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How can prenatal yoga help with your pregnancy?

Prenatal yoga is a great low-impact workout that stretches and strengthens.
Prenatal yoga is a great low-impact workout that stretches and strengthens.
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Doctors recommend getting regular exercise throughout pregnancy, but the idea of pounding away on a treadmill may not be too appealing to many women with rapidly expanding bellies. That's one reason prenatal yoga is so popular among expectant moms; it's a low-impact, low-intensity workout that seems to have some real benefits -- both physical and psychological.

Most prenatal yoga classes include stretching and breathing exercises, both of which can help improve sleep, reduce stress, and decrease some of the aches and complications associated with pregnancy, such as lower back pain, nausea, headaches, and shortness of breath. Studies have even shown that yoga can help decrease your risk of preterm labor or pregnancy-induced hypertension, and your unborn baby's risk for a condition called intrauterine growth restriction. [Source: Mayo Clinic]

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Yoga during pregnancy seems to have some serious mental health benefits, as well: A 2012 University of Michigan study found that expectant moms who practiced yoga were less likely to experience depressive symptoms and also reported feeling a stronger bond with their babies. [Source: Muzik]

It's safe to try prenatal yoga even if you've never done regular yoga before, says Jen Oppenheimer, a prenatal instructor at New York Sports Club in Manhattan, but don't jump into anything more strenuous than the exercise you're already used to.

Avoid Bikram yoga and "hot yoga," and make sure you can stay cool and hydrated during class. (If you're a newbie to yoga, you may also want to stay away from vigorous Vinyasa, Ashtanga, or "Power Yoga" styles, and opt for more restorative classes, instead.) [Source: Mayo Clinic]

If you're not taking a class that's designated specifically as prenatal, it's important to make sure your instructor knows that you're pregnant -- and how far along you are -- so that he or she can help you modify postures that may be too difficult or risky.

Almost any yoga posture can be modified and practiced while pregnant, especially in the first trimester. But some are better than others at addressing the specific needs of a mom-to-be and her growing baby. Here are some of Oppenheimer's favorite moves to incorporate into her prenatal classes.

Head to Knee Forward Bend (Janu Sirsasana): Sit with your legs stretched out in front of you, your buttocks slightly elevated on a folded blanket. Bend one knee and pull that foot back to rest against your inner thigh, your knee on the ground or supported with another folded blanket. Lift your torso and stretch your spine and neck long, then gently fold over your leg, extending forward from the groin.

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This posture stretches your hamstrings and spine, while calming the nervous system, says Oppenheimer. As your pregnancy progresses, be sure to only bend as far as is comfortable; even just a slight bend and stretch can be beneficial.

Cobbler's Pose (Baddha Konasana): Sit with your legs in front of you, buttocks slightly elevated on a folded blanket if your hips or groin are tight. Bend your knees and pull your heels in together, toward your pelvis. Drop your knees as close to the floor as they will go without forcing them. Sit up straight, drawing your shoulder blades against your back and lengthening your torso.

Great for any stage of pregnancy, this posture stretches hips while stabilizing the pubic bone and pelvic floor, says Oppenheimer.

Garland Pose (Malasana): Standing with your feet as close together as possible, bend your knees and do a deep squat (with your buttocks close to the floor) while keeping your heels on the floor. Separate your thighs wider than your torso, and lean forward slightly to fit your torso between your thighs and your chest between your knees. Press your hands together in prayer pose and press your elbows against your knees.

"Squats are a great way to open the hips to help prepare the body for labor and delivery," says Oppenheimer. Kegel exercises, used to strengthen the pelvic floor, can also be performed in this position. If squatting becomes too difficult to do on your own, modify the pose by practicing against a wall or sitting on a block.

Cat and Cow (Marjaryasana and Bitilasana): Start on your hands and knees on the mat, with a flat back and eyes looking at the floor. As you exhale, begin to round your spine up toward the ceiling while dipping your tailbone and your head (cat pose). On your next inhale, come back to a neutral position and continue extending, looking up with your head while arching your back and letting your belly sink toward the floor (cow pose).

Moving between Cat and Cow opens and stretches the spine, says Oppenheimer, helping to maintain flexibility and stability. Shoulders should be stacked over elbows, and wrists and knees should be "baby" distance apart, to make room for your belly in between. If your wrists or knees are sensitive, use your fists and kneel on a blanket.

Child's Pose (Balasana): From your hands and knees, sit back so that your shins are on the ground and you are sitting on your heels. Separate your knees wide and lay your torso down between your thighs. (Move your feet apart, as well, if this is too difficult.) Rest your forehead on the floor or on a pillow, and your arms on the ground, extended out in front of you.

"I recommend this pose as the first thing a pregnant woman does before heading out in the morning," says Oppenheimer. "As the belly expands, the low back takes on a lot of additional stress to support the body. Child's pose helps release some of that tension."

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Sources

  • Muzik, M., et al. "Mindfulness yoga during pregnancy for psychiatrically at-risk women: Preliminary results from a pilot feasibility study," Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, online July, 2012. (April 29, 2013) http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2012.06.006.
  • Oppenheimer, Jen. Personal interview. April 29, 2013.
  • Yoga Journal. Pose Index. (April 29, 2013) http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/finder/browse_categories
  • Mayo Clinic. "Prenatal Yoga: What You Need to Know." (April 29, 2013) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/prenatal-yoga/MY01542

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