What are the guidelines for teaching twists to pregnant students?
Mentor Ana Davis answers this tricky question.
I’m a yoga teacher, teaching mostly flow classes and yoga for beginners. Often I come across students that are pregnant and I am faced with the same question over and over: are twists safe during pregnancy? I have asked many different prenatal yoga teachers about their thoughts on twists in a prenatal yoga practice and they all seem to differ as to whether they are safe or not. What should I translate back to my inquiring students? Jaclyn McMahon, Highgate Hill, Qld
You are not alone in this dilemma of how to safely teach your pregnant students. Many yoga teachers find it challenging to confidently integrate a pregnant woman in their general class. When I train teachers in this specialised area, I begin by delineating the prenatal yoga golden rule: do not compress, overstretch or strain the abdomen. In other words, always offer her postures or modifications that will create space for her growing belly. This gives us a simple guideline to help us assess any posture, and avoid or modify it accordingly.
During pregnancy it’s safe to practise twists without compression. This means that strong, closed twists such as Marichyasana III (Marichi’s Pose), Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) or Parivritta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose) are contraindicated. Closed twists can potentially strain the abdominal muscles, which are already compromised, as the belly stretches to accommodate the growing uterus. These kinds of twists also limit the baby’s space and can restrict blood flow to the uterus.
Practising strong, closed twists during the first trimester is especially problematic. This is the most delicate phase of the pregnancy due to two critical processes: the fertilised embryo is attaching to the wall of the uterus; and the formation of the placenta (the essential organ that maintains the pregnancy, providing nutrients and oxygen for the foetus) is completed. To err on the side of caution, I recommend a pregnant student in their first trimester avoid twists altogether.
Open Variations for Pregnant Yoga Students
As any yogini knows, twists feel great! They release tension in the spinal muscles and can alleviate tightness in the upper back. Gentle, open twists that do not compress the belly, or work too deeply into the lower spine, but instead focus on mobilising the upper part of the spine are safe and beneficial during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. These include open variations of the aforementioned Marichyasana III and Ardha Matsyendrasana, in which she twists away from the bent leg; as well as Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja’s Twist), simple cross-legged twist and seated chair twist.
Correct technique is important. Make sure your student lengthens through the spine before moving into the twist. She needs to aim for space between the vertebrae, as well as create longitudinal space through the front of the torso—lifting through the sternum in order to draw the rib cage up and away from the top of the uterus. Twists done forcibly can destabilise the sacroiliac joint, which tends to be more vulnerable during pregnancy due to the hormone called relaxin.
Other postures that break our golden rule and should be avoided during pregnancy include: prone postures; strong backbends; active inversions such as Sirsasana (Headstand) and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand)—unless the student is very experienced; Uddiyana Bandha (Abdominal Lock); and postures that activate the abdomen, such as Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose).
It’s also recommended that pregnant women avoid poses lying on their backs from four months onwards, and should take care not to overheat or overexert (they may need to rest often during class). Above all, it’s helpful to remember to encourage the woman to listen to her body for what feels right for her at each stage of her pregnancy.
Ana Davis has been teaching yoga since 1996. She is director of Bliss Baby, specialising in prenatal and postnatal yoga teacher training. For more information, visit www.anadavis.com.
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