As a personal trainer, the more clients I trained, the more I realised that focusing on just exercise and nutrition alone isn’t enough to achieve sustainable health and wellness in modern society – not just for my clients, but for myself as well.
Yoga fills that gap, providing flexibility training, deep breathing development, stress relief, mindful awareness of your body and environment, and mental space in a world that’s becoming increasingly busy and cluttered. So last year I began a part time two-year diploma in yoga.
Here’s what I’ve been up to as a yoga teacher in training.
Pregnancy and postnatal yoga
This wasn’t a specialty I’d ever envisioned doing, but I’ve kind of fallen into it. When I discovered I was pregnant shortly after enrolling for my yoga diploma, my pregnancy naturally affected the way I looked at all the teachings I received.
From studying anatomy and physiology (the effect of pregnancy hormones, how a women’s body accommodates a growing baby, and postnatal considerations), to asana practice (alternatives and modifications to accommodate my growing belly, restorative poses for low energy days, removing unsafe poses from my practice), and even chanting (whether baby could feel the resonance in my belly and whether she liked it or not) and meditation (could she feel me becoming more calm?).
This natural incorporation of prenatal ‘training’, followed by my current ongoing personal experience of postnatal rehabilitation while continuing my studies has shaped my yoga research and there is no doubt it will affect the way I teach.
Your basic 200-hour yoga teacher’s training programme gives you a good overview of yoga in general, but if you want to focus your energies on a particular area of yoga, you need to seek out workshop opportunities or mentors who can teach you what you need to know.
I recently enrolled in a three-day intensive prenatal yoga teacher’s training workshop which I came out of feeling like I had really found my future calling.
One of the other women at the workshop said that during her pregnancy she had continued to do normal yoga classes with modifications, but didn’t do prenatal yoga; I’d never really thought about it like that, but it was the same for me. While there are many great teachers out there who know modifications to recommend, there are also teachers who just don’t know what to do when there’s a pregnant woman in their class (we can’t all know everything, right?!). Over the three days of the workshop I realised I had been doing a lot of poses that I probably should have left out until after giving birth.
Why prenatal yoga is perfect for pregnant women
Coming from a gym background, I know all too well there is often a tendency for women to continue to push themselves during pregnancy. In the media we see pregnant women performing pullups, lifting heavy weights, continuing to run… everything they did before they were pregnant as long as they were healthy. And being applauded for it. So strong. So healthy. So fit. Superwoman.
There are two mindsets on this – one is that mama will get those endorphins/happy hormones during her intense workouts and baby can pick up on that. Exercise is good for a range of health and wellbeing reasons. Healthy and happy mama, healthy and happy baby, right?
Here’s where we should take into consideration our sympathetic nervous system. This is our fight or flight response; in caveman days it would have activated when we were running away from saber-toothed tigers or such similar things. Heart beats harder and faster, digestive system slows down, body pumps out stress-coping hormones, blood vessels are constricted, among other things. This fight or flight mode is made to be a temporary reaction. Something that we eventually get relief from to allow our body to recover and our energy to be restored.
In modern life we tend to experience stress on some level when we check our emails, rush around from place to place, do our daily errands, go to work, and other everyday activities. Our bodies equate this kind of busy schedule to a modern day fight or flight situation. Pregnant women these days often continue working right until the weeks before giving birth, or they may have a toddler and/or other children to run around after all day every day. They are perhaps sleep deprived, and much of their body’s energy and resources is being directed toward growing a new little life. If you then add an intense workout that pushes the body further to its limits, this is only adding another stressful experience to the day.
And if this is the case and babies are so in tune with their mums, do they feel the effects of this stress? If done on an ongoing basis, do they come to expect that it will be a stressful kind of world when they are born? Is it really necessary to do this kind of fitness training when the true end goal should be a healthy mum and healthy baby?
There is no doubt research both for and against it. But these are interesting things to think about.
If you like to do intense workouts and are constantly on the go – and I’m the first to put my hand up and say that I continued to do aerobics classes throughout my pregnancy, working and studying right up until the end – practicing yoga regularly can help counteract this by activating your parasympathetic nervous system which tells your body to rest, relax and recover (this is not just for pregnant women, this is for everyone!). Not to mention prenatal yoga is safe, gentle exercise that can help a mum-to-be strengthen the parts of the body that need strengthening in preparation for birth.
The effect of meditation
I had the most beautiful Yoga Nidra experience while I was around 8 months pregnant. Yoga Nidra is a guided meditation where the instructor talks throughout the session, designed to combine mental alert awareness with deep relaxation. It’s on the basis that your brain is capable of entering deep sleep (being asleep takes away the influence of external sounds, body sensations etc.) while still having awareness to bring mental clarity.
At the beginning of the meditation, we had to repeat in our minds a sankalpa, a resolve or outcome that we wanted from the session to ‘direct’ our brain during the yogic sleep. There was nothing I could think of for me personally but as I was having an amazing week and feeling great about everything in life, my sankalpa was for my baby to feel as wonderful as I did and for her to know that she was loved. Probably not quite the point of the exercise as the outcome wasn’t aimed at my own brain, however you always hear about the deep connections between mother and baby so I figured it was worth a shot.
In my belly, Miss E had been pretty still all day just chilling out. I remember the beginning of the Yoga Nidra session but nothing at all about the middle and end which you’d think would mean that I’d fallen asleep. The interesting thing was that at the end of the session nobody in the room stirred so I couldn’t have been woken up by anything happening in the room, yet I ‘came back’ to the room when the teacher said to bring awareness back to your physical body. I can still remember awakening from it feeling very relaxed yet refreshed, and Miss E was kicking away in my belly like there was a dance party going on. Apparently babies tend to kick a lot in the womb when they’re happy, so I guess you could take this as a sign she’d had some kind of positive experience as well.
My admission of this really says something, as I honestly used to think that meditating was a load of hooey. I’ve taken part in four Yoga Nidra sessions now – one during the prenatal workshop – and my awakening experience at the end has been the same every time. As a skeptic until proven otherwise, I can’t explain what I’ve experienced, but I’m excited to learn more about Yoga Nidra and how it may help provide a positive experience for pregnant women (which I know realistically I may not have the time to focus on until the end of the year when I’ve finished my course).
I’ve already signed up for another three-day workshop later in the year to cover postnatal work which is more in line with the mums and bubs sessions I’m running with another personal trainer, so I can’t wait for November to roll around!