Asanas for Mamas: The Pleasure of Prenatal Yoga

By Jo Ann Baldinger


pregnant women doing yogaThe foyer of Santa Fe’s popular Yoga Source studio has a serene fountain, an array of brightly colored mats and practice clothing for sale, and assorted sandals, clogs, and running shoes lined up outside the door to the practice room-just what a visitor would expect to find at yoga centers across the country. Walk through that door, however, and any preconceived notions that visitors might have are instantly swept away. Instead of the flat, toned stomachs of the stereotypically lithe “yoga body,” what catches the eye immediately are the round bellies of a group of very pregnant women. Welcome to Linda Spackman’s Prenatal Yoga class.

“Yoga is a great practice for preventing or minimizing many of the common discomforts of pregnancy,” Spackman says. “It’s also a wonderful way to become acquainted with your baby.”

A longtime student and teacher of the Iyengar style of yoga, Spackman can vouch for the efficacy of prenatal yoga from her own experience as an expectant mother. According to Spackman and other enthusiasts (including a growing number of physicians and nurses), the practice of yoga during pregnancy is a safe, gentle method of achieving a number of beneficial results. Yoga postures, or asanas, build strength, energy, and flexibility, and promote circulation. They can alleviate or eliminate back and leg pain, sore or cramped muscles, and swelling caused by water retention. With its emphasis on breathing and relaxing, yoga can reduce insomnia and help the mother-to-be manage stress and anxiety. In a larger sense, yoga practice teaches a moment-by-moment awareness of one’s body-a continuous, mindful presence that can facilitate the intense journey through labor and delivery.

The primary concern in prenatal yoga, Spackman says, is “What is the baby doing at this particular stage and in this particular pose?” The focus is on lengthening the space between the hip bones and the lower, floating ribs-the area where the baby is growing and the mother’s internal organs are rising and shifting-and on opening the pelvis. Yoga props such as blocks, chairs, and blankets are used to progressively adjust the expectant mother’s position, thus providing more support as the pregnancy advances.

“Yoga enables me to be present to my body and the changes it is going through,” LaDora Sella, one of Spackman’s students, told me. “I can feel my body opening up more and more after each class, and that makes me feel more confident about my ability to deliver the baby when the time comes.”

“My strength and flexibility have increased significantly over the past few months, and that has helped with lower back pain,” said Hillary Randolph, another student.

Yoga’s most valuable boon may be its ability to promote the bond between mother and child, both during and after pregnancy. Thanks to the introspective nature of the practice, with its attention to breath and present awareness, Spackman says, “I felt I knew my daughter long before she was born. There was a spirit-to-spirit recognition when I first saw her. Yoga also helps me be a better parent-more connected, more patient, and better able to deal with uncertainty.”

Spackman designed the following sequence of basic yoga postures for home practice by women of normal health who have no complications related to present or past pregnancies. She advises waiting until after the first trimester to start doing postures and points out that working with a teacher, if possible, is best. As with any prenatal exercise program, consult your midwife or physician before beginning the practice.

You’ll need a couple of blankets, a yoga mat or towel, two blocks or thick telephone books, and a sturdy chair. Set aside one half to one and a half hours of quiet, uninterrupted time. (Remember to turn off the phone!) Wait one or two hours after a light meal, at least three hours after a heavy meal, before practice. After practice, wait half an hour before eating.

Poses may be repeated or skipped, but they should be done in the order given. Stop if you become breathless or exhausted. This practice should make you feel calm and energized.

A. Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana)
Helps relax and open the pelvis; can be used in labor.
1. Sit on folded blankets with back and buttocks against the wall.
2. One at a time, pull the heels close into the groins; the outside edges of the feet will touch the floor.
3. If knees are higher than hips, sit on additional blankets.
4. Press heels together and lift the sides of the trunk and chest.
5. Slip a folded towel between waist and wall; buttocks, shoulder blades, and back of head should touch wall.
6. Rest palms on thighs; keep belly soft.
7. Hold for one to five minutes, breathing normally.
8. To release: use hands to lift knees, then extend legs forward, heels farther apart than hip width. Straighten legs completely by contracting front of thigh; hold for five seconds and release.

B. Cat-Dog Stretch
While not a classical yoga asana, this movement is very helpful for moving the fetus into a more comfortable position in pregnancy and during labor and delivery.
1. Kneel on all fours with hands under shoulders and knees under hips, toes extended back.
2. Press hands into floor to lift shoulders off arm bones.
3. Exhale while softly rounding mid-spine upward, to convex position.
4. Inhale while arching spine to concave position.
5. Repeat 10 to 20 times with normal breathing.

C. Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Helpful for fatigue.
1. Hold corners of a chair braced against wall.
2. Walk feet back, placing heels about one foot behind buttocks and wider than hips; keep feet parallel with each other.
3. Straighten arms and legs completely; lift kneecaps by contracting front of thigh.
4. Lift heels and extend spine by stretching legs and buttock bones backward.
5. Stretch heels backward and down toward floor without compressing baby. (It’s more important to extend spine than to touch heels to floor.)
6. Hold for up to one minute.
7. To release, walk legs forward and sit on chair to rest. (Kegel exercises can be done at this time.)
8. Can be practiced up to four times.

D. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Teaches correct alignment.
1. Stand with feet parallel, hip-width or slightly wider apart.
2. Feet should be parallel, hip-width apart.
3. Stretch toes forward and heels back.
4. Press center of heel down.
5. Lift inner and outer anklebones.
6. Lengthen front of leg from ankle to top of hip.
7. Lengthen lumbar spine (waist area) and tailbone; keep abdomen soft.
8. Raise rib cage off pelvis.
9. Lift chest, relax face and throat.
10. Hold 30 seconds to one minute.
11. Release. Can be practiced up to three times.

E. Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)
Builds strength in legs, facilitates breathing; helpful for neck pain.
1. Stand with feet three to four feet apart.
2. Place left heel at wall with small toe one inch away from wall.
3. Align right heel with left heel, with toes facing 90 degrees away from wall.
4. Place a block or chair beside right foot.
5. Straighten legs by lifting kneecaps.
6. Press left heel into wall, keep right knee lifted and facing right toe, tuck right buttock under.
7. Inhale, extend right arm vertically, lengthening right side with trunk facing between feet.
8. Exhale, keeping legs straight, touch right hand to chair or block with wrist under right shoulder and very light pressure through fingertips.
9. Keep trunk on same plane as the legs, neither swinging forward or backward.
10. Extend spine.
11. Extend left arm vertically, look up toward left hand.
12. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, breathing normally.
13. To release, inhale and pull through left arm and leg to raise torso to vertical.
14. Turn right toes parallel with left before changing to repeat on opposite side.
15. Can be practiced up to three times.

F. Garland Pose (Supported Malasana)
Strengthens legs and opens pelvis, tones perineal tissue; can be used during labor and delivery.
1. Stand with back to wall.
2. Place blocks between feet.
3. Slide down wall, keeping knees apart and buttocks and shoulders against wall; do not push pubis forward.
4. Lift chest, breathe normally; hold two to three minutes.
5. To release, press heels into floor and straighten legs while sliding back up the wall. If this causes gripping in the abdomen, come forward onto all fours to release.

G. Expanded Leg Intense Stretch (Prasarita Padottanasana) Strengthens and stretches legs.

1. Stand with feet three to four feet apart, slightly pigeon-toed.
2. Lift front of leg as in Mountain Pose (D).
3. Inhale, hands to waist; extend spine vertically and look slightly up.
4. Exhale, bend forward at hip socket, bring hands down on two blocks or chair; keep wrists directly under shoulders.
5. Keep legs straight and kneecaps lifted, with buttock bones in line with heels.
6. Create back arch by lifting front chest and extending lumbar spine.
7. Hold 15 to 30 seconds, breathing normally.
8. To release, bring hands to waist and extend spine to vertical.
9. Can be practiced up to three times.

