Pregnancy and practice: 11 things I learned in 11 weeks

As I write this, I’m 11 weeks pregnant and emerging from a delightfully uneventful first trimester. It has been a voyage of discovery, listening, learning, researching, fretting, and letting go.

Speaking of scheduling: one lesson I learned early on is that things change. Planning is useful as an exercise in attenuating mental energy, but the actual plans… well, get used to plans changing. My husband and I wrapped up 2016 having accepted that we didn’t conceive a baby according to plan. We finished our 3 months in Mysore, and headed into 2017 with new plans. I flew to Boston to start my 2-month teaching contract leading the Mysore room for Kate O’Donnell, with plans to rock practice and continue work on my book. Then I started feeling kinda funny…

…When the test came back positive, I was like a too-excited deer in the headlights and realised I had no actual plan for what to do next. And it was thrilling. I realised then that not even having a plan right away is OK. I lingered in the spontaneous miracle of being host to a new life taking root inside my body, completely of its own accord. Unlike every other arena of life, I personally didn’t have to do anything further except continue breathing and eating.

When you first discover you’re pregnant, it is a time to acknowledge that your role is in support of the natural progression of the separate, autonomous, distinctly not-you plan that is growing inside of you. I took a deep breath in awe of this moment.

Seeing my astonishment, my medically-educated sister and recent mama, Mandy, gave me several excellent books. So I started reading. This was a lesson in itself: reading actual books about pregnancy helps to cast a wide net for a big-picture perspective. Here are a few that  really spoke to me:

  1. Yoga Sadhana for Mothers by Sharmila Desai and Anna Wise

  2. HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method by Marie F. Mongan, M.Ed., M.Hy.

  3. Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy Paperback  By the pregnancy experts at Mayo Clinic

  4. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child: A step-by-step programme for a good night’s sleep 7 Apr 2005 By Dr Marc Weissbluth

And in reading actual books, you get yourself away from that horrid white screen that is taking up too much of our time these days anyway. And you can feel your own background, education, spiritual inclinations, and general preferences come together around what you’re learning to form general plans that will make sense with your personal life story.

One thing I have learned is that everyone is different and that every woman has to make her own decisions. This was at first a daunting prospect but one with which I’m fully familiar, since it is sort of a universal truth anyway. At first, I really wanted a prescription for exactly what to do, but quickly realised that the comforts of straightforward planning are something you’ve got to let go of in pregnancy.

The traditional Ashtanga advice for pregnant women is to stop practicing and stay off the practice for the duration of the first trimester. There are beautifully natural reasons for this that go way beyond quantifiable physical justification. For example, a woman steeped in Ashtanga practice is likely coming from a place of discipline, tending toward heat, with a lean body accustomed to squeezing and lifting the perineal and body wall. She’s going to have to let that go to a degree. Letting go of practice for a couple of months is homage to making space for this new being in your body, and in your life as a whole. My friend and teacher, Sarah, has a lovely turn of phrase in describing the movement of a newly pregnant woman “as if you’re moving through life with a bowl of water on your head” in support of allowing the pregnancy to become well-established.

Going back to the notion that each of us is uniquely formed in the midst of our experience and in charge of our own decision-making, it is important to acknowledge that one approach to staying off the Ashtanga practice will be possibly different to the approach of other pregnant practitioners. I still did Namaskaras and standing postures, just verrrrry slowly. I would move into a restorative sequence and then chant for 20 minutes. Some pregnant practitioners would take the advice literally, and do no standing postures at all.

Still, we are advised as pregnant women to keep exercising and stay physically fit, now as much as ever, maybe even more as the vessel of another life. Getting the heart rate up, stimulating muscular action and circulation, and boosting the endorphins are all great for mother and the embryo. One aspect of “keeping fit” that resonated with me in early pregnancy is the cardiovascular workout provided by moving continuously on the mat. This always seemed like the safest and most effective way to condition my body and mind, and I wondered if there was a scientific reason to abandon my go-to practice for overall fitness just when I needed it most.

I learned through my research that the risk of miscarriage stems from the genetic viability of the pregnancy and NOT from anything the mother is doing physically. Read: we are not risking the safety of the lentil-to-fig-sized embryo by practicing yoga during the first trimester.  That was hugely comforting, but I still felt that taking it REALLY EASY was the right approach for me this time. The spiritual and energetic reasons for taking it easy are confirmed in physical symptoms: fatigue, nausea, hyper-sensitivity to smells.

So, between 4 and 9 weeks, I built my morning routine around tending the altar,  moving slowly, breathing, and chanting. I got my heart rate up by walking vigorously as often as possible, and kept things cool on the mat. Keeping a routine of some kind, in place of the routine physical rigours of Ashtanga, was an important lesson for me. I was lucky that my symptoms were very mild and it was always possible to awake at 3am and get into the studio early for a practice before the room filled up with practitioners. As long as I nibbled something and kept my stomach from being empty, nausea wasn’t a problem. 

Somewhere around 9/10 weeks, I felt like I really wanted to move. This was when it started to feel natural to resume full standing sequence (minus revolved parsvakonasana) and get back into primary with the normal vinyasa between each side (minus the jumping and skipping Marichy B, C, D). I started doing Urdvhadanurasana (backbending) again, and full closing. I chant my shanti mantras and the first 20 yoga sutras.

I have started taking laps of the studio in lunge-walks, which has given me a sense of power and balance in my legs and glutes. Something about empowering my heart and legs seems to support allowing my abdomen and pelvis to soften. The individual response to hormonal cascades is one of the most interesting aspects of pregnancy, so I’ve learned, it is a safe and joyful process to follow your intuition. 

These are some of my insights from personal experience this time around! Here are some additional points on practicalities of keeping your yoga working for you throughout early pregnancy:

  • In jumping back and forth, you are not endangering your embryo. You won’t “knock it loose” or anything, and there is no evidence to support that jumping is harming the embryo. Many women jump throughout pregnancy. However, unless you’re landing with the lightest of feet with the greatest of control, the landing can be a real jolt for you body… consider stepping instead of jumping.
  • Same for twisting. It just becomes mechanically impossible as the pregnancy progresses. But for energetic reasons and to encourage making metaphorical ‘space’ for the new being in your life… I chose to let go of the deep twisting as soon as I found out I was pregnant.
  • As my friend Emma says, eat “little and often” for best results combatting nausea.
  • Build an altar in your practice and/or living space, with sacred items that are of personal meaning to you. Have a photo of your teacher, a personal friend or loved one, bits of nature, a wee candle and incense. Ring a bell and do puja before your practice to set the intention for this grounded time of nesting.
  • Have some ginger beer or crystallised ginger around – it helps!
  • Be amongst people you trust. It is all but impossible to keep your little secret in a yoga room. They’re going to find out by observation that there is something going on with you! So if you want to keep it a secret, your best bet is to  just not be in the yoga room the first trimester, which is a totally viable option! I worried that I should try and keep it a secret for the entire first trimester, just in case I miscarried. But then I realised that I’d want a few key people in the room to know if I was going through a miscarriage, just for moral support.
  • If you’re a student and you want to stay in the room to practice during the first trimester, tell your teacher and assistants. If you are the teacher, tell your assistants, even early on. It is totally up to you how and when you decide to tell people, but from my experience here in Boston I was so glad a few people knew my story, just in case something went wrong it was good to know I had support.
  • Try not to judge others or worry about the judgement of others about what you’re choosing to do on the mat in support of your journey.
  • Remember, you’re a pregnant lady: enjoy it! 

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