How to Adjust Any Yoga Class for a Pregnant Student
The first time that a pregnant student came to one of my classes was a few days before I found out that I was pregnant, too. The timing felt relevant, to say the least! I’d already started to research how I might need to adjust my own practice, but I was still extremely grateful to have been told a few days before that a future mamma would be coming to my class.
For many yoga teachers, the thought of guiding someone safely through their practice while they’re busy growing a new life can feel intimidating, or even scary. Add to this the fact that most 200-hour yoga teacher trainings don’t even mention the word “prenatal”, and it’s easy to see why many yoga teachers feel nervous about having a pregnant student in their class.
Any pregnant student wil probably need to use blocks, bolsters and possibly blankets and straps at some point in order to continue practicing safely and comfortably.
But you don’t need to have studied prenatal yoga at a specialised teacher training to guide a pregnant student safely and comfortably through your class. With a little knowledge of the changes happening in the body during pregnancy and the modifications you need to know in order to keep your students safe, you have the tools to adjust any class for a pregnant student.
Here are the essential things you need to know about adjusting your class - even last minute - for a pregnant student.
Get to know your student and their pregnancy
Let’s start with the basics! With so many changes happening during pregnancy each day, it’s important that you understand where your student is at physically, energetically, and mentally. To stay ahead, ask students to notify you if any significant physical changes occur before attending your class (online and in-person). In this case, pregnancy. This way, you won’t get caught by surprise.
The most important things you need to ask any pregnant student are:
- Which trimester are they in? It helps to know this as different modifications are recommended for different trimesters.
- Did they already have a yoga practice before falling pregnant, and if so, how would they describe it? Knowing what their yoga practice was like before will allow you to give personalised, insightful modifications for their individual practice rather than covering their pregnancy with blanket prenatal yoga advice.
- Have they discussed coming to yoga classes with their midwife or doctor, and been given the green light? It’s really important that you’re aware of any contraindications they’ve been given by their medical practitioner - you’ll need to follow it too.
- How do they feel? The changes in their body during pregnancy can create all sorts of physical and emotional surprises. Checking in with how your student feels will give you insight into how you might suggest they modify their practice.
Props are essential for teaching prenatal yoga
When it comes to making your yoga classes accessible for pregnant students, don’t underestimate how priceless props will be! In fact, they’re essential. Any pregnant student will probably need to use blocks, bolsters and possibly blankets and straps at some point in order to continue practicing safely and comfortably. Whilst you probably have these available already, double-check that your teaching space is equipped with these yoga props.
The most valuable time you can spend to prepare for any pregnant student potentially coming to your class is to learn which poses are not recommended prenatally, and what you can offer as an alternative
Would you need props to make your yoga class prenatal friendly?
Many of your students who are pregnant would like to keep up with their regular yoga practice, and even with the rest of the class as much as possible. But with all of the changes that their body is experiencing during pregnancy, certain postures that your class flows through may no longer be safe or even accessible for them. Props allow mammas-to-be to continue practicing by creating more space for their baby, as well as aiding with newfound shifts in balance and helping them to stay extra comfortable.
Encourage prenatal students to practice mindfully
Of course, this goes for all of your students! But if someone is expecting, it’s all the more important that they tune into their intuition and practice according to how they feel on that day, not according to what the rest of the class is doing.
Tips to offer your prenatal students:
- In lunges and warrior poses, invite mammas-to-be to shorten their stance slightly and focus more on the strength element of these postures rather than stretching. The ligaments in the pelvis are already softening and stretching to prepare for birth, so we don’t want to add excess stress or strain here by taking too long a stance.
- In all forward folds, take the feet wider than the hips - of course, this is to create space for the belly and their growing baby! Additionally, have blocks ready to give a little extra height for the hands.
- Be mindful not to overstretch, especially in hip openers. This is twofold; a huge surge in the hormone relaxin means that most pregnant women find themselves much more flexible than usual. As the name suggests, relaxin helps ligaments (especially in the pelvis) to relax in preparation for birth. But pain threshold and the body’s perception of pain also change during pregnancy, meaning a prenatal student could overstretch without realising it and cause long-term damage to their ligaments. Remind your student to be gentle with their stretches - even if they’re enjoying a new-found flexibility, pregnancy isn’t the time to push too far.
