A Satyananda Yoga class is the ideal yoga class for a pregnant woman to attend with its integrative and holistic approach, its emphasis on internalization of awareness, and the importance of honouring ones limitations. This is not to say that there are no special considerations, and there are instances when a pregnant woman should not attend class.
Keeping these general considerations in mind, rather than avoiding pregnant students, we can begin to challenge ourselves as yoga teachers to discover new ways of doing asanas, and this will facilitate our growth. We will also be able to provide a comfortable and secure environment for the pregnant student to experience the joy of yoga.
All of the Pawanmuktasana series (parts 1, 2 and 3) is appropriate to pregnancy. The anti-rheumatics (PMA1) are wonderful for gently stretching and massaging the joints that are under increased stress due to the weight gain of pregnancy. By improving lymphatic flow, the anti-rheumatics help reduce fluid retention and improve immune functioning. They release muscular tension and are introverting when coordinated with the movement of the breath. In prenatal yoga classes, the students can sit against the wall while performing these asanas.
The anti-gastrics (PMA2) should be done lying on the side. Due to the progesterone induced relaxation of the intestinal tract during pregnancy, the anti-gastrics may help stimulate digestion and relieve constipation. They will also help increase hip flexibility and strengthen the muscles surrounding the hip. This will help relieve hip pain, a common complaint of pregnancy. Jhulana lurhakanasana (rocking and rolling) stage 1 done gently helps relieve low back pain. Supta udarakarshanasana (sleeping abdominal stretch pose) can be done provided the student remains flat on the back for less than 30 seconds. A substitute for naukasana (boat pose) is to sit with one knee bent and lift the straight leg off the floor.
The shakti bandha series (PMA3) is useful for relieving pelvic discomfort and constipation. Squatting asanas are an excellent preparation for labour and delivery. Since squatting is not a normal part of Western daily activities, supporting the squatting position with a low stool, blocks, or by having the student grasp door knobs, can be helpful until flexibility and strength improve. Vayu nishkasana (wind releasing pose) should be approached with caution due to the radical change from squatting to standing position that may result in dizziness. Nauka sanchalanasana (rowing the boat) may need to be done with the legs wide apart to make room for the abdomen. Many prenatal students find chakki chalanasana (churning the mill) helps relieve low back discomfort. Rajju karshanasana (pulling the rope) is an excellent asana for relieving neck and shoulder stress and for developing coordination of breath and movement. It also teaches focus.
With minor adjustments nearly all of the Pawanmuktasana series is well suited to the pregnant student.
Two factors must be remembered when teaching standing asanas to pregnant students. Prolonged standing may result in dizziness, and pregnancy changes may make balancing asanas particularly challenging. With this in mind, it may be wise to place a chair near the pregnant student to use during standing asanas if she becomes dizzy, or to use as a prop to steady herself. Standing asanas will strengthen legs and may relieve leg cramping and leg fatigue. Strong legs will lessen strain on the back. Virtually all standing poses can be done.
Important standing poses during pregnancy include tadasana (palm tree pose) and tiryaka tadasana (swaying palm tree pose). In my prenatal class, the students have renamed tadasana heartburnasana because of its value in relieving heartburn, a common complaint especially in the third trimester. In tiryaka tadasana the extension in the pose rather than the sideways bend can be further emphasized (as shown in the photo in Part One of this article).
In side bending asanas such as trikonasana (triangle pose) a chair can be used to prevent bending forward. Side bending helps open lower lungs and creates a sense of space in pregnancy.
Teaching good posture as part of the standing practice is especially useful to the pregnant student who tends to slouch. Instruct her to keep the feet close together with the outer edges parallel, lifting and spreading the toes, lifting the spine out of the pelvis, bringing the shoulders up and into the back of the body to keep the arms from hanging off the neck. Point out the difference in energy flow between standing straight and strong versus standing with the feet apart, or fanned outward, with the shoulders collapsing forward.
Forward bending asanas help relieve the backache of pregnancy and are calming and introverting, but with the increased abdominal size, they may present a challenge. Most forward bending can be done by having the pregnant student separate her legs. Shashankasana (pose of the moon) will definitely require widening the space between the knees as pregnancy progresses. It may also require supporting the torso on a bolster or blankets. Shashankasana is an important asana for students to learn and to be able to hold comfortably. During the process of labour, a simplified knee chest position is frequently used if the foetal heart rate decreases.
Because of the weight of the abdomen in the later stages of pregnancy, supporting the body with the arms, or with blocks in forward bending will assist the student to keep good spinal alignment. In janu sirshasana (head to knee pose) the student can bend forward angling between the legs instead of straight forward over the straight leg. This allows room for the abdomen and increases the hip stretch.
