It’s in the news: prenatal yoga is a great choice for mothers-to-be. Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, and Gunasheela Surgical and Maternity Hospital in Bangalore, India collaborated on a research project (published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, April 2005) that showed that practicing prenatal yoga helped to improve birth weight, reduce pre-term labor, and decreased other complications.
This means that more and more pregnant yoga students are going to be coming to our yoga classes. Are you prepared?
Seeing the Spectrum
To help you prepare, I’m going to outline three likely “prenatal scenarios” that you might encounter in your teaching—Hey, gents, this means you, too!—and offer some guidance for handling each situation.
Situation 1: A new student drops into your class or signs up for your series of general yoga classes. She just happens to be pregnant. Will you (a) turn her away? (b) welcome her, but be afraid to have her do anything? or (c) have her join the class, making adjustments as needed for her circumstance?
Situation 2: You did so well with the first situation that student in Situation 1 has told all of her pregnant friends about you. They want you to teach them a “just for prenatal” yoga class. Should you (a) figure that since what you did worked for one student, the same program should work for six students? (b) Laugh and say, “Are you crazy?” or (c) decline and say you need more training to teach a specialized class?
Situation 3: Now let’s say you get pregnant. Well okay, I said this article was for guys too, so let’s instead say that your most advanced woman student gets pregnant. She has been practicing inversions, full backward bends, and other advanced asanas. She has no complications with her pregnancy. Her health care provider has given her full approval to exercise. She wants to continue her yoga practice as usual. Her practice has been so important to her that she cannot imagine changing it, except for perhaps a few minor common sense adjustments for size, etc. Are you prepared to advise her, and what exactly will you say?
The Changing Prenatal Universe
Ready or not, I believe that sooner or later you will find yourself in Situation 1—or perhaps it’s already happening to you. It was not all that long ago when women were told that they should not exercise when pregnant, and that they should eat enough for two people. Well, if you weren’t around to notice, you can imagine the effect that advice had: It kept a lot of pregnant women out of our yoga classes. Luckily we are moving into the Dwapara age, and slowly we are becoming a bit more enlightened. The word is out now: not only is exercise okay for pregnant women, but they are being encouraged to exercise. And as for eating for two, as appealing as that may have sounded to some of us, that is out the door. Most women are advised to eat only about 300 extra calories a day—and even then, not until the second and third trimesters.
Now that the first notable scientific study to look specifically at the effects of yoga on pregnancy outcomes has been published—and shows that not only is yoga safe, but it also helps to improve birth weight and decreases pre-term labor— even more women will be looking to yoga for prenatal health for themselves and their baby. Not all women will be able to find a prenatal class in their area, or at a time that works for them. And even if they do find a prenatal class, many women will want more yoga than the typical once-a-week offering of a prenatal class. The result? Some pregnant women will come to “regular yoga classes.” So …
… We come back to the question of what to do for the pregnant woman who comes into your regular class.
First of all, as long as a prenatal student’s health care practitioner has given her the okay to exercise, there is no need for you to panic. There are some contraindications (as there are in all stages of our lives) to exercise during pregnancy that would be determined by her healthcare provider before giving the green light to exercise. You will find that, with some background knowledge, plus a lot of common sense, together you and your student will be able to modify her practice to ensure that it will be safe for her and her baby. See “Prenatal Exercise Precautions” (below) for warning signs to look out for. In general, have her take it easy, and always err on the side of caution whenever something questionable comes along.
As a starting point, see “Prenatal Yoga Tips” (page 9). Memorizing these tips—or keeping them handy to refer to— will help you deal with the unexpected prenatal student. If you do have one or more pregnant women taking your class, then you should refer to one of the books that are recommended below. Taking a prenatal yoga teacher training course will of course prepare you most thoroughly. I recommend this for all teachers—men and women—as part of their continuing education, whether or not they intend to specialize in prenatal yoga.
Are there times when you should turn away a prenatal yoga student? If you are indeed teaching Ananda Yoga, then you should not find it difficult to accommodate a pregnant woman in your class. However, if you happen to be teaching yoga in a hot environment, and/or aerobically with heating pranayamas and asanas (which, speaking personally, I hope you are not), then it would not be appropriate to have a prenatal student in your class. A pregnant woman’s body temperature is already elevated, and if she becomes overheated, both she and the baby will be medically at risk. Other dangers from a fast-paced or vigorous class can be injury from falling (balance is an issue throughout pregnancy), or compression on the abdomen. If you teach a hot and/or fast-paced, challenging class, you should explain to the pregnant student that there are other styles of yoga that she could try, and best of all, try to steer her to a prenatal yoga class if one is available in her area.
