Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and the ideas here should not be treated as such. If you have concerns, please consult your care provider.
We’ve been having some discussion in my prenatal yoga classes about the options for modifications in “regular” yoga while pregnant. Beginning and experienced yogis alike have questions. Do all pregnant yogis need to modify? Is that sensation OK or not? What yoga poses are not recommended for the rapidly changing body of an expecting mom? Also, what can be done differently that still gets benefits other than just skipping large portions of class? Sometimes even the mental block of how one “should and shouldn’t” be moving or holding the body can manifest to physical discomfort.
Not all pregnant yogis need to follow all the recommendations all the time. In general, if something doesn’t feel right, physically or otherwise, change what you’re doing. Changes in the body may make you feel more flexible, but there’s no need to push your limits or your end range of motion. It’s also recommended not to start working on any advanced poses that aren’t already in the experienced yogi’s practice. Below are a some modification ideas for the expecting mama attending a non-prenatal yoga class. These suggestions are not right for everyone. Do what you feel most comfortable and safe with, and discuss with your medical care provider any concerns for your particular situation.
- Open your twists. Closed twists not only limit the space for a growing belly but also may compromise the relationship between the placenta and uterus. Standing poses that feature a twist, like a twisted chair pose, in which the elbow and knee press into each other are considered closed twists. This can easily be modified by lifting the chest. Instead of closing off the space in the abdomen, keep it open. With that thought in mind, some seated twists may move the belly toward a bent leg. In this instance, twist toward an extended leg to keep the space of the abdomen open. Finally, a supine (lying on the back) twist with the top leg across the body also closes off the space of the abdomen. Keep it open by bending both knees, and propping the legs higher off the ground.
- Try prone positions from table or supine. Prone position is anything while lying on your stomach. Early on in pregnancy this may be fine, but will quickly get uncomfortable and perhaps risky. A couple of examples are Locust and Sphinx. Locust pose is an active pose that you reach your arms and hands toward the back of the room with the chest and legs lifted off the mat. A great way to get the back work in without having to lie on the belly is to do this move from table or hands and knees. Because we can’t hover off the floor though, one side at a time, and probably using opposite arm and leg would be best for balance. 😉 Sphinx pose can be a more passive pose, with the belly on the ground, head and chest lifted, and elbows under the shoulders. To get a nice backbend, instead you could flip this and practice a Supported Fish pose. A block, blanket, or bolster can support the upper back, right around the bottom of the shoulder blades as you drape the upper back over your prop. An additional prop can be used to support the back of the head, too.
- Keep your head above or level with your heart and hips. Inversions are when the head is lower than the heart and hips. There isn’t anything seemingly unsafe about inversions during pregnancy, but I have seen it cause discomfort, especially if heartburn is an issue. Even downward facing dog is considered an inversion! In flows, table can be swapped for down dog. To get the stretch of down dog, from table you can reach one arm out at a time with the hand on the floor for the shoulders then reach one heel back at a time with the toes on the ground for the calf stretch. I still teach some inversions in my classes by way of a standing forward fold, but those tend to be a bit easier to modify by lifting the torso so it’s more parallel to the ground. Blocks under the hands here can help, too.
- Work back, hips, or obliques rather than crunch-type movements and poses. Crunching movements and poses that really target work for the rectus abdominis (aka the 6-pack muscle–the abdominal muscles that run from the bottom of the front ribs to the pubic bone) could create a force in the abdominal cavity that may impact the integrity of those muscles and surrounding connective tissues, resulting in a more difficult postpartum recovery. Holding a plank and working with boat pose and variations on boat do that. In a flow, knees down and/or hands on blocks in plank can help decrease the load. If there’s an active hold, maybe you could practice a reverse table instead. From a seat, place your hands behind you and feet on the floor. While squeezing the butt, lift the hips. You can hold the pose or move in and out of it. When a class is doing boat-type work, you could practice a supported side plank. From hands and knees, rotate on the knee of one leg to “kickstand” that side. Then lift the opposite arm as you rotate that side of the body toward the ceiling. Hold here or play with moving the top arm and leg around in space. Think about working your core muscles other than the abdominals right down the front: the hips, butt, back, and obliques (side abs).
