As yoga focuses on developing body awareness, it can be a good fit for pregnant women and their partners, explains yoga teacher Janice Clarfield.
"Pregnancy can be a beautiful time to begin a practice of yoga," she says."There is no better way to prepare for pregnancy, birth and parenthood than with the practice of yoga and mindfulness."
The awareness that develops from yoga practice brings a confidence in your body that will help you when it's time to give birth.
For pregnant women, yoga goes far beyond exercising, Clarfield says. Yoga helps to empower women and prepare them to make informed decisions about birthing, as well as connect more deeply with their unborn baby. Joining a class can also bring a sense of connection and community, helping women connect with their partners and develop a peer group for sharing experiences with other couples.
For BC Women's family physician, Dr. Karen Buhler, yoga was a lifesaver. She had discovered yoga before she became pregnant and continued to practice yoga to prepare for labour and birth. She found it helped her to get stronger and learn how to use her breath to relax. However, one day when she was eight months pregnant and home alone she started to choke. Fortunately, she remembered her yoga training: "The only thing I could think of was to somehow get myself upside down. I looked for the nearest wall and kicked up into arm balance (a supported handstand). Out came the piece of food and I could breathe again. If I had not practised this before pregnancy in yoga class I don't know what I would have done."
What to expect in a Prenatal Yoga class
As there are many variables within the practice of yoga, class content also varies from instructor to instructor. Clarfield begins by teaching body wisdom as a basic principle - listening to your own body and modifying any poses or movements that do not feel right. You can learn to be present, centred, grounded and balanced, no matter where the body is.
Women sign up for a series of weekly classes, and partners usually join in from 20 weeks onward. It's also possible to take a one-time couples workshop. The classes focus on breathing, relaxing, visualizing, as well as learning techniques to keep the blood flow moving and practising sounds that can help the body to relax. Many of Clarfield's students talk about the value of the vocal toning or sounding that they learned and practised in class in helping them "let go" and relax their muscles during childbirth.
Some components of yoga teaching, such as visualization, have strong links with meditation practice, underlining the strong relationship that sees between the two disciplines and the importance of developing "the muscle of the mind" to help with birthing.
Although class may be the only time in the week that pregnant students may formally practise yoga, Clarfield believes in helping her students to integrate the benefits of yoga into their daily lives. For example, women learn that a ringing phone can be a trigger to breathe more deeply, and stopping at a red light is a cue to focus on your posture.
Whether you are in the first or final trimester of pregnancy, yoga can be helpful, Clarfield says. "I tell my students that it's never too soon and it's never too late."
Involving your partner
Clarfield believes that partner involvement in yoga practice is helpful - it enables couples to learn how to communicate around what the woman needs or wants during labour and how her partner can have a positive impact on the birthing experience. Getting together with other couples in a yoga class also provides an opportunity to share experiences and thoughts about labour and birthing.
Finding a class
A pioneer of Prenatal Yoga in Vancouver, Clarfield still teaches Prenatal and Hatha yoga locally. However, she is also in demand internationally to provide professional development for yoga teachers interested in developing their skills with pregnant women.
Clarfield advises that there are many Prenatal Yoga options available, but it's important to find a teacher that works for you, whether you prefer a more active or gentle approach to class. Hot yoga is not recommended for pregnant women - excess heat can put your baby at greater risk of neural tube defects (which impact the baby's spine or brain) or other abnormalities. Many BC communities have Prenatal Yoga classes available. Look for one at your local community centre or yoga studio, or ask your physician, midwife or doula for information.
Prenatal Yoga Classes in Vancouver
This article was written by Anne McLaughlin and reviewed by BC Women's Family Practitioner, Dr. Karen Buhler.