If you're pregnant and thinking about taking a Lamaze class, you might want to consider yoga instead. "The connection between yoga and pregnancy, as far as the western world is concerned, goes back to the work of Dr. Fernand Lamaze in the mid-20th century," says Julio Kuperman, MD, head of the Division of Neurology at Saint Agnes Medical Center, part of the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia. Kuperman is also a yoga instructor and director of Yoga Teacher Training at the Baptiste Power Yoga Institute in Bryn Mawr, Pa.
"The well-known breathing and relaxation techniques that Dr. Lamaze popularized were lifted straight from yoga practices as he learned them from B.K.S. Iyengar and his wife," says Kuperman. (Iyengar was a native of India whose yogic practices were first introduced in the West by violinist Yehudi Menuhin in 1954.)
"If you are pregnant, thinking about getting pregnant, or perhaps have just had a baby, this is a wonderful time to bring yoga into your life," agrees Kathleen Pringle, director of the Stillwater Yoga Studio in Atlanta.
"Strength, flexibility, relaxation, inner peace, and breath awareness are essential to a healthy and positive pregnancy," Pringle says. "There is no better way to obtain these attributes than through a yoga practice."
Multitude of Benefits
Pringle says the regular practice of yoga will help a pregnant woman keep her blood pressure normal, prevent too rapid a weight gain, and strengthen her pelvic muscles. In early pregnancy, it can help relieve morning sickness and reduce swelling in the hands, feet, and face. And a regular practice of inversions (headstands and handstands, but only for those already experienced with yoga) calms and quiets the mind and strengthens the respiratory system.
"This increased blood flow helps to stimulate the brain and quiets the nervous system," says Pringle, "plus decreases the chance of varicose veins. And if the changes and stresses of being pregnant have you feeling depressed, chest expansions are very helpful at quickly restoring your spirits. That, and the knowledge that you are getting stronger, more in touch with your body, and more flexible."
There are many types of yoga, says Pringle, who is a practitioner of Iyengar yoga, which is known for its emphasis on alignment, precision, and attention to detail.
"The focus that Iyengar yoga has on pregnancy," Pringle says, "is that it recognized it as a very special time in both the woman's and the baby's life. As such, the Iyengars devised a specific approach to working with women who are pregnant."
The main emphasis of Iyengar yoga in pregnancy, says Pringle, is creating space for the baby. This focus also helps the mother breathe more easily and learn how to strengthen and realign her spine.
Grab a Chair
Iyengar yoga incorporates props into its practice. Belts, blankets, and blocks are especially important to pregnant women, says Pringle, because they can alter the yoga postures so the woman can get the full benefits of the exercise without endangering the fetus. Instead of reaching to the floor, for example, the mother-to-be might put her hands on a block or on a chair.
"Using these props with the yoga postures can help relieve backaches and other problems caused by the imbalances created by the weight of the baby," Pringle explains.
Kuperman, whose twins were born 19 years ago through natural labor with the help of yoga practices, is a strong proponent of yoga in pregnancy. He cautions, however, that there is a difference between someone who is already practicing yoga before becoming pregnant and a beginner.
"If a woman is already practicing yoga," Kuperman says, "then it is an absolute blessing, and she should be able to sail through pregnancy with no complications." For someone just starting with yoga, though, he recommends finding a qualified instructor who can demonstrate floor exercises and gentle stretches.
Newcomers: Take Heed
When a woman is pregnant, ligaments and joints become much more flexible and elastic, Kuperman says. For someone unfamiliar with yoga, there is a risk of stretching too much and causing injury. The same is true of the spine, he adds, and a sudden twist could cause a disk herniation.
"It's important to be aware of the physiological changes of pregnancy," says Kuperman, "so you can take into account such symptoms as morning sickness, lightheadedness, vertigo, increased elasticity of the ligaments, and so on."
Yoga's emphasis on breathing is especially helpful to a pregnant woman, says Kuperman, explaining that the elevation of the diaphragm during pregnancy typically causes breathing difficulties. Deep breathing, however, enables the mother to avoid decreasing lung capacity, while increasing oxygenation to the blood.
As good as yoga is for the body, it's equally as important to the mind, giving a focus and discipline that stands a woman in good stead throughout her pregnancy, as well as during labor and delivery.
"Yoga is fun, nourishing to your body and mind, and a wonderful exploration," says Pringle.
"The secret of yoga is awareness," adds Kuperman. "Awareness of the postures, awareness of our breath, and simply awareness of being aware."