Met dank aan: Ina Heijnen
Childbirth has long-term implications in a woman’s life. Yoga can help to improve not only the quality of particular pregnancies but also the well-being of women beyond childbirth.
During and after my pregnancy I have experienced the many positive effects of (Birthlight) yoga. I am very grateful that Liese van Dam was my teacher who guided me through the whole pregnancy and post-natal process with many physical, nutritional and mental suggestions. These experiences have contributed to my decision to become a Birthlight yoga teacher. It is my wish to share this great combination of movements, breathing and other practices with other women so they can also learn, feel and benefit.
I write this blog with my yoga students in mind who might not yet be familiar with(Birthlight) yoga, so my explanations will be accessible for everyone new to yoga. I use my personal experience although I am fully aware that every pregnancy is an individual experience.
Is yoga beneficial during and after pregnancy?
Congratulations, you are pregnant! A long to-do list with mid-wife appointments, shopping lists, workshops and other preparatory activities has probably arisen in your mind. Is yoga on your list as well? Based on my personal experience as a pregnant woman and as a new parent (my daughter is one year old), I feel yoga should be on top of that long list. Let me briefly explain what yoga is, before I give you many reasons why joining a Birthlight class is beneficial for you and your baby.
What is yoga?
Sitting quietly on a mat with your eyes closed or sweating like crazy in a fancy outfit. Yoga can be both ánd so much more. Yoga is based on a philosophy and in the next paragraphs I will introduce the yogic path that contains eight steps. The philosophy might be a bit theoretical, but I promise you that it is worth reading! The essay becomes more practical in the second part.
Within the yogic philosophy eight steps are defined. The Yamas and Niyamas are the first two and consist of the does and the don’ts of life. Step three contains the Asanas, the physical postures that are most familiar in our society. Number four is Pranayama, our breath and energy control. These first four steps of yoga concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining control of our body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves. “This prepares us for the second half of this journey, which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness” (1. yoga journal). The fifth step describes Pratyahara, the inward withdrawal of our senses. Dharana is the practice of pure concentration. Dhyana or meditation is the seventh step, just before we reach Samadhi, the final blissful state of step number eight. As we might not reach this last enlightened step (at least not in this life…), let’s explore the first two steps with a bit more detail. First I will give the theoretical explanation, in the second part of this essay I will giveexamples of how these concepts can be practiced during pregnancy and parenthood. The Yamas give ethical guidelines about how we should behave in the outer world. In the ancient text of Patanjali they are explained in just five words.
- Ahimsa. Most often translated as non-violence. Do no harm in thought, word and deed.
- Satya. Non-lying. Be truthful in thought, word and deed
- Asteya. Non-stealing. Don’t steal from others in thought, word or deed
- Bhramacharya. Moderation in all things. Honour relationships with fidelity and commitment
- Aparigraha. Non-greed. Don’t covet other people’s stuff, be in the world but not obsessed with its material nature (2. Birthlight reader page 10).
These commandments sound familiar right? But do you truly live by them in your daily life?
The Niyamas guide you in the inner world.
- Sauca. Cleanliness or purity for the inner and the outer.
- Santosa. Contentment, the ability to accept and be in the moment. Be here now.
- Tapas. Disciplined effort.
- Svadhaya. Self-study and reflection.
- Isvara Pranidhanani. Surrender.
Most people start yoga with a couple of goals. They want to gain strength and/or flexibility, they want to relax and in the end enjoy a better-balanced life. Starting with our body is the easiest entrance for most of us. And along the way we might fall in love with our breath and we learn more about the yogic philosophy.
I like the explanation of the Yamas and Niyamas I found: “Without Yama and Niyama, we cannot succeed in meditation. It would be like starting a fire with wet wood. You would cause a great deal of smoke, but do nothing but bring tears to your eyes” (3. Website Shantiniketanashram). In the second part of this essay I will give you examples of how you can incorporate the Yamas and Niyamas in your daily life. In the first part of this essay you briefly learned about important concepts within yoga. Now I will explain how these are related to your pregnancy and how they might improve the quality of your pregnancy.
How does yoga improve the quality of your pregnancy?
Once I found out I was pregnant I felt doubtful, as a yoga teacher and as a woman, about what might be harmful for my developing baby and which movements or practices were beneficial. I immediately reached out to a specialised Birthlight yoga teacher because Birthlight practices are not only yoga-based but also built upon (medical) scientific research and take inspiration from “anthropology, dance, anatomy and physiology, art, poetry and above all what it is to be human, a mother, ababy, a parent, a family member” (3.Birthlight website).