Some prenatal yoga books stress that backward bending can be dangerous because it will compress the lumbar spine and over-stretch the abdomen. This is not true if asanas are taught and done correctly. Obviously, some backward bending asanas will be difficult due to an inability to lie on the floor. However, I feel strongly that backward bending asanas must be included and are an important method to strengthen the back and relieve backaches that are frequent in the pregnant student.
Asanas such as ardha shalabhasana (half locust pose) variations can be done on the hands and knees, and ardha dhanurasana (half bow) can be done lying on the side. To keep the thighs stretched and to help relieve iliopsoas-mediated backache, ardha ushtrasana (half camel pose) and ardha chandrasana (crescent moon pose) can be done.
Its important to emphasize extension of the spine while bending backwards. I have found that suggesting to lift the shoulders up and back and to lead with the shoulders rather than the head helps prevent lower back compression.
Although backward bending does stretch the abdominal wall, most prenatal students find that they feel as though they have more space after doing them. Considering how large that abdomen can become, especially with twins or multiples, I dont think overstretching should be a concern in backward bending.
Emphasizing elongation of the spine without flexion at the waist is important in spinal twisting. Most pregnant women feel that they have difficulty with spinal twisting due to their size, but spinal twisting helps to relieve backache and stress in the sacroiliac joint. Meru prishthasana (spine and back pose) can be done with the hands behind the head, keeping the elbows in line with the ears, which creates more lift in the spine, and provides more stretch through the neck and shoulders.
Another favourite is placing the legs as though doing saithalyasana (animal relaxation pose), but then adjusting it into a nice twist as shown above. Spinal twists in the lying position may create round ligament pain during the second trimester. This is because the uterus is dramatically increasing in size, pulling on the round ligaments, but not being supported by the pelvis yet.
In the years Ive been teaching prenatal, Ive found that marjariasana (cat stretch pose) is a universal favourite. Often we begin with the student allowing the belly to release toward the floor and holding that position for several breaths, then rounding up and holding that position again, before moving with the breath. This seems to increase relaxation with the stretch. Marjariasana is very good for reducing pelvic congestion and backache.
Through the process of connecting with the breath and internalizing the awareness, pranayama practices are very useful in pregnancy and will help the student greatly through labour and delivery. Essentially, all pranayama practices that have been done prior to pregnancy can continue through pregnancy. Vitalizing pranayamas can be done gently and slowly. Kumbhaka should be minimized.
For new students to yoga, practices for increasing breath capacity, sensitizing pranayamas, rhythmic breathing, balancing and tranquillizing pranayamas are most important. Viloma and ujjayi are favourites of my prenatal students.
Perineal mudras are extremely beneficial during and after pregnancy. As mentioned earlier, as pregnancy progresses there is an increase in pelvic stress and congestion with the pressure of the baby against the pelvic floor. This area can become quite weak. The whole inner pelvic floor must stretch out to the bony structure to allow childbirth. Perineal mudras help strengthen this area and allow a quicker recovery after delivery. By practising vajroli and ashwini mudras, along with moola bandha, some of the common complaints of pregnancy and post-delivery can be relieved.
All hand mudras are beneficial. For women who are experiencing radical shifts in mood or are having difficulty dealing with the emotions of their pregnancy, hridaya mudra may be helpful. Of course, yoni mudra is most suited to pregnancy.
Khechari mudra is said to help stabilize labour. I normally teach this along with ujjayi to my prenatal students with the assumption that it might be useful during their labour and certainly wont be harmful.
There is no contraindication to doing moola bandha during pregnancy. In fact, in obstetrics, physicians encourage pregnant women to do perineal contracting exercises known as Kegels, which contract the entire pelvic floor. Uddiyana bandha is not appropriate, but jalandhara bandha may be used.
Developing intuitive awareness and providing an opportunity for deep relaxation are of great benefit to the pregnant yoga student. The only concern for the yoga teacher is in making sure that the student is supported well. During sitting meditations, pregnant students can sit against the wall if necessary and have adequate padding.
Matsya kridasana (flapping fish pose) is often used for yoga nidra. Lying on the side, as demonstrated in the photo, seems to support the body more thoroughly and pads points of pressure or stress. This does, however, require approximately five to six blankets per student. If these are unavailable, the student should be instructed to bring pillows and blankets from home.
Yoga nidra is about the best practice for pregnancy. If a student only had time to do one thing per day, I would recommend yoga nidra over all else. It is important that the student be able to practise this technique at home. Having tapes or compact discs available of various yoga nidra practices will be greatly appreciated by students. During the visualization stage of yoga nidra, you can instruct the mother through a body rotation of the infants body parts. This is enjoyed by prenatal students, and should be done on a recording, as it might confuse the other students in a regular class!
In teaching prenatal students, I often feel the energy of the cycle of birth and rebirth. I believe that pregnancy is the perfect time to engage in yoga. As teachers, we owe it to our students to learn enough to feel comfortable teaching and guiding them through the dramatic changes in their being. We also owe it to their infants who will ultimately manifest the teachings.