Is yoga safe in the first trimester of pregnancy?

medium_5054334901On my facebook page, Didi asked: Hi Sara do you have any evidence around when women can start Yoga in pregnancy if they haven’t practiced before pregnancy? The only information I can find is on the RCOG and RCM sites that encourage exercise in pregnancy but don’t clarify this ‘magic’ time that women are ‘allowed’ to do pregnancy Yoga. Most pregnancy Yoga teachers won’t let women attend their classes until at least 16 weeks. Thank you! Didi

Well first of all, I really appreciate that you put the word allowed into scare quotes, and for the benefit of anyone who is new to this site or such debates this is because those of us who take a woman-centred approach are keen to address and change the paternalistic language often used in relation to pregnant women.  Pregnant women are just as self-determining and capable of making their own decisions as anyone else, and they have the absolute right to do so.  In fact, many people believe that part of the pathway to a more woman-centred approach is to reconsider language and attitudes that restrict and confine, whether intentionally or otherwise.  For a full discussion of this particular phrase, check out Beverley Beech’s book, Am I Allowed?

Having said that, though, the majority of those who seek to impose such boundaries upon pregnant women, or who continually stress that we cannot be sure that such activities are safe during pregnancy are doing so because they genuinely believe that this is in the interests of the woman and/or her baby.  In our fear-filled, litigation-happy culture I can completely understand why some yoga teachers and others might be concerned.  The issues raised by this question apply to many areas and activities as well as yoga, of course, and women increasingly find themselves facing boundaries applied by others (often out of fear) and/or signs warning them that they undertake activity at their own risk.  This can be really unhelpful and unfair, because it implies that the activity is intrinsically dangerous, and that any woman who has a problem after undertaking such an activity should blame herself for doing so – especially as she was pre-warned.

medium_871698505But life isn’t safe.

The sad reality is that a proportion of women who become pregnant will lose their baby no matter what they do that day.

On the day that they lose their baby, and on the day or two leading up to that day, they will be doing things in the same way that we all do loads of different things every day.  But unlike the rest of us, who will wake up the following day and do other things without too much analysis of what we did the day before, a woman who loses her baby in pregnancy will ask herself if the things she did that day – or the day or two before – could have caused her loss.

The chances are that they didn’t.  My understanding of early pregnancy loss is that, much of the time, this is unpredictable and unpreventable.  It gives some women comfort to focus on the possibility that nature stepped in because there was a problem and their baby wouldn’t have been born healthy and happy.  Others will want to explore where things might have gone wrong, and I wholeheartedly support their right to do so, yet this is where we can sometimes encounter problems because this kind of knowledge is best derived from research trials and we have barely any research into whether activities like yoga are safe in early pregnancy or not.

Research-wise, I’ve found lots of papers discussing yoga in pregnancy, most of which either take the view that you described above or skirt around the question of when yoga can be done in pregnancy.  (Let’s also not forget, of course, that the term yoga includes many different styles and approaches, and that activities like yoga are generally better when individualised to the participant’s needs … such things need noting generally and defining when it comes to research).  I’ve also found a few trials (like this one and this one) that might have contained useful data, except that they have (fairly understandably given the context) all chosen not to include women who are in their first trimester.

Please comment below if you know of something that I don’t, but I haven’t found any decent research showing that yoga is safe OR unsafe during the first trimester of pregnancy.  We just don’t know.

medium_14634459087When there are things that we don’t know, some people will tend to swing towards caution and others will decide to not worry unnecessarily.  When you’re in a position of feeling you need to make decisions for others (even though it’s actually not your job to do so for self-determining people), it really is hard to go against the grain of caution, even though there may not have been any evidence for it in the first place.  No-one wants to say “yes, yoga is safe at any point in pregnancy and you can all go to classes with impunity” because, again, the sad reality is that we can’t always know for sure what is safe and in what context and a few of the women who lose their babies will do so within a day or three of going to a yoga class.  The chances are that those babies might not have made it whatever their mums did, but this doesn’t stop their mums from questioning whether it was the hot bath / hot sex / second helping of chips / yoga class…

I did find one recent paper in which Kimberlee Bonura, who has both a PhD and a yoga teaching qualification, has considered this very problem.  In a recent issue of the International Journal of Childbirth Education, she writes that:

“Beyer-Nelson’s (2001) review provides good foundational understanding of both the benefits and challenges of integrating yoga into childbirth education. However, Beyer-Nelson’s assertion that yoga practice not begin during the first trimester seems rooted in liability concerns for hospitals rather than contemporary exercise guidelines. Hospitals may prefer this precaution to avoid liability in the event of first-trimester miscarriage; however, personal conversations with multiple obstetricians lead me to believe that gentle practices such as yoga or massage will not lead to miscarriage in a healthy pregnancy.” (50-51)

I also phoned my favourite pregnancy yoga teacher while writing this post.  She is very experienced and feels that this concern about yoga in the first trimester is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Until recently, she told me, no-one even thought about miscarriage in relation to yoga, and she and her colleagues tell women to join the group whenever they want … to choose the time that’s right for them.  These days, they encounter more and more women who have been told by other teachers that they can’t access a class until they are at least 12 or 14 weeks pregnant.  My friend tells women that those teachers may be worried that if a woman has a miscarriage then she might blame the teacher, but she explains to women that their approach is to encourage women to make their own decision about what’s right for them.

