by Sara Kleinsmith
Recently, a study revealed that yoga is safe for pregnant women. The study was done on healthy women with low-risk pregnancies who practiced 26 yoga postures that were found in the end to have no negative effect on the mother or fetus. Pregnant women everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief, we know that yoga (for the most part) is safe for healthy, low-risk pregnant women. This may cause pregnant women everywhere to search for a class to take. But where to start?
We must first begin by asking- what IS prenatal yoga? Do you need to take a special prenatal yoga class if you’re pregnant to be safe? How do you find a good teacher? Do you need to find a teacher who is “certified” in prenatal yoga? And what does this mean? These are all fantastic questions. Prenatal yoga, is simply yoga done by pregnant women, and like all other forms of yoga is open to interpretation on the part of the studio, practitioner, and teacher.
When I did my first yoga teacher training, there was a short segment on how to teach pregnant women. This included contraindications for the “typical” female body and which poses to avoid. They were the classics- no twists, no forward folds, no lying down on the back after the first trimester, and that was it! We were graduated with our 200 hour certifications and sent out into the world free to teach pregnant ladies and seniors alike. But what did I know? I felt incredibly ill-equipped to work with vessels carrying such precious cargo. I knew I needed further training.
I began studying at the Breathing Project in 2012. I learned more anatomy and knowledge of the human body than I thought possible. I remember I asked my teacher Amy Matthews which book I should read or certification I should get to work with pregnant women. She looked at me like I was insane. I didn’t understand why, but I now do. At my time at the Breathing Project, I learned the human body is incredibly complex, that all people are different, and that teaching specific poses with a guarantee that they are “safe” or can “cure” things like headache or anxiety is asinine. It’s also difficult to understand the body of a pregnant woman if you’ve never been one. Even if you have been one, every woman and every pregnancy is different. So, how are you as a teacher to know how to work with pregnant women? These days, you can take a prenatal certification course within the span of a weekend. You can find trainings that range from practical anatomy of gestation to “Shiva Shakti Divine Moon Goddess” certification. Which one is the right one for you, for your students?
Before becoming pregnant, I taught yoga to pregnant women for 5 years. I felt safe doing so, especially after studying at the Breathing Project, and I always tend to err on the side of safety. I didn’t understand, however, what it ACTUALLY feels like to be pregnant. When I first became pregnant, I was terrified of teaching because of how active I am. I teach 16 yoga classes a week, and do a lot of driving. When I was told my baby was the size of a poppy seed, I had a vision of myself trying to demonstrate yoga poses while desperately clinging to a small poppy seed inside my fist. The first few weeks of pregnancy is a new and fragile period, and I was afraid I would overdue it. I didn’t know my own body’s abilities in pregnancy, and it terrified me.
I have very calm midwives. When I asked if I should stop lying down on my back, doing yoga, or cut back in anyway, they shrugged. “Use your common sense,” they said. “You know your body. If it feels like too much, cut back. Do what you would tell your students to do.” I thought this was excellent advice, and I’ve followed it somewhat successfully for the last 7 months. Occasionally, some part of my body will say “FOOL! Uh-uh.” and I will back off. But, for the most part, I’m able to do 90% of my practice and teaching completely comfortably. Anything that has felt weird to me (mostly things that stretch my tummy, or a lot of getting up and getting down too fast) I’ve avoided, and I feel really good.
BUT THAT’S ME. I’m a different woman than every other woman, and I can’t expect every woman will feel the same way or require the same practice.
It’s my belief that one of the most important aspects of yoga is embodiment. I teach this first and foremost, before the sutras, before anatomy, before Gods and Goddesses, I teach breath and embodiment. I believe the most important thing I can do for my students is to help put them in touch with, if only for a moment, their own bodies. I ask them to sense, I ask them to feel. I ask them to assess what, if anything, can be done about physical or emotional struggles. I ask them what they need to stay with, and what they need to change, I ask them what they need to surrender to. To me, this is the ultimate experience of what yoga can do for us. This is what yoga has done for me.
In my own pregnancy, I swear I’ve never been more embodied. Every new feeling, from nausea, to cramps, to back pain, and growing, I’ve felt and investigated and breathed through and marveled at. Every new experience, from fear to anxiety, to mourning my old life and questioning my future, and growing a life inside me, I’ve allowed myself to sense and discover. I’ve dealt with the discomforts and rejoiced in the bliss. Pregnancy has made me more embodied. Pregnancy, in itself, has been my yoga practice. Because of this, I now know that every pregnant woman already practices yoga. She cannot help but be a student of self-study. She cannot avoid surrender, acceptance of change, and creating the courage to move forward into the unknown. Every pregnant woman is already a yogi. It’s a just a question of what class to take. Whether she decides on Zumba (because moving your hips feels really good during pregnancy), or Crossfit (because she’s been doing it and knows her body is capable) or walking, or deep breathing to avoid puking, she is doing the yoga of her own embodiment, and coming into her own wisdom.
The best advice I could give any pregnant woman looking for an appropriate yoga class is this-if you know your body very well, listen to it. Do activity that your body enjoys, and pay attention to when you’ve gone too far. Take any class you like and don’t be afraid to modify and do your own thing. Probably most teachers are suitable for you. If you are a beginner when it comes to exercise and/or embodiment, my advice is to find an experienced fitness or yoga instructor who has a broad knowledge of anatomy and pregnancy, OR you could find someone who’s been pregnant, or both. You should be in the hands of someone who seems very comfortable helping you modify and find a practice that feels right to you. As always, listen to the advice of your healthcare provider, and if you are considered “high-risk” in your pregnancy, ask your doctor what he or she recommends for physical activity.
For teachers of pregnant women, I must express that the best thing you can do is have an open dialogue with your students and ask about how things are feeling, because, truth be told, you can’t know. That woman’s body is different from yours, her thoughts and fears, her history, all will effect her practice. Ask her what she needs, and help her feel comfortable. That’s the best way to work with a pregnant woman. And always remember that despite what society would have us believe- that they are weak, fragile, and emotional, they are actually the strongest people on the planet. When you teach a woman growing a life, you are teaching a beast of human, capable of working full time while enduring debilitating nausea and discomfort, smiling blissfully and walking bravely into the unknown. She is stronger than you could ever teach her to be, she is already more flexible than any yoga pose would require. Treat her as such, and defer to her expertise of her own amazing body. That is prenatal yoga.
Sara Kleinsmith is a yoga teacher, writer, and anatomy geek in Austin, Texas. She has been featured in Yogi Times, Elite Daily, Elephant Journal, and Thought Catalog. She is thrilled to be added to the list of voices for YogaDork. To learn more about her work, go to www.sarakleinsmith.com