Yoga for the First Trimester of Pregnancy
FIRST TRIMESTER YOGA PRACTICE
GROUNDING, EARTHING, CONNECTING, NOURISHMENT, BEING, WITHDRAWING FROM THE WORLD
Adjusting to being pregnant for many women is a radical shift. The pregnancy may not have been wanted or it may have been planned and longed for. Every possible aspect of our lives in re-thought, from our sense perception to our financial status.
Life and Death: the substance of womanhood
Women hold the space for life, but also for death as souls pass through. The first trimester is a sensitive time. 80% of pregnancy losses happen before week 13, especially around week 8 and 10. Figures are around 10-15% of all ‘known’ pregnancies. 50% of first trimester pregnancy loss is put down to ‘chromosomal abnormalities’ and there is nothing a woman could do to prevent natural selection in these cases. Other physiological reasons such as blood clotting issues and other can be ‘tested for’ but are much less common.
That being said, many women also feel forced to keep their pregnancy ‘secret’ throughout their first trimester which means that they have to ‘hide’ all aspects of their changing feelings and bodies from the wider world. This puts tremendous pressure on women. Those who do loose little ones often have very little support, as this again is often secretive.
Link to my Pregnancy Loss blog post:
Stress and Pregnancy Loss
Exploring our relationship to stress in our lifestyles and ‘making space’ in our lives are practices which will serve women. A large proportion of women who have experienced pregnancy loss will go on to have babies in the future. When a woman is ready, connecting back to their cyclical wisdom and the menstrual cycle is important. I highly recommend the work of Red School and their book ‘Wild Power’.
There are many phonelines and support groups online for women who are grieving, they shouldn’t feel they have to do so alone. Reiki I found an invaluable support. Acupuncture is also very helpful. A closing the bones ceremony may also help the woman grieve, usually held some weeks after the loss (or even years).
Yoga for the First Trimester
Intense Asana and the First Trimester
If a woman is practicing an intense form of asana, it is recommended that she change her yoga practice in the first trimester after she discovers she is pregnant. For example, all ashtanga vinyasa teachers encourage their students not to practice the asana of the tradition due to the nature and intensity of the practice. This does not mean not ‘doing yoga’, it simply means not practicing asana.
Other forms of yoga such as restorative yoga, pranayama, chanting and meditation are more nourishing in this time. I feel that many women are simply told ‘not to practice’ which is indicative of the lack of understanding of women’s needs. Indeed, their yoga community may well be their ‘support system’ in their lives. We have a duty to serve women and the life they hold in their pregnancies. It is indicative of the patriarchal structures of yoga that women are simply told to ‘not practice’ without any support of what their practice could look like. This echoes menstruation and other highly potent parts of women’s life cycles.
Legally, most studios globally have a policy of not allowing women in their first trimester to practice yoga. 12 or 13 weeks is usually the time when women are invited to classes. There is no direct evidence to suggest that anything done in a yoga class could result in a miscarriage. However, a woman who attended a yoga class that coincides with a loss may attribute that to a class hence the need for studios to ‘protect themselves’. Legal issues for most studios and teachers are insurmountable. Those offering 1:1 classes and private tuition should consider getting their students to sign a waiver. Such classes could serve a woman well when she most needs it but you should consider the issues here carefully. In Module 11, I share some example disclaimers.
Hot classes such as bikram yoga are not advisable as soon as a women discovers she is pregnant. A baby’s temperature is up to 33.8F (1c) higher than that of your own body. The baby cannot sweat in the womb and has no way of cooling down. If your body temperature rises significantly, it can pose a threat to the unborn baby. Some of the effects of overheating exposure can be developmental problems, fetal distress and miscarriage and even pre-term labour. This is the same principle as avoiding having a sauna during pregnancy.
Suggested First Trimester Practices
Watch a full class here:
1) Restorative Yoga
Whilst some women may choose to carry on with an existing vinyasa/hatha yoga practice (and ultimately this is her choice) the most supportive and restorative yoga practices fit this period perfectly with women often suffering from fatigue or exhaustion and/or nausea. Personally, I came to restorative yoga after having suffered 2 miscarriages and I took a short restorative yoga teacher training at the delicate 8-10 week stage with my son (born in 2015) Caesar. It was a beautiful and supportive practice. What is taking place inside a woman is quite incredible and it is no wonder many women feel exhausted. Restorative Yoga works as we travel to a deep place of being rather than doing.
Yin Yoga is not recommended for pregnancy women due the possibility of over stretching with increased relaxin hormone.
Ideal practices are:
Full Yogic Breathing, Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing), Soft Ujjayi Breath, Brahmari (bumblebee breath), Golden Thread breath and Sitali (Sitkari) pranayama.
