It is well-known that yoga can make its devotees stronger — not only physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as well. Women who practice yoga during pregnancy can learn how to improve their comfort throughout each stage and glean tools to ensure a positive birth experience. Many women have met some of their closest friends while bonding on the yoga mat during pregnancy. But in an age of social isolation, when expecting moms can’t physically attend a class in a yoga studio or have their full support team in the delivery room, how can yoga help make pregnancy and labor easier?
Randi Coen Gilbert has figured out the answer after two decades of teaching yoga to women. Randi credits a full yoga practice with saving her mental health as a new mom and giving her skills to be a better parent. Since having her second baby over 20 years ago, she began a lifelong career of compassionate care for women and children through yoga instruction, birth doula support, and child advocacy. Dedicated to giving moms the best start possible, Randi has become the Philadelphia Main Line’s guru for prenatal and postnatal yoga classes and founded Yoga Mamas, which offers wellness weekends for moms and moms-to-be and a pre/postnatal yoga teacher training program (both of which offer a session starting 9/18).
Due to the pandemic, Randi’s classes and workshops are currently operating virtually, but they offer students the same opportunity as in person: uninterrupted time for self-care, stress relief, strength-building, and social connection. Though they may be through a screen (as is the norm these days), these takeaways for pregnant and new moms are only the beginning. Randi sat down with us at EmmaWell and shared what she has discovered to be the top benefits of yoga throughout pregnancy, childbirth, and beyond, as well as some insights on improving outcomes for moms in general.
Ten Benefits of Yoga During Every Stage of Pregnancy:
1. Provides special time for you and and your baby to nurture a loving bond
2. Teaches the practice of mindfulness, which reduces stress and brings about strength, clarity, and stability
3. Encourages mind-body awareness, which helps you understand what your body is telling you during labor and delivery
4. Incorporates breathing exercises that will increase your energy, balance your emotions, promote well-being, and calm the central nervous system during labor
5. Stretches your muscles to relax and release tension, especially across the upper back and shoulders, which have to carry additional weight in your chest
6. Lengthens your body to create room for your baby, make you feel more comfortable, and improve your posture and the function of your organs, which affects digestion and breath
7. Strengthens your body to support the weight of a growing baby, reduce back pain, and aid in labor (as strong muscles grow fatigued more slowly)
8. Fosters a better understanding and control of muscles in the pelvic floor to aid in pushing during delivery, faster recovery, and decreased incontinence issues
9. Improves circulation and sleep quality
10. Induces opening to help your baby move into the best position for an easier birth!
How frequently does prenatal yoga have to be practiced to maximize its benefits before, during, and after childbirth?
Even a weekly prenatal yoga class will be beneficial, but the more you incorporate yoga into a daily practice, the more benefits you’ll feel. Before childbirth, one of the greatest benefits of yoga is learning to breathe fully to find a place of calm in the central nervous system and understand your needs. After gaining this skill, moms are able to do the work of labor instead of feeling anxious or overwhelmed by pain. Post-childbirth, that same breath and internal mindfulness helps mothers in many ways, including recovering their core strength safely and developing their intuition for parenting.
Many moms also value their yoga class as the one sacred time in their week, where they can fully bring their attention to their pregnancy and growing baby. This seems especially true for women having their second, third, or even fourth child. These mamas cherish having individual time with each unborn baby.
What should I look for in a yoga class?
If you are pregnant and interested in trying yoga, try to seek out a prenatal class. If you can’t find one in your area with a time that works for you, try a beginner class or a prenatal yoga video. Classes with heat are not recommended during pregnancy, and you want to be certain to work with a teacher who is knowledgeable about what you can and cannot do during each stage of pregnancy. You can still get many of the basic benefits that yoga offers by going to a regular class, but you will miss out on the fabulous community of new moms.
What pregnancy discomforts does yoga alleviate?
Yoga can make a huge difference. A few of the discomforts women say that their yoga practice helps them with are low back pain, rib pain, shoulder tension, hip tightness, and sciatica.
Are there certain pains that would make yoga not advisable?
Certain pains that women might experience are indicators of how they need to modify their yoga practice. That’s why it’s so important to work with a knowledgeable teacher. During pregnancy women may need to use more props, like squeezing a block between the thighs or using the wall or chair for support to keep from aggravating a condition like pubis symphysis dysfunction or round ligament pain.
Can yoga give you more energy during pregnancy?
At a time when caffeine is not recommended in large doses, exercise is an excellent way to get the blood flowing and heart pumping. Yoga is one of the safest and most healthful forms of exercise for pregnancy. Instead of reaching for caffeine or sugar because you’re so fatigued, try some yoga poses and breath to wake up, while at the same time gaining strength that you will need for labor.
How have women who take your prenatal yoga classes benefited during labor?