- Encourage your student to be mindful of the changes in their blood pressure. Not standing up, or moving from low to high positions too fast will help to prevent dizziness. Particularly if your class includes sun salutations, invite them to pause for a breath half way when rising back up to standing.
- Trust their intuition! Staying tuned in to what their body, mind and baby are telling them is the most valuable gift they can bring to their practice. Not only will it help them later on during labour, but it will keep them comfortable and safe during your class.
- Encourage your student to practice even more mindfully than usual. At the end of the day, only they know what feels appropriate for their body at this unique time. Invite them to take things slow, not to push too far in stretches and take a step back if there’s anything that doesn’t feel right for them.
Switch up the pranayama
Whilst you may often begin your classes with a few rounds of energising pranayama, be ready to offer an alternative to certain breathwork for a pregnant student. It’s not recommended to practice bhastrika (bellow’s breath) or kapalbhati (skull shining breath) during pregnancy due to the powerful contracting of the abdomen that they require. The forceful nature of these pranayamas can also result in feeling lightheaded or dizzy, which of course should be avoided. A great alternative that you can ask your pregnant student to take is ujjayi breath. Although not as forceful, ujjayi is still a heating, invigorating breath which warms the body internally.
Breath holds should also be avoided as they can cause dizziness and are thought to restrict oxygen to the baby. If you’re guiding your class through kumbhaka breath retention, make sure that your pregnant student understands that they should skip the breath hold. Luckily, when it comes to cooling pranayama, nadi shodhana is still completely safe and is actually recommended during pregnancy thanks to its calming nature.
Know your prenatal yoga asana and modifications
The most valuable time you can spend to prepare for any pregnant student potentially coming to your class is to learn which poses are not recommended prenatally, and what you can offer as an alternative. If the mamma-to-be is a regular student of yours, you can always modify based on her personal needs, preferences and her existing practice (following her doctor’s advice), but for public classes, I try to stick with the following.
Yoga poses that are not recommended during pregnancy:
- Closed twists - if your class features any closed twists, invite your pregnant student to take the open version instead - even if it means they’re not facing the same direction as your other students, their baby will be safe and there’s minimal pressure on their lower back.
- Deep backbends - during pregnancy, we want to minimise stretching the abdominal wall as too much stress on these muscles can cause diastasis recti - the separation of the two sides of the abdominal muscles. Invite your pregnant student to transition into gentle backbends on all fours or the knees such as camel or cow pose, or ensure they place a bolster under the pelvis if they’d like to keep practicing gentle backbends on their belly like sphinx pose.
- Inversions - whilst students who already had a strong inversion practice before pregnancy can continue to go upside-down in the first two trimesters, those who are not strong practitioners should not attempt inversions. A great alternative which boosts circulation is viparita karani (legs up the wall) with a bolster or blanket underneath the hips.
- Savasana - lying flat on their back is not advised after the first trimester, so students can either lie back on a bolster that’s stacked against blocks in order to keep their spine elevated at an angle, or lie on their left side with props like a bolster between the knees for comfort.
- Core work - avoid any postures that involve flexing or crunching the abdominal wall - poses like navasana (boat pose) should be avoided during pregnancy.
- Any jerky or jumping movements - if your student would like to continue flowing through vinyasas, advise them to step back rather than jump back into plank.
- Arm balances - as these require a lot of core strength and compress the baby’s space, advise your mammas-to-be to instead take a pose that will similarly strengthen their arms without placing stress on the tummy, such as dolphin pose.
What about online yoga for a pregnant student?
With so many of us now teaching classes online, it’s important to know how to modify virtual classes, too! But without seeing a bump, unless your student lets you know before you start teaching, it’s possible that you could be teaching a soon-to-be-mamma without realising. So, depending on how your online classes are set up, make sure you have one of the following options in place.
If you teach open classes that anyone can join without having to register, for example on Instagram, make sure that you have a prenatal disclaimer alongside the general class information. As a minimum, state that they need to check first with their medical practitioner that it’s okay to join, invite them to bring props and of course, practice at their own pace.
If your classes require signing up or pre-payment with a follow-up email being sent, this is the perfect opportunity to ask your students if they are pregnant and find out a little bit more info if they are. Invite them to have props handy - even makeshift ones at home like a thick pillow and books will do! Additionally, you can offer them some advice on which postures they’ll need to modify or replace, but reassure them that you’ll let them know throughout the practice if this is the case.