10 Scientifically-Proven Reasons to Practice Yoga During Pregnancy
As a yoga teacher, I have had countless pregnant women come to my classes over the years, many of whom were complete newbies referred to the class by their doctors and obstetricians. Yoga is frequently prescribed to mothers-to-be, and, through my own practice, I know how therapeutic yoga is for both the mind and the body. But I was a bit fuzzy on why exactly doctors are more likely to recommend a yoga class than a walk in the park or water aerobics as their patients’ pregnancy routine of choice. I figured there must be reasons other than ‘it feels good’ or the fact that you can wear your pajamas to class.
When I became pregnant with my first, I decided to get to the bottom of the recommendations of OB/GYN’s (including my own) who prescribe prenatal yoga as soon as baby’s first healthy heartbeats come through on the stethoscope. I wondered why all of a sudden after getting pregnant my doctor recommended yoga so enthusiastically to me when she never had before. However, most information I found on the internet about prenatal yoga is anecdotal, with vague claims of it working as a pre- and postnatal panacea, but no citations to back these claims up. So I decided to scour the medical journals and find the proof that prenatal yoga is all it’s cracked up to be. And, for the record, it is all that and more.
The key phrase behind the magic of prenatal yoga is “stress relief.” Many of the possible problems for both mother and baby during gestation can be prevented or reduced by relaxing and limiting stress in daily life. This seems to be one of the main reasons why yoga is more prescribed and more powerful a practice during pregnancy than other forms of exercise alone. Below are my top 10 reasons why yoga is, after taking your daily prenatal vitamins, one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your baby during pregnancy.
The Physical + Emotional Benefits to Baby
Not surprisingly, the health and well being of the mother during pregnancy have a direct impact on the health of the baby, both in the short and long-term. High stress levels of the mother during pregnancy have wide-reaching negative consequences for the baby. Many studies have looked at the influence of maternal stress levels on the development of babies in the womb, and are discovering that babies born to stressed-out moms are less healthy and develop less optimally than those born to moms with lower levels of cortisol and other stress hormones found in the placenta.
Practicing prenatal yoga, which has been shown time and time again to lower cortisol and other stress hormones (1, 2) and other forms of stress-relieving mindfulness practices, such as visualization, meditation, and breathwork, have undeniable benefits for baby. Here are some important ways your prenatal yoga practice (and your state of zen) can be great for your baby:
1. Length of Gestation – Two stress hormones play a key role in the length of gestation: cortisol, and placental CRH, sometimes called the “master stress hormone.” When there are unhealthy levels of one or both of these hormones in the body of a stressed-out mom, especially in the third trimester, spontaneous premature birth can occur. Preterm birth leaves baby vulnerable to numerous problems both immediately at birth and as it grows older. Babies born before 37 weeks are considered premature and are susceptible to problems that include cerebral palsy, developmental delays, hearing and vision problems, and more.(3, 4) Even babies born only slightly prematurely can show a reduction in brain functioning and cognitive ability compared to babies born at 40 weeks. (5)
2. Birthweight and Size – In a study of 335 women in India, those who practiced yoga beginning in week 18 of pregnancy until delivery gave birth to bigger babies (more than 2500 g, or 5.5 lbs.) compared to the control group, and had fewer incidences of Intrauterine Growth Restriction or IUGR. (7) Among the numerous problems that could come up for babies who are born small are restricted growth into adolescence and adulthood, social and behavioral problems, neurocognitive impairments, and learning disabilities.
3. Motor, Cognitive + Memory Function – Unfortunately, high stress levels, especially in early pregnancy, may adversely affect baby’s brain in a multitude of ways. From poor cognitive skills and inhibited motor and language function to reduced gray matter in areas of the brain related to memory and learning, babies’ brains can be considerably impacted by maternal stress levels. (9, 10, 11, 12)
Sometimes these developmental issues can be noticed immediately, such as a reduction of actual brain volume, but other times, cognitive impairments won’t show up until later on in life, and can sometimes be blamed on other factors such as diet, lifestyle, and environment. (9)
4. Nervous System Programming – A commonly cited perk of practicing yoga is reduced anxiety, and when practiced during pregnancy, this calmed state can directly translate into a calmer, less anxious child.
When mom reacts negatively or disproportionately to stressors from the outside world, her anxious nervous system sends signals to the developing fetus’ nervous system, programming it to respond similarly to anxiety and stress. However, moms who train their nervous system to stay calm and collected with yoga, meditation, and breathwork, can positively train their babies’ nervous systems to do the same. This could mean less fearful, anxious babies and children. (13, 9)
5. Behavior + Emotions – Babies born to mothers with lower levels of cortisol make happier facial expressions, have a better temperament, and cry less than babies born to stressed-out moms. That’s reason enough to keep many pregnant women coming back to their mat during pregnancy! (14) High stress levels during pregnancy have been shown to contribute to ADHD and other behavioral problems in babies and adolescents. (15)
The Physical + Emotional Benefits to Mom
Yogis through the ages have reaped the therapeutic benefits of yoga on overall health and well being, both physically and emotionally. Some of the benefits to mom of practicing yoga during pregnancy are more general and obvious: relief of lower back pain, more flexibility in the hips to prepare for labor, and improved circulation to name a few. But many of the lesser-known benefits could do wonders for your pregnancy and include reduced labor time, lower depression rate, and an increased chance for a vaginal delivery, if that’s in your birth plan. Here are some ways that prenatal yoga can help mom through pregnancy and labor:
6. Weight Gain – Excessive weight gain during pregnancy might not just make your self-esteem sink during this time of rapid change in your appearance, but it could also lead to troublesome outcomes for both you and your child. To help prevent issues such as gestational diabetes, pregnancy-related hypertension, complications during labor, and possible obesity of your offspring, keeping a regular yoga practice during pregnancy could be key. (16, 17)
Practicing prenatal yoga might not have the same rigor as the 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity recommended to pregnant women by the CDC, but yoga does seem to be one physical activity that pregnant women find enjoyable enough to get off the couch for when they’re struggling with fatigue, nausea, and general discomfort. Add some aerobic and strength-building flows to your restorative postures and you will be doing yourself and your baby quite a few favors.
