Whether you're five months along, ready to deliver or five months postpartum, these programs were built for you.
Consider yoga a way to stay physically healthy and emotionally grounded. It addresses challenges inherent to pregnancy and childbirth while nourishing the spirit to set the stage for confident parenting. Pregnant fitness buffs will find that yoga's asanas (postures) rival any other workout in keeping the body toned and flexible. Women with more difficult pregnancies find physical and emotional comfort in yoga's gentle, restorative poses and breathing techniques.
Prenatal Peace: Either way, says Patty Slote, director of the prenatal program at the Movement Center in Portland, Ore., the practice creates a solid foundation of inner strength during pregnancy. "You cultivate an openness to change and a connection to the baby growing within you," says Slote, who also is the creator of the DVD Prenatal Yoga: A Complete Home Practice for a Healthy Mother and Baby (The Movement Center/Rudra Press, 2005).
Relax and Deliver: Yoga facilitates more comfortable birthing, with postures that open the pelvis and use gravity to your advantage. Mentally, it enables you to enter into delivery focused and relaxed. "In fostering your natural tendency to turn inward during labor, yogic breathing helps you find peace," says Kristen Eykel, a kundalini yoga instructor in Los Angeles specializing in prenatal yoga and co-creator (with Lamaze and Yoga Journal) of the DVD Yoga for Your Pregnancy (Good Times, 2004). "You approach the birthing process with confidence rather than a stress response." She says breathing techniques for relaxation apply even in cases of a planned Cesarean section.
After the Baby: Yoga's benefits continue as you cope with the demands of caring for your baby—and the desire to get your body back. "You want exercise that replenishes rather than fatigues you," says Jo Ann Colker-Arison, a hatha yoga teacher in Los Angeles and creator of the postnatal DVD Yoga Ma Baby Ga: Mama & Me Postnatal Yoga (Tapeworm, 2005). Devote just 10 minutes daily (even incorporating your baby into the routine), and you'll see significant mind-body benefits. Best of all, it happens naturally and effortlessly, rather than through overexertion.
The Pregnancy Program
"Yoga alleviates many of pregnancy's common discomforts," says Slote, who designed the following series of poses that are linked together with breath and movement. Do this routine 3–4 times per week in the order shown, resting between poses if needed. When you are ready to progress, try doing the entire program from start to finish without resting.
1. Standing Mountain: Stand with your feet farther than hip-width apart, knees slightly bent and toes pointed straight ahead, your palms touching at "heart center" (in front of your chest).
Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Inhale and sweep your arms out and overhead, bending back slightly. Exhale and stand upright, returning hands to heart center. Repeat for 10 full breaths. The continuous flow warms up your body and prepares you for the rest of the program.
2. Supported Triangle: Stand with your feet farther than shoulder-width apart, toes facing front, hands on hips. Turn your right toes in and left toes out. Bend left leg, placing your left hand on the thigh, eyes looking down. Inhale, then exhale as you lift your right arm above your shoulder and turn your head, eyes looking up. Place your left arm on your thigh for support. Hold for 1 full breath as you lower your right arm and straighten leg. Return to starting position, then repeat for 5 full breaths. Reverse feet and repeat sequence on the other side. Strengthens and stretches the entire body and helps prepare you for labor.
3. Supported Squat: Stand with your feet farther than hip-width apart, with a stack of pillows on the floor behind you. Bend knees to lower hips into a deep squat, sitting on the pillows for support. Place your palms together at heart center (shown). Close your eyes and breathe deeply through your nose as you relax your pelvic floor (the muscles surrounding the vagina). Hold for 10 full breaths, then go onto hands and knees for next move. Note: This pose is not recommended if you are experiencing any signs of premature labor. Teaches you to relax the pelvic floor, preparing you for labor.
4. Moving Cat Sequence: Kneel on all fours, abdominals drawn in. Inhale and gently arch your back, tipping your tailbone up, eyes looking up. Exhale and round your back as you tuck your chin in toward your chest. Sit back on your heels into Child's Pose and relax for 1 breath. Repeat sequence 10 times. Remain in Child's Pose for 5 slow breaths to cool down. Builds stamina and strength in the arms, back and abs, and teaches you to relax and let go.
Yoga for Labor
"These supported poses will assist you throughout the active phase of labor, helping you to relax and stay focused," says Eykel, who used these techniques during her home birth. The more you can relax and let go, the easier the contractions will flow. You can use pillows, blankets or whatever provides the most support and comfort.
"Use these poses as a reference, but make your own personal adjustments and choose positions that feel best to you, listening to the needs of your body," Eykel adds.
