Recent findings from the fields of prenatal and perinatal health, psychology and epigenetic's have allowed me to feel really good about the yoga that I practiced during my two pregnancy’s. Though I am specifically writing for yoga students and yoga teachers-who teach pregnant women- it is also my hope that anyone reading this will find it inspiring and encouraging for themselves and for all of humanity.
When I was pregnant it wasn’t very easy for me to practice yoga, though I had a long term practice, because I didn’t feel well, both physically and emotionally. I had a lot of fear and insecurity and the unknown aspects of being a mother were terrifying. However, I felt better after practicing yoga and this gave me the confidence to see and address my deeply rooted concerns and to work towards the kind of birth and parenting experience that I wanted. I practiced yoga without really knowing what the benefits to me or my baby would be. My daughters were both born at home during a time when less than 3% of births in the US were home births. One daughter was even born in the apartment attached to the yoga studio that I owned and worked in at that time. This birth took less than 45 minutes, no midwife was present and the years of practicing yoga really shined for me and my child, who arrived in this world peacefully.
Since giving birth, I have been grateful to learn of the physiological and emotional benefits that a positive environment can have on a developing baby when the mother is able to have the support she needs to feel safe and secure. Hatha Yoga is the integration of the body, mind and spirit and comes from the Sanskrit word yujir, which means to merge, join or unite. Ultimately, the aim of the practice is to know oneself, and the eternal, through self knowledge. Yoga is a wonderful environment for women when they are pregnant because of the ultimate aim that the practice can provide.
When addressing the subject of yoga for pregnant women, we first need to understand the basic anatomy of the female body and the process it undergoes while pregnant. Choosing the yoga postures and breathing techniques that best support these processes will result in better physical and mental health and an ability to remain connected to self and relaxed in stressful situations. I have developed the “Yoga for Motherhood” Teacher Training program and video series (on udaya.com) to share what I have learned both from my own practice and the observations I have made teaching pregnant women for more than 15 years. Yoga during pregnancy can bring the following benefits to the mother: better oxygenation of the blood and improved circulation; relaxation and ease of anxiety, leading to a greater ability to sleep; strong muscles and body awareness that can positively affect the pregnancy and the birth process; mental stability and a emotional maturity needed to enable the natural birth process to unfold. And more!
Understanding that what happens to the mother happens to the baby is very important, as the baby is having the same experiences as the mother. According to Chamberlain “In the womb, interactions are constant and relationships are everything. Babies and mothers eat, sleep, exercise, smoke, get sick, and take drugs together resulting in an intense rapport” (Chamberlain, 1999). This means that the baby is experiencing the yoga practice. The positive effects are directly affecting the environment that the baby is developing in. Therefore, the effect of the yoga practice to the mother and to the baby must be considered and recognized. As the mother nurtures herself in a loving and caring way, through the practice, she is experiencing a sense of strength in her body, peacefulness and a connection to herself and the life of her baby. When this happens the child is literally developing in an environment that is ripe for them to form deep connections, empathy and creativity.
Babies are sensitive and aware and the imprinting taking place during their development is long lasting. We know, through the science of Epigenetic’s, that a loving, caring mother affects the genes is such a way as to turn on those parts of a gene that develop a sense of security and safety and allows one to be resilient- reducing the influence of stress hormones.2, In Bruce Liptons published paper “Nurture, Nature and the power of Love”, he states: “The new emphasis on nurture (environment) controlling nature (genes) focuses special attention on the importance of the maternal environment in fetal development. In addition to the established role of maternal physiology, it is now recognized that maternal behaviors and emotions profoundly impact the child's physical development, behavioral characteristics and even its level of intelligence" (Lipton, 1998).
Many yogis have early memories and are conscious of their mothers experiences and the environment from very early in their development. Paramahansa Yogananda in his seminal book: The Autobiography of a Yogi, recalls a conversation his mother had with a spiritual teacher while he was in utero. He also goes on to express: “I still remember the helpless humiliation of infancy. I was resentfully conscious of being unable to walk and to express myself freely...I gradually became accustomed to hearing the Bengali syllable of my people. The beguiling scope of an infant's mind? Adultly considered to be limited to toys and toes” (Yogananda, 1969).
Our environment is important, to our unborn children, and an environment of love is our greatest opportunity to evolve. The positive affects take place, even without our understanding (such as my personal experience of my yoga practice during pregnancy) and can change our experiences as pregnant women and affect the genetic and physiological development of our unborn children. Keeping this in mind we have enormous motivation to teach or practice yoga as a way to support ourselves, pregnant women and the developing babies who are just entering this world. Suzanne Arms illustrates this beautifully in her quote:
“If we hope to create a nonviolent world
Where respect and kindness
Replace fear and hatred….
We must begin with how we treat each other at the beginning of life
For that is where our deepest patterns are set
From these roots grow fear and alienation…
Or love and trust”