At last! I am creating a bit of time to attend to something that has been on my mind for quite awhile now: writing a post about Ashtanga yoga practice during my first pregnancy. Now that I have completed all four trimesters (I refer to the first three months of baby Sesam’s life as the fourth trimester), I feel that I have experienced this stage of an ashtangini’s practice to be able to share my thoughts. As always, however, it is most beneficial to talk with your main yoga teacher, as they know you best and can offer advice and guidelines on an individual basis.
Exactly one year ago, I found out I was pregnant while on the annual summer yoga retreat here in Houtskår, Finland. Perhaps I have subconsciously waited to be here again, this time with my four-month old son, to write about this topic. Funny how time works sometimes…
Anyway, I had guessed that I might be pregnant as I had a few of the tell-tale symptoms, namely swollen and tender breasts and a missed period. After the pregnancy test came back positive, I decided to continue with the practice, but eased off considerably. My regular practice before pregnancy had been about three-quarters of the intermediate series, with drop-backs, so once I knew I was pregnant, I switched to a modified primary series practice. I omitted deep twists and the ‘lifting’ poses like bhujapidasana and supta kurmasana quite early on and focused on a much softer, slower and gentler practice, meaning holding poses for up to 10-15 breaths, stepping back instead of jumping, and changing directly to the left side in the seated asanas, rather than going through the catvari/upward/downward dog transition. I never experienced any throwing-up, but quite often, I did feel nauseous. Some light breathing sequences, done at the end of the finishing poses, helped alleviate these queasy feelings. My work load was quite busy at the time. I taught a led class followed by a beginner’s class six days a week and also had massage clients most afternoons, so I made sure not to get too exhausted from my practice. I remember feeling very tired during the first month, so I would take a long nap daily to keep my energy reserves up.
After the Houtskår retreat, when Sharath came to Helsinki for his workshop, I let him in on the reason why I wouldn’t be attending his workshop. He recommended that I shouldn’t practice for the next two months, but that some gentle stretching and breathing would be helpful. He further suggested starting my day with a walk, as the fresh air would be nourishing for both the baby and me. I still had feelings of nausea, so I walked in the mornings during the second and third month, which felt good. My hemoglobin levels were considered too low, so the doctor recommended I take iron supplements in order to raise my red-blood cell count. Due to this, I continued to take naps in the afternoon, as the feelings of fatigue were still quite noticeable.
At the start of my second trimester, I went to teach at Mysore Yoga Copenhagen for a month. The schedule consisted of teaching both morning and afternoon classes six days a week, plus a beginner’s weekend workshop and a guided full-primary class. Previously, the bulk of my yoga teaching experience had been with Petri as his assistant, so this subbing gig was the most work I would be doing solo as the main teacher. In order to keep my energy levels consistent, I pretty much put the bulk of my energy into teaching and made sure to rest between classes. Funnily enough, the steady routine of running a yoga shala daily had the same effect on my practice, which I did after the morning mysore group had finished. My practice felt very steady and I also felt quite strong; not in a fancy, floaty, jumpy-through kind of way, naturally, but tremendously grounded. My guess is that this sense of being grounded was a combination of the steady life routine, using Mula Bhandha almost exclusively since Uddiyana Bandha was otherwise engaged, and the overall increase in the kapha dosha needed to grow the foetus inside. I lived a very snug, cloistered life, going from home to shala to my neighborhood grocery store, occasionally going to the park, bicycling around, and meeting up with yoga friends for lectures, tea or dinner. I would say this was the ‘peak’ of my pregnancy practice, so to speak. My body was comfortably established in the state of being pregnant, but at the same time, my belly wasn’t too big. Many poses were still (marginally) accessible. Indeed, the aspect which I needed to rethink at this time was giving adjustments while pregnant. Some days I would feel some tenderness in my lower back, and on those days, I would back off and have the students do drop-backs and heavy adjustment poses like supta-kurmasana on their own. They graciously understood!
I held Baddha Konasana and Upavishta Konasana for longer periods of time and began adding a few hip-openers, like squats, at this stage. I also did some core-strengthening and stabilizing exercises to maintain the health of my lower back and pelvis. I replaced Urdhva-Dhanurasana with Ustrasana, did a supported shoulder stand with my feet up the wall and omitted most of the inversions of the finishing sequence. In lieu of a shorter asana practice, I chanted and meditated just before taking the final resting pose. Looking back, I must say sometimes you don’t know your own strength until it’s tested! Or I should say, rather, you don’t know your strength until you back off a bit and let things happen in their own time, without meddling too much in the greater scheme of things.