Moving is important to stay healthy and this is also a fact during pregnancy. In pregnancy yoga classes all the movements are tailored to meet your needs. The exercises are not only poses your pregnant body is capable of, but also poses that are beneficial during these special months of your life. You move your entire body, from your feet that carry extra weight every day, up to your pelvis that holds your baby and higher up to your neck and shoulders, which is an area that probably can use some attention as well.
The pelvic floor muscles get special attention in class. You want two things of these hammock shaped muscles that cover the area between your sitting bones, tailbone and pubic bone. First you want the muscles to be strong enough to support your growing belly. Secondly you want the muscles to be flexible for giving birth. That is why Birthlight pelvic floor exercises focus on creating elasticity. This means that you train maximum toning AND releasing the muscles. Practicing with the breath and awareness gives the best results and prepares you for giving birth and lays the foundation for a good recovery afterwards. Which brings us to another key part of yoga: breathing. Pranayama is an important part of the yogic path and pregnancy classes. The mother-to-be has to breathe for two because the baby receives oxygen via the placenta. Specific breathing exercises are beneficial in helping to optimise gaseous exchanges between mother and baby. The breath also can help to reduce stress and anxiety, promote relaxation and connection with the growing baby.
It is important for pregnant women to manage and reduce their stress levels as they not only impact themselves but also their developing babies. Stress hormones can have negative effects on women’s and babies’ health and well-being during pregnancy if the nervous system does not have an opportunity to rebalance. All internal systems (digestion, hormones, development) are affected. In class you practice a variety of breathing exercises to cope with stress and you learn how to release. Don’t worry that you sometimes feel stressed or anxious, as long as you can relax and release as well you and your baby are more than fine. The breathing exercises are simple so you can do them at home, at work and of course when labour starts. Relaxation also stimulates the release of the hormones needed for labour to begin, for contractions to be effective and for the placenta to be delivered naturally. So I invite you to take a deeper breath in and a slow breath out NOW. The breath is always available. If you suffer from ailments such as lower back pain, pelvic pain, high or low blood pressure or sore wrists, you can still join the class and the teacher has many modifications to offer. Taking 75 minutes for yourself and breathing consciously already is an amazing practice for you and your baby. This growing human notices if you are relaxed and if you are breathing deeply, fully and slowly. So again take a deeper breath in and a slow breath out now.
Besides the physical practices it is also a moment to connect with your changing body and your child inside. Everyday your body changes, your centre of gravity shifts and your feelings towards your body might swing from ‘ I feel fat’, towards ‘look at this amazing belly that carries a baby!’. Your yoga class can become a time to feel whatever comes up and practice being ok with that. It can be a difficult process to accept that you cannot do everything you used to and/or to deal with pregnancy related ailments.
Pregnancy can be a time to grow, not only physical but also on an emotional, mental or spiritual level. It is a busy time in which you (try to) prepare for a life-changing event. In these times you can take your yoga practice off the mat by practicing non-violence (ahimsa) towards yourself, your baby and others. Be kind in thought, word and deed. In most cases it is easier to be kind to others than towards yourself, but this extra person in your belly might be the best encouragement to be compassionate and caring towards yourself. Be mild, have patience and do things that feel right for you.
In pregnancy yoga classes you get the opportunity to look inwards towards yourself and your baby ánd it can be a chance to socialize with other mothers-to-be. Sharing your thoughts, feelings, experiences and insecurities can lift your mood and might create new friendships. Take initiative to enjoy a cup of tea after class together and you will have a good time getting to know each other a bit better. One of the things I learned is that we all encounter our own insecurities and physical complaints. If you share them, all becomes lighter and you might end up having a good laugh about it. Then one day, all of a sudden (or not so all of a sudden when you have a planned C-section), your baby is born, you have given birth to your daughter or son. You have done a amazing job no matter how you gave birth, where, how long it took, if you had a C-section or not. You did the best you could and now you are a parent! Congratulations, you are a mother!
How can yoga improve your well-being after giving birth?
My yoga teacher visited us 10 days after I had given birth to my daughter. The bruises started to fade and the stitches on the outside had been removed. We had a home-birth, all went well and it was the most intense experience of my life. It is true that your body has amazing abilities to forget pain but the sleep deprivation had quite an impact on me as well. The private post-natal class 10 days after birth felt so good. Being able to have 60 minutes to myself was a luxury already and having a compassionate teacher gently telling me what to do felt wonderful.
