Over Easter weekend I taught prenatal yoga to four women in their final trimesters of pregnancy, at a retreat ran by Yoga lovin’ Rach Cox at Brazier’s Park* in Oxfordshire.
Yoga has incredible benefits for pregnant women in their second and third trimesters. For the physical body, postures to develop strength and flexibility can release aches and pains and help to ease the birth process, and work to isolate and strengthen the pelvic floor is particularly invaluable. Mentally, the ability to control your state of relaxation through the breath and to focus your mind on the present moment are amazing tools to manage pain and calm fears.
The level of yoga practice that women can maintain during pregnancy is of course individual and depends on their yoga experience prior to pregnancy. You can see Yoga Teacher Summer Huntington’s advanced prenatal yoga practice at 36 weeks on youtube (not instructional). Generally, yoga is not recommended in the first trimester when pregnancies are most at risk.
Some elements of yoga should be avoided, (including some breathing exercises, stomach twists, lying on the stomach, and exercises on the back in later stages,) and it’s certainly recommended that pregnant women check-in personally with their doctor and a qualified yoga teacher.
Three insights I keep front of mind for prenatal yoga are:
1. Focus on connection to the breath and the baby. Developing an awareness of her body, breath and emotions can be the most important thing a mother-to-be can learn from yoga. Start, finish and keep returning to this connection during the session.
2. Only work to 80% of capacity. Women in the late stages of pregnancy have the aptly named hormone relaxin in their system. This helps their body to open up for the birth, but increased flexibility can lead to strains if they push themselves too far. Most pregnant women also experience fatigue, so this is an excellent time to take it easy and practice compassion towards our bodies.
3. Indulge in hip openers. Squats (Malasana) with the back against the wall can be performed daily. Kapotasana (pigeon pose) can be practiced with a pillow to prop up the long extended leg and create room for the bump, or sat on a chair with one ankle raised and crossed at a right angle over the opposite knee. Baddha Konasana (bound ankle pose) is another delicious option.
Prenatal yoga is a fantastic way to rejuvenate deserving women and to spread feelings of peace to growing human beings. Practice with care and and teacher, students and babies reap the benefits.
(* Brazier’s Park is a fascinating 65-year-old experiment in communal living, based around a Jacobean-era Mansion House and its surrounding farmland in Oxfordshire, and is well worth a visit.)
My hosts at Suastika Lodge, Ubud.
I’ve spent a month living in Ubud, Bali now and I can’t help but notice that we Westerners are spending a lot of time, money and energy trying to get into a relaxed contented state - at one with each other and the world - which most Balinese seem to function on every day.
Of course no nationality is perfect, but I’m renting a room from a family who fully live up to the Balinese stereotype as constantly smiling, caring, warm and patient people.
Even when the daughter in their family had to stay several nights in hospital the tranquility of the family home prevailed. Their smiles through hard times ‘were like medicine’ her brother said.
So I was honored to be invited by the family to their local temple this week for a festival referred to as ‘the birthday of the temple’, where I could witness first-hand how spirituality is woven into their community life.
These celebrations are no small affair. They run over four days, and the family would attend every day, with their own role to play.
Before we left the home we made our preparations; we washed and then dressed in the customary sarong (and a headdress for men, scarf around the waist for women), and prayed in the family’s temple for protection on our visit to the public temple.
As we arrived, the temple and it’s the large entrance-square were buzzing with the activity of hundreds of people; dancers in costume awaiting their time, ladies carrying trays of cups and saucers, and rows of seated male musicians filled the air with the tuneful clanging of bronze xylophones.
The celebrations were traditional, yet informal. There was freedom to move around as you wished, to explore the expectant, joyous atmosphere. Gatherings of young people, all clothed in pristine traditional dress, talked excitedly amongst themselves. Children played games on their smart phones, oblivious to the surrounding spectacle.
As I joined those sitting cross-legged in the section of the temple reserved for prayer, I received a few intrigued stares and amused giggles. Luckily a procession soon moved through the crowd, distracting attention from me as multi-coloured umbrellas were held high and giant puppet-like figures were paraded up to the altar.
I made my way back into the square in time for the dancers’ performance. Groups of heavily made up women, and then men, moved in unison to the hypnotic music, twirling their hands with expressive dexterity.
As the tropical rain started to fall I slipped back to my home-stay, feeling lighter from the infusion of music, colour and celebration.
