As a mother, doula, yoga instructor and now a pregnant woman again, people are asking me how it feels to be practicing yoga and teaching while pregnant. So this post is in response to those questions from the experience and perspective as a birth worker.
To give you more of an insight into the benefits I am experiencing, it’s important to understand the last pregnancy with my son 5 years ago was very very different. For many reasons. The primary reason being – I am not the person I was 5 years ago! My body was so young and perky first time around, I was performing in full Brazilian Latin stage shows (not yoga) at the time and still held the mindset that ‘being pregnant doesn’t mean I need to slow down’. So my experience of body discovery was very different, I was also blessed with vomiting the whole way through my pregnancy right up until the moment he was born (I will come back to this later in regards to yoga) and a very healthy and highly functioning uterus. Mr. Braxton and Hicks is a very good friend of mine! Second time around my body has already felt the expansion, has experienced birth and a baby moving through it before. So it didn’t take very long for the ligaments, joints, veins, my uterus and breast tissues! To remember how to do it all over again. Very quickly did everything soften and so too did the nausea and vomiting arise, but this time much earlier on.
I am not practicing yoga every day and quite honestly I don’t know many mothers that have the ability too, as much as we know the benefit of self-care. But I am required to practice a few times a week at the studio where I work, I make sure I do at least a few sun salutations a day if I am unable to do more and I still get up at 4:45am every Thursday to teach classes. Yes in the first few weeks I needed a break, I couldn’t even bend over let alone do an up dog into down dog without wanting to hurl or curl up on my mat and fall asleep. The first trimester your baby grows the most, its vital organs are formed and the amazing placenta is doing all the work (and burrowing away into the lining of your uterus) until those tiny little organs grow big enough to fully take over the functioning body of the baby. It is HUGE and this time around I knew what I was in for, I knew how big my belly was going to grow, the discomfort involved and most of all I knew it was only nine months of my entire life in which I had to grow a human being. So I let myself sleep for a few weeks.
Then the fog lifted and welcome second trimester, which I dreaded because last time this is when the vomiting really ramped up. Alas, this time has been very different and I still try not to get too excited in case I chase it away too soon. Perhaps it’s the meditation practice? Part of our recommended reading for our teacher training was Pema Chodrons Start where you are, I remember in the first few weeks of pregnancy picking up her book again and listening to her Youtube clips regarding fear. She talks about walking through the fire in your mind, a process where you literally walk through all the possible scenarios of how terrible everything could be in this situation to literally walk through the fire and feel the fear, ultimately coming to a place of acceptance and surrender rather than fighting and resisting what is. I had her words in my mind a lot and was finding myself not getting caught up in the ‘experience’ of feeling awful all the time. Just like in a meditation session I would pay attention to how I feel, notice the mind chatter arising around it and then let it go, come back to the breath and come back to the understanding that my body was doing really important and critical work. I also let go of thoughts that being sick had to mean certain meta-physical or nutritional deficiencies in my body/life. Having studied so much of this my biggest challenge is often not getting carried away in self diagnosing and over analysing and just being. My biggest ah-ha moment and declaration was telling people I am not SICK I am just PREGNANT and that made all the difference. Then interestingly enough the answers to my nutrition became obvious and I altered my diet accordingly.
My energy was returning with this mentality and keeping up with my normal yoga practice by 14/15 weeks was much more effortless. Yes I over did it at times and still often do, all the relaxin (major hormone) in the body makes it easy to get excited and you just don’t feel the damage you could be doing later by over stretching etc. But that is yoga isn’t it? No, not over stretching - but observation! And this is where the gold has been this time around, I have had a safe vessel in which to practice self-observation and energise my body systems. This I believe is a big component of pre natal preparation for birth and motherhood and is a contributing factor to feeling so much better in my pregnancy.
Having the awareness and discipline to observe, pregnancy (and motherhood) is a constant and consistent meditation and yoga class. If we allow it to be.
What has also been of significance is that when practicing yoga or even functional weight bearing exercises my uterus is very soft and the baby just seems to curl up and disappear into my body, whereas if I dance (vigorously as if I am not pregnant - not the kind of dance I teach in my pre natal classes), run or participate in jolting active movements my uterus goes crazy. Yes it is nice to know I have a healthy functioning uterus but to have it constantly contracting is painful and I do not feel is necessary at all to have constant Braxton hicks. In fact, in my previous pregnancy this is exactly what stopped me dancing and working so much, thank goodness I listened! I put this down to the parasympathetic nervous system being activated in yoga, the long deep breathing causes this response in the body and is nourishing to the vital organs. Whereas when running and other active sports we activate adrenalin which causes the vital organs (uterus being one of them) to be starved of oxygen as it is all going to the major muscle groups to perform. So strong yoga with modifications and pranayama is very healthy for the body but also helps us practice activating the parasympathetic nervous system so we are not in fight or flight when we are experiencing physical challenge and struggle. Do you see the correlation between this and birth? Only exercising in an adrenalised state during pregnancy, I believe, is not the best training and set up for preparing to birth. Keep the physical challenge there but activate a relaxed body response in which the baby and uterus are flooded with feel good hormones and oxygen. So perhaps it is the yoga that is making the difference?
