Illustrated Prenatal Yoga Poses
How Helpful Is Yoga for Pregnant Women?
A practice of gentle variations of yoga poses during pregnancy can help ease discomfort and prepare the mother's body for delivery. Since every woman experiences pregnancy differently, it is especially important for you to listen to your body and leave out any positions that cause you pain or discomfort. As pregnancy advances, the body changes, and postures that may have worked fine for you in the fourth month may feel too much in the ninth. By the third trimester, the growing baby crowds your lungs and organs, so deep breathing becomes difficult. Slow down and rest when you need to. Practice these yoga exercises with awareness, and drop what you need to as they become uncomfortable in advancing pregnancy.
For these nine months of gestation, you are not living alone in your body, and many women find that their developing baby has its own ideas about what poses it likes. In my prenatal yoga classes, sometimes women have started to smile or laugh or grimace, and they report that their baby has become very active in that position. Listen to your body, listen to your baby, and remember that in every position you go into there should be no pain and you should be able to breathe fully.
A regular practice of gentle yoga poses has many benefits for pregnant women. The postures shown below gently strengthen the abdominal muscles, the lower back, and the muscles of the pelvic floor. As long as they are comfortable for you, practicing the gentle inversions reverses the effect of gravity on the body. This can help boost your immune system, can prevent swelling in your feet and ankles, and may also be helpful in turning the baby in late pregnancy. Yoga is helpful in quieting the mind and deepening the connection with the breath, which will be a valuable tool for handling the stress of labour without panicking. The gentle exercises tone the muscles that will be used in delivery, to make the experience easier for both mother and baby and help speed the mother's post-partum healing.
Prenatal Yoga Poses for Balance: Tree
Are All Postures Safe in Yoga for Pregnant Women?
During pregnancy, the hormone relaxin that is released softens the tissues and ligaments so the joints of the pelvis can expand during delivery. Consequently, most pregnant women find they become more flexible. It is easy to overstretch and pull muscles or ligaments, so practice with awareness and stay with gentle variations to prevent injuries. Pregnancy is not the time for an athletic practice! Set that aside for now until after your baby is born.
Women who have an established yoga practice from before pregnancy know their own bodies and know their practice. They can continue their own practice, and modify or simplify it as needed. If you are learning yoga for the first time during pregnancy, you should wait until after the first trimester to start, and should consult with your doctor first. In general, prenatal yoga practices avoid strong abdominal breathing such as kapalabhati (Breath of Fire or Shining Skull Breath), since this pracitice disturbs the baby and may make it hard for you to get enough air. The other kinds of posture that should be avoided are the backbends lying on the belly, such as cobra, locust and bow. These are uncomfortable for the mother and may put too much pressure on the baby.
How Can Yoga Relieve Back Pain During Pregnancy?
Here is a gentle flow of prenatal yoga poses that will be safe and effective for most pregnant women. Many of these postures will tone the muscles used in labour. They will strengthen the muscles of the lower back and abdomen to help relieve back pain, which is common during pregnancy because, as the foetus grows and the mother's abdomen expands, the centre of gravity of the woman's body changes, putting stress on her lower back. If at any time a position feels uncomfortable or causes nausea or pain, come out at once and relax in any comfortable position and breathe.
Many other yoga postitions are also useful and accessible for pregnant woman, especially if they have been practicing yoga since before pregnancy. It is best to join a prenatal yoga class and work with a teacher who can help tailor your practice for you.
Sit comfortably in a meditation position on the floor, or iin a chair, feet flat on the floor, hands relaxing on your thighs, and start with three deep inhales. Inhale fully, and exhale completely. Take full, deep inhalations and long slow exhalations, picturing your out-breath longer than your in-breath. If you are comfortable with chanting the opening mantra, chant "Om" softly. As you chant, recognize the presence of your baby. If you are past 16 weeks gestation, your developing baby has functioning ears and hearing, and can hear the sound of your voice inside the womb.
Prenatal Side Stretch in a Chair: Seated Willow
Seated or Standing Opening Yoga Flow
Once you feel grounded and centered, prepare for Seated Willow. Inhale, reach forward and up, hands above your shoulders, exhale, lean to your right, reach out and up for the corner where the ceiling meets the wall. Feel the stretch down your left side. Hold the position and breathe for 3-5 breaths.
Prenatal Seated Twist
As you exhale, move into seated twist, bringing the back of your right hand to the outside of your left thigh, twisting to your left and leading the twist with your left shoulder. Twist gently, not too deeply. Gentle twists cleanse the organs and help move stool through the bowel to help prevent constipation in pregnancy. However, with the full abdomen, deep twists are difficult, and sometimes the toxins released from the organs into the bloodstream make some women feel nauseous. If this is the case for you, release the twist and sit quietly, breathing.
Then repeat Seated Willow and Seated Twist to the opposite side.