In this first post-natal class we focused on two important things: stabilising the pelvis and closing my body. During late pregnancy and giving birth the pelvis and the birthing channel open and your body creates space for your baby. After your baby has been born you want your body to close, heal and gently recover. Forget about top-models being able to fit in a bikini in a week. You don’t want or need a killer body right now. Your baby prefers a soft body anyway. Focus on your long-term health and stability. I cannot stress this enough: be gentle, patient and take things slow! Your future body will thank you big time. Focus on the healing inside and the outside will follow. Most yoga studios don’t have mirrors because teachers want you to feel your body instead of looking at it and experience your practice rather from the inside than from the outside.
That first class we took time to feel my pelvis and bring it back in a neutral stance and we worked on aligning my spine. But the breath was the main ingredient. Slow steady breathing to close my ribs, belly and pelvic floor muscles. Gentle non-visible exercises that felt very powerful and supporting after giving birth. So I built it up in the weeks afterwards. I took 15 minutes a day to do my exercises and after 3 weeks I could already feel the differences in my post-natal body. Of course I wondered if my body would ever become ‘normal’ again but I mostly felt acceptance. My body had created, carried and given birth to a new human being, who cares about a six-pack I never had had anyway? I concentrated on my health instead of looks and my yoga practice did exactly the same.
In this special post-natal period you get many opportunities to practice your Yamas. Ahimsa, non-violence, is quite obvious; you do not want to harm your body. You want to be truthful, Satya, about your abilities. Don’t go for the difficult poses yet, take it slow and truly feel where you are before you proceed. If you interpret Bhramacharya as moderation in all things, you want to balance your activities and take rest as much as possible to honour the relationship you have with your body. The first six weeks after giving birth you want to rest as much as possible. Savasana, the final relaxation pose you probably love in class is a good practice to do at home.
You can also focus on the Niyamas. Fully being in the moment and accepting where you are is Santosa in action. You might feel tired and overwhelmed and that is ok. You don’t have to change how you feel, but you don’t have to fight your feelings either. Tapas, disciplined effort, combined with self-knowledge and reflection, Svadhaya, can give you insight in the right intensity of your practice and what you want to focus on. Take baby-steps and be content with every deep breath you take with awareness. From the moment you decide you would like to have a baby a practice in surrender, Isvara Pranidhanani, starts. It might take time to conceive, you don’t know how you will feel during pregnancy, nobody can predict how your birthing experience will be, the only thing you can do is surrender.
Breathing is the thing that ties al the yogic practices together. It helps you to surrender, to let go, to open or to close and to relax. Even though I am a yoga teacher, as a new mother I forgot about my breath constantly. Especially during breast-feeding, I observed one day, I held my breath. It became a practice to at least have a couple of deeper breaths. As I learned, it not only relaxed me but also improved the breastfeeding. And how I needed that relaxing part of yoga… My daughter cried a lot in the first months of her life and I was in a constant state of alertness. Even when she was asleep, I could not release because of the constant fear she would wake up and start crying any time soon. I needed to relax, to move and to breathe. So after a couple of weeks my yoga teacher visited again and I did my first downward facing dog in months. Ah, what an amazing feeling! We repeated and expanded the post-natal exercises. Besides closing and stabilizing, we also stretched and strengthened my body. Again, these poses were beneficial for my healing and recovering process.
After 7 weeks my daughter and I joined a post-natal class with 6 other mothers and babies couples. It was good to see the same women and their fresh offspring and move and share stories once more. Some babies cried, some fell asleep, others drank or pooped. In this class everything was allowed. I learned that my body only responded to the crying of my own baby and that I still found it difficult to relax. However, I did enjoy the environment and I tried to focus on my breath when I had to feed my baby for 20 minutes.
Four months after giving birth I asked my postnatal teacher to check my abdominal muscles. My body had closed and strengthened enough, so I could sign up for a gentle regular yoga class. I entered a new phase once more. I knew what poses I still had to avoid and I focused on gentle moving and breathing. It felt like coming home. For more than a year I had been on an amazing physically, mentally and emotionally journey, and here I was back on the mat as a beginner. But with more experience, knowledge and excitement then ever. I have learned so much from my Birthlight classes that I cannot wait to share it all with you. Hope to see you soon in class!
When she teaches for us you can find in our Yogaschedule.
- Yoga Journal
- Birthlight reader Yoga for Pregnancy and Birth 2013, page 10
- Shantiniketan Ashram
- The Five Yamas of Yoga
- Birthlight website
Read more in Dutch:
– Boek: Vrije Geboorte, A.M. Korteweg