Ashtanga Yoga Practice During Pregnancy
These guidelines are for the experienced Ashtanga Yoga practitioner with a normal pregnancy. If you are relatively new to Ashtanga Yoga, you should enroll in a gentle prenatal yoga class instead, or practice under the close supervision of a qualified Ashtanga Yoga teacher who has experience with pregnancy. The information presented in this article is based primarily on my own experience with pregnancy; thus, the guidelines may appear underinclusive or overinclusive as they apply to you. I have also included pregnancy information from Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who is my guru and who advised me after my first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Following his direct advice, I continued my practice in a more mindful and balanced manner and went on to have several successful pregnancies.
The pregnant Ashtanga Yoga practitioner can cultivate mindfulness of the new life growing inside her while preparing her body for delivery and postpartum recovery. Ashtanga Yoga practice during pregnancy should be modified to accommodate the growing baby and protect the placenta. If you experience cramping, bleeding or prolonged cessation of fetal movement, stop practicing immediately and call your doctor. Always practice as if the belly (baby) were larger than it actually is. Adjust your pregnancy yoga practice to a lower level and intensity than that of your pre-pregnancy practice. This article is written for pregnant Ashtanga Yoga practitioners who regularly practice First Series. If your practice is at a higher series level, you would modify according to the basic principles outlined in this article. Often in early pregnancy, the "listen to your body" principle holds little meaning because your body is still very accustomed to its pre-pregnancy state of conditioning. Your pregnant body does not really start to tell you what it wants until the fourth month or beyond. The goal of this article is to help experienced Ashtanga Yoga practitioners minimize the risks of this rigorous yoga practice during pregnancy while enabling them to reap the benefits of the practice both during and after pregnancy.
Modify vinyasa between poses: No jumping, jump-throughs, jump-backs, chakrasana, or rolling. Step or crawl instead. If you have a petite frame, it would be advisable to eliminate the jumping movements as early as possible because your uterus may feel less cushioned from the impact than in someone with a larger frame.
Ujjayi Pranayama: OK to do [YM 27], but be mindful of the strength of your bandhas if you are a seasoned Ashtanga Yoga practitioner (see below).
Mula bandha: Mula bandha may be performed if you can engage the muscles near the cervix without causing uterine contractions. When the baby rises higher (e.g., Month 5 or 6), mula bandha may feel more comfortable to do.Suryanamaskar A [sun salutation A]: In the forward-bending movements, keep the chest at least 80-85 degrees from the floor. Place the hands in front of the feet rather than aligned with the feet. Step rather than jump. When you first start to show or feel your belly just needs the extra space, start the sequence with the feet hip-width apart in samasthiti before you bend forward.
Suryanamaskar B [sun salutation B]: When stepping forward from downward dog into a lunge, allow the back heel of the back foot to lift off the floor (but keep the ball of the foot firmly planted) to avoid triggering uddiyana bandha and compression of the belly; your hands and arms will need to take up more of the weight from now on. After your front foot is stabilized in the lunge position, set the back heel back down on the floor at the usual 80-85 degree angle to the front foot. Keep the back leg and back foot active and firm in the virabhadrasana position. Start the sequence with feet hip-width apart in samasthiti in Month 6 or whenever more space is required.
Omit extreme twists, which may cause placental abruption:
Omit poses that press the heel into the uterus while folding or sitting:
Omit poses on the belly or that would compress the belly:
Forward bending (standing or seated) in general: When folding forward, keep the chest at least 80-85 degrees from the floor, particularly in poses that place the legs together. Focus on pulling up rather than folding forward. If you prefer, spread the legs at a wider angle but keep the chest lifted.
Hand position in seated poses: To avoid compressing the belly, relinquish the traditional hand position of placing the hand around the middle of the foot. Instead, hold your toes or big toe while keeping the held foot as flexed as possible.
Navasana [boat pose]: Alternate each set with one foot on the floor while extending the other leg. Having one foot on the floor will help with balance and prevent strain on the lower back and abdominal area.
Baddha konasana [bound angle pose] and wide angle poses: The muscles and ligaments in the groin and sacroiliac area are more relaxed during pregnancy, so be careful not to overstretch in these positions.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana [standing leg raises]: As the belly becomes more prominent, move the leg to the side of the belly rather than the front. Work on lengthening the leg away from you rather than folding towards it.
Poses on the back, generally: To avoid reducing the blood flow to the uterus, do not stay on the back for more than 3 minutes at a time. If you experience difficulty breathing, nausea, or dizziness while doing poses on your back, omit such poses altogether.
