Stretch, Open, Breathe {12 Prenatal Yoga Poses To Prepare For Birth}

by Alisia on September 16, 2013

A special thank you to all of the mothers who sent in their prenatal yoga photos for this story. You are all beautifully balanced yoginis!

Photos by to Cradled CreationsAmy Leist Photography, and Tammy Bradshaw Photography

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Yoga can be a wonderful and gentle way to keep your body flexible and you mind focused during pregnancy, labour and birth. Most medical and birth professionals recommend yoga as appropriate exercise – even for mums who are limited for whatever reason! Yoga poses can be modified  and a teacher can help you use props and accessories to support your body while practicing. It’s really important to remember that when it comes to yoga, “no pain, no gain” is not the motto!! The aim is not necessarily to ‘get into the poses’ or perform the perfect pose – you need to listen to your own body. It’s not a race, go slow. It’s ok to only push as far as is comfortable, or to stretch a little further to mildy uncomfortable. The aim is NOT pain!

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I personally used yoga throughout both of my pregnancies, although more with my second than my first. Regular practice enabled me to feel more open and free, flexible and aware, both physically and emotionally. I also used HypnoBirthing for my second, so yoga was a really great way to lead into my daily HypnoBirthing meditation. Even if you aren’t using HypnoBirthing, a few short stretches each day followed by a short relaxation or meditation feels great. And I don’t know about you, but for me, any excuse to relax while pregnant was welcomed by me with open arms!

I’ve put together my top 12 poses for pregnancy, which are gentle but helpful. This is not an exhaustive list of poses – there are countless other yoga positions that are great for pregnancy as well (most are, really!) – but these are the ones I personally loved the most. As always (and it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway!): caution should always be taken when practicing yoga while pregnant!

Easy Pose (Sukhasana)

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Easy Pose is a nice pose to start and end a yoga session. It doesn’t require a great deal of flexibility, but it can be quite intense to hold. During pregnancy and labour, this pose can be used as a rest and relax pose, and also works to gently open the hips.  Arm and shoulder stretches can be performed in this pose to relieve tension in the shoulders and open the chest. During labour, opening the chest allows deeper breathing; rest in this pose between surges and focus on the breath.

The pose: Sit on the ground, ensuring that your weight is on your sitting bones and not you tailbone. Inhale; cross your legs,  sit up (on the  sitting bones not the tailbone), stretch the spine and straighten the back. Rest your hands on your knees or thighs. If you feel discomfort, you may prefer to use a folded blanket underneath your buttocks to help you sit forward off your tailbone, or to perform this pose up against a wall to prevent slouching.

This can be a meditation position, or you can move into some back, arm, and shoulder stretches or chest openers:

  • Inhale, and reach your arms back and into a prayer position with palms together behind the back. Hold for 4-6 breaths.
  • Inhale; reach one arm up and bend it down behind the head and rest the hand on your back, at the same time reach the other arm down and around your to your lower back. Stretch your arms and shoulders and open your chest until your two hands are clasped  behind your back. Some people might have difficulty clasping hands in this position; that’s fine, just give your arms a great stretch while you try. Hold this position for 2 breaths, release the hands, swap arms and repeat.
  • Inhale, and reach your arms back. Keep them straight, reach them behind you and clasp your hands. Hold for 4-6 breaths.
  • Inhale; stretch your arms back and place your palms on the ground behind you, lengthen the spine and lean back slightly, to gently stretch the abdonmen, chest and back. Hold for 2-4 breaths.
  • Place your right hand behind your right thigh (as demonstrated in the picture above), inhale, stretch the left arm up and lean to the right side. Hold for 2 breaths, come back to centre, and repeat on the other side.

Bound Angle Pose (Badhakonasana)

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Bound Angle Pose, sometimes also called Butterfly Pose, is another hip-opener, and it also gives a nice stretch to the inner thighs, improve posture and help stretch the back and neck. Bound Angle Pose could also help stabilise the pelvis, which is helpful for many women in pregnancy. This was one of my personal favourites to labour in, while leaning over a birth ball.

The pose: Begin seated in Easy Pose, with crossed legs. Inhale; sit up on the  sitting bones (not the tailbone), stretch the spine and straighten the back. Exhale. Inhale; uncross legs, and bring your feet together in front of you, heel to heel, and draw your feet towards your groin. Press the knees towards the ground. If the knees are unable to reach the ground, gently bounce the legs – this will give a deep stretch into the thighs, hips and groin. Hold the position for 4-6 breaths. Inhale; readjust your posture - sit up, stretch the spine and straighten the back. Exhale; keep the spine straight and  bend at the hips, lean forward towards the ground. Once you have gone as far forward as possible while keeping the spine straight and without squishing your belly, bring your chin to your chest and hold the position for 1-2 breaths.

