Best yoga poses for pregnancy

The following poses promote health in the body during any season of life, and they are especially helpful in preventing or relieving the common discomforts of pregnancy, such as low back pain and sciatica, hip discomfort, loss of balance, and fatigue.  Remember that your body knows best when you are engaging in any physical activity during pregnancy; if you experience any dizzyness, nausea, sudden pain, difficulty breathing, or other odd reactions, stop or modify the activity.

You can practice these poses in the order presented, or choose particular postures that suit your needs at the moment.

Cat/Cow

(also known as marjaryasana and bitilasana)

Begin on hands and knees, with wrists under your shoulders and knees under hips.  On your inhale, allow your belly to drop toward the floor and your hips and shoulders lift, and lift your head slightly to keep the neck in line with the extension of the spine.  On your exhale, round your back, pressing down into your hands and knees as you drop the head.  Let this be an undulating motion, rolling from hips to head with each breath.  Repeat 10-15 times to keep the spine flexible and healthy.

Downward-facing Dog Pose

(adho mukha svanasana)

Begin on hands and knees, or at the top of a push-up.  On your exhale, press your hips up and back to extend the spine.  Allow your shoulders to rest flat on the back.  Your knees may be bent, and your heels may not reach the floor.  Downward-facing dog stretches the entire back body, releasing through the shoulders, back, hips and legs.  It also encourages optimal positioning for your baby as you approach childbirth.

Warrior I

(virabhadrasana I)

Take a lunging position with your back heel pressing down into the ground and foot at a 45-degree angle.  Bend your front knee over your front ankle and square your hips toward the front.  This pose builds strength and lengthens through the back of the front leg to prevent sciatica and lower back pain.

Low Squat

(malasana)

Take your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and sit low with your hips reaching toward the floor, spine extending straight toward the sky.  If your heels don't reach the floor, you can place a rolled towel or block beneath them.  To increase the stretch through the inner thighs and hips, bring your hands together at your heart and press your elbows into your knees to widen them.

Child's Pose

(balasana)

Begin on hands and knees.  On an exhale, draw your hips back toward your heels, keeping your arms outstretched.  As your belly grows, you can bring the knees wider to let your torso sink toward the floor between your thighs.  Child's pose is a restorative position that gently stretches the back.

Bridge Pose

(setu bandha sarvangasana)

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor.  On an inhale, press into your feet to lift your hips upward.  You may able walk your arms underneath your torso, using the pressure of your shoulders against the floor to lift higher through the chest.  This back-bending pose can be done throughout pregnancy to stretch the front of the body and increase energy.

*The following three poses involve reclining on the back.  As your pregnancy progresses, the weight of your growing baby may compress a large vein called the inferior vena cava, leading to feelings of discomfort,including dizzyness, increased pulse rate, difficulty breathing or other symptoms of low blood pressure.  If you experience any of these, that is a message from your body to change positions.  Sometimes, simply elevating the right hip a few inches with a pillow, rolled towel or folded blanket will be enough to prevent the discomfort and low blood pressure.

Reclined Bound-Ankle Pose

(supta baddha konasana)

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor.  Bring the soles of your feet together and allow your knees to fall out to the sides.  This pose gently stretches the hips and inner thighs and widens the pelvis.

Legs-up-the-Wall Pose

(viparita karani)

Lie on your back with your legs extended up the wall.  Try to bring your sit-bones to press into the wall so that your legs are at a 90-degree angle to your back.  In addition to gently stretching the back of the body, this pose relieves achy, tired legs and feet and can help reduce swelling in the feet.

Relaxation Pose

(savasana)

Lie on your back, with feet wider than your hips and arms at your sides, palms up.  A rolled blanket or pillow under your knees can help relieve the back.  This restorative pose allows the mind and body to completely relax.