Which brings me back full circle to the notion that women are self-determining people who have the ability and the right to make their own decisions, whether or not the evidence is out there…

 

What do you think?  Feel free to share your thoughts below or come and join the conversation on my facebook page! 😀

Bonura KB (2014). Yoga mind while expecting: the psychological benefits of prenatal yoga practice. International Journal of Childbirth Education 29(4):49-54

photo credit: StevenSimWorld, shankargallery and Shantell Martin 27 via photopin cccc, cc.

3 comments for “Is yoga safe in the first trimester of pregnancy?

  1. April 6, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    Hi Sara – great post, and I agree with you. Thanks for including my work in your discussion. I believe that women should listen to their own bodies, and a gentle yoga practice can be a supportive part of the first trimester. Of course, every woman’s specific situation and health is different, and part of knowing your body and your situation is talking with your doctor or midwife about what is best for you, based on your body and your pregnancy.

    Even yoga teachers who support yoga practice during the first trimester will recommend precautions for certain poses, for instance, avoiding backbends and inversions (which some have theorized may cause a slight risk in dislodging an early pregnancy). Likewise, hot yoga would not be recommended since it would elevate the internal body temperature. And most of us feel so tired during the first trimester that Power Yoga would be too strenuous. For all of these reasons, it’s important to work with a yoga teacher who has experience with prenatal exercise.

    Gentle stretching and meditation are good for calming anxiety and supporting deep sleep, which is beneficial for a newly pregnant woman. So a gentle yoga and meditation practice can be very good for promoting well-being during the first trimester.
    Namaste,
    Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, PhD, E-RYT

    • April 6, 2015 at 4:05 pm

      Thanks for that, Kimberlee – great to hear your perspective 🙂

  2. June 2, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    hi sara, i’m a pregnancy yoga teacher in the uk (active birth, birthlight and womb yoga trained). i’ve been teaching regular yoga for 15 years and specialising for 10, plus have had 3 babes of my own in that time, plus one m/c, with a daily yoga practice throughout. in my first pregnancy i was, in hindsight, quite gung ho. i was determined that no one was going to tell me what i could or couldn’t do and that pregnancy wasn’t going to be some kind of handicap. to that end i carried on doing things like full backbends up until the day i gave birth. 3 pregnancies later, i can see that i was quite caught up in ideas that weren’t actually very healthy, and in my personal practice, i am learning how to work with far more subtlety, respect and sensitivity than i possessed then. i hope my teaching is maturing, too!

    as far as teaching goes, i do sometimes take students prior to 16 weeks, but i do that on a case by case basis and i definitely do not take most women before that time. i feel that there is such a difference between what a woman in the first trimester needs and what women approaching birth need that it is a huge ask of any teacher to cater to all those needs with the degree of safety required. for instance, for most women in early pregnancy, it’s lovely to lie down on their backs, but this is obviously not appropriate for more heavily pregnant women. birth focus is a natural outflow of working with our bodies as birth approaches and we start to realise that we are actually going to have a baby – but this is much more abstract for a woman in early pregnancy. i’ve heard from women who have done birth prep work in pregnancy yoga early on in their pregnancies who have said that far from preparing them, it has just freaked them out. so, my feeling is that were i to take women pre-16 weeks-ish as a general course of action, my teaching would most likely be spread too thinly to be much use to anyone. i usually recommend that women who want to do yoga pre this time either continue going to their regular class, find a good restorative class (checking with the teacher that they’re ok with the situation), or have a one-to-one.

    there are actually many issues raised by this simple question. for instance, ofp, training course accreditation, course marketing, yoga culture as a whole with its shockingly low standards and the way it perpetuates myths of the female body, the difficulty of “just listen to your body”… and not to mention the high number of yoga practitioners who, despite their practice, have terrible birth experiences and/or postnatal times. so i will limit my response here. i’m happy to correspond with anyone who’s interested in doing so (pm me at jo@redmoonyoga.co.uk). in closing – i do actually know teachers who have been sued for apparently “causing” harm to a pregnant woman – nonsense, of course; but a horrible situation for everyone, including the teacher. and, i feel very strongly that there is actually a big difference between infantilising a woman, perpetuating the culture of experts that hold such sway in the worlds of pregnancy and birth (and parenting), and teaching sensitively and maturely while respecting and honouring the limits of our known knowledge as teachers.

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