“The pregnant body is changing if not daily, then sometimes weekly, and certainly monthly. Those changes can be profound, they can bring up structural stress or postural stress, and they can bring up a lot of strong emotion. And quiet time for processing those emotions and for releasing that postural stress is so important.” Monica Voss
Nine months might seem like a substantial chunk of time, but for a pregnant woman, they can fly by in a whoosh of excitement, anticipation, worry and joy. With everything from changing hormones to increased appetite, pregnancy incurs such massive change in the body and mind that it can often be overwhelming to the expecting mother. Perhaps not surprisingly, yoga, with its focus on mind-body awareness and connection, is a great tool for pregnant women to help them deal with the changes that accompany a growing baby both before and after birth.
According to Monica Voss, yoga teacher at Esther Myers Yoga Studio, prenatal yoga is a practice appropriate for the issues and developments in all trimesters. On the physical level, yoga is an ideal way to maintain fitness during pregnancy without high-impact exertion and to help prepare the body for labour itself. As the fetus begins to grow and expand outwards, for instance, a great deal of structural stress can occur as a result. When the woman’s centre of gravity begins to shift, posture may well follow suit, to lead to the repositioning or tilting of the back and pelvis. Such shifts may cause pain or discomfort, which, in conjunction with a growing belly and new energy requirements, can create new physical demands and sensitivities.
Many of these new physical sensations may be mitigated by poses and movements that gently assist the body in making adjustments. Certain positions, Monica says, can help relax the body while encouraging it to create space for the baby. Seated asanas, for instance, can help release the hips and inner thighs—poses which can open the pelvis and expand the groin both to make room for baby as it develops prenatally and to open the birth canal region prior to labour for a smoother birth. Others can help alleviate the physiological strain incurred by extra pregnancy weight and uterine expansion. Poses such as Upavistha Konasana, or a seated wide-legged straddle, provide a nice stretch in the hamstrings and calves that can relieve painful leg cramps in muscles that may be fatigued from carrying additional weight or which are suffering from a restricted blood flow as the growing uterus puts pressure on the veins that return blood from the lower body to the heart.
Standing positions can similarly help expecting mothers adapt to the changes in their bodies. As Monica notes, the baby will grow “forward into the area of the least resistance, the abdominal muscles”, yet this also means that the baby will move away from the mother’s spine, where it needs to be positioned for the birthing process. In prenatal yoga, therefore, standing postures may be adjusted for the mother’s changing centre of gravity. With their feet wider apart, women will feel more stable and secure as they feel a greater connection to the ground and to gravity. And more criticially, when appropriately positioned in Tadasana, for example, the prenatal yoga teacher can then assist women with their posture in order to help them draw the baby back toward the spine and to settle the pelvic floor.
Of course, yoga is an excellent way for expecting mothers to help settle their minds and emotions as well as their changing bodies. Pregnancy can create a great deal of excitement, uncertainty, and anticipation that can stimulate a flurry of changing emotions and concerns. In conjunction with hormonal change, these mental and emotional fluctuations can cause stress that may lead to anxiety and fatigue in the new mother. Yoga, through grounding and breathing exercises, can help women release emotional tension and find relaxation. Performing controlled and deep breathing exercises while lying on the floor, says Monica, is a good way to allow the woman to become grounded, a technique which can diffuse high levels of anxiety and excitement, while also giving the woman time for herself and the developing baby. The practice of Pranayama during pregnancy can strengthen a mother’s fitness and help her provide vital energy for her baby. Breathing is therapeutically ideal for both supplying the baby with adequate oxygen and prana, or energy, in utero, while also preparing the mother for labour. A conscious awareness of breathing during birth can assist the mother to reduce the physical and emotional tension of labour.
Post-natally, yoga also offers great benefits to the new mother. Continued practice of breathing and asana can help the new mother adapt to the changes and demands of motherhood, while giving her time to relax into her new role. Because caring for an infant can take a physical toll on a mother, yoga can work to alleviate the tightness of the upper body and legs by renewing a sense of energy through stretch and an awareness of muscular relaxation. At the same time, Monica notes, deep belly breathing can return sensitivity and intimacy to the lower body and pelvis, which may have become flaccid or lax.
While Monica warns that yoga should not be considered a cure for post-natal depression and that women who suspect they have symptoms of post-partum depression should seek medical help, she does recommend that new mothers partake in post-natal or mother and child yoga classes to allow them to benefit from the sense of community that yoga can provide. Recommitting to your yoga practice at this important time can help women become grounded in their new roles and prepare for the many new experiences ahead.
Video and photography by EK Park. Article by Krista Weger, Toronto Body Mind (www.torontobodymind.ca)
Tuesday, April 26, 2011