Want to stay fit during pregnancy and get back into pre-pregnancy shape afterward? Then practice yoga: In addition to being safe and effective, it comes with surprising benefits, such as improving labor and delivery.
When researchers in India compared one hour a day of yoga to one hour of walking in a study of 335 pregnant women, they found that yoga improved birth weight, eased preterm labor and decreased complications (such as isolated intrauterine growth retardation and pregnancy-induced hypertension), according to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
A yoga practice designed specifically for pregnancy can help do the following for a mom-to-be:
Ease discomfort. Yoga can help you deal with the aches and pains that commonly occur during pregnancy, such as backache, fatigue, insomnia and anxiety, says Wendy Teasdill, a certified yoga instructor in Glastonbury, England, and author of Yoga for Pregnancy (Gaia Books, 2005).
Improve breathing control. Yoga teaches rhythmic control of breathing (called pranayama), a skill that comes in handy during labor and delivery. Pranayama is meditative and relaxing, which helps reduce stress and anxiety and may even lower blood pressure, says Teasdill.
Fine-tune your focus. Yoga helps you tune into your own body as you go through the trimesters. “A woman’s body undergoes a multitude of changes throughout pregnancy. Yoga can help her to embrace these changes and relieve any discomfort she may feel,” says Sharon Jayne Lee, a certified yoga instructor in New York City. “Often, new moms are exhausted and in a fog. Yoga allows a mom to focus on herself for a moment and to get back into her body,” says Lee.
Develop intuitive knowledge. Yoga helps you trust your intuition and develop a deeper knowledge of your body, which you can draw upon during labor. “Pregnant women are known for their increased proprioception, that is, body awareness,” Teasdill explains. “This knowledge can help reduce the fear and the stress women can experience when giving birth, whatever happens, and increases their trust in themselves as mothers.”
Increase your flexibility and strength. Of course, along with boosting mental and emotional fitness, yoga helps you stay flexible and strong during pregnancy and childbirth. The standing postures foster the physical strength and stamina you’ll need during labor. Other postures, such as bridge pose, keep your back flexible and ease sciatic pain, says Lee.
Yoga Postures for Pregnancy
Here is a mini pregnancy yoga routine with three standing poses you can do anywhere (from the DVD YogaFit PreNatal: A Yogafit Workout).
Begin each posture in mountain pose (standing with feet slightly wider than your hips, and arms at your sides). Listen to your body, and discontinue any movement that causes you discomfort right away.
Pose 1: Rocking
- Slowly move your chest to the right, then to the left, gently swinging your arms in a comfortable range of motion.
- Visualize your baby gently rocking in your womb as you rock back and forth.
- Feel your energy rise with your movement, releasing tension and fatigue from your face, mind and body.
Pose 2: Pelvic Circles
- Circle your hips to the right, inhaling as your hips circle back and exhaling as your hips circle to the front.
- Reverse the direction.
- Visualize your energy and strength expanding around your pelvis.
Pose 3: Standing Cat Cow
- Place your hands on your thighs, fingertips facing each other. Inhale as you arch your spine, allowing your belly to lengthen forward.
- Exhale as you round your spine up like a cat. Use your arms to support the pose, and keep your shoulders relaxed and away from your ears.
- Feel the gentle stretch in your back.
SPEEDING UP POSTPARTUM RECOVERY
After childbirth, yoga helps speed recovery by reversing diastasis (the separation of the abdominal wall) and by strengthening your core muscles, says Lee. It also helps you re-engage your pelvic floor muscles, which weaken during childbirth.
A yoga practice before and after pregnancy also helps you connect with your baby, says Jennifer Wolfe, a prenatal yoga instructor, doula and creator of the DVD Mom & Baby Vinyasa Yoga. Before beginning postpartum yoga, consult your doctor or midwife, she says, but the recommended time is typically two to three weeks postpartum, or six to eight weeks postpartum after a cesarean.
Postnatal workouts are, in some ways, very different from prenatal workouts, but both address the hormonal changes you’re going through. Postpartum mother and baby classes typically focus on posture and interacting with your infant. Arm-stretches and shoulder-openers are extremely beneficial, says Teasdill, who recommends a simple raised-hands pose called urdhva hastasana.
Another exercise you can do right away is a pelvic floor lift called mula bandha, says Teasdill. It involves drawing the pelvic floor muscles upwards towards your navel as you exhale.
Kathy Summers writes about health, nutrition, fitness and the environment.