I’m spending a lot of time here reflecting and digging inside, thinking about life, but I’m also resolved to follow the Balinese and not take myself too seriously, and to give back out the warmth of smiles than I receive.
Sunrise from Mount Batur, Bali
Since arriving in Ubud last month I’ve been a regular attendee at Alchemy of the Breath, a weekly breathwork session at Ubud’s Yoga Barn with facilitator Anthony Abbagnano. It’s been my first introduction to breathwork (beyond the traditional pranayama breath-control techniques of ancient yoga) and I’ve found it confronting and mind-blowing in many ways.
As a warm-up exercise to one session we had to do an activity that really pushed my buttons, but which I think is a very simple tool to help us understand ourselves and other people better. It’s an exercise that could create more intimacy in our relationships and would be a great opener to many types of personal development workshop.
We were asked to get into pairs and to place ourselves sitting opposite each other, looking into each other’s eyes if that was possible for us. For the next three minutes one person would then repeatedly tell the other person ‘What I really want is….’
We would repeat the phrase, filling in the blank with what we felt was appropriate in each moment, and our partner would sit in silence and listen to what we have to say.
We were told that as we progressed, accessing deeper needs and desires inside ourselves, we may be surprised that what we really want can appear as something other than what we expected.
With these words ringing in my ears, I felt an undeniable apprehension about the task. I blamed it on my British nature, but I felt afraid at the thought of revealing myself too deeply to a stranger, of losing some control.
My partner began with his list of wants, and it was a surprise to me, although I’m sure not to psychologists, that we shared 95% of the same desires. I don’t want a Ferarri or a Harley, but when he shared ‘What I really want is to stop looking’ I felt an intimate connection with this relative stranger.
My turn began and sure enough, I was soon exposing desires that I don’t feel on the surface every day. I’m a confident independent traveller, but I was voicing that basic human need to be safe, to be protected.
As three minutes slowly ticked by it became evident how keenly emotion and the intimacies of our soul can be carried in our eyes, if we take the time and face our discomfort in looking long enough.
Afterwards I was aware that it’s too rare that in my personal relationships I take the time to ask about and understand other people’s core needs and hopes.
The session left me wishing that we all could connect more honestly and openly with one other.
I am currently practicing mysore style ashtanga vinyasa yoga in Ubud, Bali. For three weeks my teachers are Kirsten and Mitchell, two internationally respected teachers who are based between Ubud, the States and Thailand. They trained over many years with the (now deceased) guru of ashtanga yoga, Pattabhi Jois, in Mysore, India, and have his personal authorisation to teach.
This is not my usual style of yoga, so whilst I know most of the poses, which are also key postures in the hatha yoga tradition, in many ways I’m a beginner in the class.
New students of ashtanga start with the primary series, a set programme of asanas (postures) to be repeated each time that they practice. When learning ‘mysore style’ each student is taught individually within the group, so after practicing sun salutations A and B five times, they are instructed on each posture to add to their practice as they are ready to progress. This means that I have had to adopt a patient attitude, which is an excellent practice for me at the moment.
In the Western world society projects that the path to happiness is through externally visible success (a respected job, money, an equally or more successful partner), and that we must be seen to be achieving to gain respect in our communities.
Whilst I have recently moved away from the mainstream life path and have taken time out to travel and to explore my passions of yoga and meditation, I’ve still found it hard to let go of my own high expectations and my desire to prove myself to the outside world.
I wanted a less stressful lifestyle, but I soon found I was demanding of myself why I wasn’t teaching more classes with bigger numbers, and more advanced poses. Thankfully, I soon realised that in this miserable mindset I’d lost the essence of yoga – accepting the present moment and the beauty of our own journey.
Through my recent reflections, I’ve become aware that the feelings that I classed as ambition and motivation, were really the need to prove that I’m good enough. My competitive drive was coming from a place of lack and feeling inadequate, rather than a confidence that I was ready for more.
So, back in my ashtanga class, whilst I believe I can already do many of the poses later on in the primary sequence, I have to start at the beginning and wait until my teachers tells me I’m ready to progress.
I finish early and roll up my mat, and then I watch whilst the others cross their heads behind their legs in a way I doubt I’ll ever master, and also as they enjoy poses that I know well and would love to do today.
But I’m learning to be ok with where I am, because my own practice is what I was ready for today. We are not in competition, in life or on our yoga mats.