After taking her first prenatal yoga class in 2007, Mel Armstrong-Jones, then 32 weeks pregnant with her first child, experienced a surge of pure joy. “I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m so lucky to be pregnant here in the Western world… nothing can surely go wrong’,” she says. “Well, didn’t I eat my words.”
The next morning, stuck driving on her own in Sydney’s peak-hour traffic, Mel’s waters broke. With her husband, Huw, away on work, Mel had to drive herself to the hospital. She was then transported to a second hospital where, two days later, labour began in earnest. “I was put in an operating room for birth and I didn’t have any freedom of movement,” says the marriage celebrant and part-time yoga teacher.
“I wasn’t allowed a candle or a CD—none of the ‘yogic’ accessories I had dreamed of. It definitely wasn’t the birth I wanted. I really had to get into my head and meditate on the beauty of the birth rather than the drama because I was in pain emotionally with such an early birth.”
When baby Morgan finally arrived, doctors whisked him off to intensive care, depriving Mel of the experience of holding her baby skin-to-skin. “We were in the hospital for a month and my hormones went a little haywire—I’m sure a bit of postnatal depression kicked in,” she says.
For her second child, daughter Amelie, born in July this year, Mel was better prepared. She began attending prenatal yoga classes much earlier in her pregnancy and made a commitment to the yogic tenet of satya, truthfulness. “I was quite conscious to really share with my doctor, my friends and family how I was feeling, how apprehensive I was and how strong I wanted to be the second time around,” she says. In her asana practice, Mel shifted focus away from the physical and instead turned inwards, cultivating a sense of peace and stillness. Other women in her class became friends and a new network of support.
When her waters broke—again early, this time by four weeks—“I still wasn’t ready, but I had complete faith and trust in the birth process,” says Mel. “I wasn’t instantly in that state of panic. Instead it was a whole build-up to believing everything would all work out. That is what yoga teaches you; to let go and enjoy the journey.”
FORCE OF NATURE
More than just gentle exercise, prenatal yoga is one of the most potent birthing tools available to women. The practice melds the essence of yoga: breath, asana and meditation with childbirth education to help enrich and empower women throughout their pregnancy.
On a physical level, prenatal yoga can reduce stress, improve sleep and assist with pregnancy-related symptoms such as nausea, backache, sciatica and carpel tunnel syndrome. In 2005, research from the Vivekananda Yoga Research Facility in Bangalore, India, revealed that practising yoga during pregnancy can also improve birth weight and decrease the risk of pre-term labour, pregnancy-induced hypertension and intrauterine growth retardation.
Emotionally, a prenatal class is often the only space women give themselves to really “be” in their bodies and connect with the child growing within. “There’s something really special and safe and nurturing about this time that you give yourself,” says Ana Davis from Bliss Baby Yoga, a pre- and postnatal yoga teacher training organisation. “Part of what we honour in the prenatal classes is not being in a hurry, but just enjoying this amazing, sacred journey of being a mother.”
More deeply still, the practice can help women address the often overwhelming fear they hold about giving birth. “I’ve had a lot of obstetricians, midwives and physios tell me they’ve observed that women cope better giving birth when they’ve done yoga,” says Julia Willoughby, a Canberra-based childbirth educator, and pre- and postnatal yoga teacher.
“We get bombarded with such negative images of women screaming and being in terrifying pain. In a way, yoga can help de-program these ideas and replace them with more positive attitudes. That’s the real richness of prenatal yoga; it helps women take a more active and empowered role in their labour.”
Yoga can also help women heal residual trauma from earlier births. “I hear so many stories of women feeling ill-prepared, naïve. Feeling that when they were in hospital their preferences weren’t respected or that they didn’t have adequate advocacy, and what they experienced wasn’t what they were hoping for,” says Nina Isabella, a Melbourne-based prenatal yoga teacher, childbirth educator, doula and founder of Mamashanti Yoga for Birth.
“These women are often locked up with fear because they weren’t adequately supported and were easily pressured into interventions that led to a safe birth, but maybe weren’t the only way they could go. They come to my classes hoping to put down the notes for a new story and appreciating that within each birth is the profound capacity for personal healing.”
TOGETHER AS ONE
A broad sweep of asana styles exists under the umbrella of prenatal yoga, and the content and sequencing of individual classes will depend on the teacher’s background and experience. For her workshops, Davis takes a scientific approach: “It’s not just Om-ing and gentle stretches,” she says. “It’s allowing pregnant women to move and stretch and strengthen with intelligent alignment.”
