Prenatal yoga has seen a surge of popularity in recent years, and it’s no surprise: yoga practice is the perfect complement to pregnancy and childbirth preparation. By practicing yoga, women can reduce their risk of pregnancy complications related to stress, and improve their experience of pregnancy, labor and delivery, and the postpartum period.
Stress is bad for mom and baby
Studies have revealed a direct relationship between increased levels of stress and complications in pregnancy. Research suggests that increased activity of the stress-response system might interfere with the hormones that maintain fetal development, and that the female reproductive organs are highly receptive to cortisol, one of the primary stress hormones.
Stressful life events and anxiety have been linked to the following pregnancy complications:
- threatened miscarriage and spontaneous abortion during the first trimester
- pre-term labor and pre-term delivery during the second trimester
- unplanned/emergency Cesarean delivery
During pregnancy, chronic stress reduces blood flow to the placenta and baby and prompts the placenta to create and release additional stress hormones. These hormones can disrupt the baby’s physical developmental, and they have been linked to difficult temperament in infancy and long-term functional disorders, such as behavioral and emotional difficulties during childhood.
Yoga reduces stress
Increasingly, research shows that yoga practice decreases or regulates several elements of the stress-response system:
- it decreases levels of cortisol, blood sugar, and epinephrine (adrenaline)
- it regulates the heart rate and significantly decreases blood pressure
- it increases immune system function and decreases inflammation
Yoga practice is an effective therapy to decrease perception and physiological symptoms of stress and anxiety during pregnancy. Yoga improves blood flow to the placenta, reduces the transfer of stress hormones to the developing baby and reduces the levels of stress hormones produced by the placenta. In a study comparing the efficacy of yoga against other aerobic exercise—walking 30 minutes twice per day—participants in the yoga program experienced a significant decrease in pre-term deliveries, a decreased incidence of underweight babies or intrauterine growth restriction, as well as decreased risk of pre-eclampsia and need for emergency Cesarean delivery. Women who began participating in a yoga program before their third trimester especially showed a lower level of perceived stress and improved regulation of cortisol levels.
Yoga relieves common discomforts of pregnancy
Yoga practice can keep you comfortable as your body changes. During pregnancy, body fluids increase by about twenty percent, requiring the circulatory and renal systems to work harder to circulate and filter increased blood flow through the body and to the developing baby and placenta. Hormones released during pregnancy relax the ligaments, impair balance, and slow the digestive system, often causing digestive difficulties. Regular yoga practice can help to increase or regulate circulation, elimination and respiration.
Practicing yoga poses also helps to increase awareness of your body and movement, ensuring safe postural habits and reducing risk of back pain or injury as the pregnancy progresses, especially if the practice begins before or during the first trimester.
Many yoga poses are therapeutic for common complaints of pregnancy, including nausea, dizziness, back pain or sciatica, carpal tunnel syndrome, pubic symphysis dysfunction (PSD), tired feet and legs, and fatigue, among others.
Yoga helps during labor
Yoga also helps prepare for the physical demands of labor and delivery. Some of the poses taught are recommended positions for labor, such as squatting, and practicing them regularly can help prevent fatigue during childbirth.
Breath awareness and meditation practice also help the mother respond to the stress of labor and delivery in a healthful way, by helping to reduce anxiety and improve relaxation and concentration on the coordination of her breathing and muscle contractions. This relaxation helps to make contractions more effective and can help shorten the duration, and reduce the difficulty of labor.
The postpartum period is a time of physical recovery from the strain of pregnancy and delivery, and adapting to changes within the family and to caring for an infant.
Over fifty percent of women complain of third-trimester or postpartum back pain or sciatica caused by the increased weight of the baby and placenta in late pregnancy. Even women who did not practice yoga during their pregnancy can find relief for back pain through gentle stretching and correction of postural imbalances.
Yoga poses can also tone the muscles of the pelvic floor, hastening their recovery after childbirth and helping to prevent common post-birth complaints like hemorrhoids, incontinence, and painful sexual intercourse.
In addition to physiological effects, yoga also has been shown to decrease anxiety, relieve symptoms of depression, and increase feelings of emotional, social and spiritual well-being. Many women report experiencing postpartum depression or the “baby blues.” Starting immediately after the birth of the child and over the course of the next few days, hormone levels within the woman’s body plummet, and many women experience intense mood swings and depression as a result. In addition to hormonal changes, a woman may have difficulty adjusting to her new role as a mother and may feel overwhelmed by the demands of caring for a newborn. Practicing yoga—especially the more restorative and meditative forms—can help bring about a sense of peace and calm to improve emotional health, especially in the early postpartum period, when physical activity may be somewhat limited.
Practicing yoga during pregnancy can enhance body awareness, mindfulness and a sense of ease. Prenatal yoga in particular uses poses safe and helpful during pregnancy, and group classes can include childbirth education and provide a supportive community of woman who share the experience of birth. These elements help expecting and new mothers enjoy pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood.