I wrote this piece when I was in my third trimester, and published it on a blog on prenatal yoga I was thinking about starting. I had a really nice comment on it the other day, and realized that it has been getting quite a lot of views, so I wanted to consolidate and repost a (slightly modified) version here. I hope some of you find this helpful. Above all remember to listen to your body and that all this is temporary. AD
The prenatal class I take twice a week always begins with a check-in around the room. Each person gives their name, the week they are at with their pregnancy, and often responds to the story or question which the instructor has introduced as the theme of the class. Today the second mamma-to-be said that she thought she was in the wrong class as she was only 11 weeks pregnant and was looking for something active. The instructor promised her that we would indeed be active, but by the time we had reached the third or so section, after our opening cat-cows and pelvic tilts, I looked up and noticed she had left.
I can imagine just how she was feeling. At that point, your body is probably a lot more pregnant than your mind. You’re simultaneously excited, terrified of being excited lest something go wrong, in denial, unsure of what you should and shouldn’t be doing. Your body is doing weird things but mostly still looks normal. No-one other than your nearest and dearest would be able to tell you were ‘with child’. So, a room full of women with bumps that are unmistakably babies and not just last night’s burrito, talking about juicy vaginas and pubic symphysis: yep, that’s pretty scary.
I honestly think the issue of whether, and how, to practise in the first trimester is the most difficult of all prenatal yoga questions. As with all things body and pregnancy related, it’s intensely personal. You might feel so sick that the concept of leaving the bedroom is as much as you can handle. You might feel entirely normal, completely unpregnant, essentially out of tune with the changes going on deep inside. Neither are ideal situations for the kind of intuition you need to cultivate for a safe and productive prenatal practice. And, as illustrated this morning, a prenatal class might not be the right thing either.
I discovered I was pregnant at 8 weeks, up to which I practised my normal 5-6 times per week vinyasa in blissful ignorance. The day I found out I went to my regular class, looking for some balance in the midst of strong emotions and major change. I remember pulling up into dhanurasana, bow-pulling pose, and the image of the kidney-shaped blob on the ultrasound flashing through my mind as my weight settled on my pubic bone. I had done some quick reading and knew that at this stage the embryo was supposed to be safely guarded behind those bones, but I came down quickly, feeling guilty and the first of many shots of maternal worry. I didn’t practice dhanurasana or any other stomach-lying poses like shalabasana (locust) after that, but that in itself led to quandaries about who to tell about the pregnancy and when. If you practice at a studio where you know a lot of people but aren’t ready to ‘come out’ as a preggo yet, this can be torture.
I carried on with a slightly gentler practice for the next two weeks, following the advice of one teacher who advised me to think of ‘sticking’ and ‘stickiness’ and not do anything that compromised that. Essentially this means no jumping forward or back, kicking into handstands, or doing anything that might dislodge the implantation process. I carried on twisting, pulling back a bit by not doing any binds, which were a regular part of my twist practice, and focusing on breathing down into the belly. I also carried on taking full backbends, namely urdhva dhanurasana. It’s difficult to say now, but at this point of writing I feel as though these never felt quite right to me, just as with the bow-pulling pose. But I love backbends and my ego attachment to them outrode those pesky back-of-mind niggles.
At 10 weeks pregnant my husband and I went away for the weekend. That day we took a long and beautiful hike to a cliff edge, where, as we rested and stretched for a while, I pressed up into a backbend with some joy and more than some of that ego. The hike back to the car was tiring, but I pushed on, reluctant for my body to show any weakness. That evening, we came back to our cabin to dress for dinner and I found I was bleeding. We ended up at the local ER where, thankfully, everything was fine. The bleeding remained completely unexplained by all my care providers but I’m sure I overdid things that day and I’m sure that the backbend contributed to that. It was sobering to say the least. I stopped my regular practice for the next 2-3 weeks, until that risky first trimester was past. The weeks dragged by, even though I knew I was so close to being into the second trimester. I took prenatal classes on YogaGlo instead and once safely at the 13 week mark went back to my practice with a new humility and mindfulness.
I tell this story not to worry anyone who wants to practice through the first trimester but just to illustrate the complexities of this time, even if you think you know your body and your yoga really well. Now, 31 weeks into my pregnancy, smitten with the wriggling little bundle inside me, I couldn’t imagine advising anyone other than to take those first 13 weeks with extreme caution. Pattabhi Jois advised women not to practice Ashtanga at all in their first trimester. Would I go that far? Probably not, since I remain convinced that my steady practice has contributed massively to my very easy, healthy pregnancy. But if you are going to continue taking vinyasa classes during your first trimester, these would be the things I would like to go back and tell myself at that point:
* Make space for baby. Make space for baby. Make space for baby. Remind yourself of this constantly. This is physical of course, but it can also be deeply emotional too during this time of intense adjustment. You are going to be making space in your life for baby for a long time, so beginning to practice this by making physical compromises is a great place to start.
* Be easy and gentle on yourself. If your normal practice is near daily and you end up on the mat twice a week during those early weeks, you’re still doing well. If you notice that your practice leaves you exhausted, back off – take fewer chaturangas and vinyasas, go a little less deep into standing poses – whatever leaves you feeling nourished by the practice rather than depleted at this time.
* Check your ego at the door. Are you doing that backbend or inversion because it’s what your body wants, or to feed your ego? Play around with skipping poses that you might be doing out of attachment and see how it feels. You might find it incredibly relieving to give yourself permission not to be perfect, or not always to be at your edge.
* Think of stickiness inside. Don’t do anything that is too jarring on the abdomen – jumping, sharp twisting etc.
* Make child’s pose your friend. If you are going to carry on practising in a normal vinyasa class during pregnancy, you are going to have to get used to going against the flow and modifying, taking child’s pose, and so on when everyone else is in locust, or twisting, or doing something that doesn’t work for your body. You can take child’s pose whenever you want without anyone having to know it’s because you’re pregnant. Notice how it makes you feel to be different or to opt out of something and use it as a learning process – you don’t need to judge your reaction but being aware of it is a good thing.
* That said, you should tell your teacher that you’re pregnant and modifying so they can be mindful of your needs and avoid drawing any attention to it. Now is a good time to be practising with someone you trust.
* Finally, the first trimester is, like all things in life, temporary. It too will pass, and you will have the rest of your life to resume your normal tempo. Use this time to be grateful for things just as they are – even if you feel sick to your stomach or so tired you can barely get up in the morning, it’s your body’s way of telling you that something beautiful and special is happening to you. There will be a time when you will miss this.