I practice a type of yoga known as ashtanga. The physical aspect of the ashtanga yoga practice can be very rigorous, and a number of women ashtanga yoga practitioners I have talked to, who are drawn to that intensity, have expressed concern about whether they will be able to continue practicing while pregnant and how the practice will need to be modified. I had these same concerns before becoming pregnant, and actually delayed becoming pregnant because I was worried it would set me back in my practice.
What I found, though, was that practicing while pregnant, while not without its challenges, was overall a joyful, empowering, and transformative experience. Pregnancy actually deepened my yoga practice, and my practice supported my pregnancy. I hope that by sharing my experience, I can provide both encouragement and information to other ashtangis who are considering becoming pregnant, or who are already pregnant and are seeking ideas about how they might approach their pregnancy practice.
It should be noted that women who do not currently have an established ashtanga practice are advised not to begin practicing ashtanga during their pregnancy; for these women, a prenatal yoga class would be more appropriate. And anyone considering practicing yoga while pregnant should consult with their doctor or midwife first, and also find a teacher who can guide them through their pregnancy practice.
How I approached the practice
Before becoming pregnant, I had approached the practice in a highly disciplined and focused way. During pregnancy, though, I practiced in a more intuitive and creative way, often deviating significantly from the structure of the ashtanga system. I found that maintaining the discipline of a daily ashtanga practice, but practicing in a freer way than I did previously was invaluable for me in terms of cultivating a more balanced, deeper, and more joyful practice.
Prior to becoming pregnant, I had practiced ashtanga yoga on a daily basis for over three years. My practice was half of primary series, alternating between the first and second half, and intermediate through pincha mayurasana. For the three months prior to becoming pregnant, I had been practicing twice a day. I had also been doing other yoga practices as well, including rising before dawn to clean and open the studio, chanting and playing harmonium, practicing pranayama, and meditating.
When I became pregnant, I took the first few weeks off from asana practice. I continued, though, to go to the studio early in the mornings to clean, chant, and play the harmonium. My teacher also encouraged me to continue coming to the Mysore class and do whatever I felt I would support my pregnancy, so in the early weeks I went to class and sat in meditation while other students were doing their asana practice. I also kept practicing alternate nostril breathing, but without any breath retention, and added the cooling sitali breath to my pranayama practice. Continuing to follow the routine I had established of starting and ending my day with yoga practice helped keep me stay grounded throughout my early pregnancy.
It is traditionally recommended to take the first trimester off completely from asana practice, but there is also a widespread acknowledgment that when to return to practice is a personal decision. I decided to begin practicing again after about three weeks, but instead of my regular practice, I did an extremely gentle, significantly modified asana practice, and focused mostly on chanting, playing harmonium, and meditating.
In my second trimester, I had much more energy and stamina, and began doing a more intense physical practice, keeping in mind several key recommendations pregnant ashtangis are advised to follow: to limit engagement of the bandhas; to practice in a way that does not build up internal heat; to step instead of jumping through and back; to refrain from doing any closed twists or other postures that could compress the uterus; to not over exert myself; and to leave out any postures that didn’t feel right. I also used props and added in postures that are not part of the ashtanga series but that would support the pregnancy.
Also, in the middle of the second trimester, I began to feel the baby move while I was practicing. When this happened, I did my best to intuit what he was communicating through his movements and adjust my practice accordingly.
In my third trimester, I modified my practice in a few additional ways. I took inversions out after week twenty-eight at the recommendation of my midwife, who was concerned about the possibility of the inversions causing the baby to move into a breech position. At around the same time, my teacher asked me to stop doing drop-backs on my own, and to instead do them either at the wall or with his assistance. Also, towards the end of my pregnancy, I began doing savasana on my side rather than on my back, or I replaced it with supta baddhakonasa, using props to elevate my torso, or a supported navasana.
During my pregnancy, in addition to the recommended modifications, I followed my instincts and modified the practice in other ways that felt appropriate for me, such as replacing the kriyas I had been practicing before asana practice with hip circles, or replacing uth plutih with Kegel exercises. The modifications I made changed day to day, depending on how I felt. Most days during my pregnancy, I did a shorter practice than I had done before becoming pregnant. I also typically found it helpful to eat fruit before practicing and to drink water or tea throughout my practice, which is not something that is traditionally recommended in the ashtanga system. Most importantly, I was extremely mindful of listening to my body and to feedback from the baby. But I still continued to challenge myself in my practice. Practicing in this way, I was able to keep practicing twice a day throughout my entire pregnancy, and even went to a led class on the day I went into labor.