- Swap out arm balances for other arm-focused work. Poses like Crow (image below), Flying Pigeon, Flying Splits, and Peacock pose are all arm balances that use the belly as the fulcrum point. Some like Peacock place more pressure on the belly than maybe Crow, but they can still limit the space available like closed twists and can add undesirable amounts of pressure like the crunching poses. While other strengthening happens in the arm balances, maybe the prenatal yogi could focus on other arm strengthening moves instead. My favorite is the “Wall Dog Push-ups.” In a down dog shape at the wall, turn the fingers about 45 degrees in, and “push-up” toward the wall. As you move, allow the elbows to come out wide and squeeze the shoulder blades together. The closer the hands are to the floor or even all the way to a traditional down dog (as long as the inversion is comfortable), the more work it will be. Just to note, my posture in the example below is exaggerated to illustrate the pose from the awkward angle of the camera. Ideally, the hands, shoulders, and hips are roughly level and the heels are directly below the hips. Another of my favorites is using blocks and movements! Squeeze the blocks between the hands above the head, straight in front, and a little behind the head. Pull the shoulder blades down the back and then push them up. Bend and straighten the elbows with the upper arms held in different positions. Move slowly and create your own resistance. Imagine moving the blocks through thick mud. Finally, and this is a great substitute in a Flow, moving in and out of knees down chaturangas provides some good work while relieving some of the load on the front abs. From hands and knees or a knees down plank, lower partway down and push back up.
- Keep breathing with non-forceful inhales or exhales. Don’t hold your breath! Yes, the image below is quite the exaggeration and you won’t likely find this in a yoga class, but many Pranayama practices include breath retention. Holding the breath could decrease the oxygen levels for the little one. Over time and repetition, that could create problems. Alternate Nostril Breathing is a great, relaxing breath and it’s easy to skip the breath holds. Inhale and exhale from one nostril using a finger to close the other and switch. Fire Breath is a forceful exhale that warms up the body. That exhale, just like the crunch poses, creates a force in the belly not desirable for the baby inside and mama’s muscles around. Instead, keep the belly relaxed. Maybe try an Ujaii breath (aka Ocean Breath, Darth Vader Breath, or Fogging the Mirror Breath) with the mouth open. The throat will make an audible sound as you inhale and exhale.
- Prop Savasana. It’s great to lie on your back as long as you feel comfortable. But at some point, the weight of the womb makes relaxing fully reclined more restless than restful. To get the most benefits from what many argue to be the best part of yoga, prop it up! The most popular option is reclined on a bolster ramp. Grab two blocks and place them in a “L” shape–one on the tallest setting with the wide flat side facing toward you and the second touching the first on the shortest setting with the wide flat side facing up. The bolster lays across the blocks like a ramp, you sit with the back of your hips as close to the bottom of the bolster ramp as possible while still sitting on the floor, and lie back onto the bolster ramp. Additional props can be used to make this even more cozy! Blocks or bolsters under the forearms can help if the chest opening feels too intense. A rolled blanket can help fill the gap between the bottom of the bolster ramp and the floor. A rolled or folded blanket can be used as a pillow at the top of the bolster ramp. In the image below, I have a blanket on the bolster I’m reclined on just because my bolsters are extra squishy. A bolster can go under the knees if the legs are extended to relieve any tension felt in the low back. Or with the leg bolster in that same position, you could bring soles of the feet together and the knees out wide Butterfly style and rest the feet on top of bolster. You could do the same Butterfly shaped legs with the feet directly on the mat, and even add blocks for support under the knees. There are SO MANY OPTIONS! I think that’s why it’s so popular. You can really make this Savasana work for how you feel in that moment. Another Savasana option if the incline just doesn’t help relieve the weight pressure is a Side-Lying Savasana. This can be done really without props if needed, but for more comfort, the bottom leg is straight with a bolster in front to rest the top knee and shin on. A blanket folded under the belly so it doesn’t feel like it’s being stretched downward. A block on its lowest setting for a pillow and something for the top arm to hug or rest on like a rolled blanket or block can be nice, too. Finally, a supine supported Fish pose as described in the prone positions alternatives above can feel really great if you want the backbend. My recommendation if you try that one, is to really come out of it slowly. Start by rolling to a side off your prop and rest for several breaths before using your hands to push up to a seat.
- Take breaks. Last but certainly not least is to take breaks when your body asks for it. The body is doing a lot of work already and there’s no reason to push harder, sweat more, or feel pressure to perform. Bodily changes in pregnancy will likely make you feel more winded and unstable. You are strong, but stronger still when you respect your body’s signals to pause. Child’s pose is often a place yogis turn to for a recalibration. Toes together, knees out wide, and props to lift the chest, under the ankles, or between the heels and butt can make this more rejuvenating. Sometimes, though, if you’re feeling winded, head down in Child’s pose may not feel great. Pausing with a tall spine in Hero’s pose may be a great option. Shins on the floor, bottom on the heels or a block or two on the medium setting.
Many of these modifications are great postpartum, too! In your postnatal stage as you grow stronger, you’ll find you’re modifying less and less until you feel strong enough to start playing more. And perhaps I’ll work on another article about strengthening moves specifically for postpartum soon!
I hope this helps! As I mentioned earlier, not all ideas here would work for every yogi every time, but remember that you always have the ability to explore what feels right, take breaks when you need to, and make your own choices for how you move and hold your body. This is your practice.
Questions, concerns, comments, and feedback are always welcome. Thanks for reading!