- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

Susan Oliver wasn’t convinced when a friend recommended she try yoga during her first pregnancy three years ago. “I was afraid it might be too difficult. You think of yoga as people in these crazy poses,” says the 33-year-old Herndon resident, who gave birth to her second son last month, “but I wanted every strategy I could to get through a natural birth.”

She finally relented, and the yoga classes became an enormous comfort for her during the birth of both her children.

Many moms to be are turning to yoga for more than just exercise, stretching and stress relief. The Eastern practice also offers significant benefits for women preparing for childbirth. Yoga strengthens some of the muscles used during delivery and echoes breathing practices mothers use during the birth process.

Mrs. Oliver, who took yoga classes before the birth of both her children, says yoga’s breathing exercises remind her of lessons learned in Bradley birthing sessions she once took. In fact, a fellow classmate there told her about the pregnancy yoga possibilities.

Yoga quickly became a way to ease away the stress associated with pregnancy.

“There was the physical aspect, which is great, but the relaxation is the biggest, most important thing,” she says.

She says she used yoga’s breathing lessons “to keep me from panicking or wanting drugs” during labor. Yoga positions are held to coincide with specific inhalations and exhalations. Such controlled breathing allows the yoga student to move more deeply into a set position.

For her first birth, Mrs. Oliver cut back on her yoga lessons as her midsection expanded. The second time around, she kept up her pace, stopping just a few days before the delivery.

Mrs. Oliver’s instructor, Darshan Kaur Khalsa, says students at her Sterling Yoga Center classes are a mix of yoga veterans and women who turned to yoga strictly to aid their impending labor.

“I don’t consider myself preparing women for delivery,” Mrs. Khalsa says. “I encourage them to take Lamaze classes.”

The poses aim to ease lower back tension, increase hip and pelvic flexibility and improve breathing.

Her yoga sessions exclude some traditional poses that could be uncomfortable for an expectant mother, such as the cobra pose, which involves lying on one’s stomach. Common inverted poses such as headstands also are eliminated.

Better, students can try the cow and cat poses, movements that reduce lower back tension.

These poses involve having the student get down on all fours with her hands beneath her shoulders and her knees beneath her hips. The student should inhale and push her pelvis backward and down while she stares up at the ceiling. During the exhale, the student’s head should move between her shoulders, and her back should become rounded.

Other yoga poses open up the rib cage, Mrs. Khalsa says, which improves breathing.

“The poses I do in class are not anything that would negatively impact pregnancy,” she says.

A typical class with Mrs. Khalsa begins with 40 minutes of poses, followed by quiet meditation and reflection.

She says more expectant mothers are discovering the benefits of yoga.

“It’s not that their labor is easier, but they handle it in a different way,” she explains. “They’re more in control. They seem to have deeper resources they can draw upon.”

Dr. Ellen Whitaker, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Washington Hospital Center, says yoga’s impact as a muscle-toning exercise often is overlooked.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about yoga in general,” Dr. Whitaker says. “It’s also a very powerful workout … strengthening and toning the muscles leads to a more efficacious delivery.

“Obviously, the breathing can help one relax and focus and do a better job when doing the pushing part [of labor],” she says.

She doesn’t recommend poses that involve pressure on the stomach, but she says pregnant mothers can practice yoga “right up until labor.”

“I don’t think there’s any danger in resuming postpartum,” she adds. “Yoga is all about listening to your body. … Your body will tell you when to stop.”

Herndon resident Elizabeth Moran, 25, started a yoga class when she was pregnant last year because she wanted to have a natural childbirth and thought the classes could make that easier for her.

Ms. Moran says yoga proved a sound addition to her birth plan.

“There’s a nice correlation between taking the yoga and hiring the doula,” she says, referring to a delivery expert some consult to assist with the labor process.

“It’s so relaxing,” she says of her yoga classes. “That’s the key to any good birth experience — to be able to relax and focus. Yoga intensifies your ability to focus and tell your body to relax, and it actually relaxes.”

She also concurred with her fellow students about how restful they all felt after their Friday classes.

“Every Friday night when we came home from yoga class we’d sleep, and sleep wonderfully,” she recalls. “The farther along you go [in a pregnancy], the less you’re gonna sleep, so it’s beneficial there.”

Yoga also helped her cope with painful Braxton-Hicks contractions, the false labor pains some women have toward the end of their pregnancies.

“I’m able to close my eyes and focus on a mantra I learned during yoga and let it happen. … If I hadn’t taken yoga, I’d probably tighten up” during the contractions, Ms. Moran says.

Fitness expert Denise Austin of Alexandria turned to yoga to help her during her two pregnancies.

Mrs. Austin says yoga can improve a woman’s circulation while she avoids the jumping and jarring of other exercise forms, such as aerobics.

“It helps to relax them and at the same time increases good circulation, which all pregnant woman need,” says Mrs. Austin, whose line of fitness videos includes several yoga instructional tapes and one devoted to pregnant women.

She cautions yoga moms not to push their poses too far because a pregnant woman’s body releases hormones that relax her ligaments and allow for deeper stretches.

“It’s good not to overdo a stretch,” says Mrs. Austin, who credits yoga with helping her deal with calf-muscle cramps during her pregnancies.

Mrs. Austin’s fit physique can be attributed partially to yoga, but she says performing the various poses while pregnant did more than keep her in shape.

“Mentally, the nicest part about yoga and pregnancy is you stay in touch with your maternal self,” she says. “You do the breathing, which helps you in the delivery, but you also have time to think about the wonderful parts of being pregnant.”


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