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Dealing with Stress During Pregnancy - How Yoga Can Help

By: 
Liz Rosenblum

Pregnancy is an amazing time in a woman’s life, but it can be a highly stressful time as well. There are fluctuating hormone levels, weight gain, body changes, worry over how everything impacts the developing baby, and then there’s fatigue, brain drain and so much more. Studies show, though, that a little yoga can go a long way in easing pregnancy, helping with a smoother delivery, and even aiding in the health of the fetus. 

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends that women at low risk of pregnancy complications engage in some form of physical exercise 30 minutes or more daily. A growing body of research points to yoga as one of the best options.

Pregnancy and Stress 

The ancient practice of yoga came about to bring balance to the mind and body and the popularity has boomed recently thanks to its beneficial effects on stress levels, emotional health, the physical body and more—all of which are especially important to women dealing with the physical and psychological demands of pregnancy.

Researchers publishing in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine point out that if the stress of pregnancy is not addressed, it can have adverse effects ranging from length of gestation, fetal growth, birth weight, fetal development, and general programming of the fetus’s nervous system.

It’s possible, note researchers, that a mother’s stress can actually cause a biological change in the intrauterine environment. While the research is not conclusive as to what changes, the thinking is that the stress either increases the release of a specific stress-related hormone or reduces blood flow and oxygen to the uterus.

Researchers go on to write that whatever the physical change, mom’s stress can be detrimental to different stages of development, including both how the fetus responds to stress in utero as well as the baby’s cognitive abilities as it moves through infancy and the toddler years.

Based on this information, it’s important that women take steps to regulate their stress during pregnancy.

Is Yoga the Answer for Pregnant Women?

A number of studies have been done over the years examining the impact of yoga on pregnancy. In this most recent published report, researchers reviewed three randomized controlled trials and three controlled trials, all of which included some or all of the following components: physical postures, breathing practice, meditation, yoga nidra (extreme relaxation), lectures, education on anatomy and chanting. The goal was to determine what, if any, impact the practices had on pregnancy, labor and the outcome of the birth.

While the reviewed studies differed in the phase of pregnancy when the intervention took place and the length of the study period, when looking at the six studies together, researchers were able to confidently conclude that “… a prenatal yoga program results in benefits during pregnancy as well as throughout labor and on birth outcomes.”

Some of the benefits noted in the different studies included the following:

  • Improved quality of life and interpersonal relationships

  • Significant decrease in perceived stress

  • Improved control over the “fight-or-flight response” as indicated by heart rate

  • Reduction in pregnancy-related discomfort in the final weeks before delivery

  • Reduction in pain during labor

  • Shorter labor

  • Reduction in pre-term labor

  • Increased likelihood for a higher birth-weight baby

They also note that two of the three studies that looked for any adverse effects reported the yoga practice was safe for mom and baby. The only side effect noted was uterine contractions, which the researchers point out can be monitored and controlled.

In a similar study in the Journal of Ayurveda and Holistic Medicine, many similar benefits are noted. On an emotional level, researchers write that yoga can calm the mind, refocus energy, and emotionally prepare the woman for the challenge of labor and delivery.

On a physical level, yoga can help prepare the body for pregnancy and delivery. Certain asanas are especially effective at creating more space in the pelvis and easing tension in the cervix and around the birth canal. Additionally, the practice of pranayama, breathing exercises, can be invaluable when it comes time to breathe through delivery.

Practicing Yoga Through Pregnancy

As mom’s body and the baby change over the course of pregnancy, researchers say so, too, should the asanas practiced. As a general rule, women in their first trimester should avoid doing inversions, closed twists and backbends—postures that can compress the uterus or overstretch it, both of which can impact blood flow to the fetus. Other postures, though, can be especially helpful in strengthening muscles such as the pelvic floor, the back and the lower body—all of which are under increased pressure during pregnancy.

As the baby grows, it’s important to avoid postures that stretch the muscles of the abdomen as well as those that involve twisting from the waist. Balance can also be a challenge as the center of gravity starts to shift. Using the wall for support can be extremely helpful.

Finally, as a woman reaches the last trimester, postures that require lying on the back or putting any pressure on the belly should generally be avoided. Other postures, though, can strengthen the back, uterus, and thighs which bear an especially high burden as the baby grows. Others can help to open the hips and knees, boosting the chance of an easy and speedy delivery.

It’s important to point out that in all of the studies reviewed, yoga was not treated as an “exercise” per se. This means that the study participants took part in more of a gentle practice than a vigorous practice that could have introduced additional risks. As always, pregnant women should check with their physicians to make sure the practice is recommended for their specific state as any type of physical activity during pregnancy presents some risks.

Study with Sue Elkind and YogaUOnline - Prenatal Yoga Essentials for a Healthy Pregnancy & Birth.

An informative article on Pregnancy and Pelvic Floor Health from YogaUOnline and Jessica Reale, PT - Preparing for Chidbirth: Pelvic Floor Style.

Liz Rosenblum

Liz Rosenblum found her way to the yoga mat as a way to find peace and calm in her crazy former life as a journalist and these days as an Account owner for one of the world's largest ecommerce websites. Over the years her practice has ranged from an alignment-based style as a way to find relief from chronic hip pain to power yoga to a home practice, but it was Ashtanga where she found her true home and received her RYT 200 at White Orchid in Clearwater, Florida. Liz is passionate about the power of yoga to heal the mind and body, and continues to be amazed that no matter how many times a posture is  practiced, one slight adjustment can change it exponentially. She is thankful to have the online yoga community of YogaUOnline as a place to share her passion and learnings with others.