Yoga for pregnant women
– before, during and after birth
Some believe that the best way to prepare for birth is to sing, be happy and just take the birth as it comes, trusting one’s intuition. In one way, I agree. However, if you are not familiar with using your body, and you are not aware of your own breath, then when it really counts, the best solutions do not always appear by themselves.
During pregnancy, many changes occur in the woman’s body and mental state. The growing weight of the baby and the increased amount of blood in the body necessitates more physical training, both to stimulate the blood circulation and counteract fatigue. She also needs to relax, to feel the child in the womb and to be able to accept her reactions and trust her own sentiments.
If you already do yoga before pregnancy, or start well in advance, before you get “big” or “troubled”, then the yoga poses provide well-being and they very effectively help to prevent many common inconveniences. However, it is never too late to begin, as even a short period of yoga can be effective and give you resources to use during the birth itself.
“When I was six months pregnant, I got depressed and tired to such an extent that everyday life became a nuisance. I lay down most of the time, and got back problems as the child grew bigger. I cried almost all the time, and was fearful for the rest of the pregnancy, where I might be confined to bed. Even after a few classes of yoga, I experienced greatly increased well-being and energy. Now I am seldom tired. I go to bed late and wake up fresh and rested in the morning. I am happy and look forward to giving birth.” (Britta from Copenhagen)
Practical ante-natal classes, with a varied programme
A yoga course primarily consists of different practical methods. Each time we start by lying down for a few minutes, completely still with the eyes closed, to calm down. Then we work through the whole body with a programme of physical exercises and poses, where the breath usually follows the movements. After that, we go on to various breathing exercises, ending with half an hour of guided Yoga Nidra, deep relaxation.
Apart from the yogic breathing exercises in general, one should be mentioned which has shown to have a very special effect for pregnant women: Bhramari – the Bumble Bee.
A yoga programme is comprised of both dynamic movements using deep, calm breathing, and poses which stretch and twist the body in different ways. This ensures that virtually no part of the body is left untouched. The muscles are strengthened and made supple, the various organs and glands are stimulated and the digestion is activated.
The blood circulation is stimulated by blood-pumping exercises, where the legs, feet and toes are bent and stretched. This helps prevent cramps and varicose veins in the legs. All the poses where the weight of the child is removed from the pelvis relieve and give rest to the most burdened areas of the pregnant woman’s body; moreover, the blood supply to the child is increased. This includes, for instance, standing on all fours, standing up with the upper part of the body hanging down and in Shoulderstand and Headstand (you are actually able to do much more than you may think is possible during pregnancy).
There is another group of exercises, attitudes and locks ( Mudra and Bandha), where you gain a good contact with your pelvic floor and train its muscles. Here, you contract the anus, the sexual organs and the perineum – separately and simultaneously – hold the tension for a while and then let go again. This is repeated very slowly and in a concentrated manner several times. It has both a relaxing and strengthening effect on the area of the pelvic floor and is good for haemorrhoids. However, the attitudes and locks do not only work physically, they also remove psychic tensions, for example headaches and depressions. These exercises are not only beneficial for pregnant women, they are also used as preparation for relaxation and meditation in other classes.
Many pregnant women discover that it becomes more difficult for them to breathe through the nose. The hormonal changes affect the mucous membranes in the nose. This can be remedied with nose cleansing. With a special pot, you pour lukewarm salt water through the nose, so it runs in through one nostril and out of the other, and vice versa. It has a refreshing effect and keeps the mucous membranes of the nose clean and in balance, so that the breathing is not impeded, and it also prevents colds. (See article on Nose cleansing).