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Hero Pose (Virasana)

Hero pose looks simple, but is great for relieving leg and ankle swelling during pregnancy, improve posture, and help stretch the back, shoulders and neck. Also, as your belly grows, it can feel like you aren’t able to get a full breath, and the arm and shoulder stretches you can perform in this pose can help stretch the abdomen and open the chest to restore the breath. During labour, this pose can open the chest to allow deeper breathing, and relieve arm or shoulder tension; rest in this pose between surges and focus on the breath.

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The pose: Begin by getting into a kneeling position – thighs parallel and knees together. If this is uncomfortable on your knees, you can place a cushion or blanket between your thighs and feet, to sit on. Inhale; sit up, stretch the spine and straighten the back. Stretch the arms above the head, interlace the fingers and twist the hands so that palms are facing up. Hold for 4-6 breaths.

Arm and shoulder stretches  can be performed now:

  • Inhale, and reach your arms back and into a prayer position with palms together behind the back. Hold for 4-6 breaths.
  • Inhale; reach one arm up and bend it down behind the head and rest the hand on your back, at the same time reach the other arm down and around your to your lower back. Stretch your arms and shoulders and open your chest until your two hands are clasped behind your back. Some people might have difficulty clasping hands in this position; that’s fine, just give your arms a great stretch while you try. Hold this position for 2 breaths, release the hands, swap arms and repeat.
  • Inhale, and reach your arms back. Keep them straight, reach them behind you and clasp your hands. Hold for 4-6 breaths.

Child Pose (Balasana)

This is a relaxing resting pose that you can use during pregnancy between poses to help stretch the lower back and have a moment of stillness. In labour, Child Pose continues to be a helpful resting pose between surges, taking the pressure off your knees and wrists if you are labouring or pushing on your hands and knees. When practicing this pose, have three or four blankets stacked up ready to lean you chest on so that you can relax forward into this pose.

The pose: Inhale: position your knees apart, and sit back and gently rest on your heels.  Inhale; sit up, straighten your back and stretch your arms up above the head. Exhale. Inhale; lean forward, stretch the back and lift the tail bone, and lower the arms and head towards the ground. Have your stack of blankets ready – they should be set up in such a way that when you lean forward, your chest rest on the blankets and your abdomen is not compressed at all. Let your arms hang down beside the blanket and rest on the ground comfortably. Hold the position for however long is comfortable.

Cat and Cow Pose (Marjaryasana and Bitilasana)

During pregnancy, cat pose and cow pose are both great for lower back pain, and taking the pressure and weight of your baby and belly off your hips and back. It gives a gentle stretch for both the lower back and abdominal muscles. Practing a cat/cow sequence can also help encourage your baby to move into a ‘good’ LOA position for labour.This pose should also be on your labour ‘to do’ list, and a birth ball can be used to lean on to take the pressure of the arms and wrists. This is an especially helpful pose if your baby is posterior – it can help relieve the intensity of ‘back labour’.

The pose: Starting on hands and knees. You might prefer a towel underneath your knees, and as previously mentioned, you could lean your chest on a birth ball if you find it difficult to rest your weight on your arms and wrists. Ensure that your wrists and hands are aligned underneath your shoulders, and that your knees are positioned below your hips.  Your feet should be flexed, soles up, and your toes should not be curled under; palm of the hand should be flat on the ground and fingers should be flat and facing forward. During the poses, be aware of the pressure on your wrists and knees – weight should be equally distributed between all four limbs. Inhale; stretch your neck and lift your head forward and your chest up. Lift your tailbone and drop your belly towards the ground. Exhale; draw your belly in and up, curl your spine out, and roll your tailbone and chin down and towards one another. Repeat 4-6 times. To rest, come into Child Pose. Inhale: keeps the knees apart (or slightly wider, to accommodate your belly), and draw the hips back to rest on the heels while keeping the hands and arms outstretched, lower the head to the ground.