H. Modified Hero Pose (Virasana with Gomukhasana arms)

Helpful for varicose veins; wonderful for opening chest and maintaining health of breast tissue before and after birth.
1. Fold yoga mat in half and in half again, then in thirds.
2. Kneel with knees and feet together.
3. Place folded mat under ankles and folded blanket between calves and buttocks, with front edge halfway between knees and feet.
4. Sit back; ankles may come slightly apart. Pose should be very comfortable.
5. Extend right hand to the side at a 45-degree angle, thumb pointing down.
6. Bring back of hand to buttocks and slide it up between shoulder blades.
7. Extend left arm to ceiling and bend elbow, reaching left hand down to clasp right fingers. (If fingers do not clasp, use a belt in upper hand and catch with right.)
8. Hold 15 seconds; maintain alignment of head and neck and be careful not to jut lower ribs forward.
9. Stretch both arms to straight and repeat on opposite side.
10. To release, lean forward on all fours; remove mat and blanket.

I. Head-on-Knee Pose (Janu Sirsasana)
Relieves one-sided low-back pain; helpful for sciatica.
1. Sit with buttocks elevated on blanket or block-as high as necessary to keep spine vertical. Make sure blanket is not under thighs.
2. Fold right knee to side at 90 degrees; right heel should touch right groin.
3. Toss loop of strap around sole of left foot; keep arms straight and chest lifted.
4. Extend sole of left foot forward while contracting front of thigh.
5. Pressing off both sitting bones equally, extend spine vertically.
6. Rotate right thigh externally while torso faces left leg evenly.
7. Hold 10 to 15 seconds.
8. To release, let go of strap, extend right leg forward.
9. Repeat on opposite side.

J. Wide Angle Pose (Upavistha Konasana)
Restful; can be used during early labor.
1. Sit on folded blanket with lower back against wall and legs spread in a V.
2. Straighten legs completely by contracting front of thigh and pressing heels into floor. Press entire surface of back of leg toward floor, keeping knees and toes facing the ceiling.
3. Extend spine vertically with hands on floor, beside buttocks.
4. Hold for up to one minute.
5. Extend spine forward from hips to support forehead on chair, holding for up to five minutes. (Skip this step if abdomen becomes compressed.)
6. Return to vertical by pressing arms into chair.
7. To release, use hands to lift knees and join soles of feet together in Bound Angle Pose (A); hold for five to ten seconds, then release as indicated in (A).

K. Side-lying Corpse Pose (Savasana)
This pose can be done on the right or left side.
1. Lie on right side with folded blanket between thighs, knees, and feet. (Be careful that feet don’t dangle off blanket; in yogic philosophy, such a position can lead to an active mind. If trying to sleep with feet dangling, one may experience insomnia.)
2. Extend right arm along floor, palm up.
3. Place blanket between right arm and neck.
4. Right arm may bend into comfortable position, but make sure palm faces up or forward (not down) to avoid compressing right shoulder.
5. Blanket may be placed under belly or in front of torso for left arm to rest on.
6. Close eyes and soften entire body completely.
7. Hold for five to ten minutes, focusing on soft inhalations and exhalations.
8. To release, keep head and neck soft, press left palm and right elbow to floor; come to sitting position.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Books
Iyengar, Geeta S. Yoga: A Gem for Women. Timeless Books, 2002. Level: Advanced Jordan , Sandra. Yoga for Pregnancy: Safe and Gentle Stretches. St. Martin ‘s Press, 1988. Level: Basic

Video
Crawford, Collette. Yoga for Pregnancy, Labor and Birth. Seattle Holistic Center, 2002. 866-742-9642; 206-525-9035, ext. 2#.

Jo Ann Baldinger is Mothering’s copyeditor and a freelance writer. She lives in Santa Fe , New Mexico.

Photo by Wendy Borger.

Issue 116, January–February 2003