This is a very special blog post. First, it is my first (of many) guest blog posts; but, certainly more importantly, it is written by someone that I respect, appreciate, and love more than I would think possible of someone who I really just met. Brigitte’s background in dance, pilates, yoga work, midwifery studies, lactation, massage, herbalism, and more has made her nothing less than a master of her trade. As the owner of Rooted Boston, the sessions, semi-private classes, & workshops Brigitte organizes cater to Prenatal, Postnatal, and Pelvic post-rehabilitation clientele.
Prenatal Yoga: Becoming a Mother One Class at a Time
–Written by Brigitte Arle, CLC, ERYT, RPYT, CEIM
Prenatal yoga has been around for quite a while; but, in recent years it’s become a must for those who are expecting. Doctors and midwives routinely recommend prenatal yoga as a preventative measure for aches and pains and, as a result, women are flocking to their local studios. Many women start their relationship with yoga in these classes. Prenatal yoga is an excellent way to get your foot in the door of the yoga world if you have otherwise been turned off, intimidated, or uninterested. It is easy to see real results for the mind, body, and mood. It can reduce stress, prevent or reduce lumbo-pelvic pain, improve circulation, strength, flexibility, & reduce anxiety. In addition, women that exercise prenatally tend to recover faster from birth. But perhaps most important of all, it is empowering. Below is a list of my 7 favorite reasons to practice to prenatal yoga.
1. Safety & Comfort
There is a concept in our culture that pregnant women are somehow weak or delicate and by taking a regular yoga or fitness class she is proving her strength. This is the “run like a boy” mentality. Somehow & somewhere in the misogynistic past being female became synonymous with being slow or weak. This is the furthest thing from the truth! The uterus is the most powerful muscle in the human body! Also, we aren’t required to do powerlifting in pregnancy to have a strong uterus or an easeful birth.
In a prenatal yoga class, the material is already modified for you and your baby’s comfort and safety. Attending non-pregnancy specific classes (especially for those who are new to yoga or exercise) can easily cause injuries by unintentionally practicing something that is unsafe. Also, unless your teacher happens to be certified in prenatal yoga they may not know what is safe for you either. Yoga was originally designed for men. Traditional poses and pranayama are not always suitable for pregnancy and some are contraindicated. The benefits of yoga have been studied for pregnant women, but this doesn’t extend to poses, styles (such as hot yoga), and vigorous or restrictive pranayama that are not modified for the expectant woman. Yoga has been found to be more beneficial than walking and other forms of exercise. Some of the reasons that make it so unique are pointed out below.
2. Positive body image in pregnancy.
As an instructor, I enjoy the rare and powerful privilege of standing in a room full of pregnant bodies. Women often hide their bellies in public to avoid awkward conversations or belly petting without permission. We live in a culture that celebrates the accessory of a baby bump on one hand, yet leaves us without honoring the time it takes to recover after birth. This dangerously elevates the importance of the postpartum bounce back body over mental and physical health and wellness of the mother and baby dyad. In pregnancy, women are poked and prodded by medical providers, measured and weighed. In prenatal yoga classes, women can be with other women in all our shapes and sizes. We celebrate the view that pregnant women are in fact pillars of strength and the variations of these pregnant bodies and babies are perfect as is. By practicing yoga, it isn’t about looking a certain way, or fitting into a box, it is about how it makes us feel. When we have freedom of movement and breath we can also find a peace within that radiates joy into our everyday life.
The midwife and author Ina May Gaskin, has a phrase: “If a woman doesn’t look like a goddess in labor, someone isn’t treating her right.” I feel that the same sentiment is true in prenatal yoga. All of these bodies of women who planned for a baby, or had an unexpected pregnancy, or went through a journey with fertility treatments, are all there together moving in strength beside one another. They all have different bodies, fitness levels, different reasons for being in class. When I look at these women in class, I see warriors of love and goddesses in their own right. All their stories are different but they come together and work out whatever they need to on the mat. I like to remind my clients that they aren’t just executing a yoga pose as someone would who isn’t pregnant. These superwomen are practicing a challenging yoga pose and, at the same time, they are growing tiny little fingernails, eyelashes, bones, vital organs, and a brain for their baby (or babies with multiples)! That is truly the most advanced form of yoga that exists at any studio or gym. Whenever a woman feels down about her body or some physical limitation that may have modified her practice I want her to keep this in mind.