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A variation of Cat Pose is Extended Cat Pose (pictured above): Inhale; stretch your neck and lift your head forward and your chest up. Lift your tailbone and drop your belly towards the ground. Exhale. Inhale; shift your weight to your right leg and stretch your left leg back and up, at the same time shift your weight to your left arm and stretch your right arm forward and up. Stretch the neck and head so that you are looking forward. You can choose to hold this pose for another exhalation and inhalation, or on the next exhalation, bring the arm and leg back to their original position. Inhale, and repeat 2-4 times. Begin again, using the right leg and left arm. To rest, come into Child Pose.

Tree pose (Vrksasana)

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As you progress in pregnancy your centre of gravity changes with your growing belly. Tree Pose is a pose that help regain your balance with your new centre of gravity, as well as improving posture, and building strength and stamina for labour. Tree Pose can also work to stretch and open the hips, and can help with pain and discomfort in the hips. You may need to practice this pose while holding on to a chair, table or wall, until you develop a strong sense of balance in this pose. Always work with your body and find the right place for you – remember, the point is not how high you can force your foot to go, the point is finding your centre of balance, so even just lifting your leg off the ground is fine to start with.

The pose: Begin in Mountain Pose – standing, feet flat on the floor, with arms by your side. Inhale; stand tall, stretch the spine and straighten the back. Lift the right foot and position the sole of your foot on your left leg; some people are able to stretch the foot to the upper thigh, others need the foot lower on the calf or even just lifted in the air slightly. Exhale. Hold on to something steady if necessary, or press the palms together in prayer position: in front of the body (as shown in the picture above and below) or stretched up above the head. Stretch the spine and straighten the back. Hold this position for 4-6 breaths, lower the arms, return the foot to the ground, and repeat using the opposite leg.

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Warrior I Pose (Virabhadrasana I)

Warrior I stretches the thighs, abdomen, back and shoulders. It’s also good for balance, and it tilts and opens the pelvis, which makes is especially useful in labour during surges to encourage baby to engage.

The pose: Begin standing, in Mountain Pose – feet flat on the floor, with arms by your side. Inhale and step your left foot back so the your feet around 3 feet apart. Evenly distribute your weight between your front and back leg. Exhale; stand tall, stretch the spine, straighten the back, and place your hands on your hips. Inhale, turn your back foot 45-90o away from your body. Bend your front knee and bring your thigh parallel to the ground. Ensure that your knee does not bend further than your ankle, and that your hips and shoulders remain square towards the front. Exhale as you reach your arms above your head – let your eyes follow you hands about 3/4 of the way and settle your gaze with your head tilted slightly upwards. Alternatively, you can reach  and clasp your hands behind your back. Hold for a minute, remembering to breathe. Release your arms, straighten your leg and return to Mountain Pose. Repeat using the opposite leg.

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Warrior II Pose (Virabhadrasana II)

Warrior II gives the thighs an intense stretch, strengthens the abdominal muscles, and is extremely helpful if your experiencing tight hips. It can also help stretch the back and shoulders and relieve back aches during pregnancy. This pose can help open the hips and encourage your baby’s head to engage and in labour it can assist by opening the pelvis for baby to descend and put pressure on the cervix to aid in dilation. If you have difficulty balancing, practice this pose next to a wall.

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The pose: Begin by standing with your feet wide apart. Rotate your right leg by turning your right foot away from your body. Keep your hips facing forward in the direction of your left foot. Keep your shoulders in line with your hips, and raise your arms and look in the direction that your right foot is pointing. Bend your right leg until the knee is in line with the ankle – do not bend past that point. Be aware of your posture and do not sway your back to push your belly or hips out towards the front. Hold for 2 breaths, straighten the right leg, return to centre, and then repeat with the left leg.

Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)

The low lunge is fantastic during pregnancy. This pose is another hip-opener, and also helps strengthen the lower back and abdomens. When practiced with arms up, it gives a deep stretch in the shoulders and back. This pose is excellent during labour, and can be helpful to hold during a surge to open the pelvis and encourage your baby to engage, rotate and descend. This can also be used during labour to encourage dilation.

This can be a really tricky pose, balance-wise. You may like to start with a blanket underneath your knee, to reduce discomfort. The picture below shows Karen (a mum of 7, soon-to-be 8, at 6 months pregnant) extending her arms above her head, and this is quite tricky. Many women need to keep their arms down and position blocks (stool, phone books, bricks etc) beside their hips so they can stretch their back and keep their balance.

