Originally published in International Doula Magazine.
Many pregnant women know that the practice of prenatal yoga asanas (postures) is helpful for in staying in shape through pregnancy and preparing for childbirth. In fact, most of the women in my prenatal yoga classes are entirely new to yoga and are inspired to try these ancient postures because of their pregnancy. There are numerous benefits to such a practice. During my prenatal yoga teacher training, we were told that “it’s never too early or too late” to begin a prenatal yoga practice. Whatever kind of delivery is hoped for or planned, the practices of calming the mind, paying attention to the breath, and relaxing the body aid women through the rite of passage into motherhood and help with postpartum recovery.
A pregnant woman benefits physically from yoga as she supports her body in the transformative months of pregnancy. Lower back pain, sore muscles, and general tensions ease through the practice. Through prenatal yoga, a woman benefits emotionally to make space for the positive energies found in pregnancy as well as the concerns, fears, doubts, and anxieties also common in pregnancy. To befriend the more difficult parts of ourselves and use the energy locked in such patterns to affirm life, is an essential skill of yoga. Prenatal yoga is an amazing preparation for childbirth where focus and attention on breath help women ride the waves of sensation and also relax through the first stage of labor so that the body is more easily able to move the baby into the birth position. Finally, depending on her interest in the subject, a pregnant woman certainly can benefit spiritually from the practice. In taking the time to hold the belly, share a class with the baby within, and marvel at the wonder of becoming a vehicle for life, the heart is opened to great mysteries.
Because tensions and emotional stresses live in our tissues, all of us benefit by moving mindfully and with breath awareness. As doulas, our own connection to our bodies and breath helps birthing women in their connection to body and breath. The Sanskrit root of the word yoga signifies “union” or “connection”. Even if we’ve never practiced yoga asanas, as a doula and a yogi, I know that the women who support women through birth are practicing a form of yoga. We practice what Nel Noddings, a feminist care ethicist calls “motivational displacement” by setting aside our own personal interests we focus intently in creating a deep connection to the birthing woman in the spirit of sisterhood and service. To be specific, as doulas we are practicing what is traditionally called karma yoga or selfless service. This is particular the case for those of us who offer (regularly or at times) our services to at risk and poor women without charge. Yet, many of our clients may ask us about the benefits of the physical and breathing practices of yoga. It’s helpful for us to be informed about these benefits and offer information to our clients regarding prenatal yoga classes/practice.
For healthy women who already have an active yoga practice before pregnancy, there are a few modifications one needs to know about upon becoming pregnant. The most obvious include the avoidance of belly down postures and deep abdominal twists. Furthermore, women are wise to be mindful with regard to the use of inversions like downward dog in the final trimester. Most women find they prefer to spend less time in more strenuous postures and use a wall to help them with the shifting experience of balance. However, some women who nurtured a strong yoga practice prior to pregnancy enjoy the energy of a pretty vigorous prenatal practice. I have a friend who led her free style dance classes all the way up into the week of her delivery. So, other than avoiding postures described above as well as some breathing techniques (like kapala bhati or “skull cleansing” breath), pregnant yogis can continue their former yoga practice modifying as their intuition guides them. Again, in my training, the mantra to offer women was “trust your comfort”.
However, most women in a prenatal yoga class are new to the entire practice of yoga asanas. Advanced postures are purposefully not taught at this time. The majority of prenatal classes are more gentle in approach. In my teaching, I focus upon connection to the baby, postures that will be helpful through labor and birth, the opening up the hips and release of shoulder/back tension, the freeing the voice to make helpful sounds through labor (low tones, long vowels are best as the throat is opened rather than constricted), and strengthening the pelvic floor muscles. My advice for women who have an active practice before pregnancy is to continue what feels right from their earlier practice and also begin to take prenatal classes. Practicing with other pregnant women creates a warm community of support at a time in our culture where communities are far more fragmented than those our grandmothers or great-grandmothers knew. While it’s true that there are many good texts now available on the subject and quite a few DVDs one can buy as well, nothing replaces the power of a class in real time with a teacher who can personally interact with students. Pregnancy is to be celebrated and women throughout time have sought out the company of each other to prepare, share stories, offer support, and learn from each other.
My own journey to teaching prenatal yoga classes is an interesting one. My academic training is in comparative religion and philosophy with a special focus on yoga. I’ve traveled to India and studied there on three different occasions. My own asana practice began at 17 and I continue my practice today. The breathing and moving practices help me embody the insights gained academically in my study. So, on one hand, while I continue my academic pursuits and interests (I currently teach in the Religion and Philosophy Department at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey), I know that wise philosophies about life are meant to be lived not just studied. Through walking the doula path, I’ve found that offering loving assistance to women through labor embodies the actuality of yoga, not just the academic study of theories about yoga. In fact, being a doula is a lot like teaching a private yoga class, only for 15+ hours at a time! Recently, I completed my level one hospital chaplaincy training. Again, I’m drawn to putting the wisdom of ancients into practice. As I work with people through birth and death, I’m drawn powerfully to the core insights gained when the heart is wide open to the mystery of life and death. I’m certain that our clients benefit when we, as doulas, know the basics regarding the practice of yoga asanas in pregnancy. Yet, more importantly, the more connected we are to our own bodies and breath as well as to the mystery of our own birth and death, the more effective our work will be in the healing of this world.