Ashtanga Yoga and the Pregnant Woman

To Practice or Not to Practice Ashtanga Yoga during the first trimester?

It has been slightly more than one week since my husband and I discovered that we are pregnant!  We are delighted beyond words and truly excited for the life that we will bring into this world.  I am now about six weeks pregnant.  Along with the excitement, I naturally started with a myriad of questions—first and foremost, what will this mean for my yoga practice?

I began scouring the Internet for Ashtanga yoga and pregnancy, where I stumbled upon a slew of contradictory advice.  Usually the source I trust most, Pattabhi Jois, recommended not practicing during the first trimester, in his book Yogamala.[1]

The Ashtanga shala in Msyore does not allow yoga students to practice in their first trimester and Sharath now recommends that students focus on resting during this time just to observe the pregnancy and to see how it’s going. A very informative interview[2] with Saraswati Jois offered similar recommendations. Saraswati even suggests resting during the first three days of your menstrual cycle, that this time can be very challenging for women’s bodies. However, at the same time, she notes in India women behave quite differently than women in the United States. When a woman becomes pregnant in India she often stops exercising altogether (if she exercised in the first place). Many women stop working and become very inactive during this time. When I worked in India in 2006-2007 this was most certainly a trend I observed with women who also worked in the same NGO as I did. I remember long conversations, where the women themselves had very different beliefs about how active they should be during pregnancy. Saraswati advises that inactivity during pregnancy is also very unhealthy, and notes in the interview that she practiced during her own pregnancies—after the first trimester.  She discusses how some poses (i.e. backbends) are especially good for pregnancy, and how yoga can have great benefits in the process of giving birth.

Fortunately, in the United States, our doctors advise that we remain active—exercising 3-5 times a week for at least 20-30 minutes at a stretch throughout our pregnancy.  As I continued my search for articles—reading through blogs and personal accounts of Ashtanga yoga practice during pregnancy, I found several stories of women who practiced during their pregnancy, and during the first trimester. One article by Betty Lai[3] written for Ashtanga teachers was especially informative, in which poses to keep and which ones would need to be modified, also in about setting expectations. Lai suggests practicing as if you are more pregnant than you are—be extra cautious and make sure not to get overheated.  This was reassuring.

I remained calm and as usual went for yoga practice the next morning.  I started the class by telling my yoga teacher, Faith, the great news, and she reassured me that I could continue to practice throughout the pregnancy with modifications.  This mostly included modifying poses where the foot comes in close the pubic bone, such as Janusirsasana C, and deep twists like Marichyasana D.

I began my practice regularly—I mean after all, the day before, I did my full practice with no problems, just unaware of my pregnancy.  Now, fully aware, I started my suyanamaskaras, with jump backs, and it felt wonderful. I’ve been practicing fully aware of my pregnancy now for one full week.   Every morning I notice subtle differences—already.  I start my practice feeling a little heavier (bloated).  Folding forward is uncomfortable if I bend beyond a certain point. While some poses (Purvottanasana) are getting a bit more difficult, others (Baddha Konasana) are taking far less effort.

Every day practice is a little bit different. But what is most remarkable is that every day, I feel that I am bonding a bit more with my baby. It is a wondrous feeling.  And so far—I have no morning sickness or headaches! It is my hope to keep weekly notes of the changes in my body during this period and to document my Ashtanga yoga pregnancy.

5 thoughts on “Ashtanga Yoga and the Pregnant Woman

  1. Glad you enjoyed your practice. From the viewpoint of Western medicine, there is nothing wrong with doing ashtanga if you feel like it during the first trimester. My doctors have encouraged me to continue with all my activities as long as I want to. I practice kung fu, where I do handsprings and acrobatic kicks in the air, and I also snowboard. If you search the internet, you’ll find a lot of “advice” that these activities are dangerous, but they are not supported by objective evidence. With all due respect to those who feel otherwise, I do find a lot of the advice given to be newly pregnant women to be unnecessary and sometimes even fear mongering, as if we need more of that!

    At the same time, with the exhaustion and nausea so many of us experience, I can understand why a break would be recommended. While I can peel out a handspring once a week, I have found the daily slog of my ashtanga practice to be too much for me. If I could quit my job and just do yoga, that would be another thing! So I am doing standing and the 3 closing postures. It feels great. If my energy increases, I will do more.

    Hope you are having a wonderful pregnancy. I just dropped in from a Google search.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story! I’ve been practicing Ashtanga for 2.5 years and just found out I was pregnant last week. I’m now 6 weeks pregnant, but was practicing my full practice (including drop backs and headstands) for over a month without knowing that I was pregnant. This past week I’ve modified my practice so that I only do standing series, the first forward bend, a restorative back bend, and legs up the wall. Did you do pretty much all of your practice during the first trimester with no problems? I’m really missing so many of the poses already!

    • Christina, Thank you so much for your comment! And yes, I did most of my practice during the first trimester without any problems. I continued dropping back and doing headstands until I was 35 weeks pregnant though I did have assistance from my teacher with drop backs once I started getting into the second trimester. Two other women at my studio were pregnant at the same time I was, and we have shared a number of experiences together. Everyone is different in how they feel, but and I really believe that if we listen, our bodies will let us know where to stop. I tried to modify my own practice so that I never pushed myself to a point of discomfort. Instead, and especially later in the practice, I shifted my focus from advancing and going deeper into the practice, to advancing mentally and preparing for labor. It really paid off and I was able to have a natural, vaginal delivery. I gave birth January 22 to a beautiful, healthy daughter. Best of wishes to you with your pregnancy. I’d love to hear how it progresses!

      • Thanks so much for your reply! Although I miss all my Ashtanga poses I can’t currently do, I’m happy knowing I’m preparing for something bigger 🙂

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