Pregnancy can be such an intense time, both for your mind and your body. So many changes at once! Such discomfort! Such flexibility! Exercise that once felt good doesn’t always work, and where you were once tight you are now a limber lady. How should a pregnant lady deal? To figure out which pregnancy stretches are best (and which ones to avoid), we spoke with Bec Conant, an experienced registered yoga teacher (500 hours), registered prenatal yoga teacher, and owner and founder of OM Births in Watertown, Massachusetts. Conant has been teaching prenatal yoga for over 15 years and is also a doula and mom to little Sawyer, which means she has extensive professional and personal experience helping women get ready for labor. There are plenty of pregnancy stretches that can help ease pain, reduce stress, and even help you prepare for the big event: labor. However, it’s key to make sure you’re stretching the right way so you can keep yourself and your baby safe through all three trimesters.
HealthyWay: Is stretching safe during pregnancy?
Conant: Absolutely! It’s vital. With the change in your center of gravity, your postural muscles can get tight, especially if you spend much of the day sitting. Being able to release tension and re-balance the load on your body makes for much greater comfort.
How can pregnancy stretches help get my body ready for labor?
Balance! Our bodies are already primed for labor; we just have to maintain good muscle tone for the big day. We want to be both strong and supple as we embark on the journey of labor. That’s where pregnancy stretches come in: Stretching the hips, low back, and sides can help balance tension so that one set of muscles isn’t tasked with the whole load all the time. Certain postures, such as squatting, can mimic the way the pelvis may need to open during the birth process, and thus are helpful to practice as long as you aren’t already super flexible in this area! [More on that to come.] Exercises that bring awareness to the pelvic floor are super important for this opening. We all know about practicing our Kegels, but we should also focus on the full range of lift and release available from the pelvic floor muscles. Good postures to practice are squatting, child’s pose, tadasana, and baddha konasana. Don’t just practice lifting the pelvic floor but releasing it, too—this is the action that helps birth the baby.
What are good stretches in the first, second, and third trimesters? Are they different?
Many pregnancy stretches stay the same throughout each trimester, but the focus of each posture will change as your pregnancy progresses.
This time is about finding your current flexibility and nurturing your body as it begins to grow this new human being. Gentle lunges, hamstring stretches, and upper back releases are helpful.
The focus becomes about making room for baby and developing strength for later on. Goddess squat and Warrior II can be helpful as long as you practice proper alignment. This is a good time to start working on on hip openers, incorporating fire logs, pigeon, and malasana.
This last phase is about opening (within appropriate range) and finding that balance and suppleness. Try baddha konasana, malasana (assuming baby is in a head-down/spine-to-mom’s-belly position), and chest and shoulder openers, which can help balance the extra weight on the front of the body.
How is prenatal yoga good beyond preparing my muscles?
Yoga isn’t just about the body; it’s also about the mind. Practicing mindful awareness during movements—and especially during intense sensations—is directly applicable to both labor and motherhood. In yoga, we are learning not just how to stretch, but how to listen to the body and learn from its signals. It’s that same inward listening that guides moms through the intensity of labor. If you’ve spent time getting comfortable with how your mind responds to intense feelings, then you can harness this same skill during labor. This skill is useful after birth, too, when parenting gets challenging!
Should I worry about overstretching? Why?
Yes, especially during the third trimester, and especially if you are a naturally flexible person. During pregnancy, the body starts getting ready to open for birth before the actual labor begins. It does this in part through hormonal changes, which soften the connective tissue in your body, making the pelvic joints more flexible. This is great for labor, but can be slightly dangerous before because it affects all the connective tissue in the body. In the third trimester, the body produces more of the hormone relaxin than usual. Ligaments are meant to stop you from going too far while stretching, but with an onslaught of relaxin in the body, especially during the third trimester, this doesn’t always occur. The trouble is that you often won’t know when you’ve overstretched until after it’s been done, and by then the damage has already occurred. This is why it’s key to get a sense of your flexibility early in pregnancy so you are more aware of where your limits are before the third trimester. The basic rule of thumb is to start by stretching to 50 percent of what you think you can do, and to then to gradually and mindfully see where you begin to encounter resistance. While we do want to stretch, this is not the time to increase range of motion. Postures to be especially mindful of include lunges, pigeon, warrior, and any pose that involves moving one leg forward and one back. Twists or binds which cannot be done with ease should not be attempted for the moment. Gentle, open twists are okay, but there should be no pushing.
I’m having trouble with…
Round Ligament Pain
Cat–cow can sometimes help. Since round ligament pain is often caused by a twisting motion that stretches the ligament on one side more than the other, gentle pelvic rocking in a symmetrical position can sometimes relieve the discomfort and rebalance the uterus in the pelvis.
The best approach to stretching to relieve sciatica during pregnancy depends on whether it’s being caused by overly tight muscles or overly loose joints. If the former, then postures that stretch the glutes and piriformis are often the way to go. Baddha konasana or agnistambhasana (fire log) can bring great relief to tight hip muscles. If your sciatica is due to excessive laxity, however, then the focus is more on stabilizing. Baddha konasana is still a great option, but instead of working to drop the knees, focus on pressing the feet together and drawing the lower abdominals inward. Another option is to practice table pose, focusing on actively drawing the abdominals inward to support the weight of the belly.
Back Pain (Other Than Sciatica)
Continue everything you’re doing for sciatica, but add windmills (aka prasarita padottanasana while lifting one arm and lowering it again). If you’re still comfortable lying on your back, lie down over a rolled blanket (the blanket should go under your shoulder blades, perpendicular to your spine), and allow the spine to melt into the backbend. This one can be fairly intense while doing it, but brings wonderful relief when you are done. Be sure to roll to the side before getting up.
My two favorites for this are actually the same movement, just one is upside down. If you’re still comfortable on your back, then lie down and draw the knees into the chest (allowing room for the baby). Pushing them out and drawing them back in again can relieve gas. Another option is rocking between child’s pose (again, leaving room for baby) and table.
Kneel facing the wall, extend the arms overhead against the wall and lean in to rest the forehead against the wall. The aim is to create a passive backbend in the upper back. Also, stay more horizontal than fully inverted in postures like uttanasana by placing blocks under the hands. This is helpful because lifting the rib cage in a passive backbend helps things run downward instead of being pushed up. You get a small version of the same thing if you lift the arms into urdhva hastasana. Interlace the palms to press upwards and then exhale strongly while continuing to reach upwards. I’ve found that the additional upper body backbend the wall stretch provides increases this effect.