The second trimester in pregnancy can be a different experience from one woman to the next, as can yoga. As rule of thumb - listen to your own body, your instincts and do what feels right. You will know if you are pushing yourself too hard, a pose feels wrong, uncomfortable (or even physically impossible!) to do. At this point you are beyond the scare of the first trimester, and the chances of a miscarriage are significantly reduced, so if you already have a regular practice and enjoy working up a bit of a sweat in an intense yoga class - don’t be afraid to carry on doing as you were. Having said that, now is probably not the time to learn new tricks like balances and jumping between poses. Although research now overwhelmingly supports the importance of exercise during pregnancy, there are justifiable concerns linked to the risk of falling, causing injury to mum, or in the worst case scenario placental abruption. That’s why arms balances, headstands and jumps are often discouraged. Below are nine areas that are valid for consideration when embarking on or continuing with yoga practice when there are two of you on the mat.
1. Avoid unnecessary jumping and jarring movements – it’s uncomfortable and not great for your placenta. Placental abruption is an uncommon, but serious complication defined as the placenta separating from the uterine wall. It can essentially deprive baby of nutrients and cause bleeding in mum. Step back into planks instead of jumping – and practice letting your ego go at the same time!
2. Crunches and poses that work on the abdominals are pointless…Consider that your superficial abdominal muscles are already under huge stretch – now is not the time to increase the stretch resistance in this area. This is especially true if you’re concerned about Diastasis Recti (Image 2), a phenomenon that often isn’t, but can be permanent. However, maintaining core strength is important, instead of crunches, practice moving slowly through standing poses such as high lunge or chair pose. These will help your core by challenging your balance. As an alternative to Boat pose – try Dandasana (staff pose). It stretches your hamstrings and works your back, while it gently tones the abs. After the pose it is easy for you to join back into the sequence again with the rest of the class.
3. Generally practice with a wider stance than normal. Trust me, it will naturally need to get wider and wider as you get bigger and bigger! Your balance will be challenged as the weight of your baby pulls the (now more flexible) lumber spine forward into a deeper curve than normal. Standing postures such as the Warrior poses, Trikonasana, Side Angle Pose etc help to maintain a healthy, strong and supple Iliopsoas muscle, open the hips and maintain important leg and core strength. Remember to think about lifting and lengthening the fronts of your hips in these poses as much as possible, avoiding temptation to cave into over-arching the lower back.
4. Avoid twists (unless they are comfortable, which they probably aren’t). Again, a wider stance is key if you want to continue with standing twists, but a nice option that allows room for the bump is to always rotate into an open twist instead of one that crosses the body. If you’re in a general yoga class and the teacher brings you all into a twist, play with an alternative that works for you, or try a side bending movement instead. Your teacher will be able to guide you if you’re not sure.
5. Forward folds - If you do not have much hip flexibility and find yourself rounding your back, a forward fold from a standing position with bent knees is likely to benefit you more than the seated equivalent. It is important to bend the knees just enough for your back to be able to remain relatively straight, and for you to feel a stretch in your hamstrings where they attach onto your sit bones and not in the lower back! Doing forward folds with a round back places a lot of strain on the lumbar (lower) spine at a time when your ligaments are likely to give excessively, rendering you vulnerable to long-term instability in the spine. Be careful.
6. Pregnancy is a great time to work on squats, which promote pelvic mobility, thigh and gluteal strength - again great for the delivery. Unfortunately there is a likelihood that you will end up on your back and asked to hold your knees to push regardless of what your perfect birth plan states, and having extra flexibility and strength in the lower body can make that much easier. If your heels don’t reach the floor as you go deeper into the squat, place a book under your heels so that you can stretch your calf muscles, or hang on to a bar with your arms so you can lean back into the squat. Think ‘booty out’ rather than ‘under’ to allow the hips to do the movement rather than your spine.
7. Walk to class (walking a lot while pregnant is soooo important!). If you can, walk to and from class. Walking helps to maintain muscle tone and strength across the sacroiliac joints – those large diagonal joints on the lower back that unite the base of the spine (sacrum) and the two bones either side, making up the pelvic bowl. Because the sacroiliac joint needs to be able to move freely during a vaginal birth, pregnancy hormones render its (normally) stiff ligaments loose and mobile. In turn the surrounding muscles have to work harder and support the (increasingly heavier) weight of the upper body as its weight is transferred down and into the legs. This frequently results in gluteal muscle spasms, which can pinch nerves, cause symptoms of sciatica down the leg. Generally, if the pain is of muscular nature, it should be relieved by heat, movement and massage.
8. Going upside down…Personally, I did the odd head and arm balance throughout my pregnancy until I started to show significantly around week 27 and my balance really changed. However, these have been part of my practice for over 15 years, and I never stayed there for more than a few breaths. Some people stress that inversions (defined as feet, pelvis or heart over heart or head – depending on who you ask) are contra-indicated because they place pressure on your already overworked heart, may cause you to feel lightheaded or nauseous, and pose the risk of falling. Critics may even erroneously suggest that inversions can bring the baby into breech position. The truth is that if it were that simple we would all be doing positional corrective poses for breech babies, the effectiveness of which unfortunately remains unproven. As many pregnant women struggle with swelling in the legs, inversions can actually provide significant relief if practiced safely by someone with a normal and healthy cardiovascular system.
Nevertheless, I would normally not suggest head – or handstand to a pregnant woman who isn't confident in her practice, or at least has a person supporting her in the pose. If this is you, try mild inversions such Downward-Facing Dog, Viparita Karani, (legs up the wall pose) or Bridge Pose instead to help with leg swelling and to give you that rosy cheek feel.
9. Pregnant women are often advised to avoid spending too long lying on their back because the growing uterus can compress the Inferior Vena Cava (the main vein returning blood to the heart from your body) and in turn compromise oxygen to the foetus. The truth is that a few minutes upside down or on your back is unlikely to do harm to either of you, and you would probably faint before your baby is affected. However, it is still best to opt for a side lying position if you have the choice. Savasana can be easily done lying on your side with a couple of blankets under your head and a thick yoga brick between the knees to keep the hips in alignment.
There is a lot of conflicting prenatal yoga advice online. However, the bottom line is - if something makes you feel physically (or even mentally) uncomfortable, take a break or replace it with something that feels good. Likewise, if your body is craving a pose that is contraindicated and you feel confident in your abilities, don't be afraid to have a go.
About the Author:
Christa Powell is an Osteopath from the UK, and has been teaching yoga and yoga anatomy for nearly 15 years. She is a mum, a wife and lives in New York City where the pulse is contagious and the sunsets breathtaking. She writes blogs for her clients and for her sanity.