Her class plans typically incorporate modified Sun Salutes and standing postures, alongside pranayama. “A lot of prenatal classes are passive and the students don’t do a lot,” she says. “But pregnancy isn’t an illness, there’s still a lot you can do.” That said, she adds, “I start with the overriding principle—do not compress, strain or overstretch the belly. Create space in everything you do.”
In the western suburbs of Brisbane, Jenny McFarland, a midwife and founder of Yoga For Two, structures her classes to reflect the energetic rise and fall of a contraction. “I teach pranayama first, which brings everybody into this place of quietness where they can start connecting with the baby,” she says. “Then we flow into a series of asanas on the floor. These are followed by modified standing postures before finishing with meditation and Savasana. It’s wonderful for pre-hypertension,” says McFarland.
Correct alignment is a focus, as is releasing the muscles around the hips and pelvis, which can impact on a baby’s ability to get into the optimal, head-down position for birth. “Helping the pelvis to be more symmetrical may help the uterus be more symmetrical,” explains McFarland. “For this to happen we need to tone and stretch the muscles around the pelvis, which in turn may align the sacrum, align the pelvic brim, relax spasms out of the cervical ligaments and relax the psoas muscles.” Poses that target the psoas can include modified Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose) and Sukhasana (Easy Pose) with legs supported by blankets.
Marjaryasana (Cat Pose) and Bitilasana (Cow Pose) are key postures in the prenatal classes Sarah Palmer teaches at her specialist pre- and postnatal yoga studio, Yogamama, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. “These two poses provide a great way to teach the connection of breath and movement—two of the most powerful tools available to birthing women,” she says. “Being on all fours also helps to bring the weight of baby forward off the spine, and can help to relieve back pain and encourage the baby into a better position for birth.”
Many teachers advise women against practising yoga in the first 12 to 14 weeks of pregnancy, when the chance of miscarriage is at its highest (although few believe the yoga will actually initiate a miscarriage), and all warn against doing supine postures, deep twists, strenuous abdominal exercises and deep squats if the baby is in breech over 30 weeks.
“For experienced practitioners there is often a sense of loss that comes with being unable to undertake their practice in the same way,” says Dr Jean Byrne, an authorised Ashtanga yoga teacher and co-owner of The Yoga Space in West Perth. “Some will continue to push and force, which inevitably results in injury. To my mind, this is due to a misunderstanding by Ashtanga practitioners that it is important to be practising advanced postures. Pregnancy is a sacred process, one in which we are both two—mother and baby—yet also one. This oneness is what spiritual seekers spend their lives trying to experience.”
Katie Brown from Yoga Babes on Sydney’s northern beaches agrees. “Yoga means the union between the mind and the body, using the breath as the link. The union between the mother and her unborn baby is one of the greatest unions of all. Prenatal yoga is about the asanas, as well as the ability to gently release into the body using the breath.”
BREATH OF LIFE
Of all the benefits prenatal yoga offers, pranayama is possibly the most important for the birthing process. “The feedback I’ve gotten from my students is that, even more than asana, the breath is what they come back and talk about after the birth,” says McFarland. “It is an incredible tool we have to offer women.”
During labour, breathing alone can release endorphins and oxytocin, providing natural pain relief and helping women birth without drugs or interference. Pranayama techniques commonly taught in prenatal classes include deep yogic breathing (“It is calming and centring, and brings oxygen to the mother and the baby, reducing the chance for foetal distress,” says Willoughby); Ujjayi, also known as Conqueror Breath (“It is rhythmic, and helps to steady and calm the mind,” says Byrne); Golden Thread breath; and very soft breathing that doesn’t engage the pelvic floor or diaphragm (“This is ideal when the baby’s head is crowning,” says Willoughby).
Nadi Shodana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) can also help reduce fear and anxiety. “Breath is the key to unlocking your best possible labour,” says Brown. “And it’s something that’s always with you. [It’s not something you] need to remember to pack it into your hospital bag.”
But there are some exceptions: breath retention at the end of an inhalation (kumbhaka) is not advised, as are short, sharp breaths, which build heat in the body. And of course, “you have to be really careful thinking that because you do prenatal yoga you’re going to have a divine waterbirth,” says Davis. “There are no guarantees.”
The beauty of pranayama is that it is equally available to women who have complicated or emergency deliveries, a cesarean section or, like Armstrong-Jones, feel that events are spiralling out of their control. “I had one lady in my class who ruptured her uterus,” says McFarland. “On her journey into theatre she returned to how powerful her breath was and came to this quiet place where she was able to let go of the thoughts she didn’t need.”