7. Diastasis Rectus Abdominis – Furthermore, adding abdominal work to your prenatal yoga routine (once considered taboo), could lessen and even prevent the dreaded Diastasis Rectus Abdominis – the separation of the 2 sheaths of the rectus abdominis muscles (otherwise known as your “6-pack” muscles). Incorporating exercises that strengthen the transverse abdominis as well as the internal and external obliques seems to help strengthen the vertical seam between the superficial abdominal muscles of the rectus abdominis – the linea alba – lessening the chances of separation as your belly grows.
A small study in 2002 found that 90% of women who did no abdominal training during pregnancy were afflicted with diastasis rectus abdominis at some point during pregnancy, while only 12.5% of those who practiced ab work got the condition. (18)
Yet another study of 84 women in Lisbon measured the effects of doing abdominal crunches and “drawing in” of the belly – essentially one technique you might hear yoga teachers refer to as “corseting the waistline” – at different points during pregnancy and postpartum. What they found was that women who practiced both of these abdominal exercises in late pregnancy (the authors of the study didn’t test before 35 weeks) considerably narrowed the space between the two sheaths of the rectus abdominis. Whether most women are actually able to do crunches while 35 weeks pregnant is an entirely different story, but the case for specific kinds of abdominal work during pregnancy seems positive. (19)
Strengthening the abdominals may also help avoid low-back pain, incontinence, and pelvic floor dysfunction. (20) As always, talk to your doctor before you begin abdominal work or any other exercise during pregnancy.
8. Pregnancy-Related Low Back Pain – Studies estimate that 50% of pregnant women suffer from low back pain during pregnancy. The torso undergoes massive transformation during pregnancy which frequently results in postural changes, compression of the vertebral disks due to weight gain and extra load, and stretched-out core muscles which have a harder time supporting the lumbar spine. (21) Practicing yoga can help alleviate back pain by countering some of these uncomfortable side effects of pregnancy. Gentle core work and postural awareness can help lessen lumbar lordosis to help support the low back, and disk compression can be relieved through spinal stretches and deep breathing.
There has also been a link between weak gluteus medius muscles and increased low back pain during pregnancy. These pelvic-stabilizing muscles can be strengthened in many yoga poses where pelvic stability for balance or for lifting the hips is required, including tree pose, half moon, upward plank, and an active downward dog with the feet isometrically dragging away from each other.(22)
9. Anxiety and Depression – Depression and anxiety are said to affect anywhere between 11% to 26% of pregnant women, probably due in part to the rapid hormonal, emotional, physiological and psychological changes happening simultaneously during pregnancy. Because depressed pregnant women tend to give birth earlier and to smaller babies, and have increased numbers of pre-eclampsia, spontaneous abortion, and complications, certain antidepressants are prescribed during pregnancy, especially when the need is critical. But more and more, doctors are turning to alternative therapies to help women cope with the immense mental and emotional changes taking place during these 9 months and beyond.
A 2015 study following 375 pregnant women during their prenatal yoga routines found that yoga significantly reduces levels of depression, and it’s been shown that the number of minutes practicing per week directly corresponds to the reduction of depressive symptoms. Furthermore, yoga practices which not only include asana, but pranayama and meditation as well, are much more effective than simply practicing asana alone. (23, 24)
As new research emerges about the links between prenatal depression, serious pregnancy complications, and developmental delays in babies, continuing or starting up a regular yoga practice could make life much sweeter and healthier for mom and baby.
10. Improved Labor and Birth – Inducing labor when it hasn’t begun exactly at 40 weeks is increasingly common, but it’s a procedure that some women might choose to avoid. When no complications are present, waiting for contractions to set in and kick-start labor not only follows nature’s course, but has fewer risks than inducing. In a study of 150 pregnant women, the half that maintained a prenatal yoga routine had significantly fewer incidences of labor induction than the control group. What’s more, their use of analgesics, which include epidurals and other forms of pain medication, was also significantly less than the control group.
In this same study, the prenatal yoga group also performed more vaginal versus c-section births and had a shorter first stage of labor. (25) Other studies have backed up these statistics and shown that practicing prenatal yoga has lessened labor times by up to a few hours – good news for first-time moms worried about having a marathon labor and delivery! (26, 27, 28)
Even amidst all the possible pregnancy complications, discomforts, and fears that arise during these exciting 9 months, the key to success is to stay relaxed. Finding the motivation to stay active can be challenging during pregnancy, but the benefits of prenatal yoga are undeniable and worth the effort. The best time to start prenatal yoga is in the first trimester, and many courses will take you through each trimester of your pregnancy with your energy level and physical abilities in mind. Practices for the different trimesters can be found online, or you can attend prenatal yoga classes in your area, which will also help you connect with other moms-to-be. You will reap the most benefits of the practice the more you get on your mat, so aim for 4-6 classes per week – your body, your mind, and your baby will thank you later!
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