"Is it ok to practice Yin Yoga during your pregnancy?" This is a question that I am asked often and I appreciate the concern here.
There is so much focus on what is ok during pregnancy and what should be avoided from food, to pets, music, medications, exercise, the list goes on.
As someone who has never been pregnant, I often witness pregnant women being bombarded with information (and other people's opinions...) and can only imagine how overwhelming that must be.
In my humble experience as a yoga teacher, and for the last 3 years solely focusing on yin yoga, what I can say is that every woman is different, and her pregnancy journey is different.
I try my best as a facilitator to meet each pregnant woman that temporarily comes into my care with my presence and respect for what she feels is right for her, her intuitive knowing, and autonomy in her own body, rather than treating her with the pregnancy text book.
Yes there are some universal things that happen anatomically to all pregnant women, so we will be discussing those here in the context of safety and the yin tissues of the body.
So is it ok to practice yin yoga during your pregnancy?
I cannot give a black and white answer for this question. Instead, I'm going to talk about my experience with the many pregnant women that have attended my yin yoga classes and how we worked together to help her have a safe and inclusive experience, rather than telling her she was not welcome, or it was not safe for her to practice yin yoga because of her pregnancy.
1. Let's start with the Anatomy.
Bernie Clark says it beautifully: "a pregnant woman's pelvis is in a yin yoga posture for 9 months."
Think about it, there is constant load (stress) on the yin tissues (ligaments and myo-fascia) that hold bones (joints) together, over a very long period of time, which creates an enormous amount of "creep" or elongation in those tissues both externally and internally. So why would we want to add any extra force to that? Answer, we don't!
Once she has had her baby, those tissues then undergo extraordinary change to pull back inward, known as "contracture" and the body requires slow rehabilitation, strength and rest. This is also not the time to be putting any unnecessary force or stress on those yin tissues around her pelvis.
In fact, I would say that of any stage in her pregnancy journey, the post-natal period is the time frame where yin yoga is not needed and will be counter productive to the body's own healing and recovery wisdom. Wait a little while before you come back to practice, especially if there have been any complicating factors such as tearing, birth traumas, or an episiotomy during the labour.
Yin tissues in the body like to be "exercised" in a non-aggressive, slow static way, with the stress applied (feels like a "stretching" sensation) no stronger than 7/10, followed by a rest period (we call that a rebound). However in the case of a woman whose pelvis is already in a yin yoga posture, and will only be experiencing more load/stress on her yin tissues as the months roll by, we need to reconsider how we support her in postures with props, what is an appropriate length of time, how she can rebound, and what shapes are off the menu for her.
I would not be putting a pregnant yin yoga student in strong dragon lunges, frog pose, or upside down dragonfly for any length of time without first considering if this is ok with her personally, adding heaps of props to take the weight off her tissues, or finding an alternative way to gently target the same area, and helping her out of the posture after a minute or two to rest.
I am going to go through some examples of how I moderate yin yoga postures for my pregnant students a little further on.
But for now, here are some important universal rules of thumb for pregnant students coming to yin yoga classes (please note that depending on where she is at in her pregnancy some of these will need more or less attention for the teacher in how the student is supported).
In the Rebounds and Savasana she will need to either be laying on her left hand side, reclined with a bolster under her back to lift her uterus weight up off her blood vessels, or laying flat with a small towel/cushion propped under her right hip (not the most comfortable, but considered the current gold-standard position in order to tip the uterus slightly to the left and off her blood vessels).
Any posture that mildly stresses the ligaments around her pelvis: sacrum, hip flexors, pelvic floor, will need to be propped heavily to take the weight out of her pelvic tissues or not practiced at all! (Which by mid-third trimester will be highly likely.)
We don't want to put her in any position that will put pressure on her belly, so obviously laying on her belly is going to be off the menu pretty quickly in her journey. Some women feel ok laying on their bellies in the first few weeks of their pregnancy, but will soon have an intuitive sense that this is no longer ok. So any yin posture that is done on the belly or begins on the belly is going to need some creative thought from the teacher on how to do this differently.
5 minute postures are far too long for her if the area being targeted is around her pelvis. If she is heavily propped and exploring a mild version of dragon for example, 1-2 minutes is plenty. If you are exploring a posture such as dragon, she will need blocks under each hand, blocks/bolsters under the sitting bone of the front leg so she is not activated in her leg at all. This is not for everyone, and as she gets bigger, this is not a posture recommended.
2. Relaxin. It's a thing.
Relaxin is the famous pregnancy hormone that helps ligaments to soften and yield while the body changes rapidly for a very fast growing child (what a women's body undergoes in 9 months is nothing short of amazing!)
It is often thought that Relaxin is pumping through her system at a steady stream the whole pregnancy, but that is not the case. My understanding is that she will get a pretty big burst in the first trimester when things are really shifting, and then in the third trimester there will be another significant burst in order to get ready for birth.
Did you know that menstruating women also get a burst of Relaxin during the time of their menses?
Pictures of healthy uterus not related to child-birth or fibroid pathologies are hard to come by on Dr Google, but the uterus does get much bigger (and therefore heavier) when it is full of blood and ready to shed.
Some women have a much heavier bleed than others and therefore might experience a much "heavier" sensation as the ligaments holding the uterus up inside are under much more load than the other weeks of the months.
Those ligaments get support to hold the womb in place via a dose of Relaxin, which helps them to lengthen a little more at that time.
Some women may therefore feel that they are a little more flexible during their period. I personally like to use that time to rest, but it makes complete sense knowing what the body is going through during her menses and why she may feel more pliable at that time.
Some women find they are a great deal more flexible during their pregnancy. I have also had some students share with me that they felt they pushed themselves too far in their yin practice when they were pregnant (not in my class!), because it felt really good to stretch that deeply, but after their baby was born and to this day they feel that their sacral region is not as stable and they now have to be very mindful as to how far they stretch in yoga classes.
