As a long-time ashtangi, a yoga studio owner and a mother twice over, this is a question I have agonised over during both my pregnancies and in subsequent years when advising students. It is a complex issue.
During the first trimester of my first pregnancy, I went against everything that I intuitively felt and pretty much stopped my (ashtanga) yoga practice during this time. Those first few weeks of pregnancy can be overwhelming, marked by moments of turmoil, wonder, fear, joy, utter disbelief and apprehension. It was a time when I needed more than ever that anchor of yoga, which grounded me and connected me. Yoga was intrinsic to my sense of well-being, it de-stressed me, centred me, allowed me to tune in to my inner landscape. It aided my sleep, my digestion, my moods. It was my equilbrum. It fed my soul. How could it makes sense to stop something that gave me so many benefits? And yet all the guidance was that I should stop for those first three months. So with intense frustration, I did pretty much that. Occasionally with a sense of guilt, I would furtively roll out my mat at the end of my bed and do a slow sun salutation or two, but essentially I took heed to the advice given to me by many and stopped my regular practice until my first scan. From that point on I practiced regularly right through to the day before I gave birth.
Four years on during my second pregnancy, a little older, a little wiser, and most importantly having been through pregnancy and birth, I ignored the general wisdom of professionals and continued coming to my mat during those early days of pregnancy. What was fundamentally different this time was that my first pregnancy and birth had taught me to fully trust my own body and instincts over what any medical professional might tell me. It was a totally different kind of practice – ashtanga in a very loose kind of unrecognisable way! I was lucky to have always done self practice and was able to continue in that environment at home or in the studio doing my own “free styling” practice, vaguely following the ashtanga sequence but pretty much doing what ever felt good. Listening carefully to the wisdom of my own body.
During the the mid and late stages of my first pregnancy and throughout the entire second pregnancy I simply tuned in and listened attentively to my body. It told me if something didn't feel right. My asana practice softened. My body became my teacher and I understood on a profound level that no one else could guide me or tell me what was right for me at any one time. No teacher. No guru. No doctor. Day to day my practice was completely different. Sometimes soft. Sometimes energetic. Other times meditative. Sometimes just breathing on my mat. Essentially I needed the safe sanctuary of my mat to feel grounded and connected to myself and the life growing inside me. It was how we first bonded.
Coming back to my mat after pregnancy, I felt a deep sense of emptiness, grief even, that I was no longer sharing the practice with that little being inside. It took a while to reclaim yoga as my own. I still miss those practices, a deep and soulful communing with another.
Since then I have frequently had discussions with regular practitioners at our studio about what they should do in their first trimester. I am torn as to what to tell them. As a woman, a yogi, a mother I desperately want to say "continue" to anyone who has an already established practice - and the subtext of my advise is usually just that. As a studio owner, however, I have to tell them to stop for those first three months. It’s a discussion which sits uncomfortably with me. In my first pregnancy I succumbed to the pressure and followed the rules. In my second I flouted them! The latter was undoubtedly the right thing for me to do. There are patterns here where medical professionals and guidelines override our own instincts about what is right. It happens in childbirth all the time with medical professionals taking over and micromanaging childbirth. The no yoga in your first trimester rule can be similarly disempowering.
Ultimately I feel it is a woman’s own personal decision – just as it is to have an epidural or a water birth or home birth – and that an established yogini who practices with enough self awareness is safe to continue through all stages of pregnancy. So this is key. It’s about the way we practice, not if we practice, in those first 12 weeks. So much of our body’s energy is being directed towards the growth of the baby that the practice should nourish us and not deplete us energetically. So if we truly listen to our bodies we will in all likelihood be guided towards a mindful gentle practice, as opposed to a high energy yoga session in a heated room!
To err on the safe side, I would probably not recommend starting a yoga practice for the first time until after the first scan - even if simply because were anything to happen you would not want to wonder “Was it the Yoga?”. But for those who have a practice as a way of life then it is counterintuitive to stop.
Yoga in pregnancy (whether you start early or from 12 weeks on) is the start of a very important journey in learning to tune in and trust and listen to your own body. It will set you on such a positive path for those 9 months and beyond and will empower you to take ownership of your body, of your pregnancy, and ultimately of your birth.
I breezed through two pregnancies, and was blessed with two easy and uncomplicated natural births. My second child was born at home with no midwife, doula or doctor, delivered by my partner! It was never the game plan to have an unassisted birth. I know without a shadow of a doubt that yoga empowered me to get through it and to turn what could have been a traumatic and very lonely experience into one of the most profound moments of my life. It could have been a very different story.
So if you want the unofficial advice woman to woman the answer is YES continue – with awareness – if you are an established practitioner…. although officially if you ask me in my capacity as studio director, I will reluctantly tell you something different!!
For ashtangis’ wishing to continue with their practice during any stage of pregnancy I found this article helpful on how best to modify the series.
Ella, Shala Co-Director