You can help your child by using your breath
The breathing exercises provide more oxygen and energy, both to the mother and the child. When I was pregnant, I experienced how these exercises gave me more tranquillity and concentration in my daily life, throughout the pregnancy. One of the most harmonious and fast working breathing exercises is the Psychic Breathing. The breathing is “stretched”, i.e. made even and deep; and the breath is retained for a short while, both after inhalation and exhalation. This breathing technique is undertaken by making a soft, whispering sound in the bottom of the throat, which sounds like a child in deep sleep (see The Source of Energy). It has been proven that the Psychic Breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which means that you calm down. It is a good daily practise both for relaxation and for gaining more energy.
During my birth, the midwife commented during a contraction: “Do go on with the deep breathing. I can hear from the child’s heart beat that it helps him, specially during the contractions where he is pressed”. So, I continued and experienced how the Psychic Breathing made it easier to relax – to such an extent that the pain almost disappeared.
Thus, it is effective to use the Psychic Breathing both between the contractions, to make the most of the break, and also during the contractions – in this way, “lifting yourself over and across the pain”, as one women expressed it.
At a post-natal yoga course in Århus, there were two friends who had both benefited greatly from the Psychic Breathing whilst giving birth. One had used it throughout her whole birth – eight hours in all – because it relieved the pain so well. The other related: “I couldn’t open more than a couple of centimetres. The contractions didn’t really have an effect, and I got more and more tense and worried. The midwife believed my pelvic floor was too tight, and that soon we would have to prepare ourselves for a caesarean. My husband suggested that we did the Psychic Breathing that we had learnt at a weekend course. After just a few breaths, I relaxed and the birth developed completely normally. I now use the same form of breathing for breast feeding, to calm myself and the baby.”
The breathing exercises in yoga each have their own special effect. Some cleanse and refresh, others are calming. All of them harmonise the blood pressure. They make it easier to let go of a stressed and nervous state and also to overcome fatigue and depression.
Relaxation can be learnt
A genuine relaxation gives rest to body and mind, and you benefit more from your night’s sleep. During relaxation, the nervous system changes from sympathetic to parasympathetic activity, the latter being associated with the restorative processes of the body. This is needed both by the pregnant woman and the child. “Yoga Nidra is the peak of my whole day”, I have heard many expectant mothers say. Once you know the relaxed state, it is easier to return to it when you need it.
The yoga tradition contains various relaxation techniques. A simple way of practising daily deep relaxation is to have it on a CD – Experience Yoga Nidra by Swami Janakananda has two relaxations, a short one to start with, and a longer and deeper one, when you want to go further.
The shoulder pose is one of the poses that can turn the baby, so that the head points downwards if it is lying upside-down in the womb.
“Shortly before my first birth, the midwife discovered that the child was lying in the wrong direction with the legs down. We went to the hospital, where the doctors tried to turn him around, but without success. They said he was very big and that it was physically impossible to turn the baby. They insisted on doing a caesarian! I was under immense pressure from the staff because I didn’t accept the authority of the doctors. In the end, we left the hospital. At home, I started to practise the Shoulder Pose for a long time, many times each day. I continued because I could feel something was happening inside of me. It was as if there was tremendous movement inside. The following day, the midwife came to examine me, and I could hardly believe her when she said that the baby had turned around. Shortly afterwards, I had an easy and harmonious home birth, where my experience with Pratyahara and visualisation proved a great help”. (Anne from Aalborg, Denmark)
The relationship to pain
Most women experience pain when they give birth. However, regarding her choice of methods to manage or relieve the pain, the woman’s own inner security and self knowledge are important factors – as is her ability to relax and concentrate.
Within the yoga tradition, there is a technique through which you learn to deal with sense impressions or influences without yielding to them. The method is called Pratyahara and is valuable to use during the birth. (It is described in detail in the book Yoga, Tantra and Meditation in Daily Life by Swami Janakananda).