Or is it the pranayama... As a Child Birth Hypnosis practitioner I thought I knew all about breathing to surrender in my first pregnancy, and then I studied yoga in more depth and still continue to be amazed at the power of the breath. The days that I practice yoga I rarely feel ill, in fact the days that I teach feel like I’ve had bulletproof coffee. But then on the days that I don’t practice yoga asana but I practice nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) and practice deep breathing exercises I don’t feel unwell either, or at least I feel better. And the days that I stay up late working or attending to motherly duties, don’t exercise, practice impatience and grumpy parenting such as yelling and threatening and the list goes on… I’m a nauseous dry reaching mess. This is all the self-observation and justification I need to conclude, as a dear client of mine would say; “the proof is in the pudding!”
Yoga means union, to yolk, the unification of the mind and body. Ultimately the breath is not separate from the asana (postures) we practice but how often do we practice yoga and forget to breathe?
The yoga training I have received and teach at SomaChi Yoga Academy is a Vinyasa style combined with a Somatic Therapy edge and layered with foundational elements of Tai Chi. So the presence of breath and the integration of Qi (energy) is really fundamental to the practice. This pregnancy has really shown me the power in paying attention to the breath and focusing on building Qi (life force energy) rather than just assuming pretzel positions. When practicing asana it is easy to be distracted by performance in class and forget about modifying to our bodies day by day and working with building the essence of Qi. Some days I am growing and the hormones are so high that fairy land is the only place I fit in. And others my fire is burning and I feel I can practice postures the way I use to pre pregnancy. Even though I may not be on my mat everyday practicing yoga for hours at a time, I can still take this awareness with me everywhere and so too, the breath will always follow.
The other perk to practicing yoga and meditation more frequently in this pregnancy is the energy and presence I have as a doula when I am with a client. It is wonderful that I have been able to continue attending births while pregnant and to feel the sensitivities of being in the birth space with women when with child. The softness that comes with pregnancy is an invaluable experience and reminder about how tender we are as we expand physically, emotionally and energetically. It has also reminded me about how quickly it all goes, how fast everything changes from our mood to our changing bodies and to be sensitive to those changes from the woman's point of view.
What I am looking forward to most as I approach the later stages of pregnancy, is experiencing the love, wisdom and tender touch of a doula again being a much more experienced doula this time around. To know what I know about birth, the woman’s body and the mind, I couldn’t imagine being without a witness to the triumph of bringing life into the world. The pillars of strength that we have to draw from as women from our midwives, doulas and partners holding fortress around us as we birth, is earth moving. And it is our birth rite to give this to ourselves. Having midwifery led care with the safe space held by a doula so my husband, son and I can welcome our newest family member into the world, is very much a choice led by the same energies that have me practice yoga and meditation. When you know how good it feels to experience life in full colour, why would you experience it without it?
On that note. As busy as we are as mothers or pregnant women, it really is important to set a daily minimum for our self-care and practice; myself included! Another one of my treasured readings is Buddhism for mothers by Sarah Naphtali. She often reminds me in her words that if we aren’t practicing patience and kindness then what are we practicing instead as parents? I also had the pleasure of doing an Ashtanga intensive with none other than David Swenson last year and his words regarding this daily rigorous practice left me floored! When asked, how do you keep up and find the time to practice 2hrs a day 5 days a week your whole life? David replied, “Look, we all have busy lives, especially those that have small children. Do what you can. Even Pattabhi Jois (father of modern Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga) said ‘minimum practice 5 surya namaskar A and 5 surya namaskar B’.” I couldn’t believe my ears! Yes yoga is about listening and healing the body. Generally you are cleansing and the focus is on detoxification, but when you are pregnant your focus shifts to nourishing and building energy. So we must modify our expectations to suit. Also there is real truth in consistency and intention, we are better women for our families when we take 15 minutes a day to breathe properly and connect, then if we do it once a week for an hour and a half and punish ourselves and our family for the other 6 days a week because we couldn’t find the time.
My recommendation is to also keep growing yourself (pun intended), even though pregnancy calls for us to slow down as we expand, it doesn’t mean we can’t find challenges in new ways for our minds and bodies. Giving birth is a marathon challenge and the more we practice and prepare every day, the more we embody those skills as our way of being. We don’t just become awesome birth goddesses on the day we give birth with the ability to gracefully open and transcend pain without some level of preparation and awareness. So take the time to practice YOUR own daily minimum you set for yourself and find a local pre natal yoga class to make sure you get the full experience and time you deserve on a regular basis to grow yourself and be ready to birth your baby and yourself as a mother.
May you birth in bliss, love and breathe out your babies J