Director of Meadowlark’s Morning Mysore Programme, Sarah Hatcher, shares her experience and knowledge of practicing whilst pregnant in the Mysore room, and the various paths you can take if you would like to practice yoga if you are expecting.
“Simply trust the body and follow the breath.” Judy Cameron, Yoga of Birth
The Mysore room is the melting pot of transformation: when you walk in you immediately feel the heat, hear the music of people’s ujjayi breath, and witness bodies moving in the space with rhythm and pace. And you are pregnant. Do you belong in here?
You’re very welcome to be pregnant and practice in the Mysore room at Meadowlark Yoga. If you’re not here in Edinburgh, speak with your Mysore teacher about practicing as each programme is different; some Mysore programmes don’t want pregnant mammas in the room. This may be the case if the teacher isn’t prenatal trained or they haven’t had a baby of their own. The Mysore room, after all, may not be the right place for you.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of practicing in the hub of the Ashtanga yoga method, right in the cave of the fiery cauldron, and I’ll share how I’m getting on practicing at 8 months pregnant.
At Meadowlark Yoga, teachers Emma Isokivi, Karen Kirkness, Joanne Ewen, Devon Taylor and myself are all mammas and each of us has practiced through our pregnancies. This doesn’t mean we are all knowing on all things prenatal, however we take great care to give you the most thorough instruction on what to do and what not to do.
- The heat of the room isn’t ideal for warm mammas. The teachers will ask you to frequently soften your jaw and open your mouth to take cooling breaths. Or they may stop you and slow you down if you are moving too quickly and building lots of heat. They may even ask you to complement your practice with chanting and meditation; and, once you’ve cooled down, to resume your practice.
- Your maternity Ashtanga practice won’t look like the primary series. You may be advised to add a posture in here or there or take a few away that are contraindicated for pregnancy. It will be your voice in the practice that guides the teacher and how you are moving which will help them share the method with you safely.
- If you’ve never done yoga before, the Mysore room is not the place to begin. Start with a prenatal yoga class. For those of you with established Ashtanga practices, the first trimester isn’t recommended for practicing as this trimester is the trickiest one to navigate safely through. There’s a higher risk of miscarriage in this trimester so heating up the body with movement and breath, twisting, jumping and standing on your head isn’t recommended.
- In the Mysore room, there’s a lovely space for you to practice with others and join in the song of the breath. As long as you are listening to how you feel every day with each sensitive movement, you’ll be able to practice through your whole pregnancy (aside from the first trimester and maybe the last month of your pregnancy).
I believe the safest way to practice during pregnancy is to have the freedom to build your own practice within guidelines. Our job as teachers in the Mysore room is to keep the pregnant student safe in their exploration: gentle encouragement to try this or try that; yes this is ok, no this is what we don’t want to do, etc. This type of dialogue and connection with the student keeps the student focused on their own inward development and their pregnancy rather than asking them to perform yoga to a strict standard based on rules that do not apply for pregnancy.
Ashtanga vinyasa yoga does have many rules, some of them are: bandha, breath, dristi, and proper vinyasa which includes a solid memory of the order of the poses and linking them together with the breath. However these staple elements – ujjayi breathing, bandha and vinyasa – are drastically modified during pregnancy so we bend the rules slightly so we can still follow them as closely as possible by abiding by these basic guidelines:
- Ujjayi breathing: follow this breath and focus on taking deep, equal breaths and not holding the breath at all during asana. Every so often, breathe out of your mouth and relax your jaw as you soften; the jaw represents the pelvic floor so keep this supple and open. Opening the mouth also cools the body down. Ujjayi breathing is a heating breath, so you want to monitor how warm your body temperature is; moderate it with open mouth-breaths.
- Bandha: don’t lose sight of uddiyana and mula bandha, keep drawing the pelvic floor inward and lifting the arches of the feet in standing asanas to draw energy upwards into the body. Keeping the base of the spine supported and lifted will lighten the load of baby. The upward flying lock is much more difficult to navigate safely; if you do draw the base of the abdomen in on an exhale breath, do so very carefully. The last activity we would want to do is hold in the navel or draw it in aggressively as we want the baby to feel spacious and full, outward and round – to not hollow and empty.
- Jumping and arm balancing – this is not recommended to jump back into chataranga from a standing position or jump back from a seated pose; neither is jumping into a handstand – unless the pregnant mother is completely comfortable doing these movements and has the support in the shoulders to keep the skeletal system in proper alignment. Now isn’t the time to learn how to jump into bakasana (crow pose), however, if jumping into handstand is comfortable and easy, then continue this practice as long as the breath is calm and free, and the mind is not attached to gaining the posture but the experience and freedom of being upside down.
- Twisting – now is not the time to suck on the navel and twist around an obstacle. You’ve already got a large enough obstacle in your abdomen! Revolved triangle would be the only twist recommended and even this one may be better practiced with a massive support system like a block and with the lower arm on a higher surface than the floor. Twisting is not recommended during pregnancy so save it for after the fourth trimester.
- Standing on your head – in the Yoga Mala, Shri K. Pattabhi Jois has shared, “Pregnant women should not practice this asana” (page 116).
If you’d like to invert the body, a headless headstand like forearm balance (Pincha Mayurasana) would be a better alternative or altogether, skip it completely until after the pregnancy and do shoulderstand with supportive blocks instead. The most important bits about turning the body upside down is that there will be more blood flow to the head which could be strenuous rather than helpful; if shoulderstand can be held without change of breath, without stress on the neck with the weight held in the arms and shoulders instead of the neck – then this would be acceptable.
Tailoring the yoga practice to the mother is the most important part of a safe prenatal practice. A balance of meditation, mantra, asana, and pranayama specific for pregnancy with visualisation is best done within a self-practice model like the Mysore room. This means the mother can begin at her own pace and wind their practice when they are ready rather than wait for a guided class to lead this. This further prepares the mother for her birth by deepening her own understanding of her body’s wellness which both builds confidence and independence during labour.
Currently my practice is catered to what is best for me – a little bit of primary, intermediate, some third and a couple of fourth series poses – and this recipe is keeping me safe and healthy. It is daily mantra and pranayama which are the gateway vehicles for labour – visualisation and meditation come easily when pranayama and mantra are steady. Many of you hear me chant to Durga “tano Durga prachodyat” or sing sutras and chant to Siva while I’m practicing. Is this still ashtanga you may ask?
The mind is concentrated on samadhi – absorption of the self, the eighth limb of ashtanga yoga. Always a nice reminder when seeing a pregnant mamma practice that the goal of yoga isn’t just to master an asana but to hone our skills – any yogic skill we can develop – and aim it towards samadhi. After all, samadhi comes in more ways than just from asana.
Sign up for Kat Aydin’s 4-week and 5-week courses, ‘Yoga for a Healthy Pregnancy Course’ here. This would be the perfect place to begin yoga whilst pregnant. Also check out the Meadowlark website for pregnancy videos here offered for free download by Karen Kirkness.
Photo credit: Anna Henley @going_digital_scotland