In Pratyahara, you direct your whole attention towards the “disturbance”, for instance a pain, instead of trying to avoid or suppress it. You accept it and allow yourself to experience it. Thus, it ceases to be something “dangerous”, that you want to avoid at any price; by getting to know it, you manage it. And you may well “forget” it. Perhaps the pains do not disappear entirely, although you relax, but the fear of the pain disappears – and the birth becomes a powerful experience. Some women have related in detail how they were able to feel the movements of the uterus. Others have described that they were able to permit the force of nature or energy to work – energy which, behind everything, governs life and birth.
Many women actually have such a surplus of energy during the whole birth that they can freely use their knowledge of the yoga techniques, to choose those of the greatest possible help in the actual situation.
“Thank you for the course”, a woman said, who had attended an ante-natal yoga course prior to the birth of her daughter. “It was so wonderful… but the greatest was to do the lion’s roar during labour.” When you open your mouth, stretch the tongue far out and make a relaxed, deep sound throughout the exhalation, then it automatically has an effect all the way down to the groin and the pelvic floor. This may be due to an interaction between the nerves in the region of the mouth and jaw and the muscles of the pelvic floor. For each contraction, she became better and better at“controlling the pain by means of the sound”, even those pains which are normally the strongest.
When I gave birth to my own child, roughly six years ago, I used many of the techniques I teach in the ante-natal classes. It was a quiet birth, and I had plenty of time to move around. During the first stage, I sat in the squatting position, stood up with the upper part of the body hanging horizontally and stood on all fours. During the last, forceful contractions of the first stage, I really needed my ability to concentrate to avoid tensing. An old Tantric poem on devotion to all the various aspects of life arose in my mind. “Letting go, letting go, letting go…” I thought and experienced pain. I was pain and devotion at the same time. It was so intense, that there was neither the need nor the time for thoughts about any kind of pain-killers. It became a strong “here and now” experience.
To be yourself during the birth
Many women have quite a rose-coloured idea of how natural and beautiful their birth is going to be. However, when the contractions really get going, you can easily hand over the responsibility to the hospital staff, unless you are in shape to go through with what you really want. On the other hand, a birth is no athletic feat, where the woman is either “good” or “bad”. And should something unexpected occur, such as a protracted birth where the child suffers from a lack of oxygen, then it is fine to have access to all the resources offered by a modern maternity ward, and not least to the doctors and midwives with all their knowledge and experience.
To practise yoga during pregnancy does not guarantee an easy and unproblematic birth. But I am certain that what ever kind of birth you choose – in water, standing up or lying down, at home or in a hospital – and no matter how the birth unfolds, then yoga gives you your own experiences and a set of “tools” which help you to accept and manage any given situation.
In shape again – on a course or at home
At the post-natal yoga courses, most mothers are accompanied by their children, who alternate between sleeping, being breast fed or getting changed. Some look intensely at the yoga exercises. One can join the course as soon as the desire and inspiration are present. Some even start just a few days after the birth, while others need more time.
If you have attended yoga classes during pregnancy, you can still use the same exercises at home, including immediately after the birth. It is still important to do those dynamic movements which stimulate the blood circulation and the digestion. Afterwards, it is great to once again lie on the stomach, resting or doing the back strengthening poses where you lift the upper part of the body or the legs (such as Cobra, Locust and Bow). Simultaneously, the stomach is pressed against the floor, and this promotes contraction of the uterus and the return to its normal size. It is also good to stretch the stomach. In the Wave Breath, you lie on your back, and alternately draw in and push out the stomach, holding the breath after having inhaled or exhaled fully. The more forceful exercises for the abdominal muscles can strain the pelvic floor, especially those where straight legs are raised and lowered. These should therefore be postponed until after the muscles of the pelvic floor have been trained with the aforementioned Mudra (contractions).
If you spend just a little time using yoga, relaxation and meditation daily, it benefits yourself, your surroundings and your baby – who will definitely appreciate an energetic and harmonious mother.
A midwife’s recommendation
Midwife Mila Pajovic from Århus Maternity Ward is one of the midwives who consistently recommends yoga to the pregnant women. Why?
