by Kathy McAlister
At precisely the moment a woman is giving birth in the Chippewa Valley, 251 other women around the world are also welcoming their babies, according to the CIA World Factbook. If you’ve ever had a mother or been a mother or seen a mother, you know the facts don’t sum up this unique and universal experience. The experience is more poetry than pie chart, and prenatal yoga is one path to rounding out the experience. “Surrender invites us to be active participants in our life, totally present and fluid with each moment, while appreciating the magnitude and mystery of what we are participating in,” according to Deborah Adele, author of The Yamas & Niyamas, Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice.
Each woman preparing for the birth of a baby stands out for her unique beauty, her strength, and her experience of a deep inner knowing. Prenatal yoga, offered at the Yoga Center of Eau Claire, holds space for women preparing for birth to care for their bodies and their babies, to tap into their strength and internal guidance, and to share their experience within a community of women. The joys and challenges of the creative birth process align with the practice of yoga.
Yoga is designed to bring in more and more awareness of not only the body but also thoughts, according to Adele. With each yoga pose, practitioners learn about how the body works, how their particular body works. For instance in Downward Facing Dog, how to lengthen the spine, rotate the pelvis, and support the arms. What skills need to be developed to approach a pose? Patiently preparing strength in the hamstrings to draw back the thighs and strength in the muscles supporting the shoulder blades to extend the arms, observing, self-adjusting, accepting more challenge as readiness appears, cultivating steadiness, balance, ease, and expansion within a pose.
Finally, practice mindfully returning from the pose. The physical practice is a choice to practice self-study, one of the Niyama guidelines foundational to yogic thought. Engaging curiosity and starting each practice with a beginner’s mind opens the door to learning. Preparing for birth, giving birth, and integrating a family use all these skills.
The Yamas and Niyamas, thought of as restraints or observances, Adele portrays as guidelines toward understanding experiences, while pointing the way to the next experience. In prenatal yoga, poses allow women to experience how to lengthen and support the spine, balance the pelvis, and support the arms. Women develop a knowing in their bodies and in their minds about working with sensations during pregnancy, how to create ease in the back, how to support elegant posture creating space for the growing baby, shifting organs and the breath, and how to promote circulation.
Prenatal yoga facilitates listening to the intelligence of the body, honoring and acting from that source of wisdom. Yoga poses are chosen for the changing body and range from Fierce Pose to Supported Relaxation, providing opportunities for women to balance strength and ease, determination and letting go, skills that come in handy during labor and delivery.
Restorative poses provide the opportunity for a woman to nourish herself, to release into the support of the earth and the props beneath her, to allow tension to dissipate, and to become familiar with receiving each inhale and surrendering each exhale. Getting this quiet allows the mother to communicate through the breath and body that all is well with the world, that mother and baby are safe and supported, settling both nervous systems.
This experience of non-violence, treating oneself and others with love and compassion, and the experience of truthfulness, recognizing the truth of what is occurring right now in the body and honoring that, allows women to relate to the world with these two Yamas.
The guided, gentle prenatal yoga class I have described is appropriate for all women, those without prior yoga experience and those with experience. Many women join the class when they feel the need to modify the physical activities they engaged in before pregnancy. Consultation with a healthcare professional is always a good idea before starting a new program. (Starting a strenuous yoga practice for the first time during pregnancy is not advised.)
Although each woman’s experience is unique, prenatal yoga can be practiced throughout pregnancy; some women choose to shift toward quieter practices as delivery approaches, and one woman even participated in class and delivered her baby that same night. In the spirit of the Yama non-excess, Adele describes that there is a moment when we reach the perfect limit of what we are engaged in. It is this moment of “just enough” that we need to recognize.
After practicing prenatal yoga together for about six months, one group of moms decided to gather at the Yoga Center for postnatal yoga to meet the babies and reincorporate yoga into their busy lives. Gentle toning, movement, and touch designed for interaction between mother and infant provided opportunity for connection, gentle stimulation of the senses, and celebration through movement.
Two of the babies, Ella and Rosie, touched foreheads and took turns patting the other’s face. Rosie, a crawling explorer, was leading the way in what’s possible. Ella campaigned to make the duet a party with baby Elsa. She rocked and bobbed on her wobbly legs. This reunion allowed us to experience the Niyama contentment. “Taking refuge in a calm center, opening our hearts in gratitude for what we do have, and practice the paradox of ‘not seeking,’” according to Adele. The mothers did a little yoga, the babies did a lot of soaking it all in, and my cheeks hurt from smiling.
As postnatal women feel ready to incorporate yoga classes and other exercise into their lives, it is important to specifically address the core muscles, beyond the abdominals, that were so responsive to the demands of pregnancy and labor and delivery. These muscles, with supportive strength and appropriate tone, will serve women in the next birth experience and in their daily activities. This brings into play Tapas, a Niyama focused on the choice of self-discipline, determined effort to become someone of character and strength.
There are ten Yamas and Niyamas. I didn’t mention them all. If you practice the Yama nonstealing, taking time to rest and to reflect and to contemplate, releasing demands and expectations that we place on ourselves that steal from our enthusiasm, you can see these Yamas and Niyamas at work in anything and everything in life. Yoga is a way of life. Pregnancy and birth are the creative process and manifestation of new life.
The Yoga Center of Eau Claire, yogacenterec.com, offers prenatal and postnatal classes. For information and to preregister, email Kathy McAlister at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kathy McAlister is a yoga therapist (500 RYT) and a yoga teacher trained in Alignment Yoga. She specializes in women’s health and chair yoga.