Beyond breath and asana, prenatal yoga creates a supportive community around mothers-to-be that is often missing in the hospital system. Classes allow women the opportunity to spend time with other pregnant women, exchange information and develop friendships and support networks.
“A lot of women, especially if it’s their first baby, haven’t been involved in their local community prior to becoming pregnant,” says Brown. “With yoga in common, they can create lovely friendships.”
Most teachers also hope their prenatal students continue with classes after the birth, when life as a new mother is teaching women the greatest lessons yoga has to offer: to surrender and be in the present.
Catherine McCormack is a Sydney-based freelance writer and Ashtanga yoga practitioner, who had her first child this year.
Sequence by Deb Flashenberg
Try the three standing poses on these pages as a flowing sequence. They cultivate stamina, open the hips, stretch the side body and help connect breath to movement. Begin in Warrior II by standing sideways on your mat with your feet wide apart. Turn your left toes out to the left and reach your arms out so that they are parallel to the ground. Bend your left knee deeply until it is over, but not past, your left ankle. Stay for a breath but don’t sway your lower back, which is common as the belly grows bigger and the uterus tips further forward. Then move into Reverse Warrior.
Inhale as you sweep back into Reverse Warrior. Take your right hand to your right leg for support, and sweep your left arm overhead so that your entire left side is stretched in a long arc. Gaze up or down as you stay for 1 breath before moving into Parsvakonasana.
Exhale and place your left forearm on your left thigh. Sweep your right arm alongside your right ear. Hold for 1 breath. Repeat this sequence 3 times on each side, moving with the breath. Remember that your breath can support you through difficult, uncomfortable moments. The side-bend poses can also help release lower-back pain by stretching the latissimus dorsi muscles.
Garland Pose with Eagle Pose arms, a.k.a. Wide-Legged Goddess Squat, opens the hips, strengthens the legs and releases tight upper-back muscles. Stand with your feet a little wider than your hips. Open your arms wide and cross one elbow over the other. Bend your elbows so the fingertips are pointing up toward the ceiling. The backs of your hands should be facing each other. From there, wrap your forearms around each other until you can press your palms together. Exhale and bend your knees into a deep squat. If your heels lift, roll up a blanket or mat and place it underneath them. It is common to overarch the lower back, so be vigilant about releasing the tailbone down toward the floor and aiming the knees for the pinky sides of the feet (not the big-toe sides).
Come onto your hands and knees with your hands on blocks. Step one foot forward between your hands into a low lunge (if you need padding, place a blanket under your back knee). Avoid overarching your lower back or going too deep into the lunge, which could overstretch your groins. It’s easy to stretch too far during pregnancy since your hormones promote more opening in the body, so be mindful of your edge and back off just slightly.
From Low Lunge, bring your hips over your back heel so that your back leg bends and your front leg straightens. Take several breaths here as you ease into the stretch. This pose stretches the calves (which might cramp at night during pregnancy) and the sciatic nerve, which runs all the way down into the heel. Stay there for a few breaths; then slowly flow back and forth between the Low Lunge and the Half Monkey God Pose 3 more times before switching sides.
This pose is helpful if you have sciatica because it stretches and releases tension in the deep muscles in the buttocks, such as the piriformis. Come onto your hands and knees; then bring your left knee behind your left wrist. Take one block and place it under your left hip. Place another block so that it will be under your back upper thigh when you come into the pose. From there, gently start to straighten the back leg as you move into Pigeon Pose preparation. The blocks help support the hips if they are tight and make space for the belly. Take several breaths here. To transition out of the pose, remove the blocks, sit back and gently bring your back leg around to the front. Rest in Balasana (Child’s Pose) or a squat and repeat on other side.
Twists get challenging as your belly grows; this variation provides the benefits without compressing your abdomen. From a seated position, extend your right leg on the floor. Bend the left knee and place the sole of the left foot on the floor with the heel close to the left sitting bone. Turn to your right and place your right hand behind you. Press your left elbow against your left inner knee and lengthen the spine as you inhale. Gently twist as you exhale, being mindful not to twist too deeply. After 5 breaths, inhale back to centre and switch sides.
If the Ardha Matsyendrasana variation is too difficult in the late stages of your pregnancy, try this gentle twisting variation of Sukhasana. Sit with your right shin crossed over the left. Twist gently toward your right knee, placing your left arm in front of you and your right arm behind you for support. Enjoy the feeling of the twist as you take 5 deep breaths. Then do the other side.