Second Trimester Ashtanga Yoga and Beyond…

My headstand at 35 weeks

Today marks the Winter solstice, a good time to stay cuddled up inside and to engage in a bit of self-reflection and some reflections on my yoga practice in recent months. At this stage, I’m well into my third trimester, with only 7 more weeks to go to the birth of our daughter!  It’s hard to believe time is passing by so quickly. Whoever said that pregnancy seems to last forever, clearly did not practice yoga and certainly did not try to blog about it!

Ashtanga reflections on the second trimester

After a brief pause in August (sometime between weeks 16-19), my doctor gave the green light to resume regular yoga practice. I started back slowly with sun salutations and then worked my way back to practicing the full primary series. I’ve continued to practice six days a week throughout my pregnancy. I do the full primary series every other day, and every alternate day I do a shorter practice—sometimes just sun salutations and other times I also include standing postures.

The second trimester was a beautiful time for practice. I gained a great deal of energy I had lost in the first trimester, but as my uterus started to expand toward my navel and I started gaining more weight—particularly by weeks 24 and 25—the nature of my practice started to change. Until this time, I had achieved a particular balance between strength, flexibility and breathing in my daily practice, and this nice equilibrium started to disappear. The balance became skewed toward strength building.

Several postures have required strength in the past (e.g. Bhujapidasana), but the strength-building component of the practice had previously been balanced with breathing and the aerobic movements that come with the vinyasas.  As my body started adding more weight to accommodate baby, the aerobic activity did not seem to change much. My uterus was not yet large enough to impede on my breath, but the increased weight of my body became more challenging, and it has remained so throughout my pregnancy. I have gained new muscle in my back and shoulders especially.

Many days, even into the 3rd trimester, I feel very flexible, and I have the aerobic ability for the practice, but the extra strength needed to complete the primary series means that I am getting more of an anaerobic workout than before. This may not be the case for anyone else but for myself after practice, I sometimes feel like I have just been lifting weights. It takes my muscles a good 24 hours to recover. I decided to give my body a bit of a rest every alternate day to accommodate this change, and this seems to work. I have more energy when I practice, and I don’t fall asleep at my desk in the middle of the afternoon.

During the second trimester I also became more flexible, especially in my hips.  I was suddenly able to touch my chin to the floor in baddha konasana, for instance, and I regained the ability to do supta kurmasana (which I was able to continue into my 7th month). My backbends also opened up and my shoulders have fortunately remained open into the third trimester.  I do not attempt to move my hands toward my feet to achieve a tighter backbend, but rather, just enjoy the stretch that comes with getting into the posture. I still drop back and stand up, but only with assistance from my teacher.  The added flexibility that came in the second trimester was great but some days it also affected my balance, especially in standing postures.

Throughout my pregnancy, more so than ever before, everyday yoga practice has felt a little bit different.  As a result, I feel like I’ve had to concentrate a little bit more to adjust my practice to daily changes—a focus I hope to continue well after my pregnancy ends.

Ashtanga Yoga in the Third Trimester

Before pregnancy, my daily practice was about challenging myself, pushing boundaries, and advancing to new postures. I was particularly keen to move to second series. While I tried to pay attention to my breath and how I felt in each posture, my ultimate objective was still overcoming the last posture I had learned.  This all went out the window with pregnancy. Suddenly the focus was on practicing safely and staying healthy to accommodate the life growing inside of me.  As I neared the end of my second trimester and entered my third, I started using my morning practice as preparation for natural labor and delivery.

My goal is to have a natural childbirth, unassisted with an epidural—assuming baby is in the right position and healthy.   I prefer not to inhibit this very special occasion with pain medication, or to be numb to the feeling of birth. Women who deliver naturally typically have a much shorter recovery time, which is another added bonus. While I am not opposed to interventions, particularly if they’re necessary, I strongly prefer natural childbirth.  I try to view my yoga practice as preparation for the process of delivery. There are postures which are difficult and sometimes downright uncomfortable, similar to contractions, and then there are positions that bring a great deal of relief—many of which are taught in natural childbirth and prenatal yoga classes (e.g. child pose).

My husband and I have attended natural childbirth classes, and regularly practice postures and assists that might be helpful during the labor process. For instance, padmasana, baddha konasana, a modified down dog, and child pose, are each positions that were taught in my natural childbirth class, which we can prepare to use. Then again, when labor actually happens, I have no idea how I’m going to respond, and these may all go out the window. I’m also planning to use a birth ball, but we’ll see how it goes.

Back to the third trimester—I’m now entering week 33, and I mostly retained my energy levels from the second trimester. The last two weeks I have started to feel more tired. Some days I wonder how I am able to do a 1 ½ hour yoga practice when doing small tasks like folding laundry around the house can feel impossible. My day-to-day energy levels are not consistent.

I am so thankful for the practice of Ashtanga yoga at this time. Here are a few things I’ve learned in the third trimester:

  1. Some practice is better than doing nothing.  If I only manage to do sun salutations, I still feel so much better than doing nothing at all. I still practice the full primary series every other day, including backbends and headstands, though sometimes I modify poses more depending on how I feel that day. When I’m just too tired to practice, I still do sun salutations.
  2. Preparation is important. Lately, I have to wake up a bit earlier to get ready for yoga—perhaps the body’s way of starting in advance of baby, since I’m sure nursing will soon be added to the list of morning activities before practice. I wake up stiff, hungry and needing to go to the bathroom.  I have found that I need to eat something and have a shower in advance of my practice. Otherwise, I remain stiff well into the practice, and usually end up dizzy and starving—not good signs.
  3. Inversions are difficult and may not be for everyone. Shoulder stands, headstands and most closing postures are much more challenging than any other part of my practice. Some days I just end with the last three seated postures and call it enough for the day, but if I feel up to it, I still attempt inversions. I do not have any pain or abnormal discomfort in doing them, and I know there is already a great deal of mixed advice about whether or not they should be done in the third trimester. I find that headstand has a tremendously wonderful effect of opening my rib cage and realigning my back. I hold this posture for a much shorter time than before—no more than 30 seconds, and I have found it brings a great deal of relief as long as it feels good. I still feel balanced in doing it though some days I do feel more pressure on my neck and I do not push beyond that.
  4. Shavasana—Want to know the hardest posture of my morning? That’s right, it’s the corpse pose! I have long given up on lying on my back and now just lay on my left side. Ever tried being a corpse with a little one inside kicking your stomach and squirming about? I usually end up laughing. Attaining the peace of mind I used to get in this pose is not as easy as it used to be (not that it was ever easy in the first place).  Instead lately I’ve tried doing yoga nidra. I practice with a CD in my home practice, and then just try to move awareness through different parts of the body in my studio practice. This really works for me.

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