1. Belly Breathing: Sit erect on a pillow in a comfortable, cross-legged position, your hands on your lower belly. Close your eyes and breathe deeply through your nose, keeping your face and jaw relaxed, focusing on relaxing your pelvic-floor muscles. Helps calm you during early labor, when contractions are not too intense.
2. Seated Pelvic Circles: Sit erect on a stack of pillows in a comfortable, cross-legged position and place your hands on your lower belly. Move your pelvis in a slow, circular motion, and visualize your baby spiraling downward as you relax into the movement. Circular motions may be small or large, depending on the size and position of the baby. Helps you relax during early labor. Relieves an achy lower back or pelvis and may help the baby descend into the pelvis.
3. Supported Child's Pose: Kneel on a comfortable surface with knees open wide to accommodate your belly, and chest, arms and head resting on a stack of pillows at a comfortable height. Allows you to relax deeply, opening the hips and giving your baby a bit more space. Gravity can help pull the baby away from your bladder and lower back, relieving any discomfort in those areas.
4. Supported Cat with Hip Circles: Kneel on a comfortable surface and lean forward onto a stack of pillows, supporting yourself on your forearms. Circle your pelvis, breathing deeply. For greater range of motion, straighten your arms and pull back to open the middle and lower back. Opens the hips and helps your baby spiral into position in the birth canal. May relieve lower-back pressure and help you breathe more deeply and rhythmically during contractions.
5. Supported Deep Squat: Sit in a deep squat with a stack of pillows or blankets under your hips for support. Rest your arms on knees. For a deeper squat, sit with your back against a wall, using fewer pillows. Note: This pose is for active labor, and not recommended if you are experiencing signs of premature labor. Helps facilitate labor by opening the pelvis and shortening the birth canal.
Recovery & Play
"Yoga is union, breath, stillness and love," Colker-Arison says. So bond with your baby while doing these moves. The program focuses on the connection between mother and baby, while strengthening the muscles most taxed during pregnancy and delivery. Begin by trying 1 pose at a time, repeating for 5 full breaths and progressing to 10. If you feel any discomfort, stop and wait a few days before trying again. It's best to wait 6 weeks before starting any fitness program—longer if you had a C-section—so check with your doctor first.
To Begin: Union Meditation: Sit erect on a pillow in a comfortable, cross-legged position, cradling your baby close to your heart. Close your eyes and inhale deeply through your nose, filling your belly and expanding your ribs. Exhale deeply through your nose, feeling your belly draw in. Continue to breathe deeply as you feel the connection between you and your baby. Gently strengthens your ab muscles, increases lung capacity and creates a strong mother-baby bond.
1. Sole to Sole: Sit on a pillow with the soles of your feet touching. Place your baby on a pillow or blanket, lying faceup between your legs. Keeping your right hand on your baby, sit up tall and draw your abs in. Inhale, then exhale as you lift your left arm up and lean to the right. Repeat on the other side. Then, inhale and exhale as you lean forward and round your spine, playing peekaboo with your baby. Repeat sequence 5–10 times. Stretches your torso, inner thighs, lower back and hip as you interact with your baby.
2. Rock and Roll: Lie on your back on a comfortable surface, bring your knees close to chest and hold your baby securely on your ankles or shins (depending on whether he can hold his head up). Exhale as you draw your belly in and lift head and shoulders off the floor, bringing knees and baby closer to your chest as you make eye contact with him. Lower head and shoulders to starting position and repeat 5–10 times. Strengthens abs and gives baby a fun ride.
3. Reverse Tabletop: Place your baby on a comfortable surface between your feet. Sit tall with your legs bent, palms down and behind hips, shoulders back and down, chest lifted. Pressing into your hands and keeping shoulders back and down, inhale, then exhale as you lift your hips to a comfortable position, keeping neck in line with your spine. Hold for 1 full breath, then lower hips to starting position and repeat 5–10 times. Strengthens upper back, shoulders, buttocks and abs, improving overall balance and coordination.
4. Sphinx to Down Dog: Lie on your belly, legs straight and slightly apart, your baby lying faceup. Place palms down, elbows under shoulders. Draw abs in and squeeze buttocks, shoulders back and down. Press into forearms to lift chest slightly. Hold for 1 full breath, then bend legs, straighten arms and push back into Down Dog. Hold for 1 breath, then bend legs and slowly lower onto belly, repeat 5–10 times. Strengthens back, shoulders, arms, chest and abs. Stretches hamstrings, calves, back and shoulders.