How yoga can help you during pregnancy and as a new mum
Pregnancy and early motherhood are times of massive changes, where women are reassessing their identities, their relationships, and readjusting to an ever-changing body. Especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic, women can feel vulnerable and look for reassurance amongst other women going through a similar experience. Pregnancy and postnatal yoga classes offer enormous benefits for physical and mental health during this life-changing time.
Physically, yoga helps to build strength and flexibility which helps during labour and childbirth, and allows women to rebuild strength and restore their posture after the baby is born. Being active can encourage babies to adopt the ‘optimal foetal position’ for natural childbirth, which is head down, with the spine towards the front-left of the body. But yoga is so much more than a physical practice.
The physical aspect of a yoga class
The physical aspect of a yoga class, the postures or ‘asanas’, reduce muscular tension in the areas of the body in which we hold mental tension, particularly the shoulders and the hips. A pregnant woman’s body is always changing: the tilt of her pelvis in late pregnancy increases the tightness in the hip flexors, and the additional weight of her growing baby and breasts can cause her to round her shoulders more. New mums spend the majority of their day leaning forward, changing nappies, feeding, lifting, holding, which adds to tension and rounding in the shoulders. Helping to release this tension can restore a woman’s posture after giving birth, as well as releasing the emotional tension held there.
Breathing Techniques & Birthing Positions
Specific breathing techniques and birthing positions are taught to help women feel calm and in control, whether they are riding the waves of contractions, whether interventions or surgery are involved, or whether they are full of doubts in their ability to care for a newborn baby. Focusing on the breath helps to reduce the levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can inhibit the release of oxytocin, the hormone that stimulates the uterus to contract. So if a woman can learn breathing techniques to reduce her stress levels and help herself feel calm and safe, her oxytocin levels will increase and give her labour chance to progress.
Oxytocin is the hormone that is released when we feel safe and cared for; not only does it help uterine contractions, but it also helps women to bond with their newborns and stimulates milk flow when breastfeeding. Babies look to their mothers to interpret the world, so if a mother is calm and relaxed, the baby will pick up on her lower heart and breathing rate, and feel safer. Breath awareness is such a vital skill for new mums.
Mindfulness practices in both classes are also hugely beneficial, allowing women to slow down their thoughts, quieten self-doubt and step outside the whirlwind of day-to-day responsibilities. Positive affirmations are used such as ‘I am the perfect mother for my baby’, ‘I can do it and my baby can’ and ‘I am fit, healthy, energised and beautiful’.
Mental Health Benefits
A huge mental health benefit of women-centred yoga classes is the community. Both pregnant and new mothers need a circle of support. In my pregnancy classes I ask everyone to share something that has happened since the last class. This has proven to be invaluable. Anxieties surface that the women had been dismissing, troubling symptoms are mentioned that they are encouraged to get checked out, tips are shared for dealing with aches and pains. I share my knowledge, but it is humbling to witness other class member’s support and encourage each other. Women are empowered to trust their intuition and request extra help from health professionals. I’ve seen friendships form that have continued for years afterwards.
Postnatally, women need emotional support more than ever. Their identities have changed, and their relationships with their partners and other family members have too. Sharing birth stories is common, so is anxiety about whether they’re a good enough mother. Cautiously seeking validation for the way in which they are caring for their baby, whether sleep-training, bottle or breast-feeding, using cloth or disposable nappies… I offer a non-judgmental space where they can air their views and share their experiences.
In both classes, women are offered a space to bond with their babies. During pregnancy this is through visualisations or simply through breath awareness, being in the present moment, with one hand on the baby bump, knowing that the baby is aware of every breath through the rise and fall of their mother’s diaphragm. In postnatal classes, the baby is very much part of the yoga practice, with eye contact, chatting and cuddling encouraged. I emphasise that as mothers, we can model how to regulate our own emotions because our babies don’t yet know how to. If we can find our inner calm through our breath, we can transfer that skill onto our children.
About the Author
Author: Maria Oliver BWY Dip
Maria teaches general Hatha yoga classes, pregnancy and postnatal yoga, and children’s yoga. Maria has never considered herself to be a naturally bendy person, but has a passion for sharing the amazing mental and physical health benefits of yoga with everybody she encounters. Maria discovered yoga when suffering from chronic stress, and found it invaluable during pregnancy and childbirth. She particularly loves the blissed-out facial expressions of her class members when they sit up after the relaxation session at the end of a yoga class.
Photo Credit: Neil Sampson