnancy yoga tips by trimester
Experts recommend getting physically active every day for at least 30 minutes — and yoga certainly counts. Here are a few tips to maximize your time on the mat each trimester.
- First trimester: Since you’re likely feeling more fatigued than usual, make sure to take breaks and modify your yoga positions. And if you’re suffering from morning sickness, replace downward dog with hands and knees (cat-cow positioning) — not because downward dog is unsafe, but just because having your head below your belly can make you feel more nauseous.
- Second trimester: If you’re experiencing the typical second trimester energy surge, it’s a good time to master the stretching and strengthening moves — including squats and stretches that tone the pelvic area and open the hips— that will help prepare your body for labor.
- Third trimester: As your baby grows and your center of gravity moves forward, you’re likely feeling increasingly uncomfortable. This makes your last few weeks of pregnancy a good time to focus on meditation and breathing techniques to calm your heartrate and help you to feel more centered. Doing so can help relieve any anxiety you might feel about your upcoming birth — plus learning how to control your breathing now will pay off in labor and delivery (not to mention those trying situations once baby does arrive!).
Prenatal yoga videos
Not able to make it to a pregnancy yoga class? You can still reap the benefits at home with these prenatal yoga flows from What to Expect and Obé Fitness.