"I have always been active and didn't want to stop when I got pregnant," says the 30-year-old mother. "But running got to be too hard on my body and on my belly. After trying out a couple of other things, a friend recommended yoga -- and I fell in love. Yoga is like running in that it gives you time to reflect -- it clears your head. And of course it lets you get physical -- but not too physical."
Frances' love affair with yoga didn't end with her pregnancy: when her son Jamie was 2 months old, she signed them both up for a postpartum class. Now, almost two years after Jamie's birth, she is still a yoga enthusiast.
She's not alone. While there are no hard statistics, more and more women are turning to yoga both pre- and postpartum, as is evidenced by the growing number of yoga studios popping up around the country that offer those specialized classes.
Yoga, It Isn't Just for Flower Children Anymore
"I think yoga works on all three aspects of our being: the body, the mind, and the spirit," author and yoga instructor Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa tells WebMD. "It keeps them all equalized and it keeps the mother, most importantly, relaxed and confident and courageous." Gurmukh Khalsa is director and co-founder of Golden Bridge Yoga in Los Angeles and has taught kundalini yoga to the likes of Madonna, Cindy Crawford, and David Duchovny.
"As far as the physical: It keeps the spine aligned, it keeps the pelvis aligned, it takes the breath deep to where your baby is growing, and it makes the mama feel better," she says. "As the body changes and she gets heavier, sometimes she feels tired, big, and overwhelmed, and on the physical level it helps alleviate the stress on the spine and also helps the abdomen grow to have room for everybody, mama and baby. It also keeps all the organs going and the glandular system going strong.
"As far as the mental goes, we learn how to access our intuition," Gurmukh Khalsa continues. "We can't ever give birth out of the intellect; it's not a thought process, it's an out-of-thought process that goes beyond mind to intuition. We access that through meditation and through chanting. On the spiritual level, it just heightens the soul to keep the miracle, the mystery, always in mind. Oftentimes things get so medical in this world ... that a woman loses touch with herself.
"And lastly, it's community: Sharing with people of like mind, like purpose and like intention builds your own awareness. Everybody is leading everybody else," she says.
Prenatal, and to a certain extent, postpartum, yoga differs from "regular" yoga in that it is much more gentle. Certain poses are off limits -- for example, "inverted" poses such as head stands, shoulder stands, and poses that put pressure on the abdomen.
"With pregnancy and all the changes that are going on during those nine months, the most important thing that yoga can do is bring you into an internal focus while moving your body and making you aware of your breath," Terri O'Connor tells WebMD. "When yoga does that, it helps a pregnant woman reduce any anxiety around the whole process, strengthen her body, and create an internal calm state, which is so needed and important. Yoga poses, being a gentle way of movement, will get your body into alignment and create a still place within, and with that you are creating a calm state of mind, hopefully more space in your lungs and abdomen to breathe, and some strength to help you during labor." O'Connor is the co-owner of Plum Tree Yoga Center in Roswell, Ga.
"As far as postpartum is concerned, it's about getting your body back in shape after the birth process, strengthening your abdominals, trying to get back into your clothes, [and] keeping the hormones in check and balanced," says O'Connor. She says that postpartum yoga gently and slowly works a woman back up to her pre-pregnancy level -- a process that could take several months. "With the physical movements and the breathing, it helps you acclimate to the hormone fluctuations before and after. So I would say the most important thing is body awareness, enhancing your ability to breath, and creating a calm place within."
Khalsa says a woman needs to reclaim her body after her baby is born. "You have to become a very strong-on-the-outside mother and human being, and your life has to come into even more of a balance," she says. "So there are very specific postures and meditations we do for pregnancy yoga and very specific ones we do for postnatal yoga to rebuild the body. And again, it's community: So many times we don't have family to lean on -- it's that longing to belong."
"And for the babies, it's wonderful," Gurmukh Khalsa says. "We do baby yoga and body movement with them to help balance their own bodies and open up their hips, and get their energy running through. We dance with them, and sing with them, and massage them."
A Breath of Fresh Air
In any kind of yoga there's great emphasis on breathing and the breath; that emphasis is redoubled in prenatal yoga. "Breath work always has physical benefits: it oxygenates the blood, balances the nervous system and helps you adjust to the hormonal changes that you are going through," says Sat Jivan Kaur Khalsa, co-director of Kundalini Yoga East in New York City (Sat Jivan is not related to Gurmukh Khalsa; both were given traditional Sikh spiritual names many years ago). "Mentally, it helps bring a lot of clarity, focus, and purification to the mind so that you are actually very prepared for the birth. For many first-time mothers, the big thing is, 'How am I going to do when it is time to let the baby out?' The breath work -- and the yoga -- really helps people feel that they could handle this."
"Pregnant or not pregnant, most people really aren't paying attention to how they breathe," says O'Connor. "When you are paying attention to the breath, you can calm down and slow down your regular routine of the day. You can deepen the breath, which will relax the body and in turn create that calm place in your mind. When we are aware of the breath, we can become more aware of the body -- and this is so important throughout the pregnancy process because the breath becomes more difficult as you gain weight and as the abdomen is compressed more."
O'Connor says proper, conscious breathing also keeps the body oxygenated, helps digestion, and helps the baby. "You want to breathe [properly] for the baby's sake because your baby is getting all of the benefits of the breath when you do breathe deeper."
