Pregnancy isn't easy on the body or the mind. Luckily, health experts at the Club know a few treatments for easing tension, encouraging relaxation and dissolving stress. There are both active (yoga) and passive (massage) activities for all stages of pregnancy and needs.
Pregnancy is an imperative time to nurture your body. Bellevue Club massage therapist Amber Maurer encourages the importance of indulging in some me-time during your pregnancy by scheduling a prenatal massage.
Reflections magazine: What is the goal of prenatal massage?
Amber Maurer: It’s different for every woman. Prenatal massage releases tension and helps calm the nerves. For people who are going to get massages throughout their pregnancy, they are going to notice a big difference from pregnancies in which they haven’t gotten massage in terms of circulation, swelling, aches and pains. They are going to feel more connected with their baby because they are being taken care of.
RM: When can a woman get prenatal massage?
AM: We see clients through their first, second and third trimesters, and then we even have a fourth-trimester service for after they have the baby. They come back and do a recovery massage. It is really important to connect with your body during pregnancy; there are so many changes that happen. We have had women get sick in the middle of a massage, so if women are feeling nauseated, it is really not a big deal. It’s a very nonjudgmental time.
RM: A study done by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine found that pregnant women who received massage therapy had a lower rate of premature labor, experienced significantly less labor pain and had decreased labor duration. Is this something you have found to be true in your experience as a mother and a prenatal massage therapist?
AM: Yes, absolutely. I can attest to that. I have had two natural childbirths with massage through both pregnancies, and mine were awesome. Prenatal massage does help with labor. It reduces the mother’s stress and a lot of the labor complications can be related to stress and health. When you are going in and getting a massage, taking that extra time, it really makes you think of what else you can do to make yourself feel better and healthier for the baby.
RM: What can a mother-to-be expect going in for a massage?
AM: She can expect to come in, be pampered, have tension released and leave with a better sense of well-being. Comfort is a huge thing, so we have mothers in a side-lying position mostly. We do have body cushions as well, if they are comfortable lying on the stomach. We adjust everything from temperature to pressure, making sure we have water in the room, making sure they have eaten something that day, so they are not feeling sick. There is a lot of verbal intake with the client to understand whatever they are going through and what they need. We do medium to firm pressure or a Swedish massage for pregnancy, because the blood volume increases during pregnancy, so we need to be careful with bruising, swelling and blood clots. We don’t typically do any kind of deep tissue. We are really catering to whatever the mommy needs. If she just needs to relax and check out, we will let her do that.
RM: What is the biggest misconception about prenatal massage?
AM: Probably the risk of miscarriage. As a mom myself, I can confirm that it is normal for expecting mothers to be nervous about anything that might disrupt the pregnancy, especially if they have never had prenatal massage. In reality, if you have a trained prenatal massage therapist, you are going to be fine. Unless the doctor says to wait through the first trimester, there is no reason you cannot come in. The expecting mother can even have abdominal massage as long as it is not a high-risk pregnancy or multiple pregnancy.
When you find out you are expecting, there are dozens of things to ponder or worry about. Fortunately, a prenatal yoga class provides the space for expectant mothers to relax, gain strength and find a supportive community while preparing for their little one. We explored the subject of prenatal yoga with the help of Rachel Lowe, Bellevue Club’s prenatal yoga workshop instructor, to discover that “Sometimes we just need someone to tell us to sit down and relax and take a little nap.” Good advice for anyone.
Not Just for Novices
While the prenatal yoga practice is easily accessible to beginner yogis because of its modifications, those with yoga experience can still find value in the practice. “I find that in my prenatal classes, I try to make sure that women feel strong,” Lowe says. “I don’t think people realize there can be some strength building occurring, that you’re not trying to get to a deep place in your work like in the pre-pregnancy stage.” Lowe explains that Chaturanga (low plank pose), modified, becomes a way to increase arm strength to withstand carrying a baby around postnatal for feeding, changing and rocking.
“The misconception is that [prenatal yoga offers] a place where you are just hanging out on the bolsters and doing relaxed postures, but we can do more movement than that to help circulation and breath. Having said that, there is a lot of value in having relaxation time that we don’t take for ourselves when we are pregnant,” she says. According to Lowe, the poses are meant to be more mindful and slow.
Many women with yoga experience will try to continue their usual practice, but Lowe advises against it. “We tend to get in a pre-pregnancy way of thinking: ‘I can twist,’ ‘I can do anything,’ and that can be unsafe.” While you might be able to safely do a vinyasa class up to a certain point in pregnancy, it takes a lot of effort to modify the practice on your own, says Lowe. Being in a prenatal class increases awareness of those modifications without placing the burden on the mother-to-be. With all the planning and preparation that occurs during pregnancy, it is a luxury to have some relaxation time laid out for you.
