Prenatal yoga: A free stretch for moms-to-be
Glancing through the large windows of Island Co-Housing's common room on any Monday evening reveals what I believe is a magical scene: candlelight, and spread across the floor, mats, pillows and blankets and a dozen or so pregnant women stretching and chatting together. The free weekly prenatal yoga classes - sponsored by the YMCA of Martha's Vineyard and an anonymous donor - are held Mondays at 5:30 pm, and they are led by Sherry Sidoti and myself.
From my experience as a mother, a yoga teacher, and a labor doula [a trained assistant to other women during labor], I know how profoundly helpful prenatal yoga can be in stress reduction, alleviating common pregnancy discomforts, and preparing women for labor and delivery.
Abril Chapman says, "This is my first pregnancy and my first yoga experience. I have to admit I was a little intimidated going into the class, having never done yoga. I was surprised how quickly I connected with all of the mothers in the class... It is comforting hearing the different stories and experiences from the girls. My husband and I don't have family on the Island, so this yoga class has really become my support group."
The 90-minute classes include a balance of recommended poses both standing, sitting, and reclining; breathing and pelvic floor exercises; and a guided relaxation or meditative rest period.
Chelsea Pennebaker, a regular attendee, says, "I feel like prenatal yoga is the best practice for this unknown adventure. I love the camaraderie of sitting in yoga with all the other mamas with our baby bellies reaching out to each other."
Ms. Pennebaker appreciates having a class specifically for pregnant women: "There is no denying the bellies. The teachers don't treat them as inconveniences to be overcome. They are lovingly integrated into every movement and breathing exercise."
Prenatal yoga differs from traditional yoga because it must take into account the physical and hormonal changes. There is extra weight and pressure on the pelvis that often shifts the center of gravity forward, and exerts stress in the lower back. There is also the flow of a hormone called relaxin that increases the flexibility of a woman's joints and ligaments to help prepare the pelvis for birth.
There are other changes to consider. During pregnancy blood pressure is usually lowered, and blood volume is doubled so the heart has to work harder during exertion. Lung capacity is decreased as the baby and uterus take up more space in the abdomen, and ordinary activities can leave a pregnant woman short of breath. Research shows that women who have remained active during pregnancy tend to have an easier labor and recovery postpartum.
Former class member Anne Caldwell, mother of two, says, "It helped so much during my birthing experience. I was able to achieve deeper breathing, could change positions with an ease and intuitiveness that came from the practice...."
There are poses like squatting to strengthen the legs and open the hips, and no prenatal yoga class is complete without regular pelvic floor exercises that reduce incontinence, increase blood circulation to the pelvis, and reduce chances of perineal damage. Many of the prenatal breathing practices help women achieve a state of deep relaxation and lowered stress and anxiety levels.
Becky Beeson, mom to one-year-old Connor, credits the benefits of her prenatal yoga as allowing her to remain in labor at home until she was seven centimeters dilated. "I was comfortable that I knew when it was time to head to the hospital...I was able to give birth to a 9-pound,15-ounce boy without an epidural." She continues, "The mind is more powerful than most realize, and so is the body."
Prenatal yoga teachers receive special training and certification in how to work safely with the pregnant body. Both Ms. Sidoti and I are certified labor doulas, and have completed extensive training and certification as prenatal yoga instructors. Before moving to the Vineyard, I worked as a birth assistant at several New York teaching hospitals including Columbia Presbyterian, NYU Medical, and Cornell.
Stefanie Wolf, who recently had baby Sofia, is a seasoned yoga practitioner. She says, "At first the class seemed easy, but as my pregnancy progressed it became more and more challenging to hold the poses. [The instructors] always offered options and modifications for the different stages of pregnancy and skill levels. I always felt safe."
The process of securing a grant to provide the free series began last winter. Ms. Sidoti says, "It is so wonderful to have free classes offered to Island women, especially these days... the reality is there are many who would not be able to even consider a $15 class."
Teamed with Ms. Sidoti, and in consultation with the midwives and labor and delivery nurses at Martha's Vineyard Hospital, and the staff of the YMCA, a grant proposal was formed. The YMCA agreed to be the nonprofit sponsor and an anonymous Island family provided funds to offer 45 free classes, and the series began this September.
Ms. Sidoti regards teaching women during their pregnancy as a privilege. "I mostly love the Sangha - the bonded community of moms that begins in prenatal class and continues as the babies grow up together," she says.
Prenatal yoga, Mondays, 5:30 pm, common room at Island Co-housing, West Tisbury. Free. No pre-registration, no experience required. Mats and props are provided. Permission from your doctor or midwife required. Contact Sherry@fitnesslifeyoga.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elissa Lash is a certified doula and prenatal yoga instructor at the Monday evening prenatal yoga series.