Now let’s consider Situation 2: a prenatal yoga class. First of all, don’t fall into the erroneous trap of thinking that what works for one pregnancy will work for other pregnancies. Each pregnancy is unique. Women themselves are often surprised about how each of their own pregnancies differs from the others—sometimes dramatically.
Second, when a class is called Prenatal Yoga, it is commonly assumed that the class will focus on the very specific needs of the prenatal student. Whereas in Situation 1, the yoga is being adapted or modified to accommodate a prenatal student, in Situation 2 the yoga practice will be one that specifically nurtures and caters to the special needs and circumstances of prenatal students. Both approaches are valid. We just need to be clear about what we are offering.
So, it makes sense that if you are going to cater to the particular needs and circumstances of a specialized group— prenatal in this case—then you are going to need additional training. Can you train yourself on your own? Well, it was not that long ago that most of us in the prenatal yoga field had to do it that way. Now however, there are many good training programs available. There are more books available as well, although many of them have conflicting viewpoints. A good course with an experienced instructor will help you to understand the information that is out there and can give you the best up-to-date information.
And guess what? I just happen to teach one at The Expanding Light! Ananda’s Prenatal Yoga Teacher Training is July 16–23, followed immediately by Postpartum Yoga Teacher Training, July 23–26.
Now some of you may be wondering: If an experienced yoga teacher has practiced yoga during her own pregnancy, does that qualify her sufficiently for teaching in this specialty area? The answer is, quite simply, no. It is certainly an advantage to have done so, but as mentioned earlier, each pregnancy is unique, and one needs to be trained for the many possible situations that may occur.
Well then, on the other hand, can someone who has not been pregnant before teach prenatal yoga? With proper training, definitely, yes. There are many great, well trained prenatal instructors out there who have not been pregnant and who are teaching great classes. And unfortunately, there are also teachers who have been pregnant before and have little or no training in prenatal yoga, and their classes are well, shall we say, inadequate and probably unsafe.
A prenatal class offers much more than techniques for a healthy pregnancy and delivery. It has a special bhav (a Sanskrit word meaning mood, or vibration). Mothers-to-be find that the camaraderie of others like themselves is highly beneficial. Many develop friendships that last a lifetime. Pregnancy is a very special time in one’s life, and it is wonderful to have others around you for support and sharing. A prenatal yoga class is probably one of the healthiest venues for such support!
This brings us now to Situation 3: the advanced student who is now pregnant. Can it be as easy as telling this prenatal student simply to carry on as usual, and listen to her own body and make adjustments as necessary? Or does one need to bring out a long list of “never do” asanas and pranayamas?
If only life were so simple as to be able to choose one or the other! I think that what is important to understand here, is that the potential for what can be done by an advanced yoga practitioner during a healthy pregnancy is wide open.
However, one must be guided by certain principles and knowledge about the physiological changes that take place during pregnancy, and their far-reaching effects. The growing size inside a woman’s body is not the only factor that affects her yoga practice. Just about every aspect of her life is changing at the same time, including eating, sleeping, eliminating, and the following:
- She will tend to get dizzy in forward bends, getting up from the floor to sitting and/or standing, etc.
- Her balance can be affected.
- As the pregnancy progresses, her abdominal muscles become more stretched out and are thus more susceptible to strain and tears.
- Her ligaments and joints are looser, which makes her more susceptible to strains and sprains.
- Her growing abdomen ought not to be compressed.
- The increased blood flow elevates her body temperature, and can raise her blood pressure.
With this in mind, one can easily see that, even for an advanced practitioner with no complications, a practice will definitely need to be modified. However, the degree of modification, as well as what is appropriate even to attempt, will necessarily be determined on a case-by-case basis. And even that needs to be looked at on a day-to-day basis.
Obviously, then, I cannot give you exact parameters that will enable you to handle every instance of Situation 3. However, the more knowledge you and your student have, the more you will be able to make good choices together.
What I can give you, however, is a real-life example of what one teacher’s prenatal practice looked like. My goal is to demonstrate the range of possibilities in a healthy prenatal practice. This is important, because it’s easy to get so caught up in all of the cautions and potential problems that we can become fearful and contractive, and that is definitely not what yoga is about!
I’ll take you through this example next time, in the second part of this article.