I have been sitting on this post for awhile. Like years really. I wrote this other piece a long time ago, back when my kids were small, addressing the importance of practicing at home with small children. There was more to say, but I was in the fullness of life as it was then, and well, I just kept sitting on this other post, thinking that I’d get pregnant again and have the opportunity to unroll what I had to say with some fancy photos and maybe even some sweet video content. But alas, none of that has come to pass. And while another child is most likely very much on the horizon for us, another pregnancy is probably not going to happen.
So, with the advent of many new pregnancies in my yoga sphere, the time for me to sit on my thoughts here has come and gone. And I very much have something to say on the topic. (Big surprise). I would love to offer whatever support I can to the longtime yogis who are choosing the path of parenthood and wondering how to stay alive in their practice while concurrently preparing to birth a new iteration of themselves. I have found pre-natal yoga as it is presented to pregnant folks to be feeble and incomplete when applied to any person who has an established seat in asana practice. I think it is best suited for those new to yoga who are looking to bring breath and gentle movement and connection into their lives now that they are expecting. It leaves the longtime practitioner unsatisfied and quite frankly, underserved.
Before I travel any further in this direction please remember that everything expressed here is my opinion. My understanding as it is right here right now. Utterly imperfect and individual. But also based on experience and exposure as well as conversations with and observations of fellow yogis. Having walked the path of pregnancy and childbirth and early childhood twice and yet so long ago, I am certain that my recollections, impressions and opinions have shifted over time and I am also aware that while becoming older is often in sync with becoming wiser I have no doubt that the same journey made by me in current time would most likely be laced with much more worry and concern and even perhaps an “educated fear”. Or perhaps more accurately a cultured fear as I indeed believe that we teach pregnant women to fear and doubt their bodies at every turn of their pregnancy. To question and second guess everything. To discredit their own innate knowing.
The caveat of course is that seasoned yogis rely on their practice for far more than the easing of tense muscles. Most have come to count on the mental clarity and emotional re-centering provided by the graceful alchemy of breath, effort and stillness. Our practice grants us access to ourselves, so that we may embody the truth of who we are as we are and not further dissociate from our own humanity. It is reorientation, renewal, restoration, reclamation. It is often, the way in which we ease ourselves through our days and show up for our lives as they are.
And yet, while I am absolutely an advocate of maintaining a practice throughout pregnancy, I do not suggest that maintaining a particularly strong practice is advisable. Again, all of this is unique to each individual and there is a vast sea of possibility that exists along a spectrum between what is gentle, pre-natal yoga, and what is a strong practice. You have to use your own lens to discern that. My mid-range practice is someone’s strong as well as someone else’s easy. But if we are training self-observation and listening, practice as something that comes from an authentic connection inside, versus something that is super-imposed from the outside in, then we are looking for that sweet spot already.
Because here is something else I know based on my own experience as well as observations I have made during other yogis journeys through pregnancy and childbirth: Strong yogis often have long and difficult labors. My labor with Maple was 42 hours start to finish and with Eider was 28 hours. I am also positive that had I not been laboring and then delivering at home that I would have had a c-section most likely both times. And I am not here to comment one way or another on childbirth, I think ALL ways that we birth is perfect, worthy and whole, complete and power filled. I’m just saying that my labor was crazy long and challenging. In part because I believe that the strength and tone of my pelvic floor made the decent of a fetal head down into the birth canal slow and difficult. I also think because I was well trained in withstanding discomfort through the steady use of my breath, I was able to disperse the tension of labor pain that should rather be gathering and building in order to deliver. I remember after the birth of one of my closest yoga buddies first child, we commiserated over the phone regarding the length and difficulty of her delivery- she indeed did need to deliver by cesarean- that the best exercise for pregnant folks might be simply lots and lots of walking paired with a solid pranayama practice. And while I never like the idea of giving up my asana practice, I still believe that we may have been on to something.
Wow. Congrats if you’re still with me. I do actually have some definitive thoughts on practice throughout pregnancy. My number one resource, which is the very same now as it was way back when I was first pregnant, is Yoga: A Gem for Women by Geeta Iyengar. This is a great practice tool for women of all ages and stages but is absolutely at the top of the stack when it comes to practice through pregnancy. It is detailed and specific throughout every stage and into postpartum. What I love so much about Iyengar yoga and it holds in pre-natal as well, is that they somehow manage to find a really effective union of conservative and intense. Plus, this manual is geared toward someone who has been practicing regularly over a long period of time who is simply moving through one of life’s stages in the form of childbearing. I still use it with all of my students and especially my pregnant ones. In the few years between Maple’s and Eider’s births, I began studying with a senior Iyengar teacher in Lacrosse named Chris Saudek. I was with her just about once a week for around 5 years. During that time, she took Geeta’s book and compiled and edited the pregnancy section into its own manual, Yoga During Pregnancy: A Guide for Iyengar Students and Teachers. I cannot find it anywhere online but I imagine that you could contact The Yoga Place directly if you wanted to get your hands on a copy. It is well worth the effort.
In addition to Iyengar Yoga, I believe that the method formerly known as Bikram, aka Hot Yoga, aka the 26&2, also has a pregnancy specific sequence with the regular and established practitioner in mind. While I wasn’t doing this particular practice when I was pregnant with the kids, if I were to become pregnant again, I would absolutely explore those variations as well.
I think that we are seeing more and more people who practice continuing to explore their practice through pregnancy and normalizing the strength and power inherent in child bearing. However, I think as with all things, we need to be discerning in how we let this affect our impressions of ourselves and our own stories around worth and lack. As I said earlier, I tend toward the more cautious and conservative end of the spectrum, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean easy, it also doesn’t mean that I think you should just listen to your body and let it tell you what to do. In fact, I think that there are a number of things that feel great to the body during pregnancy that may cause irreparable damage to our structure. For example, I think that after the second trimester, big backbends should not be practiced anymore as they put too much of a strain on the abdominal muscles. I think that any compression of the abdomen should be avoided. I think that extra pelvic floor exercises are unnecessary for yogis. This is a short list of most likely a much longer one but hopefully you get the idea. There is no definitive way, no black and white guidebook or answers and yet… I truly believe that regular practice is most often available to us if we so choose.
I listened to an interview this summer of a hot yogi who has practiced through 3 pregnancies. She has an incredibly strong and aspirational practice that she has cultivated over many years. What she shared about practicing through pregnancy really moved me and has stayed with me. She said that there will be parts of our practice that we have to let go of as we navigate pregnancy. They will come back but maintaining them over the gestational course is going to be counter-indicated and selfish. It is a time to practice both taking care of ourselves and our baby and just like parenting there will be times when one supersedes the other. I love considering this. Because so much of the practice is founded on the tenants of selfless service, and yet in the west in particular the practice has strong elements of being an entirely selfish exploration. I think that both are relevant of course. And another opportunity for us to cultivate discernment. To really be waking up to our choices and what the path of right action may or may not be.
It’s a journey. These are just some of my thoughts. Imperfect. Not even fully formed. But hopefully of some service to you.