Over the next two months, back in Finland, the dark, cold time of November and December began to set in, and my motivation to continue with my modified Ashtanga yoga practice slackened. I began doing some prenatal yoga instead, either by attending classes or at home with videos I found online. I did a few rounds of pranayama (without Uddiyana bandha and kumbhaka, which is when you retain the breath) and continued with chanting and short meditation sessions. I also began researching and compiling materials to help rebuild my pelvic floor and abdominal muscles postpartum. In other words, core strength. (Hint: There is a ton of material on this topic out there!)
By the time I reached my third trimester, we were on our annual Thailand-India winter retreat tour. Practice in Thailand during the eighth month was a mixed experience. For one thing, I felt more comfortable practicing in the early morning when it was still cool and easier for my swollen feet. That meant waking up between 3 – 4 am to practice before assisting in the shala. The hardest part was my equilibrium getting wobblier the larger my belly got, so I focused my yoga practice on grounding and stabilizing myself. Sometimes my practice consisted of sun salutations and the standing postures, followed by a long, assisted shoulder stand with my feet up on the wall. Other days I managed to get to Navasana, skipping the jump-through between sides in each seated pose. By this time, due to the combination of heat and humidity, my feet were very puffy and warm, so while assisting, I would need to take a few breaks and put my feet up on the wall. One acupuncturist on the retreat showed me some acupressure points to help reduce the swelling. I also spent time dipping my feet in the pool, but the best thing that helped was getting those puppies elevated!
By the time we reached Goa in the first week of February, I was nearing my 36th week, which is the last week you are allowed to fly without an actual doctor on-hand (or a jolly good reason), should you deliver early. I spent about five days in Goa, at Purple Valley, and continued with the early morning sun salutations-standing sequence and wall-assisted shoulder stand before assisting in the shala. I flew back to Finland at the start of my 36th week, and by then, though I was a bit wary of being on my own in Finland for the last three weeks of pregnancy, I felt ready to get back home. Back in Finland, I must confess that the cold temperature was a welcome relief for my feet. I stopped with my practice once I reached Finland. I just felt like it. Instead, I walked, went swimming and water jogging about every other day for the last three weeks.
What was the main thing I learned about pregnancy and the Ashtanga yoga practice? There is a great deal of freedom in this practice to tailor to the ever-changing pregnant body. Sure, I could have pushed harder to try to maintain my asanas, but I didn’t feel like this was of huge benefit nor the point of my pregnancy. I could have maintained more strength in the physical poses, but it wouldn’t have served my constitution. I simply needed more rest and to let go of many poses. My body gave me certain signals and my job was simply to heed them. Other women might be able to do more poses while pregnant (rock on!), still others may need to do less (right on, sisters!). Every woman is different, every pregnancy is different. The main thing is to discover that which best serves you, your body and your baby. Pregnancy is a time of heightened sensitivity and awareness. Listen to your highly intuitive and intelligent system. Listen, with clarity of mind, with trust, with gratitude, with love. Listen.
A few photos from my pregnancy journey…
Getting some help with (pre-pregnancy test) drop-backs from Vijay (Houtskär, July 2013)
Receiving a (pre-pregnancy test) Utthita Hasta Padangustasana adjustment from Juha (Houtskär, July 2013)
First baby gift. It was waiting for me at the Mysore Yoga Copenhagen shala when I arrived one morning. Most touching! (Copenhagen, October 2013)
Despite the cold and dark, still finding time for a laugh at Rovaniemi airport. It was about 4 in the afternoon when the picture was taken! (Rovaniemi, November, 2013)
A few shots from our weekend workshop in Rovaniemi: work, play and more play at Santa’s Village! (Rovaniemi, November 2013)
Ringing in the New Year, Thailand style! (Buddhist temple, Chiangkham, Phayao Province, Northern Thailand, January 2014)
Visiting our friends, Marco and Amorn, at their home in the country (Chiangkham, Phayao Province, Northern Thailand, January 2014)
This #ashtangimami to be is chillin’…..! (Koh Mak, January 2014)
Feeling about ready to drop in Goa…(Anjuna, Goa, February 2014)
Visiting our dear friend Rolf and receiving a bit of his darshan (Goa, February 2014)
A week before Sesam’s due date, we got some professional pictures taken (Helsinki, February 2014)
Early morning magic in Goa (February 2014)
I would love to hear from my fellow #ashtanginis, #yoga moms and #ashtanga yoga teachers! How did you practice during your pregnancy? From a teacher’s perspective, how do you approach modifying the practice for a pregnant student? Male teachers, we would like to hear your input as well! Please share your experiences below!
Stay blessed mamas, mamas-to-be, fellow ashtangis, ashtanginis and ashtangimamis. May the light of Ashtanga yoga, as taught by Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois, continue to shine on and on. Om big <3!
*More to follow on how Ashtanga yoga helped during my labor and how I approached ‘getting back to the practice.’
*Professional photos courtesy of Jenni Gästgiver and Charlotte Eugenié Bjurehag.