Prenatal yoga can be a great way to prepare for childbirth. Find out if this type of prenatal exercise is right for you. By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you're pregnant and looking for ways to relax or stay fit, you may be considering prenatal yoga. Good for you! But did you know that prenatal yoga may also help you prepare for labor and promote your baby's health? Before you start prenatal yoga, understand the range of possible benefits, as well as what a typical class entails and important safety tips.

Much like other types of childbirth-preparation classes, prenatal yoga is a multifaceted approach to exercise that encourages stretching, mental centering and focused breathing. Research suggests that prenatal yoga is safe and can have many benefits for pregnant women and their babies.

For example, studies have suggested that prenatal yoga can:

  • Improve sleep
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Increase the strength, flexibility and endurance of muscles needed for childbirth
  • Decrease lower back pain, nausea, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches and shortness of breath
  • Decrease the risk of preterm labor, pregnancy-induced hypertension and intrauterine growth restriction — a condition that slows a baby's growth

Prenatal yoga can also help you meet and bond with other pregnant women and prepare for the stress of being a new parent.

A typical prenatal yoga class may involve:

  • Breathing. You'll be encouraged to focus on breathing in and out slowly and deeply through the nose. You may also practice different breathing techniques and making deep sounds, such as humming or grunting. Prenatal yoga breathing techniques may help you reduce or manage shortness of breath during pregnancy and work through contractions during labor.
  • Gentle stretching. You'll be encouraged to gently move different areas of your body, such as your neck and arms, through their full range of motion.
  • Postures. While standing, sitting or lying on the ground, you'll gently move your body into different positions aimed at developing your strength, flexibility and balance. Props — such as blankets, cushions and belts — may be used to provide support and comfort. You'll also continue to focus on your breathing.
  • Cool down and relaxation. At the end of each prenatal yoga class, you'll relax your muscles and restore your resting heart rate and breathing rhythm. You may be encouraged to listen to your own breathing, pay close attention to sensations, thoughts and emotions, or repeat a mantra or word to bring about a state of self-awareness and inner calm.

There are many different styles of yoga — some more strenuous than others. Prenatal yoga and hatha (gentle) yoga are the best choices for pregnant women. If they're not an option, talk to the instructor about your pregnancy before starting any other yoga class.

Be careful to avoid Bikram yoga, commonly called hot yoga, which involves doing vigorous poses in a room heated to 100 to 110 F (38 to 43 C). Bikram yoga may raise your body temperature too much, causing a condition known as hyperthermia. In addition, ashtanga and other types of power yoga may be too strenuous for women who aren't experienced yoga practitioners.

To protect your health and your baby's health during prenatal yoga, follow basic safety guidelines. For example:

  • Talk to your health care provider. Before you begin a prenatal yoga program, make sure you have your health care provider's OK. You may not be able to do prenatal yoga if you are at increased risk of preterm labor or have certain medical conditions, such as heart disease or back problems.
  • Set realistic goals. For most pregnant women, at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity is recommended on most, if not all, days of the week. However, even shorter or less frequent workouts can help you stay in shape and prepare for labor.
  • Pace yourself. If you can't speak normally while you're doing prenatal yoga, you're probably pushing yourself too hard.
  • Stay cool and hydrated. Practice prenatal yoga in a well-ventilated room to avoid overheating. Drink plenty of fluids during prenatal yoga to keep yourself hydrated.
  • Avoid certain postures. When doing poses, bend from your hips — not your back — to maintain normal spine curvature. Avoid lying on your belly or back, doing deep forward or backward bends, or doing twisting poses that put pressure on your abdomen. You can modify twisting poses so that you only move your upper back, shoulders and rib cage. Avoid inverted poses, which involve extending your legs above your heart or head, unless you're an experienced yoga practitioner. As your pregnancy progresses, use props during postures to accommodate changes in your center of gravity. If you wonder whether a pose is safe, ask your instructor for guidance.
  • Don't overdo it. As you do prenatal yoga, pay attention to your body and how you feel. Start slow and avoid positions that are beyond your level of experience or comfort. Stretch only as far as you would have before pregnancy. If you experience any pain or other red flags — such as vaginal bleeding, decreased fetal movement or contractions — during prenatal yoga, stop and contact your health care provider.

If you're interested in taking a prenatal yoga class, look for a program taught by an instructor who has training in prenatal yoga. Consider observing a class ahead of time to make sure you're comfortable with the activities involved, the instructor's style, the class size and the environment.

Jan. 22, 2013