Expecting? Congratulations! Load up on water, get lots of sleep, take advantage of stretchy pants and don't forget to exercise. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that pregnant women work out for at least 30 minutes on most, if not all days, to reap a laundry list of benefits, including improved mood, sleep and posture, as well as increased energy, muscle tone, strength and endurance. Don't forget about how exercise may prevent and treat gestational diabetes, and perhaps help subdue the little joys of pregnancy, such as backaches, constipation, bloating and swelling. Plus, fit moms typically have an easier time coping with labor and getting back in shape afterward.
Yoga specialized for pregnant women--typically called prenatal yoga--is an excellent, low-impact exercise option, especially for moms who are reluctant to haul baby and belly onto the treadmill.
Why prenatal yoga?
"It makes you stronger all over, and that's not only preparing you for the labor and delivery, but also for when you're going to be carrying that baby around," says Kahlil Kuykendall, a certified prenatal yoga teacher at Capitol Hill Yoga in Washington, D.C. Breathing--lots of long inhales and exhales--is a major focus in prenatal yoga. "It's breathing in that final hour, when the baby is descending, where it all comes together," Kuykendall says, "You need strength from the yoga postures, but it's that breathing that'll help to relax the mind and nervous system."
In a way, the breathing and relaxation techniques of prenatal yoga are all practice for labor, when they can "slow the heart rate, clear the mind and relax the body," says Karen Prior, a registered prenatal yoga teacher in Oklahoma City and creator of the Mamaste Yoga program. That practice, along with strengthening postures, can give confidence to women, especially those in their first pregnancies.
By attending a prenatal yoga class in person, expecting mothers can tack on another benefit: friends. "They're all of a sudden in a community with women who are making the same choices and lifestyle changes that they are," Prior says. "And they become a support group for each other as their new families are forming." The most important bond pregnant women make via prenatal yoga? The one they form with their babies. "We remind [women] to take time and connect with their babies through meditation and breath, and touch of the belly," Prior says.
Is it safe?
Absolutely, if you do your homework first. The ACOG recommends that women receive a clinical physical evaluation before beginning a program. They should also seek instructors trained specifically in prenatal yoga. Prior suggests scoping out teachers' credentials via the Yoga Alliance website. First, she says, look for registered prenatal yoga teachers--those who have at least 100 hours of specialty instruction in pregnancy yoga. There aren't many of these teachers available, so if you can't find one, next seek a certified prenatal teacher, which means she is well-trained, but with fewer hours under her belt. And finally, if these two types of instructors aren't an option, find a teacher with at least some training in yoga contraindications during pregnancy. Not sure where your prospective instructor stands? Call the studio, or meet with her ahead of time. Prior strongly suggests that women who are pregnant for the first time, new to yoga or both attend a class in-person.
If there are simply no prenatal yoga instructors around, specialized books, DVDs and podcasts are available. "The most important thing is listening to your body and doing what feels right," Prior says.
Is it for me?
If you're pregnant and want to feel strong, relaxed and confident (who doesn't?), then prenatal yoga is probably for you, assuming you have that doctor sign-off. Don't play the "I'm not flexible" card, Prior says, because if you're not flexible, you probably need yoga. Think about the way your body changes to hold a growing fetus, then the way it'll morph again to deliver a full-sized baby--these processes demand flexibility, so you might as well practice. And if you're already flexible--great! Prenatal yoga can make you stronger.
How do I start?
Try these two sample postures, and remember that it's not about perfection; it's about focusing on the breath, body and baby, Kuykendall says:
Cat and cow. Lower yourself down on all fours, with your hands aligned with your shoulders, and knees aligned with your hips. To imitate your bovine friend, inhale as you arch your back, pull your tailbone up and lift your chin up toward the ceiling. Now think of a spooked Halloween cat. Exhale as you round your spine, pull your tailbone down and tuck your chin to your chest. Repeat.
Squats. With your partner or a buddy, stand with feet shoulder-width apart and hold each other's wrists for support. Exhale as you open your legs, make room for your belly and come down into squatted-seated position, or as far down as is comfortable. Inhale as you return to a standing position."
What's the alternative?
Not convinced that prenatal yoga is for you? That's fine, but at least make time for the deep breathing and meditation that prenatal yoga promotes. If you have just five minutes each day, use it to throw on some soft music, inhale and exhale slowly, "sit quietly, and focus on the baby and what's happening within," Kuykendall says. "It's a miracle and you don't want to miss it."