Easy Prenatal Triangle Pose
Come to standing beside your chair. As you exhale, step your right foot back and open your hips and shoulders to the side, hands resting on your hips. Inhale, and on your next exhalation tilt your right hip away from your chair and lean your upper body toward the chair. For support and balance, rest your left hand on the back or the leg of the chair. Triangle is a side stretch. Feel the stretch down the right side. Press both feet into the floor and apart. Feel stretch down the inside of the thighs. Soften the knees and keep the legs active. Hold for three to five breaths, then as you exhale, bend the left knee and move into:
Prenatal Warrior II Variation
Easy Warrior II
Keep the left knee above the left heel, so the knee is bending no more than 90 degrees. Keep the weight even on both feet. Hands can rest on the hips, or keep one hand on the chair for support if you need it. Hold for three to five breaths. As you exhale, relax your arms, bring both hands to the seat of the chair, and turn to face forward toward the chair. Inhale. As you exhale, step your left foot back beside the right and come into:
Prenatal Support Downward Facing Dog
Supported Downward Facing Dog
As you exhale, use your abdominal muscles to press your hips back, away from your ribs. Your hips should be further back than your heels. Bend your knees so you feel this stretch through the back of the thighs and the buttocks. This position strengthens the lower back and stretches the spine, easing tension from the back and shoulders. To come out, as you inhale step the feet forward toward the chair.
Stand and breathe, then repeat Triangle and Warrior II on the other side.
Child Pose with Knees Apart
From Cat, bring your toes together and your knees apart, and relax your hips toward your heels. This is a resting position. If you can't relax in this position, use support with a bolster or cushion under your chest or head, and a rolled blanket or cushion between your calves and ankles.
Child Pose keeps flexibility in the hips, knees and ankles, and releases tension from the hips and back. Breathe fully. Hold the position for eight to ten breaths.
Forward fold in Baddha Konasana
From Child Pose, come to a seated position and bring the soles of your feet together a comfortable distance away from your hips. Feel the weight even on both sitting bones. Rest each hand on each shin. Inhale, and as you exhale, drop your chin to your chest and curl your spine forward, sliding your hands down your shins to your ankles, your feet or the floor in front of your feet. Relax your head, relax your shoulders, unclench your teeth, and breathe.
This position releases tension from the hips and lower back, and promotes flexibility of the spine.
Hold and breathe for five to ten breaths. When you are ready, rag doll up in slow motion, fully articulating the spine as you stack each vertebra one at a time on top of the hips. Lift the head last.
Prenatal Twist in Baddha Konasana
Gentle Twist in Baddha Konasana
Sitting in Baddha Konasana as above, bring your right hand to the floor behind you, near your hip, with the fingers pointing away from you. As you inhale reach up through the heel of the left hand, lengthening the spine, and as you exhale, bring the left hand to the outside of the right knee or thigh. Twist back gently. As you inhale, use the abdominal muscles to lift the ribs away from the hips, and as you exhale, relax into the twist.
Gentle twists wring out the spine, nourishing the tissues of the spine and the central nervous system and cleansing the organs.
After three to five breaths, release the pose and repeat to the other side.
Wide-Legged Forward Fold
Bring your feet as wide apart as your body allows, legs straight without locking the knees. Bring your hands to the floor between your legs. Inhale, and as you exhale, lean forward with a straight spine, leading with your heart. You will feel a deep stretch in the adductor muscles on the inside of your thighs. Come forward as far as feels right for you, then hold the position and breathe. Each time you exhale, relax into wherever you feel the stretch.
If this position is challenging for you, you can relax forward onto the seat of a chair, and bring your forearms onto the seat, each palm on each elbow, and rest your forehead on your palms.
It is more important to keep the spine straight than to come forward far, so if you are stiff in this position, use an easier variation. To deepen the stretch, flex the toes back toward the face and keep pressing out through the heels.
Unclench your teeth, relax your shoulders, and breathe deeply. After five breaths, drop your chin to your chest and rag doll up slowly.
Side Stretch in Janu Sirsana
Easy Side Stretch (side Janu Sirsasana)
Straighten your left leg and open it a comfortable distance to the side. Bend your right leg and bring the right foot to the ankle, the calf or the thigh. Bring the back of your left hand to the inside of your left calf. As you inhale, reach your right hand out to the side and up alongside your ear, and as you exhale lean your left shoulder toward your left knee. Feel the stretch down the right side and the inside of the left thigh. Keep reaching up through the right fingers. Keep pressing out through the left heel, as you flex the left toes back toward the face. Keep the weight even on both sitting bones.
Hold the position and keep breathing. Each time you exhale, relax into wherever you feel the stretch.
Hold for five breaths and repeat on the opposite side.
Squat against Wall or on Yoga Block
Stand with your heels about two hands widths away from the wall, bend your knees and come into a squat against the wall. If you are comfortable squatting, you can do it away from the wall. If squatting is hard for you, lean against the wall. You may also find it helpful to bring a telephone book or yoga block under your heels to relax the squat a little. Experiment with props to find the position that works for you.
Feel the stretch through the hips and lower back. If you are comfortable, bring the hands into prayer position in front of the heart, shoulders inside the knees, and press the upper arms against the thighs to deepen the stretch.
Hold the position, close your eyes, and feel close to your baby. Breathe. Relax into the stretch deeper on each exhalation.
After seven to ten breaths, release the pose and lie down on your back for Bridge.
