As more doctors advise prenatal yoga to their patients to avoid pregnancy complications and allow for a smoother childbirth, mothers-to-be are often met with contradicting information about which poses are safe for the fetus up through the third trimester.
To ensure the baby’s health is not compromised, yoga teachers will usually refrain from offering poses that involve twists, backbends, inversions, or lying on your back. But a new study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology shows that Downward Dog—a common inversion that some instructors will steer clear from—is safe for both mom and baby, and so are many other poses.
While many studies have already shown innumerable benefits for the mother like improved sleep, decreased lower back pain and lowered risk of pre-term labor, Dr. Rachael Polis wanted clear evidence that showed the impact yoga might have on the fetus. Her findings indicate that the baby’s heart rate remained normal up to 24 hours after a yoga practice, regardless of the mother’s background in yoga (from experienced to novice). Furthermore, none of the participants in the study–25 healthy pregnant women in their third trimesters—reported that the 26 poses performed (including the ones usually avoided) led to any complications.
Listen to the full story on NPR:
“We found these postures were really well-tolerated by women in our study,” says Polis, who conducted the research while she was a resident at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. “Women’s vital signs, heart rates, blood pressure—these all remained normal.”
In addition, there were no falls or injuries. And none of the women reported “decreased fetal movement, contractions, leakage or fluid, or vaginal bleeding in the 24-hour follow-up,” according to the study manuscript.
And very important, the fetal heart rate during all 26 poses remained normal.
But they did try poses that some yoga teachers have advised pregnant women to avoid. These include the downward-facing dog; the happy baby pose—that’s a pose where you lie on your back and hold your toes like a baby; and the corpse pose, where you lie on your back. Pregnant women are often told to lie on their sides, not their backs, during the final stages of pregnancy.
As a yoga teacher who is not certified to teach prenatal, I’ll admit I am relieved. Accessible prenatal classes are not always easy to come by, either from a lack of certified teachers or studio offerings, or the fact that the cost outweighs that of a regular public class. The solution for many yoga moms-to-be is to continue their practice in a regular all levels vinyasa class, putting the safety of their health and that of their developing offspring in the hands of their teacher.
I’ve had many pregnant women show up in my classes through their third trimesters, and I always err on the side of caution—often having to change up my lesson plans on the spot. Which is fine, given it’s my job to cater to the individual needs of my students in any given moment. However, knowing for certain that I can safely offer a Downward Dog to Chaturanga variation (staying off the belly!) or a gentle, supine spinal twist is encouraging.
Mothers-to-be should always check with their ob/gyn before beginning (or continuing) any exercise program throughout their pregnancy, and should favor (in my opinion) prenatal classes over public classes. These provide specialized breath work and practices for labor, with the added benefit of being part of a post-natal community. I’m thrilled whenever I get to work with pregnant students, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it can make me a tad nervous.
The key for teachers in public classes is to focus more on the poses that are beneficial to all their students, rather than dwell on the ones that might be dangerous to those who are pregnant. It would seem we’ve been given the green light during the third trimester, but what about the rest? All teachers should practice extra diligence during the first trimester, since it is the period of highest risk, when the development of the delicate fetus is happening rapidly. So which poses are ideal during this critical time, while still giving the rest of the class what they need?
Yoga Journal offers some tips for the first trimester:
Most standing poses (Utthita Trikonasana [Extended Triangle Pose], Utthita Parsvakonasana [Extended Side Angle Pose], Virabhadrasana I-III [Warrior I-III Poses]) are fine in the first trimester. Even balance poses such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose) and Garudasana (Eagle Pose) are okay, provided they are done near the wall in case the student loses her balance. Strengthening the leg muscles and the pelvic floor is important preparation for later phases of pregnancy, and it encourages good circulation in the legs to prevent cramping as blood pressure starts to drop.
Open seated twists (Parivrtta Janu Sirsanana [Revolved Head-of-the-Knee Pose], Marichyasana I [Marichi’s Pose]) all relieve aches in the lower back and encourage proper posture. Hip openers such as Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) and Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend) should be a key focus because of the flexibility needed for delivery, but you must remind your students not to overdo it; the hormone relaxin is softening all the joints and they are easily dislocated if stretched too far.
Because this new study was performed on women in their third trimesters, I’d say it’s still safe to avoid twisting during the first, until further evidence is garnered. If you’re teaching a public class with a student in her first trimester, it’s advisable to have her hold, say, Triangle and Side Angle Pose for a few extra breaths while you guide the rest of your students through any revolved or twisted variations.
At any point during the duration of pregnancy, it is still advisable to refrain from tricky arm balances that could result in a fall and, of course, staying off the belly to avoid decompressing the abdomen. Here is a great prenatal yoga sequence you can do during all three trimesters.
What do you think—would you feel safe to practice yoga in a public class during pregnancy, or do you prefer specialized prenatal yoga?
Photo courtesy of Robert Sturman Studio
Andrea Rice is the Practice and Community Editor for Wanderlust Media. She is also a writer and yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, mindbodygreen, Yoganonymous, AstroStyle, Teach.yoga, and several music magazines. Her teaching style is a blend of her love for music and intuitive movement, with emphasis on core strength. You can find her regular classes at Shambhala Yoga in Brooklyn and connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.