How To Practice Prenatal Yoga Safely: Q+A With A Doula And Prenatal Yoga Teacher

It’s so good for you! Or is it? We talked to a prenatal yoga instructor and doula about the best way to flow safely throughout all three trimesters.

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Prenatal yoga can feel sooooo good to a mama-to-be—all that stretching and relaxing and preparing for the birth. And it’s also safe, right? Well, yes and no. Prenatal yoga can be a wonderful way to strengthen your body and work with your mind before giving birth. But there are some poses—or ways of approaching poses—that should be avoided during pregnancy, just to be on the safe side. I spoke with the wise and wonderful Bec Conant, owner and founder of Om Births in Watertown, Massachusetts. She’s also a birth doula and mom to little Sawyer. Below she answers all your most pressing questions about practicing yoga safely while pregnant.

HealthyWay: What are the basics of practicing prenatal yoga safely?

Conant: The first rule is true for all yoga practice: Don’t do anything that feels like it might injure your body, and don’t ever strain for a pose! If you start with the first yogic principle of ahimsa (not harming), things will fall into place from there. That said, here are some basics that are specific to pregnancy to bear in mind:

  • Avoid anything that squeezes or compresses the belly (ouch!), or anything that demands intense abdominal control. Even in the first trimester it’s smart to be cautious around arm balances and deep twists—everything is shifting inside you and the body is trying to protect this tiny growing being.
  • When you get into your second and third trimesters—as the baby grows—widen the feet in standing postures like uttanasana where the belly would hit the thighs.
  • Always make sure that all your joints are slightly soft. In other words, don’t lock at in the elbows or the knees. The soft joints help keep things supported as the hormones shift to soften connective tissue, especially in the third trimester.
  • Avoid any pranayama (breath practice) where your breath is doing crazy or unusual things. (Think breath of fire or anything that places unusual strain on the nervous system.)

What prenatal yoga poses are definitely safe for me to do?

In the first trimester, everything is okay, with the exception of anything that would put pressure into the abdomen. So a belly bolster is out right away, and deep twists like parivritta parsvakonasana are best to avoid. You can go into the shape (twisting your body), but don’t push yourself further into the twist. And don’t start learning new things like arm balances and inversions! If you are already practicing these, it’s fine to keep doing them, but this isn’t the moment to finally learn to go upside down!

What prenatal yoga poses should I avoid by trimester and why?

Second Trimester

Avoid anything that compresses the belly, so stay away from poses like paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) with legs together and ardha matseyandrasana (half lord of the fishes pose). Start exercising caution in the deep backbends, like wheel, where the expanding abdominal wall could be affected. In lunges and deep squats, the focus should be on support rather than releasing and opening. You need to do this to support the pelvis, which is preparing to open for the birth.

Third Trimester

Avoid the obvious stuff like lying on your belly and possibly lying on your back if it doesn’t feel comfy (if it makes you feel dizzy, nauseated, or faint). Good postures to practice are those that help open and align the pelvic connective tissues: baddhakonasana, bridge (to stretch the psoas muscle, which runs from the spine to the top of the thigh), gentle spinal twists, as well as postures that help during labor such as all fours (table), table with elbows on the floor, and deep relaxation. Deep relaxation is key during the third trimester because it helps the body stay free of stress before the birth process.

When should I start practicing prenatal yoga, and when should I stop practicing?

Start as soon as you like! I have students who are only six weeks pregnant in class. End when your water breaks—seriously, you can practice right until the baby is in your arms. Of course one could say that’s when the real yoga begins.

How can I find a prenatal yoga teacher I can trust?

Ask around your area, or start by looking on Yoga Alliance to see who’s in your region with a prenatal designation (RPYT), but also check out various classes. The designation by itself doesn’t guarantee you will feel comfortable with the person, so check it out for yourself. Look for a teacher who doesn’t just teach prenatal yoga, but who has experience in the birth field as a doula or childbirth instructor. They’ll know more than just the postures and will probably be really passionate about the prenatal experience.

Quick Prenatal Yoga True or False with Bec

  • Twists are okay: True. They are better if you just twist to open up. Save room for the baby!
  • Lying on your back in poses is okay until it’s personally uncomfortable (this varies person by person): True.
  • Don’t do core work because it causes diastasis recti: True—and false. Don’t do surface core work, but exercises that work the transverse abdominals, like plank, can be done with caution and might even help maintain a strong center. Pelvic floor work will also contribute to an integrated core.
  • You can go upside down (and it can be great for turning a breech baby!): True, but it’s best to have a spotter or previous knowledge of inversions. (But poses like downward dog and bridge can also help turn a breech baby.)
  • It is bad to put firm direct pressure on the belly: True.
  • It is bad to jump in the first trimester: True.
  • Binding is bad because of the hormone relaxin and softer connective tissue which could cause instability: True. [Many prenatal yoga instructors stress that relaxin can alter ligaments; some studies have shown that higher relaxin levels during pregnancy correlate with pelvic and hip joint instability.]
  • Expelling breath out and holding it is not safe: True.
  • It is recommended to start yoga in the second trimester because the first is always riskier: False. People may feel more comfortable starting prenatal yoga in the second trimester because they will have cleared the challenges of the first trimester, but the risks of miscarriage during the first trimester are not going to be increased by a gentle yoga practice.
Abigail Rasminsky
Abigail Rasminsky has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Cut, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Marie Claire, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.

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