What does my home yoga practice look like at 31 weeks pregnant? Read on to find out.
During the COVID-19 quarantine, I’ve been working on something special from home – and I don’t just mean growing a baby. I’ve been finishing my 85-hour prenatal yoga teacher training program with Rooted Boston!
Truthfully, there couldn’t be a better time to complete this training. Not only did it provide some structure to my infinite hours of space following the city’s shutdown, but it also gave me inspiration on how to shape my own personal practice.
When I became pregnant, certain shifts in my yoga practice happened immediately, while others changed over time. Immediately, inversions and prone positions started feeling icky; and throughout the course of the first trimester, my big, beautiful backbends and arm balances began to fade away. As I got deeper and deeper into the second trimester, prenatal yoga classes – which used to feel pretty gentle – started feeling delicious.
How does prenatal yoga differ from all-levels yoga classes?
In a live class surrounded by pregnant women, the difference between prenatal yoga and all-levels yoga classes is quite obvious. Besides the surface-level demographics of prenatal classes, they also have an undeniably powerful feminine energy to them. There’s a feeling of solidarity – that we’re all in this crazy, beautiful emotional roller coaster of creating life together.
Many in-person classes start with a circle of support, where we share how far along we are and whether we have any physical or emotional concerns that our yoga practice may be able to support. In our practice of movement, we spend considerably more time in tabletop (with hands and knees on the mat) and in variations of squats (e.g., chair/Utkatasana, goddess/Utkata Konasana, garland/Malasana, and wall slides) than in all-levels classes. We are encouraged to find comfort in these sometimes-challenging positions because both squatting and being quadruped can be effective shapes to emulate during labor and delivery. Finally, in prenatal yoga classes, the teacher often throws in little gems of wisdom that can be helpful for us to think back on when labor arrives. Needless to say, casually referencing contractions in an all-levels class might be solicit confused faces from unexpecting students.
Of course, things are a little different when we practice prenatal yoga at home. The community aspect of prenatal classes is still present if we practice virtually on certain platforms, like Zoom. However, a home practice serves an entirely different purpose than the community-building of group classes – instead, it encourages us to turn inward to our individual experience and become our own teacher. Ideally, I think that finding a balance between the social engagement of group yoga classes and the inner-wisdom discovery of a personal yoga practice makes us well-rounded students.
Here are a few of my favorite shapes and breathing techniques that I love to include in my personal prenatal practice now:
Although I used to love deep backbends, even most baby backbends now make me feel as though I’m unnecessarily or excessively stretching my abdominal muscles. To emulate the feeling of backbending, I do quite a lot of gentle heart-opening. I love taking a strap overhead and moving my arms down toward the low back and back overhead 5-10 times – almost as if using the strap to floss the connective tissue across the front of the chest. The grip on the strap should be tight enough to feel a stretch across the pectoral muscles but should be loose enough so that the arms can extend fully at the tightest spot.
Doing a “wall clock” can provide a similar heart-opening sensation to taking the strap overhead, but it can be held a little longer. To practice the wall clock, I typically start by taking one arm to a wall straight overhead and walk away from the wall far enough to feel a stretch around the armpit and chest. After holding this “twelve ’o’clock” position for a few seconds, I walk back to the wall, inch my hand down to where two ‘o’ clock would be, then walk away from the wall until I find a sweet spot. I continue this pattern, working my hand down the wall until it reaches six ‘o’ clock (with my arm fully extended downward). Then, I repeat these stretches on the second side.
Pre-pregnancy, I assumed that twisting was to be avoided at all costs in prenatal yoga. At least, that’s the general guidance that’s often provided to new teachers. There is a grain of truth to that rule – I definitely wouldn’t want to jam my knee into my pregnant belly. However, my body always stops me well before I journey too deeply into any shape. Twisting is one of the few directions that our spines can naturally move in, and it would be silly to completely neglect this pattern of movement for nine months. Since I had broken my ribs a few years prior to becoming pregnant, I had already learned to love gentle, open twists (i.e., twists where the body is moving in the opposite direction of the knee). But because I needed to find novel ways to heart-open during pregnancy, I started loving gentle twists even more.
My favorite gentle twist is what I learned as “wide easy twist” during a 25-hour Prenatal Teacher Training at Laughing Lotus New York. This is essentially a low lunge with the front foot (we’ll say the left foot) positioned toward the left outer edge of the mat, the right hand grounded toward the right outer edge of the mat, and the left hand reaching straight upward. Many variations can be taken with the top arm to create space around the shoulder; swimming the arm in wide circles is probably my favorite of these variations.
Downward dog at the wall
Pregnant or not, downward dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) at the wall can be a wonderful stretch for the entire length of the spine. The advantage of this shape during pregnancy is that we can attain this stretch without having to dip our heads below our heart. I tend to run on the low range for blood pressure to begin with, and pregnancy exacerbated this. Especially during the second trimester – when blood pressure tends to dip down to its lowest point – I could become dizzy with inversions or quick transitions. In this shape, we place our palms on the wall and walk backward until our arms are straight and our heads come in line with out hips. I like to hold this shape for several breaths before easing back into the wall.
Diaphragmatic breathing + Shhh-breath
Diaphragmatic breathing is connected to the pelvic diaphragm. Who knew? By breathing into the low belly, we are also gently expanding and contracting the muscles of the pelvic floor. Before Savasana, I find it helpful to come to a comfortable seat and visualize the pelvic floor breathing to imagine how it can shape-shift with the process of childbirth.
Diaphragmatic breathing – especially when we make a long shhhhhh sound on the exhalation – also naturally tones the transverse abdominus. This is the deep core muscle that is needed to push when we’re birthing a baby. All of the strong core work that I used to do pre-pregnancy has been thrown out the window because core work that targets the rectus abdominus (the outermost core layer) make it harder for diastasis recti (the natural splitting of the abdominal muscles that occurs during pregnancy) to heal postnatally. Instead, shhhh-breathing is my go-to prenatal core-strengthening exercise.
Calf massage + legs up the wall + hypnobirthing meditation
Despite all the running I’ve done in my life, nothing has compared to the calf cramps I’ve experienced during pregnancy. The Charlie horses that have awakened me during the night may be caused by carrying extra weight or they may be due to slowdown of venous return from the legs; regardless, self-massage of the calves has never felt like such a sweet release. I like to do self-massage to relax the muscles of my calves before coming into legs up the wall for Savasana.
Similar to calf massage, legs up the wall is a shape that I never truly understood until pregnancy. Although it’s not mandatory for the shape, I love wrapping a yoga strap around my thighs before lifting my legs straight up a wall. The strap provides a sense of security and a sense that my legs won’t unintentionally fall out to a wide V shape.
While I’m taking rest, I sometimes listen to 5- to 10-minute hypnobirthing meditations. The ones I’ve done are short guided meditations that involve visualizing a “personal place” or images of openings. The theory is that by relaxing and envisioning the birthing metaphors in a non-scary setting, we are training our minds to quickly tap into these images when we may need them. As someone who has a rich imagination and tends to panic when I feel I’m not in control of my body, I think these visualizations may be more effective than any pain medication for me.
So, there you have it - an inside look at my current home yoga practice. Will these still be my staples after my snowpea is born? Will gentle be my forever practice? Or will post-8 mile run handstanding become the norm, as it was before?
To be continued...