Kumbhaka (retention) to be avoided (pranayama be discussed later in the course)
as described in the ‘Bountiful, Beautiful, Blissful’ book (Gurmukh) or in Hypnobirthing courses such as the Wise Hippo:
I create space for new life
I welcome this new life within
4) Chanting, Satstang and Kirtan – the Yoga of Devotion
Pratyahara to still the mind and find the natural pauses in the breath
Help the nervous system to unwind and finds deep relaxation. To access the alpha rhythm of the brain; deeper and deeper into consciousness to access who you truly are.
SO HUM Kriya Technique:
SO HUM is said to be the sound of the breath herself, a profound connection to our deepest state of being, our shakti life force energy.
- Set up your restorative pose and focus on full yogic breath/natural breath
- Breathe in and silently visualize/hear the sound ‘SO’ in the root of the spine, travelling up to the centre of the brain.
- Breathe out and visualize the sound ‘HUM’ releasing and radiating from the centre of the brain to every cell of your body and your baby’s body.
DO NOT FORCE BREATHING
- Alternatively visualise the microcosmic orbit as the sound (SO) travels up the spine to the centre of the brain and then showers back down the front body on the exhale (HUM)
Why restorative Yoga Works – Neuroplasticity
A neuron refers to a nerve cell in our brain (made up of an axon, dendrite and linked to other neural cells by a small space called the synapses). Neuroplasticity refers to the potential that the brain has to reorganize and create new neural pathways.
Restorative yoga (when we use props to place the body in different passive positions) and move the spine in all directions works to literally rewire the brain and simulate the stage where we feel weightless – the hypnagogic state (half asleep/half awake). In this state, our brains rhythm is slower and we move to slower brain waves
By completely supporting the body and being still for extended periods of time – the breath, the mind and the nervous system begin to calm. The pauses between the breath (Abhyantara Kumbaka (the ‘full’ pause after the inhale) and Bahya Kumbaka (the ‘empty’ pause after the exhale) are naturally elongated. (Note this is not forced).
The brain then receives the message that there is no need for stress hormones and enhancing hormones of the opposite character and the blood flows more freely through the veins and towards the baby.
The mind is then able to work in a different way at the point of pratyahara. The ears and eyes can more internally focused – picking up the signals from our bodies as we wake up who we really are and innate intelligence and connectivity to something bigger than ourselves.
“When our consciousness is quiet, the waves of thought cease and we see clearly enough to relate back to our spirit. We connect to who we really are.” Alan Finger
Image: Any restorative yoga image
Duhka and Sukha
Pregnancy is a time where the best we can do for ourselves is be in the present moment. Viveka or discernment is elusive in the first trimester as our mind is bombarded with ‘chitta vritti’ and the pace of change in our bodies and the body of our future baby is radically fast. We are experiencing intense change which is unnerving and tiring. Change is unnerving as it remind us that everything that exists will pass away to leave space for something new. Women are naturally concerned that a pregnancy becomes viable in the first trimester and that everything is proceeding as it should. In addition, the First Trimester can already catapult us into planning ahead and subsequently unleash suffering
Dukha is suffering; or being imbedded in our own illusions. Dukha is when energy is constricted by stress and resistance. Sukah is when energy is flowing without obstacle or conflict. So the antidote to the state of dukha is relaxation and quite different to sleep.
What happens to the brain in stress situations?
- fight or flight response is healthy if it is a response to a real need (we shut down reproduction, growth, the immune system, stimulating sharper senses, reduced pain
- in a constant state of fight or flight however our systems are constantly on high alert – the brain is fast to respond to fight or flight but slow to shut down
- amygdala increases in size and keeps us in ‘fear’
- the increased cortisol levels (responsible for shutting off FF reactions) is toxic for the hippocampus, tending to decrease in size and hinders memory etc.
Restorative yoga is an opportunity to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and redress the balance of our body, mind and spirit. Yoga teachers can use visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing techniques, mantra and Kriya techniques for students to access this state (So Hum Kriya).
I would also recommend a deep practice and study of Yoga Nidra. Uma Dinsmore-Tuli is set to release the most progressive, post-lineage book on the subject of Nidra Shakti (2021?) and also runs teacher training on her area of expertise as part of the Yoga Nidra Network.
The teacher’s role during restorative yoga
- Model the prop position and then help students to set up the props (they can set up step by step with you).
- Model the pose so they can see what it looks like before they lie down/get into the pose.
- Guide the students into the pose verbally and walk around the room to assist students find optimal comfort by suggesting additional props and tweaks in position etc. This really is ‘Sukham Stiram Asanam’ but the seat is reclined!
- Ensure they are physically comfortable; guide some physical relaxation.
- Choose to offer a guided relaxation, So Hum Kriya or other awareness focus. Offer a beautiful poem or quote.
- Ensure for plenty of silence and sit in the role of supporter. Be there for your students intensely. Support and be the witness. Chant in your mind, breathe, be in the deepest relaxation you are able to whilst still maintaining awareness of the student. Do not switch off or switch on (phones etc!) obviously.