Once a month, Dr. Roschanak Mossabeb swaps her hospital scrubs for yoga gear at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia.
For an hour, Mossabeb, a neonatologist in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, leads pregnant women (and sometimes, their partners) through a series of yoga poses: cat and cow stretches, gentle seated side bends and standing squats, for example.
In addition to being a medical doctor, Mossabeb is a certified yoga instructor. Her monthly prenatal yoga class is free, and many of her students are from the economically distressed neighborhood around the hospital.
Executing yoga poses can help ease the discomfort and pain that many women experience as a natural part of pregnancy, Mossabeb says. Practicing yoga can also help mitigate the stress that women feel about their pregnancy and improve their mental outlook, she says.
“Yoga has multiple components; it helps you learn to breathe, stretch and relax,” Mossabeb says. “In combination, this can be very beneficial to a pregnant woman’s mental outlook.” There are different styles of yoga, with some more vigorous than others. Prenatal yoga typically emphasizes breathing, stretching and relaxation.
Dr. Kecia Gaither, director of perinatal services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln, in the Bronx, agrees that yoga can be helpful for many pregnant women. Gaither — who’s double-board certified in OB-GYN and maternal fetal medicine — often recommends yoga to pregnant patients to ease their physical discomfort and stress.
[See: 9 Misconceptions About Yoga.]
Here are some of the ways a woman’s body and mental outlook are transformed during pregnancy, Gaither says:
— Tighter hip sockets.
— Stressed pelvic muscles.
— Anxiety about the pregnancy.
1. Changes in posture. During pregnancy, a woman’s body undergoes a natural shift in gravity as she gains weight, which causes a curvature of the spine, Gaither says. “As your belly pokes out, your spine curves inward to accommodate the shift in weight to the front of your body,” she says.
2. Tighter hip sockets. A pregnant woman’s hip sockets tighten as they strain to support additional weight caused by the growth of the baby in the uterus.
3. Stressed pelvic muscles. The pelvic muscles that hold the bladder and rectum in place come under stress as the uterus expands, Gaither says. “The pelvic floor becomes stretched and stressed,” she says. The muscles in the pelvic area could be compromised by the added weight of a pregnancy.
4. Anxiety about the pregnancy. Many women feel a certain level of anxiety during their pregnancy, because they’re worried about their baby’s well-being and the upcoming labor experience, Gaither says.
Prenatal Yoga Poses Can Help With Discomfort and Stress
Practicing yoga can help pregnant women manage the physical distress and anxiety associated with pregnancy, experts say.
These are some of the benefits of prenatal yoga, according to the American Pregnancy Association:
— Reduced stress.
— Increased strength, flexibility and endurance.
— Decreased lower back pain.
— Reduced risk of preterm labor.
— Decreased nausea.
Prenatal yoga can help many women with the physical discomfort and stress they experience as a normal part of their pregnancy, says Kelly Clifton Turner, a certified yoga instructor and director of education for YogaSix, which has about 50 studios nationwide.
Turner says her breath was constricted by her growing baby when she was pregnant with her son Hank, who’s now 2 ½ years old. His size — the baby weighed 10.5 pounds at birth — cramped and crowded her internal organs.
“I did poses that created traction for my spine and lengthened and decompressed it so I could take bigger, longer breaths,” Turner says.
It’s important to keep in mind that not every yoga pose or style is appropriate for every pregnant woman at every stage of her pregnancy, Turner says. For example, a pregnant woman could do certain poses in her first trimester — like one that requires her to lay on her belly on the floor — that she wouldn’t be able to execute in her second and third trimesters.
Another thing to note is that women who practiced yoga before becoming pregnant may have to make some modifications during pregnancy. For example, it may not be a good idea for women to practice particularly vigorous styles of yoga, like Bikram or “hot yoga,” during their pregnancy because it could lead to dehydration or overheating, Turner says. In turn, dehydration can lead to serious pregnancy complications, such as neural tube defects, inadequate breast milk production and premature labor, according to the APA. Finding gently warmed or unheated classes may be preferred, Turner says.
Pregnant women should also generally avoid poses that create undue twisting, which puts pressure on the uterus, says Dr. G. Thomas Ruiz, OB-GYN lead at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. Such movements can restrict blood flow to the uterus.
Here are five yoga poses that experts recommend as safe and effective for pregnant women:
— Standing squat.
— Goddess pose.
— Cat and cow stretches.
— Gentle seated side bends.
— Tree pose.
1. Standing squat. Stand against a wall, with the wall to your back, and squat. The wall provides support, and the squat will strengthen your thighs, Mossabeb says. Do about three repetitions at a time.
2. Goddess pose. While standing, take wide steps with both feet so they are pointing to opposite corners of the room. “Do a nice deep squat with a straight back,” Mossabeb says. “Stretch out your arms, bending them at the elbow.” Envision bringing in positivity and light with each exhale.
3. Cat and cow stretches. Start on all fours, in the tabletop position. Drop your belly down and lift your head up, with your chin forward to do the cow stretch. Inhale and round out your back, with your chin to your chest to execute the cat stretch. “This stretches out the spine and relieves some of the tension in the spine,” Mossabeb says.
4. Gentle seated side bends. Sitting on the floor or in a chair, bend gently to one side and return to your original place. Gently bend to the other side. These stretches can help open up your lungs and mitigate heartburn, acid reflux and shortness of breath, Mossabeb says.
5. Tree pose. Stand on one leg, with the other foot propped against the standing leg at the ankle or higher, below the knee. “Stand tall and engage your core,” Mossabeb says.
Whether you practiced yoga before becoming pregnant or want to start a practice during your pregnancy, there are certain things you should do before executing your first tree pose or side bend, says Rebecca Dalley, a yoga instructor and certified personal trainer at Red Mountain Resort in St. George, Utah.
Here are things you should do before practicing yoga during a pregnancy:
— Consult with your OB-GYN or other health care provider. Your physician can advise you whether it’s safe to practice yoga during pregnancy and what limitations, if any, you should follow.
— Look for a yoga instructor who’s experienced teaching pregnant women. “The best and safest way to practice yoga during pregnancy is by taking a prenatal yoga class with an experienced prenatal yoga instructor,” Ruiz says. “(The instructor) will be able to guide even the beginning (yoga practitioner) through some of the poses that are most beneficial to help with pregnancy’s aches and pains.” You can search for instructors with this kind of experience online or call or visit yoga studios in your area and talk to the yogis. Your doctor may also know an experienced yogi he or she can refer you to.
— [See: How to Eat Vegan During Pregnancy.]
— Start before you feel pregnancy-related discomfort. Your body’s constantly changing in pregnancy. In addition to putting on weight, your body in pregnancy produces the hormone relaxin, Dalley says. Relaxin softens the cervix to aid in delivery of the baby. It also relaxes joints in the pelvis and all joints throughout the body. “Learn the proper techniques for your postures before you put on a lot of weight and your spine becomes more stressed,” she says.
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