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Prenatal Yoga 101: Empowerment through breath and movement

This article recounts my take-home messages from a Prenatal Yoga training at Laughing Lotus New York.

The common reaction I heard when I told friends, family, and complete strangers that I was signing up for a Prenatal Yoga training was an all-knowing, “Oh…(!)” There was a shared sentiment among everyone in my circles of social interaction that I must be doing this training for personal reasons. In other words, I must be pregnant.

To set the record straight, yes, I did sign up for personal reasons, but not because I’m growing a human. Rather, I signed up for the sheer sense of terror I experienced each time a pregnant woman waddled into my all-levels yoga classes.

“Hi, I’m Jacqueline, and I’m 25 weeks pregnant. I’ve never done yoga before, but my doctor recommended it, so I’m entrusting you with my growing fetus,” round-bellied women would say to me one minute before the start time for a packed yoga class. My eyes would glaze over like a deer in headlights as I scraped the back of my mind to recall the basic prenatal modifications instructed in my 200-hour teacher training program.

When I saw the Prenatal Training advertised among Laughing Lotus’s 300-hour modules, I knew that I had to sign up in order to truly teach safe, widely accessible all-levels yoga classes. What I did not know when I enrolled in February was that I would be a proud puppy mother by June living in a new apartment with a 2-year lease with my boyfriend. Of course, it would look like I’m entering that stage in my life – at least, my mother liked to hope so, as she would eagerly remind me each time I phoned home.

Regardless of the reasoning for enlisting in this training, I had a gut feeling that my fear of pregnant women attending my classes had to do with the fact that I was most definitely not ready to entertain the idea of motherhood. The moment my puppy entered my life, I met the notion of being a stay-at-home puppy mom with equal parts sobbing resistance and smothering love for our two-month old who demanded so much attention. In a way, taking a prenatal training became an opportunity to acknowledge my resistance from moving out of my life stage as a child away from home and into the caretaking responsibilities of true adulthood.

I was shocked to realize that during my training, I would not only feel comfortable with the idea of teaching yoga to pregnant woman, but that I would develop an insatiable hunger for new knowledge on this awe-inspiring subject. Although I had been exposed to women’s health throughout my education – majoring in physiology, taking upper-level reproductive physiology classes, and working in an ovarian cancer research lab as an undergraduate; and taking women, gender, and health courses and studying migrant women’s health during my Master’s program – I seemed to glaze over any information that I had encountered about pregnancy up until this training. I was both astounded and slightly ashamed to realize that I knew so little practical information about a process that can be such an incredible part of women’s lives. And I wasn’t alone in this sentiment. Fear seemed to be the overwhelming reason that my fellow trainees signed up for the training.

The common sense of fear was palpable at the beginning of the training. Despite the skill and experience we possessed as yoga teachers, we were collectively afraid of saying the wrong thing, afraid of touching the wrong place during assists, afraid that a complication would occur under our supervision, afraid of not possessing the right information, and – most crippling – afraid of crushing the growing baby.

A little bit of knowledge, a great level of reassurance, and a few hours practicing yoga with blankets strapped to our bellies went a long way in this training. During our final teaching exercise of the weekend, I was assigned to do a 15-minute private lesson with a woman in our training group who was in her second trimester of pregnancy. In our post-teaching reflection, my partner announced to the group, “I was happy that Lacey wasn’t afraid to assist me. When I take classes, the teachers often avoid touching me, and she seemed confident in using her hands to teach.”

Shocked, I replied, “That shift must have happened overnight. The night before this training, I taught a small class with a pregnant woman, and I was terrified to touch her.”

Our teacher cheered and did a little dance. The moment felt like a victory for all of us. Aside from the boost in confidence, here a few more important learning lessons:

What is prenatal yoga, and what are the benefits of practicing during pregnancy?

Prenatal yoga can provide an opportunity for expecting mothers to use movement to bond with their growing babies as they connect to their own bodies and minds. Improvements in proprioception, mobility, and strength; stress reduction; support from a community; and awareness of breath are among the plethora of benefits of yoga that may help mothers-to-be through their pregnancy, labor, and beyond.

What is not under the scope of prenatal yoga?

Fear surrounding pregnancy can be potent, which can cause many to be either overly-prescriptive or overly-cautious in their interactions with expecting mothers. As yoga teachers, we are not doctors, physical therapists, mental health counselors, massage therapists, midwives, or doulas (unless of course we are certified in any of these professions). Thus, it is not our place to pass judgement about expecting mothers’ conventional and/or alternative medical choices. Moreover, it’s not necessarily our duty to be restorative yoga teachers. Don’t get me wrong, restorative classes can be lovely, but I’ve heard they are the default setting for prenatal, which is not always what expecting mothers want or need. By denying expecting mothers the right to move freely, we deny their autonomy and intuition.

What should we tell pregnant women in our classes to avoid?

The vast majority of yoga movements that are definite no’s for pregnant women are things that they will intuitively feel are not good for their pregnancy. Unless women have a broken connection with their bodies prior to pregnancy, it can be safe to let them decide what to modify in their bodies and when. That being said, there are a few general guidelines we can offer expecting mother, including avoiding lying on her belly, deep twists, deep core work, and pranayama (breath work) in which she intentionally suctions her belly into her spine. Additionally, utra-hot yoga likely isn’t a good idea unless the expecting mother has been practicing consistently in 100° rooms prior to her pregnancy. Finally, inversions without the support of a wall may feel unstable for pregnant women. Inversions with a wall may not be a great idea for those who have not practiced them prior to pregnancy, but as we know from the era of Instagram, there are mothers who swear by their handstand practice until the day of their labor.

What should we offer to pregnant women in our classes?

Each expecting mother’s experience with pregnancy is different, but for all, it is an undeniable time of transformation. Given the constant chatter about the baby, one of the most helpful things to ask an expecting mother when she comes to class is, “How are you?” Specific sequences can be designed based on the expecting mother’s trimester and pregnancy experience, but one of the most important messages to provide to all pregnant women is that they are in the driver’s seat for how they move their bodies, which can be important for developing mind-body intuition. Especially in all-levels classes, we should give expecting mothers to move and breathe slower (or faster), to move more intuitively, to take rest, to drink water, and to leave to pee whenever they need to. Although there is a laundry list of things to avoid in prenatal yoga, there are limitless possibilities in the movements that we can offer, including mudras, meditation, wide open twists, wider stances standing or folding shapes, shorter stances in warriors, wall sits for building strength, thrones engineered from piles of props as blissful restorative postures (pictured in the photos), as and side-lying savasanas for rest.

The biggest take-home message from my training was that pregnancy isn’t such a scary thing at all, and in fact, it can be transformational. As yoga teachers, we can empower expecting mothers to move, breathe, and be in their metamorphosis into motherhood.

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