Easy Bridge Setu Bandhasana
Lie on your back, bend your knees and bring your heels under your knees with your feet flat on the floor, feet and knees pelvis width apart. Bring your hands beside your hips, palms facing down. Exhale and press your lower back against the floor, tilting your pelvis. As you inhale, lift your tailbone, your lower back, your mid-back, your upper back off the floor, and as you exhale, lower your upper back, your mid-back, your lower back to the floor, tailbone touching down last. Continue going up and down with the breath for about three cycles.
If that is enough for you, rest, or repeat going up and down with the breath. If you are ready to go deeper, lift up into the pose, then hold it and breathe. Each time you inhale, feel your belly rise, and each time you exhale, lift the hips higher. After a few breaths, slowly lower the spine with the exhalation.
Another variation is to bring a cushion between the thighs, and squeeze the cushion as you come into the pose, then hold it and breathe. This is also helpful when using Mulabandha Pelvic Floor Lock as described below.
This position strengthens the lower back, tones the waist, stetches the fronts of the thighs, and tones the kideys.
Supported Two Knees Twist
Supported Two Knees Twist
Lie on your back, bring your knees into your chest, and open your arms one line with your shoulders. Inhale, and as you exhale, lower your feet and legs toward the right, and turn your head to look at your left hand. Relax your feet on the floor, but support the thighs with a bolster.
Hold the position for a few breaths, relax and breath.
Legs up the Wall Variations
Legs up the Wall in Squat
Sit with your hip close to wall, and swing your feet up the wall as you lie down on your back. You can keep your legs straight on the wall if you prefer, or experiment with some of the following variations.
It may feel good to place a rolled blanket, bolster or cushion under your pelvis to lift your hips above your heart. Many women find this releases pressure from the lower abdomen from the weight of the baby. Other women do not find the back-lying postures comfortable, so leave them out if they are not right for you, or try bringing your feet up on a stool or chair. Legs up the Wall also has important benefits of reducing swelling in the ankles and lower legs, and strengthening the immune system.
Another variation is to bend the knees, feet flat on the wall, and your legs in a squat. Squatting is a preferred birthing position in many cultures, and the squat postures, or Malasana, tone many of the muscles used in delivery.
Or try Legs Apart up the Wall, as shown.
What Preparation for Labour Exercises Are There in Yoga?
Mulabandha practice, or pelvic floor lock, is similar to the Kegel exercises. Practice it by contracting the muscles of the pelvic floor, as if holding back a stream of urine. If you have a hard time connecting with these muscles, practice it while you are urinating, and stop the urine. You can contract these muscles in many of the postures, and then release.
Come into Bridge position as above, and do the "elevator" practice--to four counts, squeezing tighter each count, then releasing a bit at a time for four counts. Exhale and press the lower back down. Inhale, engage Mulabandha, lift the hips, the low back the mid-back, peeling the spine off the floor, and as you do this to four counts, squeeze Mulabandha tighter each count. Once you have come as far into the posture as feels right for you, hold it, and breathe,and keep holding Mulabandha. Then start to release Mulabandha, and as you exhale lower the spine slowly to the floor to four counts, releasing Mulabandha a little more each count. With practice, this gets easier. Repeat four to six times, then relax and breathe.
Another variation uses a yoga strap and D-ring around the lower thighs. Press the thighs apart, lift the spine off the floor into Bridge, and hold the position, holding Mulabandha for 3 to 5 breaths. Then release Mulabandha and lower the spine to the floor. Then release the yoga strap and place a green foam block or rolled towel between the knees, and squeeze thighs together, lift the spine into Bridge, and hold, holding Mulabandha once again for 3-5 breaths. Repeat the pair of exercises, pressing apart, then squeezing together 3 to 5 times as you build strength with practice.
If you do nothing else in prenatal yoga, do these Mulabandha exercises daily, for they are really helpful in toning the pelvic floor and making your delivery easier.
Side-Lying Positon for Prenatal Relaxation
The last 7-12 minutes of the yoga practice is spent in final relaxation. This is the most important part of the practice, where the body can integrate the benefits of the poses and breathing you have done, and the mind can be quiet and still. During pregnancy many women are not comfortable lying on the back in the traditional relaxation position (Savasana), so try this side-lying variation with a bolster between the calves and thighs, and another bolster behind the back, as shown at the right. A body pillow also makes it easy to relax. Cover yourself with a blanket, for the body temperature drops when you lie still for ten minutes. Do meditation in a chair if lying down is not comfortable. I have given detailed cues for final relaxation here. I have also recorded a wonderful 12-minute Guided Relaxation on my DVD Gentle Yoga.
If you are new to yoga, it is best to join a Prenatal Yoga Class at a community center, Y, or yoga studio in your neighborhood. The guidance of a teacher is important to help you with correct alignment in the poses, and to offer variations if any of the positions are not right for you. After the baby is born and healing is complete (about 6 weeks, depending how the mother feels), returning to this gentle practice will help you get back into shape for your regular daily activities. You might also want to join a Baby and Me Yoga class to enjoy some time out with other new parents and your pre-mobile babies.
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