As yoga teachers, the likelihood of us having pregnant women in our classes at one point or another, is very high. Therefore, it’s important for us to be able to confidently and knowledgeably guide women through their practice.
The issue of “core work” during pregnancy is a very common question for yoga teachers and yoga students alike.
What is the “core”?
The first thing we need to establish, is our definition of the word “core,” as there are many different meanings floating around out there. Simply put, the “core” of the body is the torso. It’s the main portion of the body, not including the head, arms, and legs.
With this definition of the “core,” we include much more of the body than just the “abs,” which is primarily what people associate with the “core.” This includes the following muscle groups in our discussion of “core”; pelvic floor, abdominals, spinal muscles, the diaphragm. In fact, some definitions of “core” actually include the glutes, hips and thighs, which further emphasizes the fact that the true definition of “core” includes so much more than just our abdominal muscles.
Now that we have an accurate description, let’s move our discussion forward. During pregnancy it’s safe, and in fact recommended, to keep the “core” strong and healthy. A strong core is needed in order to support the pregnant body, baby, and to help with recovery after birth.
But remember, with our definition of “core” we know that this involves so much more than just “abs.” During pregnancy we need to concentrate primarily on strengthening the pelvic floor, back muscles, and diaphragm. The abdominal strengthening will take a back seat during pregnancy, as the strength of the other core muscles is actually more beneficial.
As we already know, yoga is fabulous for strengthening the back muscles and toning the diaphragm. The combination of movement, alignment, focus on posture and breath is perfect for keeping these two “core” components in tip-top shape. In addition, the strength and tone of the pelvic floor is also addressed in yoga, through the practice of “Mula Bandha,” the root lock, which is very similar to “Kegel exercises.”
Do we need strong abdominals during pregnancy?
Now we’re down to the “nitty gritty” of what this article is all about, the “abs.” The “abs” are actually a set of several muscles including; transverse abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques, and rectus abdominis.
During pregnancy we want to keep the transverse abdominals toned, because they support the belly by wrapping and hugging from underneath, somewhat like a “cummberbund.” Internal and external obliques are also important, but play a lesser role in supporting the pregnant belly, although they do help to provide a nice side-wrapping support effect. The rectus abdominis on the other hand, does not need to be strengthened during pregnancy. In fact, over strengthening of the rectis abdominis during pregnancy is ill-advised because it can contribute to a condition called “diastasis recti.”
What is “diastasis recti”?
Diastatis recti is a condition in which the left and right halves of the rectis abdominis (6-pack muscles) are separated, and a gap forms between the two sheets of muscles. Some slight separation between these two muscles is considered normal during pregnancy, and usually heals up by several month post-partum. However, any opening over 2 finger widths is considered a diagnosis of “diastasis recti.”
The effects of diastasis recti include a bulge or puffiness to the abdominal region in mild cases, and sometimes a bulging of the uterus and/or internal organs in more severe cases. Ironically enough, diastasis recti can be in part caused by rectis abdominis muscles that are actually too tight and strong.
That’s right, some core work can actually cause the opposite effect of what we’re looking for! The reason is simple. If you think about bending the knees and lowering down into a Malasana (yogic squat) in an overly tight pair of jeans, the seam is going to split because there’s just no other way for expansion to happen. That’s the same principle that’s at play in diastatis recti. If the rectis abdominis is too taut and strong, as the baby grows something’s got to give. And sometimes that’s a separation of the abdominal muscles in order to create space for growth. Factors that have been shown to increase the chances of diastasis recti include; aggressive abdominal work, multiple pregnancy, repeated pregnancies, large weight gain, and maternal age over 35. Therefore, rectis abdominis targeted exercises are not recommended during any phase of pregnancy.
What about crunches?
Hopefully by now, it’s pretty clear that we want to avoid abdominal work that targets the rectis abdominis. Not only do we want to have a quality of yielding in the belly, we also want to embody a sense of receptiveness and ability to adapt to change. For many women, the growing belly can be exciting, but for others it can bring up body image issues. As yoga teachers, this is the perfect opportunity for us to encourage women to marvel in the miracle of their bodies, and to let go of cultural standards of the flat belly.
The most common forms for rectis abdominis strengtheners are good old-fashioned “crunches.” In addition to increasing the chances of diastasis recti, crunches should be avoided during pregnancy because they are done lying on the back. At the 16 week mark, it is no longer recommended that women lay flat on their backs because it can compromise the blood flow to the baby. This happens because the increased size and weight of the baby and uterus can press down onto the inferior vena cava (a large vein in the back), possibly compressing the vein enough to affect blood flow to mother and baby. Therefore, all abdominal work that is done on the back, should be avoided after 16 weeks.
What “core work” is safe during pregnancy?
There are many safe and effective core strengtheners that can be done during pregnancy, to the comfort level and appropriate experience level of the expectant mother. Here are a few ideas:
– Bird Dog Pose (done on all-fours, extending opposite leg and opposite arm)
– Pelvic Tilts (done on the floor during the 1st trimester, and done standing or against a wall during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters)
– Sufi’s Ride (seated in simple cross-legged position, simple churning around of the hips in a cirlce, this movement may also include a churning of the torso as well)
– Planks and Fore-Arm Planks
– Wall Planks and Wall Push-ups
– Modified Navasana (one or both feet on the floor and hands to the back of the thighs)
– Mula Bandha (root lock)
Please leave a comment with your own experience of core strengthening and pregnancy or working with pregnant yoga students!
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Carole Westerman’s mission is to bring yoga to everyone! Carole is an ERYT-500, and is also registered with Yoga Alliance for the specialties of Prenatal and Children’s Yoga. She is a Certified Childbirth Educator, and has experience as a Doula attending births. Carole has a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Psychology and has worked many years in the fields of children and family services. In addition to her full-time yoga teaching schedule in Omaha, Carole is also the Director of 500-Hour Level Yoga Teacher Training at Lotus House of Yoga, where she is part-owner. In addition, she is on Teacher Training faculty of several schools and travels to teach nationally and internationally. She has created her own curriculum for both a Prenatal and Children’s Yoga program.