Variety Is the Spice of Life
From hatha to kundalini to ashtanga to Iyengar, almost all types of yoga focus on the breath -- but their similarities end there. Some are more aerobic, others mostly meditative, and yet others fall somewhere in between. So how do you know which one is right for you and your developing fetus?
"Before you're pregnant, there are lots of different kinds of yoga, and it seems that people fit into certain categories depending on their preferences: Some people like the heated, fiery ashtanga yoga, some like more of a gentle fluid movement similar to tai chi," explains O'Connor. "When you are pregnant, you really need to adhere to a safe and gentle way of moving in and out of the yoga postures, period. So you want to set aside those preferences once you get into the second trimester and you really want to move softly and easily in and out of the poses, because you want to gain strength as well as flexibility and balance.
"But the most important thing is to gain an inward focus, because what you are doing is training yourself for labor and preparing yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally," says O'Connor. "You want to create a reference point to go within, be quiet, and be with yourself [because] that is what you bring with you into your birthing situation. When you practice and when you do that consistently, you develop a reference that is yours alone, and when you go into labor that is all you have."
Gurmukh Khalsa and Sat Jivan Kaur Khalsa agree that the prenatal yoga classes of any yoga "lineage" are more similar than they are different; variations come down to an instructor's style, personal touches, or, in the case of kundalini yoga, certain spiritually-rooted traditions and ceremonies.
"Chances are whatever you find, you are really fortunate and you will probably be in good hands," says Gurmukh Khalsa. "Say you live in a big city and have a choice, then just go visit some studios and see whatever feels good for you. You have to vibrate with them. But whichever form you do, in a sense it doesn't matter as long as you just get in the breathing and get in community and spend that time, one or two or three times a week, where it is just you and your relationship to this soul."
"I think you have to experiment," says Sat Jirvan Kaur Khalsa. "Yoga is becoming more popularized, but there are many places in the country where there is only one thing available. We are not on every corner yet."
In Search of Studio
When looking for a class, all three instructors agreed that finding a qualified teacher whom you like are the two most important criteria for choosing a class.
"I would check the teacher's reputation, if their character and energy is good, if they are kind and nice and smile, if they make you feel good after you take a class," says Gurmukh Khalsa. "Do you feel good spiritually, mentally, physically? I don't think you know if you like the environment until after you take a class."
"First of all, you want to be under the guidance of a qualified teacher: How long has he or she been teaching? Is the teacher interested in the students and does she have a nurturing quality?" says O'Connor. "You want to know that this teacher is doing the poses safely and effectively, in a nice, clean environment. You want to be in a cool, ventilated room; you want to know that there are props available -- by props I mean something to support the body, from a pillow to a block to a strap to a blanket, and chairs and mats."
"I always look for cleanliness in a studio, and comfort. If they don't have pillows or blankets, you probably won't be comfortable or feel supported," says Sat Jirvan Kaur Khalsa. "You also want to go some place you feel comfortable, where they know your name and appreciate your being there. Sometimes gyms and exercise clubs may be the last place you want to take class. They shift teachers a lot; they plug in less-qualified substitutes to teach. Privately owned studios have a greater sense of responsibility."
Sat Jirvan Kaur Khalsa also recommends checking to see if a studio or teacher has liability insurance. "I think it shows responsibility on studio and teacher's part that they take the work seriously," she says.
Calling All Pops! Calling All Pops!
Yoga isn't limited to women; expectant fathers can participate in many ways. Some yoga centers offer special labor and delivery classes for couples; others have classes for men.
"I think a man plays a very important role," says Sat Jirvan Singh Khalsa, husband of Sat Jirvan Kaur Khalsa and co-director (with her) of Kundalini Yoga East. "First of all, they have to recognize that the woman is going through changes. The hormonal changes tend to make the woman a lot more expansive and a lot less grounded. One of the things the man has to be is the grounding influence in the couple -- regardless of what role the woman had played before -- because the process of being pregnant so opens the woman. So the man has to stay focused and give support."
He also recommends that a man participate by walking and/or chanting with his partner, and by becoming more sensitive. "He can try to pick up some of the responsibility that has heretofore been on the shoulders of the wife -- if possible."
"It certainly wouldn't hurt him to do yoga also ... I think it will certainly help men grow in that sensitivity and awareness," says Sat Jirvan Kaur Khalsa. "Yoga will open those doors for them."
"They shouldn't be afraid of that," says her husband. "I think men need to allow themselves to understand that there are changes they will go through and not be afraid to let those changes happen. They should let themselves expand as their wives physically and mentally expand. My wife said I should consider myself pregnant. I took her literally: I tried to grow and I tried to let my consciousness expand. And I recommend that to other men."
Like Frances, some women who dabble in yoga during pregnancy will get hooked and become yoga devotees in the years after their pregnancies.
"It has helped me feel more connected to my body and less stressed in general," says Frances. "It has made me feel even more comfortable in my own skin, both physically and mentally."
O'Connor couldn't be happier to hear stories like that. "I encourage any women -- pregnant or not -- to explore yoga," she says. "We are faced with different challenges than men are, so I promote yoga at all phases in a woman's life. I encourage giving the gift to yourself to go into a quiet place to honor your body, your mind, your spirit, and emotions. Just honor yourself as a woman. When we can take care of ourselves, then we can accept the challenges that motherhood and daily life bring to us."