[Wendy Spies practiced Ashtanga through her pregnancy - all the way to the day before the birth of a healthy baby boy, and shared some really wonderful insights with us. Wendy started practicing in 1987, and plans to start teaching yoga again in June. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Thank you, Wendy, for your thorough contribution. -Ed.]
[See Wendy's follow-up article and baby's photos here (December 2007). -Ed.]
* how did you practice change as your pregnancy progressed – 1st trimester, 2nd, 3rd?
During the 1st trimester, my heart rate would accelerate, sometimes to the point that I’d get dizzy. You are carrying a lot of extra blood in your body at this point in the pregnancy, which causes these kinds of effects. All of changes also affected my respiration, which made it harder to keep the breath long, so often I’d hold poses for a longer number of breaths to compensate. My body shape also changed a lot in the first three months, so I learned to compensate in a number of asanas.
I wasn’t showing at all, and debated about whether or not to tell my teachers. One thing you learn when you get pregnant is that everyone has advice for you, which is always quite heartfelt, but often misguided. Some teachers advised me not to practice, and the yoga literature is full of contradictory advice about which poses to do or not to do. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t discussed the pregnancy with some teachers, as it caused them to back off from adjustments or look at me with disapproval, at least until they were more confident that I wasn’t going to break because I was pregnant. Lino‘s attitude was very different – he had me doing tick-tocks at this stage.
["Tick-tocks" means: going from standing going to a very quick handstand, dropping the feet over the head down into wheel, then coming back up into standing, then from standing dropping back into full wheel, then kicking the feet over the head back to a quick handstand then to standing -Ed.]
The whole advice battlefield had its biggest impact when I took a teacher’s advice to not practice during the first trimester. By my second day off, it was clear that my body wasn’t a fan of that idea at all. I started to get morning sickness, which I hadn’t had before, and generally felt pretty awful. After seeing the doctor, and getting the all clear, I resumed practicing, and started feeling better right away. The morning sickness never returned.
The only problem with asking doctors about yoga is that they all have a different idea of what yoga is and it is rare that they will understand a practice like Ashtanga. David Swenson had a great suggestion – he advised me to bring in specific photos of postures or video clips into the doctor’s office and say “can I do THAT”, not to ask the general â€œcan I do yogaâ€ question.
The best advice I got at this stage was from my doctor and from reading an article about Nancy Gilgoff’s comments about Ashtanga while pregnant. The doctor basically chuckled at the idea that I was heeding any advice given by non-doctors. She told me my number one job during the pregnancy was to train like I was going to run a marathon – labor was going take as much work as running 26 miles, and being in good physical shape would be crucial. The best yoga specific advice was to keep doing whatever I was comfortable doing before the pregnancy, but also listening and modifying as needed as my body changed as the baby grew.
The second trimester wasn’t dramatically different from the first, but there was definitely more compensation for my growing abdomen. Some of the twisting postures became quite difficult, and I started to make simple adjustments to postures like Utthita Trikonasana by widening my stance. By the end of the second trimester, Anne had me modifying Marichasana C & D by twisting in the opposite direction, which kept my belly from interfering, but kept the basic structure of the asana intact.
The third trimester was a different story altogether. Padmasana was now completely gone (which was a bit shocking, because I had heard that pregnancy opened the hips â€“ it does, but in an unpredictable way). My vinyasas now involved stepping back and forward â€“ no jumping at all. My shoulders and arms got stronger because of the extra weight, but that also caused my shoulders to get much tighter.
Betty Lai has a detailed article about practicing while pregnant on Ashtanga.com. I practiced with Jois during his world tour this year, a few weeks before giving birth. What I found interesting was that he adjusted and modified many postures that I was doing which differed from the advice given in the article. So, again, what is appropriate for one person is not for another and teachers’ advice changes with time and experience as well.
* later on did the baby react to certain postures? which ones?