3. Preparing the Mind & Body for Birth.
Nothing quite prepares us for our first labor, birth, and baby. However, prenatal yoga classes will combine asana (postures), pranayama (breath exercises), & Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) that apply to the changes in your body during pregnancy and can carry over into birth as well. Some of the postures we practice are also comfort techniques that can be used for pain management in labor. One of my favorite examples of this is a sacral massage at the wall. I also teach this technique in my Yoga for Childbirth partner workshop. You begin at the wall standing with your feet about a foot or so away from the baseboard. Press your sacrum against it the wall bending your knees as little or as much as you need to control the pressure. Whenever I teach this in class I remind everyone that this is actually a form of counter pressure! For anyone who is unfamiliar with sacral counter pressure, it is a common technique used by doulas to relieve low back discomfort during labor contractions. If your birth partner (or doula) is not with you yet, or you just need a massage, it is great to have this tool at your disposal. I view pregnancy & birth as a preparation for life with a newborn; prenatal yoga helps to prepare your body and mind for both. During the end of class, I sometimes offer a visualization or breath led meditation practice. Occasionally, I will have the class practice this for the length of an active labor contraction. By doing so, they are starting to actively prepare for their birth at whatever stage of pregnancy they start their prenatal yoga practice in.
Being vocal about our own physical autonomy and comfort is a new concept for many women. This is changing with younger generations but it is important to recognize for ourselves. In prenatal yoga classes, you learn to do what works for you and your body, rather than doing what everyone else is doing. As women we are constantly apologizing for our bodies, feeling inadequate or as though we need to conform. I often encourage women to close their eyes, put their knees down or lift them up, use blocks or remove them, or just sit and drink water. They are given options in each class for each fitness level and trimester. During each class, they get to choose what movements feel right for them that day.
When we are given options in class, we have a choice to explore how we want to move as individuals. The same is true in labor, birth, and parenting. We just don’t always realize we have options. Women are the experts of their own bodies and their own baby. It is just that simple. The more they explore and enjoy their relationship to owning their own body the more empowered their pregnancy & birth choices will be. This translates into making empowered parenting choices for their new baby as well.
5. Maintaining physical strength, flexibility and preventing injury.
The physical benefits of prenatal yoga have been studied quite a bit by both eastern and western medicine. The results are very impressive. One study found that by utilizing a specific pranayama practice, the perception of pain and duration of labor was reduced compared to those who did not use it. A very common complaint among expectant women is that they are suffering from low back and pelvic pain. Some traditional yoga poses are ill-suited or contraindicated in pregnancy. However, prenatal yoga employs props and modifications to these poses. Because of this, prenatal yoga is found to reduce lumbo-pelvic pain in several random control studies. In addition, for “high-risk pregnant women with morbidity factors such as obesity or advanced age, yoga resulted in significantly fewer cases of pregnancy-induced hypertension, gestational diabetes, and intrauterine growth restriction, as well as a decrease in perceived stress levels.”  Yoga also helps fetal development and the development of both the mother and baby’s brain. In addition, some women find it helps reduce nausea & morning sickness, others notice their insomnia goes away. These are all huge benefits! It helps women relax, reduces pain, prepares the body & mind for birth, and boosts fetal development.
6. Improved Mood.
Women who practice yoga have “decreased depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances” prenatally.  The breathing practices in prenatal yoga lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and help to focus the mind. They can help with the dreaded “pregnancy brain” or “mommy brain.” Alternate nostril breathing, for example, can sharpen focus at work or help silence distractions before bed. As the baby grows in pregnancy, the fundus (top of uterus) stretches and grows upwards pushing our abdominal organs up against our diaphragm and respiratory organs. It can make you feel short of breath or light-headed. Deep breathing exercises are said to provide up to 7 times more oxygen than regular shallow breathing does. I find it very practical to practice deep breathing in a safe space, at your own pace, with an instructor over the course of pregnancy rather than just one weekend course for childbirth in the third trimester.
By increasing oxygen supply, we can improve our mood, tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for rest and recovery. In addition to breathing practices, having the physical yoga practice can make our bodies feel, look, and function better which also boosts our mood. Being able to take time for yourself, shut off your phone, silence the thoughts and to-do lists is the art of being present. In our prenatal yoga classes, being present can translate into staying present with each contraction in labor, not worrying about how much longer labor will be or how many more contractions till you meet your baby. It also helps us stay present and grateful once our baby has arrived as they are constantly changing and time, while it seems to stand still at first, really does fly by. Rather than looking to the future or past we can enjoy each precious moment and stage in the moment.
7. Community Support.
The last benefit I will point out, but certainly not least, is that prenatal yoga can help build community. This is so valuable as a new mother and can help safeguard against postpartum depression. Women’s groups and circles of support during pregnancy and postpartum have been common throughout history and across cultures. Yet in today’s busy world where our family is often miles away, it is so refreshing to have women to talk to and befriend that are going through it right alongside you. Prenatal classes often introduce women to each other who can later make stroller dates and discuss the challenges and joys they experience at any stage in their baby’s life. Prenatal yoga helps to build this sangha (community) in each class. When you find a class you like, go regularly and get to know your neighbors on the mat beside you. These women will be equally eager to come to a mommy and me class with you once your babies are born.