A couple of my students asked me, is it different doing yoga while pregnant? How does my ‘yogic toolkit’ change my perspective?
At first I wanted to answer that it didn’t really change, that there’s just a bunch of stuff you can’t do. But that’s not true at all. From the outside a lot of the postures and practices look mostly the same or have small changes like wider feet in downdog and other forward folds. You obviously skip things like twists and prone postures, inversions, jumps and firey practices.. But in fact much deeper than this, everything is different because suddenly You are different. You aren’t the same you, you are much more than you. And everything is suddenly in massive flux. Day by day you change, and things which were always so start to shift, from your food preferences to your energy levels, to your attitude to things, it all switches into a different mode, without you consciously applying your will to it.
How does my yoga practice and perspective change my experience of pregnancy?
Being deep in the yoga I can’t say what it would be like to be pregnant otherwise.. But there are a couple of things which I am very grateful for.
Yoga brings your attention inwards. We breathe, we move, we cultivate stillness – all of this to weave our awareness into our tissues and into the folds of our mind. In normal life there are days when you are more introspective and days when you just want to frolic with all the people out in the world. During pregnancy, all of your frolicking takes a step backwards, as your inner compass turns powerfully towards the transformation that is going on within.
Now as I write I can feel my ‘mango friend’ shifting and kicking within me, but even in the early weeks of pregnancy before I was aware of another Person, there was this coccooning and drawing inwards of the heart and the mind. You feel this strong invitation to Listen inwards. There is an unfolding happening, and things quiet within you as you start to pay attention to this process.
When you become pregnant straight away lots of things change – lifestyle choices, habits, even your preferences. But more than the outward choices that you make to not eat or drink this or that, there are changes that happen within your own mind. Yoga helped me notice and learn from what was shifting. My attitudes switched almost overnight – one day I was driven to progress in kapotasana, put in as much practice as possible, plan out my career; the next day I was content to rest in a propped supta virasana all morning, and all my plans froze mid-air. Most of all what surprised me was how all of that was okay. What would have driven me nuts before now I accepted with openness. How remarkable!
Yoga teaches you to make space in the body and the mind – and this is an invaluable preparation for pregnancy, where you are literally making space in your body and in your life for a whole new human being. You open up physically and mentally to become a sacred vessel for new life.
One of the first sensations and realisations I had in the first weeks of pregnancy was the clear understanding of how little my cognitive mind had to do with the real forces of life in me. It wasn’t my intellect or my organisational skills or my active will that was making any of this happen, but rather that same force that thrusts the trees and the flowers up out of the Earth and turns moon to sun in the morning sky. Something so much bigger, which was in fact always there, and how had I always missed it? My day to day concerns and the trifling worries of my small ego distracted me from all this. But now I could finally feel and experience – and surrender to – the bubbling flowing and transforming flow of Life. Is this what ishvara pranidhana means after all?
So in fact, the ‘things you do’ in pregnancy are really staying out of the way as much as possible. Caffeine, alcohol, even strong ujjayi breath, they manipulate our state and influence and shape our growth. Instead you Listen to your body, the cravings, messages – the inner telephone is so refined.
From a Practical Point of View
A firmly established yoga practice helps you to support the changes in your body. I am lucky to have not really experienced any discomfort or pain so far.
The yoga practice, as I’ll go into below, will change when you are pregnant – it stops being about following outside influences like the rules of a tradition (6-day practice!) or ego-driven goals (get the feet in kapotasana!) – now you learn to give the body what it asks for. So, what does the body need? Most of all it’s stabilising through change. We are making space for life so things are opening up, shifting and transforming every day – so we use the practice to ground, to strengthen and support. Getting on the mat helps you reconnect with yourself physically even as your body shapes feel more unfamiliar every day.
Having an established practice helps so much, you not only have tools to manage all of these changes physically, but also you have practice in accepting and rolling with change. You certainly can’t cling to how things used to be – life is never going to be the same again – and the more you can connect with what’s going on during pregnancy, the more you can accept and grow with your own transformation.
How does pregnancy change my practice?
Even from the first day, even before I started to get bigger, there was a feeling of heaviness – no, rather of weightiness. Yes, in the first trimester you are TIRED. I mean like tired like you’ve never known. I was falling asleep at 8pm after nothing at all. I had very minimal desire to do almost any practice at all – even walking up the hill was enough to wear me out some days.
Besides the tiredness, though, this weightiness goes deeper – it’s a fullness that you start to embody as you become a Vessel.
It’s fullness, yet openness – there’s an inherent unstability about pregnancy, which manifests on a physical level in increased relaxin levels in the body. The ligaments become more pliable to make space for growth in the body, and so you feel more flexible – but you also lose the sense of boundaries in many places. This is why you take it easy. For me I want to stay fluid and open in my body, so I move, but I have to be careful, don’t bend to 100% or even to 80 – keep it reined in.
Technically, there’s various things you just shouldn’t do. Twists and closing the area of the belly, pulling the stomach in strongly (uddhiyana bandha, kapalabhati, bhastrika), strong lifts in the pelvic floor on the inhale (mula bandha), strong activation of the core – lolasana and jumping through are out immediately. Inversions, mostly, unless you are already very stable in these, belly on the floor poses. There’s a lot of common sense involved, but more than that, if you have the practice of listening in to what your body is saying, you’ll know straight away what not to do. Much more than I have ever experienced, the Body leads, not the mind. Ambition subsides and attention wraps in.
You still move, but you follow what feels right. You still use the breath to support you, but there’s no strong ujjayi any more, you have to use it in a different way – a more gentle and receptive way, where you wrap yourself in the breath and go deep.
Writing at 25 weeks pregnant, by now a lot of these changes have become second nature. In the first trimester I didn’t go to any classes at all as I felt the need to turn inwards and just do what my body was asking of me. Now I go to classes twice a week, and I know what I need well enough to take what is offered and leave what doesn’t suit, replacing those practices with what works for me and mango friend.
The most beautiful thing about pregnancy is the openness and receptivity that is a part of this journey. Whereas before I think I often had quite a masculine, almost dominating approach to the body, now I am more yielding and forgiving. Before yoga was often about mastering the physical form – but now it is about working alongside it.
I am certainly looking forward to going back to leaping about, going upside down, twisting and emptying my belly. But I know that when I come back to practice post pregnancy, it will be so much deeper and more powerful if I can retain and continue to cultivate the deep listening and receptivity which pregnancy has instilled in me.