Preventing back pain during pregnancy

Back pain is one of the primary complaints of women during the second and third trimester, and often after pregnancy as well.  As the weight of the uterus and baby increases and the body's center of gravity shifts to the front of the body, the lumbar spine (lower back) is pulled forward. At the same time, the abdominal wall is weakened as it is stretched, and the joints of the pelvis (especially the sacroiliac joint) are relaxed.  These changes place extra stress on the joints and ligaments in the lower back, and the muscles in that area must work harder to maintain the vertical line of the spine.  By taking the following steps beginning in early pregnancy, you can reduce your risk of back injury and improve the health of your spine.

Of course, if you are currently experiencing back pain or have a history of back pain, you should consult with a health professional.  Self-care is a powerful tool to maintaining your health, but it doesn't replace the advice and services of a trained professional.

1. Regularly assess your posture as your body changes.

Awareness of your posture and working to maintain good posture as your belly grows can help to mitigate the stress on the lower back.  On at least a weekly basis, spend a few moments in standing (mountain pose) or seated (siddhasana) positions, observing how your body feels, and activating the muscles that support your spine.  Utilize the muscles of the pelvic floor as well to improve stability through the pelvis and sacroiliac joint.  Many women find it helpful to wear a support belt under their bellies in the second half of pregnancy to help them maintain proper posture.

2. Avoid prolonged activities or positions that strain the back.

Activities that strain the back include the obvious, such as repetitively bending over and lifting heavy objects, but they also include activities which enforce poor posture habits, such as sitting on an ill-fitting or thickly cushioned chair.

Sitting is one of the most strenuous activities for the lower back, especially if your pelvis is not well supported.  If you are required to sit for long periods of time, make sure both of your sit-bones are grounded evenly and the lower back is neutral, not curving forward excessively.  You may find relief by changing positions frequently, and leaving your seat to stand or walk when possible.  Try to avoid spending a great deal of time sitting deeply-cushioned couches; it is much easier to keep the pelvis balanced sitting on a firm surface.

Lying down for sleep can also be troublesome, especially during pregnancy.  Normally, lying on one's back is the best sleeping position for the health of the spine.  However, about halfway through pregnancy, most women feel discomfort or nausea or become lightheaded in this position as the weight of the uterus press down on the inferior vena cava, causing blood pressure to drop.  Most women end up sleeping on their sides to avoid this problem, but lack of support through the side of the torso and top leg can lead to back pain or sciatica.  Placing a pillow under the top leg to keep it level with the top hip, and a small pillow or folded towel under the belly and the waist can help to keep the spine straight while sleeping.

3. Continue to move the body throughout pregnancy and the postpartum period.

Especially during the first and third trimesters, when many women experience fatigue, the idea of exercising is not an appealing one.  But exercise, when performed at a safe level, helps to maintain the body, improving our general health and well-being.  Of course, you should talk to your doctor about the appropriateness of fitness activities during your pregnancy, but health professionals agree that the majority of women can continue their regular activities, modifying them as needed.  Even simple activities like walking can be very healthy for the body, promoting better circulation, digestion and muscle tone.

Most yoga poses are designed with the aim of improving back flexibility, tone and health by moving the spine in its six directions: bending forward and backward, from side to side, and twisting to each side.  Moving the spine in these six directions on at least a daily basis balances the spine and maintains its mobility.  I've posted before on the anatomy of the spine and easy ways to keep the back healthy.  Here are some yoga poses that address concerns particular to pregnancy.

For general toning of the core: Begin on hands and knees, then extend your opposite hand and foot.  Hold this position for a few breaths, then repeat on the other side.  Concentrate on lengthening through the spine, using the muscles of the core to lift through the lower back.

For sciatica and sacro-iliac discomfort: Warrior I, then transition to Warrior II, holding each for 5-10 breaths.  Both poses open through the front, side and back of both hips.  Flexible students have a tendency to exaggerate the curve of the lower back, so take extra care in these poses to lengthen that space by drawing your tailbone toward the earth.

For low back strain: A few poses that release tension in the back include puppy pose, legs-up-the-wall and low squat.