Ana Davis explores the science that firmly supports the benefits of a safe Prenatal Yoga practice for an expectant mother and the foetus.
In Prenatal Yoga classes it’s not uncommon to find pregnant students resting their hands on their round bellies and chanting the simple and powerful sound of ‘ommmmm’…. While it’s a sacred mantra in yoga with deeper meaning about unification and harmony, this simple low, deep sound seems to have a calming effect on not only the mothers but also the babies.
This can be born out once baby is out in the world. In my ‘mums n bubs’ yoga classes over the years I’ve noticed that when I encourage the mothers to chant this mantra, or in fact do any kind of chanting or singing, it’s immediately soothing to the babies and tots.
This connection to soothing sound is a thread that can run through your prenatal and postnatal yoga classes and relates to the many, many benefits of practising yoga before and after birth.
Before a baby is even born, their senses are developing and being stimulated as they move and stretch in their watery home. From about 18 weeks gestation, babies can hear sounds. The sound of their birth mother’s heartbeat and tummy girgling is a constant soundtrack. They can also respond to their mother’s voice and external sounds, including the voices of their father or other parent, and siblings.
A baby in utero receives all their nutrients through the umbilical cord attached to the placenta that’s moored on the inside of the uterus. They can feel the warm amniotic fluid on their skin and sense the mother rubbing her belly. From as early as 8 weeks they can distinguish tastes from foods their mother eats, and from around 22 weeks they can sense changes in light through their closed and open eyelids.
This inextricable connection between mother and baby means that pregnancy is a critical time for the pregnant person to take care of themselves—to support both hers and the baby’s optimal health.
Yoga for stress reduction—essential during pregnancy
It’s well known that stress is not good for us and this goes double for pregnancy! As I say to my pregnant students: ‘Now, you’re practising yoga for two’. Research shows that there are a number of potential detrimental effects to the mother and the baby if she is under too much stress.
If the stress hormone cortisol is consistently high during pregnancy there is a greater risk of maternal hypertension (high blood pressure), hyperglycemia (blood sugar issues) and weight gain. And if her stress keeps climbing, these symptoms can lead to the more serious pregnancy conditions of preeclampsia and gestational diabetes. If this is not worrying enough, elevated levels of that pesky hormone cortisol have been shown to inhibit the normal growth of a foetus and may also impede childhood development milestones. The negative effects of stress have even been related to childhood conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as well as lowered childhood performance in aspects of mental executive function.
The authors of a ‘Systematic Review of Yoga for Pregnant Women’ from York University, Toronto suggest that a mother’s stress can be transferred to the baby through ‘activation of the placental stress system’, or ‘diminished blood flow and oxygen to the uterus’. So, they recommend ‘Mind-body practices that cultivate general health, diminish distress, and increase self awareness’—like yoga—which can be ‘particularly effective in addressing both the physical and psychoemotional aspects of pregnancy and labour.’
Well, that’s a relief! That’s one very big tick for yoga as an effective way to support prenatal health.
Benefits for birth
Many other researchers also support the conclusion that yoga is a beneficial form of exercise during pregnancy. For example, a 2020 retrospective study concluded that regular antenatal exercises, including yoga, provided ‘better outcomes’ not just for mother and babe during pregnancy but also flowed into better birth outcomes. The study found that the pregnant participants experienced ‘lower rates of cesarean section, lower weight gain, higher newborn infant weight, lower pain and overall discomfort during labor, reduced back pain throughout pregnancy, and earlier post-partum recovery compared to those who did no specific exercises or only walked during pregnancy’.
The benefits of a Prenatal-Yoga-specific class
I would add the caveat that not just any kind of yoga will do—it needs to be a safe, specialised, prenatal-yoga approach. And, one of the wonderful things about a dedicated prenatal yoga class taught by a qualified yoga teacher is that it offers the time and space for pregnant students to explore specific breathing, visualisation and relaxation techniques aimed to support labour and birth.
Plus, niche prenatal yoga classes offer tailored yoga postures and practices that can help a pregnant woman with the many aches, pains and discomforts that can arise during pregnancy.
The deep relaxation practices like Yoga Nidra that a pregnant person can learn in a prenatal yoga class can not only reduce stress levels but may also make her more stress-hardy by strengthening her nervous system against the negative effects of perceived stress. And, a randomised control study offers promising evidence for the positive effects of prenatal guided relaxation and breathing practices on building a healthy nervous system for the babe-in-utero as well!
Prenatal Yoga reduces anxiety, depression and combats insomnia
Pregnancy can be an inherently stressful time. If it’s a woman’s first baby, she may feel anxious about the sense of the unknown surrounding the changes that are happening to her body and her life. She may have a history of miscarriage or this may be a hard-won IVF pregnancy. If it’s her second or subsequent baby she may worry if she and her partner will have enough love and time to stretch to this new member of the family. There’s a lot to worry about!