How pregnancy changed my practice
During my pregnancy certain postures I previously practiced with relative ease, such as urdhva mukha svanasana and virabhadrasana I, suddenly became uncomfortable and I needed to remove them from my practice. However, I found that the experience of relatively simple postures becoming inaccessible was balanced by other postures that had previously been very challenging for me becoming increasingly comfortable.
For instance, before becoming pregnant, I had struggled with back-bending, particularly drop-backs and the back-bending sequence in the intermediate series. When I became pregnant, though, I felt increasingly drawn to these postures, but practiced them in a more relaxed way, incorporating warm-ups and props, which my teacher encouraged me to do. Throughout the course of my pregnancy, practicing in this way, my back-bends became much more open and enjoyable, to the point that I was hanging before touching the floor in drop-backs and comfortably touching my feet in kapotasana.
Similarly, before I became pregnant I had difficulty balancing in pincha mayurasana, but during pregnancy I stopped arching my back in that posture because it didn’t feel right anymore, and instead focused on keeping my back as straight as possible and developing more strength in the shoulder girdle; with this shift in emphasis, I became much more stable and confident in the posture, and by the end of my pregnancy was holding the posture for over twenty breaths fairly comfortably. Being open to approaching the practice in a different way helped me move deeper into postures, and into the opening of my energetic body that those postures made possible.
Because there is a general rule that no new postures should be added during pregnancy, I had to let go during this time of the idea of progress as something linear. Instead of focusing on moving through the sequence, which had been my orientation before becoming pregnant, I shifted to using the postures I already had as a tool for exploring how my body was changing and how I was changing because of the pregnancy. This shift in emphasis wasn’t at all easy for me because I had previously had a very strong focus on achieving goals I set for myself in my practice. It did also sometimes feel isolating for me to be in a class of people who were all learning and practicing new things; I struggled with the sense of not being part of the group, and of being left behind when everyone else was moving on. But the experience of practicing without the possibility of progressing any further in the series did take some of the ego and sense of urgency out of my practice, and expanded my ability to practice surrender, which often helped me get deeper into the postures I was practicing than I had before.
Resources I used
There were several sources I used when developing my prenatal modifications, and that I referred to often during my pregnancy. They included Yoga Sadhana for Mothers by Sharmila Desai and Anna Wise as well as Strength and Grace: A Collection of Essays by Women of Ashtanga Yoga, published by Ekaminhale. Though not specifically about the ashtanga practice, I also enjoyed Prenatal Yoga & Natural Birth by Jeannine Parvaati Baker. I also referred to the videos about ashtanga pregnancy modifications on the Reiko’s Yoga Room YouTube channel, and received guidance from a number of women teachers, including Lori Brungard, Sharmila Desai, and Christine Hoar. Perhaps most importantly, I benefited from the freedom, trust, and encouragement my own teacher, Alex Schatzberg, provided me throughout the pregnancy. He was willing to be a sounding board for ideas I had about how I could modify my practice, make recommendations when I needed guidance, and help me determine the appropriate parameters for my practice.
Birthing and postpartum
Yoga also helped me give birth naturally. Though my experience of giving birth was very intense, the labor was just eleven hours, only about five of which were extremely challenging, and I was able to give birth at home in a birthing tub. I incorporated yoga into the birthing process: I spent the first part of labor in child’s pose, used my breath to manage the pain of active labor, and gave birth in mandukasana.
After giving birth, I took six weeks off completely before returning to asana practice. I am currently in the early stages of my postpartum practice and am learning what it means to begin practicing anew, after the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and becoming a new mother, in a slowly healing and changed body. Several weeks in, I am already finding that making time every day for my asana practice, while more challenging than I anticipated it being, is making me a better mother. And I am bringing to the mat each day the lessons my son is teaching me about being open, joyful, and present, and that is bringing me closer to yoga.