In general, the baby loved practicing. Like any kid, he was huge fan of the big movements, especially inversions. The first time anyone saw the baby move was in the end of second trimester when Philippe strolled by while I was in Sirsasana, and saw some movement in my belly that definitely wasn’t bandhas! Through most of the pregnancy, though, the baby wasn’t reacting to postures, and was calm throughout practice. But in the last two weeks, I was feeling movement in almost every posture, which was probably a combination of the asana and the natural movement of the baby moving into “launch” position.
* what was hardest about practicing pregnant?
The difficult things for me were: not practicing too hard and calmly letting postures go. Also, getting used to people staring and not minding that almost everyone is more concerned about your baby than they are about you (while they might not make that explicit or ever admit even to themselves).
* did some postures get easier?
I am â€œblessedâ€ with very tight hips relative to other parts of my practice. All of the postures that depend on open hips got easier for me, but I was still careful to maintain integrity in the poses. So, asanas like Supta Kurmasana, Baddha Konasana, Upavistha Konasana, and Janu Sirsasana C got slightly easier. It didn’t happen nearly as quickly as I expected, these postures really only came very, very late in the pregnancy and have luckily stuck around afterwards (for now). One of the things people warned me about was the relaxin (a hormone released during pregnancy) allowing postures to become much easier and that causing the integrity of the joints and your strength to dissipate. However, for me, that wasn’t really the case. Due to the extra weight I became very strong and less flexible in many ways due to this strength. Also, because I was practicing every day, the shifting of weight in my body did not lead to problems with balance like it might have otherwise. However, after delivery, the dramatic weight shift did cause my balance to become greatly compromised. I am still trying to regain my Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana.
* how did it affect your breath?
The breathing was very hard because of my greater lung capacity and volume of blood. You actually breathe in a fundamentally different way when pregnant. My lung capacity grew significantly very early on and the breath became much shallower. I had always had a fairly slow practice until I got pregnant, then I needed to either hold postures for about 10 breaths to maintain the same pace as before, or I would practice very quickly like Pattabhi Jois does in lead classes.
* do you think it had an effect on delivery?
Yoga definitely had an effect on my labor and delivery. Specifically, it gave me a greater ability to control and use the muscles necessary for the final stages of labor (mula bandha more than anything else) and it also helped me deal with the pain through breath and meditation. To contrast my labor with that of my sister, her first child was a relatively speedy delivery of 12 hours and she didn’t practice at all. I was blessed with an even quicker 2.5 hour active labor (45 minutes of which was me waiting at 10 cms for my sister to get from the airport to the hospital so she could make it for the delivery). And much to my relief August (my son) measured a 9 on the APGAR.
* when do you plan to start practicing again? or what is your
post-birth practice now like?
At 4 weeks I did my first practice. I waited until the bleeding had completely stopped. The doctor said that wasn’t necessary, but it was the best compromise I could make given all the conflicting advice. My doctor said I can do whatever I like as long as the bleeding doesn’t increase. I have learned, as I believe all new mothers do, the pregnancy advice pales in comparison to post pregnancy advice! When interacting with everyone from Aunts to complete strangers, be prepared to perfect that nod and smile and then listen to yourself because you know what is best.
My post pregnancy practice has been better in many ways. I have a much greater appreciation for the practice itself. I am just thrilled when everything lines up correctly and I can sneak in some yoga. With those dramatic changes â€“ the weight gain, muscles and ligaments shifting, and entire lifestyle shifts â€“ having a baby is a big lesson in not wanting postures, but just being happy with what you have. As a teacher it also gave me an even greater appreciation for injuries and limitations of others, and how our bodies and our minds change as we get older. Yoga teaches us to not be attached to our physical self or to the practice – there is nothing like pregnancy, delivery and nursing to further reinforce that dissociation!
* what one thing would you advise for pregnant yogis?
Listen to yourself, you are your own best teacher and most importantly don’t be afraid to practice! By practicing, I sometimes felt like I was choosing myself over my baby. But now, after the labor, and seeing how healthy August is, I know that my practice was for both of us.