Women have shared so many different ways their yoga practice helped to make childbirth better. Some told me they effectively used their drishti (focal point) during contractions or that they used “equal three part breath” to relax. They loved how certain pose variations during labor relieved discomfort, and that the practice of isolating pelvic floor muscles taught them how to push. Some found guided imagery or positive affirmations they’d used in yoga class like heart-centered meditation to be most helpful. Several women said they felt their confidence soar in their childbirth classes because they had already learned the same and even more techniques through yoga.
How can prenatal yoga benefit someone planning to have an epidural or a scheduled C-section?
Pregnancy itself is a time of tremendous change. Prenatal yoga can create comfort during pregnancy both in the body and mind. The mindfulness aspect of yoga practice is beneficial for mothers getting an epidural or C-section because it can help them stay calm during what can be a stressful hospital procedure. The physical aspect of yoga also helps women maintain or even build strength, so that no matter what kind of labor they have, they can begin to recover more quickly afterward.
Could you share a breathing exercise that eases labor contractions?
In yoga we practice equal three part breath. I take that one step further and teach four part breath, instructing moms to feel their breath all the way down into their pelvic floor. This deep breathing helps bring about a sense of calm and relaxes the muscles. It also helps moms learn how their pelvic floor muscles work to make the pushing phase easier. As a doula, I encourage moms after a big contraction to take one breath in and out for herself and then one breath in and out for the baby. This not only has all the benefits mentioned before but also brings the focus back to the mom-baby relationship.
What is guided imagery and how can it come into play during labor?
Guided imagery is a deep relaxation technique that can be practiced before labor, so that you can return to that state during contractions. It’s most effective when you tie in as many of the senses as possible and tends to work best for people who are very visual. Two of the most common guided imageries are: to imagine yourself in a safe space where you feel completely relaxed and taken care of, or to imagine your birth in full detail going exactly as you would manifest it. (You don’t want to practice the birth imagery before you are full-term.)
What is your favorite mantra and/or story that you like to share with pregnant mothers to cultivate positive intentions?
One of my favorite mantras or affirmations is from The Birth Deck by Olivia H. Miller: “My body knows how to give birth and I will let it.” So simple, but it really gets down to the essence of labor — of letting go and realizing you and your baby know what to do. As a doula, I often tell mamas, “Relax and let your body do what it needs to. The more you let that happen, the sooner you’ll meet your baby.”
In the well-known Kundalini yoga book Bountiful, Beautiful, Blissful, yogi Gurmukh describes pregnancy as a living prayer where a baby develops the same emotions the mother is feeling. During prenatal class we work on releasing negativity and cultivating positive intentions, giving both mom and baby a sense of well-being. The women become empowered to tap into their intuition and let go of any fear, learning to surrender and accept.
I also encourage mamas to surround themselves with inspiring birth stories like those from Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin or from the podcast The Birth Hour with Bryn Huntpalmer. And I encourage them to protect themselves from the negative stories and to take care when browsing, especially online.
During my classes, I often give examples of great birth stories and the tools the mother used to make her birth experience her own. For example, one of the mamas from my class found strength in good nutrition. In preparation for her labor, she asked her own mom to make a homemade chicken noodle soup, puree it, and place it in a thermos. She brought that along with a beautiful teacup from her Grandmother to the Birth Center. As she was laboring, she would find moments to sip her soup, feeling the loving nourishment of the women who had come before her and physically increasing her stamina with some much-needed electrolytes and calories.
What do you recommend for developing confidence and calmness throughout pregnancy?
In terms of books, I recommend The Birth Partner by Penny Simkin. It’s especially good for whoever is supporting the birthing parent in labor. There are also a lot of great resources online like Spinning Babies and Evidenced Based Birth.
However, I think the best thing you can do is to be present in a community with other moms through prenatal yoga. Yoga is an easy way to create calm and confidence, and when doing it in community — even virtually — it’s that much more powerful. I don’t think you could get nearly the same effects through an app, website, or book.
At what point in the postpartum stage is it safe to resume yoga?
You could resume some basic yoga shortly after giving birth, like some of the breathing exercises and tension releases. You definitely want to start out slowly and play it safe, especially if you’ve had a C-section or tear. Many women don’t realize that they have diastasis recti and place too many demands on their core too soon. An experienced yoga teacher can ease you into practice safely, building upon what you are capable of each week.
What types of exercise do you recommend for postpartum moms looking to lose pregnancy weight?
For weight loss, I recommend starting with daily walks and maybe even dancing with your baby. That, along with yoga may be enough, especially if you are breastfeeding. I often see mamas in my classes who lose more than their pregnancy weight just trying to meet the needs of their babies while also eating healthy.
How can we give all moms the benefits of yoga throughout pregnancy and beyond?
My goal is to break down barriers of access to yoga practice and to quality pre- and post-natal care. 10% of my teaching profits will go to the Black Mamas Matter Alliance who “envision a world where Black moms have the rights, respect, and resources to thrive before, during, and after pregnancy and the Maternity Care Coalition whose mission is to “improve the health and well-being of pregnant women and parenting families, and enhance school readiness for children 0–3.” I am committed to advocating for all families and working to remove discrepancies of childbirth within our system of class and race.