Peace of Body, Peace of Mind
During prenatal yoga practice, women can find relief from the stress that comes along with pregnancy. Lowe relates the importance of taking time to mindfully connect with your body and growing child, an important transition to motherhood. She says yoga postures enhance circulation, reducing the swelling in feet and ankles that plagues the later trimesters. And of course, breath is always the key ingredient. “Do you know what kind of breath women use in labor? They use the Ujjayi breath we use in regular classes. That’s the number-one benefit I hear all the time for help getting through labor contractions,” Lowe says.
But one of the most valuable assets of prenatal yoga practice is learning how to find peace within the discomfort of pregnancy. “It is important that we are not skipping this time in life and trying to fast-forward through it, even though it feels nice to do so sometimes, because pregnancy can be difficult,” she says. Lowe emphasizes the importance of staying present and admitting the discomfort. “During labor, you need to be able to contract and get the baby out, but also to relax. And the same thing happens as a parent. I can say this: there are places where you need to let things go, you need to allow your baby to cry when the baby needs to cry . . . that is part of the process.” But the benefits of prenatal yoga do not only affect the mother, they impact the baby too.
Research done by the Columbia University Medical Center demonstrates a link between a pregnant woman’s stress and the future health of her child. The more a woman is exposed to common life stressors such as daily hassles, grief and trauma, the greater the risk of altering the child’s neurological development. Any possible impediments in the child can be prevented by decreasing stress during pregnancy. For Lowe this research rings true to the mind-body connection between a relaxed mommy and a relaxed baby. Prenatal yoga provides a space for releasing stress, both physical and emotional, through breathing and strength training in an understanding community.
Lowe’s prenatal yoga class always begins with a community-building activity. “In the classes I teach I start with an opening circle, which is basically going around and saying what is happening that week.” She says this opening circle gives mothers-to-be the opportunity to meet each other and share some ideas of what might help with the burdens of pregnancy. She explains that having a range of seasoned and first-time mothers in anywhere from their first to third trimester creates a diverse environment in which lasting friendships form. The shared experience of pregnancy and a prenatal yoga practice creates a network of support among mothers that continues after class ends.
“During the latter part of pregnancy, we actually need to have support and be willing to take in support,” Lowe says. Many women can fall into the independent mindset of believing themselves alone in bearing the burden of pregnancy. A prenatal class, in addition to fostering a community, teaches a willingness to accept support. “If we do balance poses, I try to have people at a wall. I’m trying to use it more as a metaphor saying, ‘Let’s have some support in this,’ and help them feel a little bit more relaxed in the posture instead of trying to do it all.”
Fours Ways to Ensure Safety
The prenatal yoga practice is tailored to ensure the safety and well-being of mothers-to-be, and it is all about modifications, says Lowe. Despite the myriad changes happening to the body during pregnancy, Lowe again cautions that it is easy to fall into the pre-pregnancy mindset of believing yourself capable of physical challenges, thinking, “I can do it, I can be pregnant and do everything I used to do.” But pregnancy releases a hormone called relaxin, causing the joints to become looser and more fluid to aid with labor. “In yoga that also means more flexible joints and that can be unsafe,” warns Lowe, “so teaching those moms-to-be to refrain from going deeper than they did pre-pregnancy is a big cue, a place where some of us can get injured if unaware.” To avoid harming you or your baby, keep in mind the following modifications in your practice.
“If you know you are pregnant, there is no reason to be twisting deeply,” Lowe advises. The uterus naturally expands and opens during pregnancy, but when you twist deeply like in Utkatasana, or chair pose, it hinders that expansion. “So if you want to twist,” Lowe explains, “do a wide twist. If you are twisting, your chest is open or you twist away from your leg in order to keep space around the belly.”
Pregnancy puts a lot of pressure on the back, so it may seem appealing to practice some stretches to release tension, but be aware of these important modifications. “You can do bridge or half-bridge pose, but no wheel,” Lowe advises. Similarly, do not take a deep forward bend. Lowe advocates for gentle forward bends to release pressure on the low back, but put hands to blocks or shins to keep from going too far forward and putting pressure on the belly.
“If you do no core work during pregnancy, it is going to be problematic later on,” Lowe cautions. “You would have a really long time without core, so for strengthening the core, I do planks or opposite arm and leg on hands and knees. I call it hugging the baby with your abdominals. It is just a way of building core strength that is not crunching.”
Most importantly, like in any yoga practice, Lowe advises against any poses in which you find yourself holding your breath. “If you can’t breathe very easily, or you are dizzy, just like with any other yoga, those are big signs to rest.”
The Fourth Trimester
Fit a yoga practice into your routine after the baby is born by attending a postnatal yoga class. It’s BYOB (Bring Your Own Baby), so you can attend to your newborn’s needs while working on core strength and applicable stretches for new moms.
For more information about pre- and postnatal yoga workshops, email fitness@bellevue club.com.