Thank goodness yoga can also help a pregnant person psychologically! Yoga has been shown to help a woman on the mental and emotional levels, with several studies supporting yoga as beneficial in reducing anxiety, depression and improving sleep.
Thankfully for those of us who are passionate about the benefits of yoga for pregnancy—having seen it in our own pregnancy and in the yoga students we teach—there’s now a growing field of research that backs up the numerous benefits of Prenatal Yoga. This blog has only just dipped a toe in. But to summarise, we can feel confident that prenatal yoga helps a pregnant woman be in the best possible shape for pregnancy, birth and beyond.
A quick-fix de-stress breathing practice for pregnancy
Nadi Shodhana or the Alternate Nostril Breath is a practice in which we alternate the flow of breath (ultimately—prana) between the left and right nostrils. Nadi Shodhana is used to cleanse the subtle channels or nadis of the body and will also help bring about balance between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It is an especially beneficial way to calm nervous energy and relieve anxiety and is an appropriate practice for pregnancy. I have found that even 5-10 rounds of this pranayama can quickly calm and ground.
However, as with all breathing practices, especially during pregnancy, it’s important that the pregnant person ceases the practice if she feels any discomfort, dizziness or breathlessness. Also, some women experience blocked nose/ sinuses during pregnancy, in which case she can ‘psychically’ do the practice: imagining the flow of breath alternating between the nostrils rather than physically manipulating with her fingers.
How to do it
Sit in a comfortable position—cross-legged or kneeling—with the spine upright, chest open, shoulders relaxed and down.
Close the eyes and just settle into the seated position for a few breaths, breathing gently in and out of both nostrils and checking through the body that you are as relaxed and comfortable as possible.
When you’re ready, prepare by bringing your right hand into Mrigi Mudra (Deer Mudra). Do this by tucking the middle and index finger into the palm at the mound of the thumb (see illustration) and bend your ring finger slightly to sit on the little finger, so that the ring and little finger will kind of work as one.
Then, raise your hand, still in this Mudra, to the eyebrow-centre and prepare to begin a round by gently closing off the right nostril with your thumb and exhale through the open, left nostril. Then, inhale again through the left nostril, close off the left nostril with your ring finger (and little finger) and open the right nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Inhale again through the right nostril, then close off the right nostril, open the left nostril, and exhale through the left. This completes one round.
To go again, inhale through the open left nostril, exhale through the right nostril, inhale through the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril, completing another round.
Continue for another 5–10 rounds, or as long as feels comfortable and enjoyable.
Please note, that whenever I refer to ‘mumma’, ‘mum’, ‘mother’ or ‘pregnant woman’in this blog, I would also like to extend this to mean any pregnant person with a uterus, regardless of gender. For ease of communication, I mainly employ these gendered words as signifiers, but never exclusively. Where semantically and logically possible, I insert ‘pregnant student’/ ‘pregnant person’ instead.
 This summary comes from a great Honors thesis by Ashleigh Clingenpeel, ‘Prenatal Yoga in Pregnancy’— https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1988&context=honors. Here, I’m referring to where Clingenpeel cites two research studies from 2012 & 2014: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2012/715942/ & : https://www.yoga-als-therapie.de/assets/Studien/Downloads/Newham-2014-Depress-Anxiety.pdf
 From a study by Satyapriya et al., entitled ‘Effects of integrated yoga on stress and heart rate variability in pregnant woman’—https://obgyn.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1016/j.ijgo.2008.11.013
 This study is cited in Curtis et al.,’s Systematic Review: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2012/715942/
 There’s a growing field of research about the psycho-emotional benefits of yoga for pregnancy but a good place to start is an article by Kimberlee Bonura, PhD RYT, ‘Yoga mind while expecting: the psychological benefits of prenatal yoga practice’ published in the International Journal of Childbirth Education, Volume 29, Number 4, October 2014.
 This blog is an abbreviated excerpt from a longer chapter in a new book that I’m currently writing, with a working title of: ‘Yoga for two: safe & joyful yoga for pregnancy and beyond’
Ana Davis, Founder of Bliss Baby Yoga, has a passion for a feminine approach to yoga, and supporting women with yoga through all ages and stages of their lives. She is a lead trainer on our popular Online Prenatal & Postnatal Yoga Teacher Training Course, Online L1 & L2 Restorative Yoga Teacher Training courses and co-facilitator of our Online Level 1 & Level 2 Yoga for Fertility Teacher Training. She also offers private mentoring and yoga sessions online, and online yoga classes. Ana is also the author of the groundbreaking ‘health bible’ for women, Moving with the Moon – Yoga, Movement and Meditation for Every Phase of Your Menstrual Cycle and Beyond.
If you are passionate about teaching Prenatal and Postnatal Yoga and would like to further your skills and knowledge through some additional professional development, we also offer the Yoga Alliance RPYT Certification and Online Prenatal and Postnatal Anatomy & Physiology, and Pelvic Floor Anatomy & Physiology for Women’s Health Extension Modules.
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