So just because we might feel a bit more bendy, does not necessarily mean we should be capitalising on a full range of motion (ROM) in a yin posture (FYI we are never trying to do that, pregnant or not, as it is not the goal of yin yoga to destabilise or over-stretch our tissues. We are trying to stimulate them in order to keep them healthy and then we always rest them afterwards).
3. Is she coming to class for a stretch or to get some quiet time before Bub arrives?
Perhaps not straight away, but at some stage of her pregnancy most of my yin yoga students tell me that their yin yoga practice is more about getting some quiet time in before their baby arrives (and they never get a full night of sleep again), rather than it just being about the physical practice and getting a good stretch.
Many women also tell me that in the slowness of their practice, they start really connecting with the little being they are growing inside of them.
Small movements, rolls, and kicks during the practice are highlighted by her not having to be anywhere or be multitasking and distracted, so that the two of them can have some special time to start developing their relationship.
4. Her belly is only going to get bigger.
Ok this is a fact.
Yoga gets tricky as there is less real estate out in front of her body. So a yin yoga posture that might start with her laying on her belly to then get into the posture aka: broken wing, reclined twist, cat pulling its tail, sphinx, or seal pose are all going to need to be reconsidered. Even forward folds like butterfly, caterpillar and dragonfly are going to need some new approaches.
One of my best moves was to always ask my pregnant students to set themselves up next to the wall (the wall can easily become a new kind of floor if you can rethink what you are trying to target and how), so lets take broken wing for example, having her lay on her belly is simply not an option, so I offer this shape with her sitting cross-legged (or however she wants to sit really), side-on to the wall, and then slide her targeted arm up on the wall, elbow can be bet, her arm can be extended out tat whatever angle she likes, and her opposite hand can rest on the wall, and so can her head if she wants to try that.
During her pregnancy there is a good chance her breasts are going to be larger and soon she may be breastfeeding, so her pec minor and major area will really love some gentle opening. Not to mention that pretty soon she is going to be carrying a big bundle of joy, and her shoulders will round and this area of her upper chest is likely to get tight and short.
Doing broken wing in this moderated way is easy on her body as she can stay seated on the floor, and her belly has lots of space. She is very much in control with how much intensity she plays with in regards to the stretching sensations of her shoulder and chest, and when she is ready to come out and rebound she can gently turn her back to the wall and lean against it until she is ready to explore the opposite side.
All of the above mentioned forward folds; butterfly, dragonfly, and caterpillar may now do well to have a bolster out in front, vertical, so she can wrap her arms around it and rest her head or face into the top while she eases into the pose.
Shapes that stretch the side waist such as banana can feel too intense for some women, and ok for others. One nice modification for banana is to have the student laying on her side cross ways over a bolster (so that it neatly fits her side waist), with a few cushions to meet her head so that it is supported. In this position she may already feel a mild side waist stretch that is less intense than the classic way of doing banana.
If she wants, she can drape her arm up over her head to increase the sensations, or just find a comfortable position for both of her arms to rest.
5. There will be times when she is happy to stay in a restorative posture.
I am thinking of a handful of students that have passed through my classes that over the course of their third trimester were increasingly happy to stay reclined over a bolster in class.
As she gets bigger, the transitions of getting in and out of the shapes can start to be a lot of work for everyone involved. I have vivid memories of guiding the class into the next shape, whatever it was, and me drifting casually over to her to see if she was keen to come as well, and her just opening her eyes a tiny bit to smile and shake her head, she was fine, she is going to stay right where she is, happy days.
This also seemed to beautifully tie in to point number 3 about her intention for practice. At this stage she is looking for some quiet rest rather than the arduous task of sitting up and moving!
6. If you set up a lot of complicated props under her, you need to be there to help her when she is ready to come out.
This is really important, especially for teachers. If you are going to have bolsters, blocks and cushions under her for a particular shape, and you are there to help her get in and get settled, you really need to be there to assist her when she is coming back out.
This applies to anyone who you have propped in a class, as you take away their agency when they don't know what you have done, and therefore don't know what is involved with their exiting out, but particularly for a pregnant student as she has a lot more body to manoeuvre especially if she is in a relaxed state. So be there to help her in and out of the yin postures.
7. Keep checking in.
Don't assume, ask her.
She will appreciate being asked about how she is doing in the practice.
The temptation is to treat all pregnant students the same way, with the same moderations and cues (often because yoga teachers have not had enough experience yet and they are nervous the student might hurt themselves in class), but they are not the same people, and I guarantee she will appreciate the effort of inquiring with her, rather than telling her how she feels and when she is unsafe.
Yes there are safety issues with yin tissues that apply to all pregnant students, and if she did not feel good in her body after a class, or 24 hours after a class that is the body saying "hey something we did in there needs to change next time, or we need to back off a little bit before we try that again" as there will be some women who don't feel good doing yin when they are pregnant.
Hence me not being able to give this article a black and white opinion. Checking in regularly with her, (and that can just be a look in her direction where she knows you are checking up on her) can make her feel so much more cared for and tended to, especially if she had been feeling apprehensive about coming to class and asking for assistance.
If you are a student of yin that has just found out you are pregnant, congratulations, and I hope this article has been helpful for you.
Remember to trust that you know your body best, and your intuition is probably going to heighten at this time so be sure to take that into your practice with you.
If you are a teacher of yin yoga and have been nervous about pregnant students attending your class, I hope the above points have helped you to feel more comfortable as a teacher. If you are wanting to expand your knowledge of anatomy - feel free to have a look at my Anatomy for Yin Yoga online course which is open for enrolment right now.