– The women become more supple and mobile, and they profit from this during the birth. Many of the yoga poses are also very good to use during labour. By becoming familiar with the different poses, the woman feels more clearly which ones will have the best effect during the birth. They learn to make use of the breath in different ways so that the child gets more oxygen, both during pregnancy and the birth itself. Also, some yoga poses can turn the baby in the womb, if it is lying in the wrong way.
Are you able to see or feel during the birth, whether a woman has attended yoga classes?
– Yes, usually they are better at coping with the pain and using it in a positive way. They are more secure, and they are able to use the breath to influence their own state. They are good at relaxing, including when it hurts. With the yoga techniques, you get to know your body, breath and yourself better.
What benefits do the pregnant women tell you they have gained from their yoga course?
– I mostly hear about practical and tangible problems that yoga has helped them to overcome, for example pains in the back and the pelvis. Frequently, they mention that they no longer have cramps in the legs, or feel that their digestion is functioning properly again. Even those with a very big stomach can feel lightness in the body. They find that giving themselves time to practise yoga creates mental well-being. For the two and a half hours duration of a lesson, she can take a break from all the everyday chores. You wind down and enjoy having only yourself and your baby to take care of.
In 1978, two of the yoga teachers at our school in Stockholm, Tove and Jan, were expecting a child. Like most others, they wished for the greatest possible harmony during the pregnancy and to be well prepared for the birth itself. Tove was therefore very careful about doing her Kriya Yoga every day and in addition she did ordinary yoga poses. The birth should preferably be as natural as possible, and at home, even though it was just about impossible to be allowed to do that in Sweden at that time. No doctors would take the responsibility and therefore no midwives would undertake it either.
The pregnancy proceeded according to plan until she was 7 months pregnant. Supported by the Kriya Yoga, Tove experienced her pregnancy with great intensity and energy. Nevertheless, during a routine examination at the hospital she was informed that possibly the child was not growing properly. This was demonstrated by measuring the size of the stomach. To be on the safe side, the doctor suggested she be hospitalised. It would then be possible to regularly check the amount of the hormone oestriol in the urine, which is related to the placenta’s capability of functioning. At the same time, the hospital would offer some peace and quiet, in case she was overworked.
This was not exactly according to Tove’s taste, but she agreed to be hospitalised and in the subsequent period she was required to rest as much as possible. She almost had to cheat to do her Kriya Yoga now and then! She quickly got tired of this kind of life, and therefore “fought” to be allowed to take the samples of urine at home and then deliver them to the hospital. Later, when the results of the examinations of the urine were known, they revealed that the amount of the hormone was fine, and it had all been a storm in a teacup.
As the time of the birth approached, Tove and Jan participated in a weekend course for yoga teachers at Haa Retreat Center in south Sweden. They wished to give birth at the course center, in the countryside and among good friends. They had therefore found a Danish doctor in the neighbourhood who would take the responsibility, should the baby arrive during this weekend. (As mentioned earlier, it was not common for Swedish doctors to participate in home births). They also succeeded in finding a midwife who wanted to come. However, the midwife made it a condition that the baby should arrive on Saturday, as she was busy during the other days.
The baby “of course” came on Saturday. Some time during the afternoon, the contractions started slowly, and the midwife was there around five o’clock. After another three hours, where Tove alternately sat in the squatting position and walked around, the child was born after 3 to 4 second-stage contractions. The midwife thought it was an unusually fast and harmonious birth, considering that it was her first one. The child got the highest possible amount of points. Length and weight were fine. The skin was ideal both concerning colour and elasticity. From the healthy placenta, it was clear that the child had experienced no difficulties in taking nourishment, and there were no indications of hardening of the arteries.
The midwife was so amazed by the ease and success of the birth, that she decided to start yoga on account of this. And the parents who had observed Kriya Yoga’s good influence on Tove’s well-being throughout the pregnancy and the smooth birth, named their daughter Kriya.