Supta padangusthasana [lying down leg raises]: Omit [YM 101]. This sequence of movements requires some time on the back and may encourage overcompression of the belly as one presses the leg to the face and then to the floor. If you choose to do this pose, do not force the leg to meet either the face or the floor. Instead, focus on extending the heel away from the hip while firming the inner thigh and straightening the leg.
Setu bandhasana [bridge pose]: Omit after Month 4 [YM 103-104]. This pose requires exertion from the abdominal muscles (uddiyana bandha) to stabilize the bridge shape of the pose; risk of straining the neck, losing balance and falling due to pregnancy weight gain.
Backbends: In upward dog, keep the belly soft and move into the arch deliberately and slowly, concentrating on keeping the hands flat on the floor and the arms straight. If there is any undue tightness in upward dog, do not do full backbends. The placement of the placenta and the individual angle of your uterus may influence your ability to do full backbends, so don't worry if you have to give up backbends. If you can do backbends comfortably, work into the arch slowly and do not try to make it perfect or tight. The belly should not feel tight or uncomfortable. Allow the psoas, frontal hip bones, and tops of the thighs to soften. Pay attention to whether your lower back is tightening in the backbends. Due to the increased weight of the belly, the lower back naturally tightens over time to support the front of the body, so avoid inadvertantly tightening the lower back during backbending as well. However, even slight backbending will help "pop" the spine and alleviate backaches from the weight gain. Do not do drop-overs or flips, since there is a risk of overstretching the abdominal muscles in these movements. An alternative to full backbending is the modified bridge pose.
Inverted postures: Omit headstand [YM 116 "Pregnant women should not practice this asana."]. If you choose to practice headstand and shoulderstand, make sure that you can maintain your balance, consistently build up the strength in the neck and arms to keep up with the weight gain, and that you do not have blood pressure problems. Since inversions will normally trigger uddiyana bandha during the entry and exit of the pose, there could be strain to the abdominal area. If you experience nausea or strain in the abdominal area while entering or exiting an inverted pose, do not continue with the pose.
Savasana [corpse pose]: Lie on your left side in a fetal position to avoid compressing the blood flow to the uterus. Use a rolled towel or mat under your head to make the neck more comfortable. You can also place a rolled blanket or bolster between your legs and hold one between your arms to make your belly more comfortable.
Suryanamaskar A & B: Continue placing the hands in front of the feet in the forward-bending movements, using the fingertips rather than the palms to touch the floor in dwi and trini (the second and third vinyasas) and the like. If the belly becomes so large (e.g., Month 8) that it becomes too difficult to step forward in suryanamaskar B without straining the hip or front knee, omit suryanamaskar B and substitute suryanamskar A (total 10 A's).
Hand position in seated poses: Instead of holding your toes with both hands, slide one hand up to the wrist or forearm of the opposite arm while continuing to lengthen the chest. Example: In janu sirsasana A with right leg folded in and left leg extended, pull back the toes on your left foot with your left hand while holding your left wrist or forearm with your right hand. This modification allows you to maintain the hand-foot energy flow in the forward bends while providing support for the lower back. No need for straps! You can also simply hold the sides of the calves.
Forward bends: Adjust legs to hip-width or wider distance to accommodate the growing belly.
For the last 6 weeks of the pregnancy, omit navasana and other poses that involve a reclined position (where the knees are higher than the pelvis), which can work against Optimal Foetal Positioning.
Inverted postures (headstand, shoulderstand): Inverted postures such as headstand and shoulderstand are strongly discouraged at this stage because they may adversely affect blood flow to the baby, place undue pressure on the placenta, and increase the risk of the umbilical cord becoming wrapped around the baby's neck. One must consider that not all babies are "athletic" enough to extricate themselves as the amount of relative space in the uterus decreases; or perhaps in women who have had multiple pregnancies and the uterus is more spacious, it may be easier for the baby to flip around but remain in a breech position. The last 8 weeks of pregnancy are a time to encourage the downward flow of energy and the correct downward positioning of the baby's head (Optimal Foetal Positioning) to facilitate labor.
Intuition and Baby: If something does not feel right, or if your baby seems to object to a certain pose, do not do the pose. Every pregnancy is different.
Labor and Delivery
Sources, Resources and Acknowledgments
Ashtanga Yoga Practitioners and Teacher-moms
© 2003-2009 Betty Lai. The information provided is not a substitute for medical advice. Last modified 21 September 2009.