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The pose: Begin on hands and knees. Inhale; bring your right leg forward and place your foot between your hands, ensuring that your knee does not extend past your ankle. If your foot does not come all the way to your hands, move your hands back and place them on either side of your right foot. Exhale. Inhale, stretch your torso up and extend your spine. You may choose to move your hands to some blocks besides your hips, or stretch them up to rest on your thighs, or reach them up above your head – this depends on your balance and level of comfort. Hold this position for 4-6 breaths, or through 2-4 surges, and then return to centre in the same way you came into the pose, and repeat the lunge using the opposite leg.

Goddess Pose (Utkatakonasana)

This is a ‘half squat’ pose that is really intense on the legs but can help build strength and stamina for labour and birth, as well as stretching the groin and opening the hips. It stretches and elongates the abdomen and allows for more room to breathe. During labour, this is another pose that can help your baby settle down into the pelvis and and put pressure on the cervix to dilate.

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The Pose: Stand with your feet slightly wider that your hips. Inhale. As you exhale, bend your knees and lower yourself so that your thighs are straight and parrallel to the ground. Keep your heels on the ground. Bring your arms up so that your upper arms are parallel to the ground and the forearms are vertical. Alternatively, you can bring the hands into prayer pose, or hold on to a chair or wall for support. Hold this pose for a few minutes.

Full Squat Pose (Malasana)

This pose is a excellent pose all round – for pregnancy, labour, and also for birthing. It takes the Goddess pose further, putting This pose opens the hips, and stretches and strengthens the legs. It can be difficult to balance in late pregnancy and during labour, so you can practice this pose against a wall for support, or use a low stool or yoga block to balance on during the squat to help you maintain the pose. If your heels lift, try placing a folded towel underneath them to lean on.

The pose: Stand with your feet slightly wider that your hips. Inhale. As you exhale, bend your knees and lower yourself so that your buttocks are only an inch or two from the ground. Keep your knees wide and your heels on the ground. Bring your hands together in a prayer position, resting your elbows on the inside of your knees to keep the apart. Lean forward slightly for balance, if necessary. Hold this pose for a few minutes.

Corpse Pose (Savasana)

Yes, that’s an unfortunate name, but a very relaxing pose! This is a great on to end your yoga session on, and it can lead into meditation, relaxation or HypnoBirthing practice.

The pose: Copse Pose is a reclining pose, laying reclined on the ground, with arms by your side and palms up. Corpse Pose should be modified into a side-lying pose after 20 weeks, so that you are lying on your right side rather than on your back. For comfort, support yourself with pillows and blankets under your head and body and, if practicing the side-lying pose, between your knees. A soft, dark cloth over your eyes will help you relax into meditation or rest.

 

Disclaimer: This is an informative article and is not intended as medical advice. Always consult your care provider about all exercise and health concerns during pregnancy. Always seek out and consult your personal yoga teacher for any prenatal yoga concerns. If you have never practiced yoga before, it would be beneficial to attend a dedicated prenatal yoga class and seek the advice of a yoga teacher before beginning practice. 

Generally accepted advice among yoga teachers is:

  • you should avoid practicing yoga in the first trimester,
  • supine (laying) poses should be modified after 19-20 weeks, to avoid compressing the superior vena cava and reducing blood flow,
  • deep abdominal stretches, crunches, and spinal twists should be avoided or performed with caution,
  • if you have any additional medical concerns (for example, Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction, Incompetent Cervix or Placenta Previa) you should seek clearance from your heath care provider before beginning any form of exercise.

There is some debate about inversions (hand, head, or shoulder stands) during pregnancy. My personal belief is that inversions come with potential risks during pregnancy due to the deep core muscles involved, the changing centre of balance during pregnancy, as well as the fall risk to inexperienced women. Most people should avoid inversions while pregnant, unless you are very experienced and comfortable with performing inversions prior to pregnancy and have a deep understanding of the safety, anatomy and physiology of pregnancy and yoga inversions. 

Many positions can and should be modified depending to your individual physical limitations. And above all else, always listen to and respect your body – if you feel pain or discomfort during your prenatal yoga practice, stop and rest. If you experience cramping, contractions, bleeding, fluid leakage, dizziness, changes in vision, pitting edema, or persistent headaches, or any other symptom that is concerning for you, contact your health care professional.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bad Wolf September 17, 2013 at 11:42 am

Wonderful post! Practicing yoga is one of my loves, and it seems even more spiritual to me during pregnancy. Thank you for the wonderful suggestions.

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Bahareh January 1, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Hi
I am a midwife in Iran also Yoga teacher, I am trying to learn more for teaching best for pregnant women.
I am preparing to have a new class in this regard, so, would you pls help me?

Best regards
Bahareh Lotfi

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