Monday, October 22, 2018

The Need for Accessible Prenatal Yoga

by Hersha Chellaram 
When I first found out I was pregnant eleven years ago, I was determined to dedicate to a prenatal yoga practice to stay healthy and prepare for labor and early parenthood. During the first pregnancy, I took my prenatal yoga teacher training and hoped to be that pregnant woman who was able to get into beautiful poses. Reality was a different story. My mobility considerably declined, I frequently experienced bleeding nose and gums, and I had extremely low blood pressure. Although I had no medical risk to my pregnancy, I was apparently experiencing what the medical community referred to as the “common discomforts of pregnancy. “My yoga practice had to adjust to suit my needs and I simply omitted poses that would aggravate symptoms. 

During my second pregnancy my mobility was better, so I practiced prenatal yoga diligently. However, the classes I took never discussed the importance of stabilizing the joints and I ended up with a misaligned pelvis and a terrible pain in my pubic symphysis. I was unable to walk for the final few weeks before baby number two arrived. 

Towards the end of the second pregnancy, my doctor ordered me to stop doing any yoga for a year, even after the baby was born. Being unable to move the way I loved made me gain a considerable amount of weight. That plus being in pain and at home without emotional support caused me to experience a mild case of depression. When my best friend came to visit, I was able to recognize it. And with the help of the teachings of yoga, I was encouraged to become my own yoga therapist and figure out a way to practice. I began to work with my body as if it was a client of mine (I didn’t recognize my body anyway, so that helped). Through this journey, I adapted and adjusted my practice to suit my broken body. This practice consisted of finding new ways to stabilize my joints, strengthen parts of the body that were weak, and stretch out other parts that were misaligned. I researched the anatomical side of these conditions, and I worked with physical therapists and Pilates instructors. Then I found what was common in yoga and adapted my practice. What was paramount was giving myself the space and acceptance to grieve the loss of my old body in order to move forward in my new one. 

Once I was in better shape, I started teaching prenatal yoga and postnatal yoga in Hong Kong. The range of abilities in women who walked in the studio were extreme! For example, one student was 44-year-old biker who never wanted to have a baby and never thought she could have a baby at her age. Before getting pregnant, she had been in a motorcycle accident and had a titanium plate in her left lower leg. She limped all the time and could not sit on the floor. She had never tried yoga before, but the doctor said it would be good for her so she decided to try her first class with me at seven months. I was truly grateful for my past experience teaching people with limited mobility because I was able to accommodate her in my class of younger regulars, without her feeling inferior. She kept returning to class even after her beautiful baby boy was born. 

Over the years, I taught many women who had difficult pregnancies. Many, like me, experienced a serious decline in mobility. Some even had to stop classes to go on bed rest. For a few, delivering a healthy baby meant putting their lives at stake and a couple lost their babies, either through miscarriage or stillbirth. Women experiencing these types of serious health risks need compassion, attention, and, most importantly the general know-how to accommodate them in a class (because it’s not always apparent). Too often, when a woman goes through any of these things, she simply stops class and the teacher never sees her again. But shouldn’t a woman have the right yoga teachings to help her through these experiences? 

For this reason, I created a unique program that covers prenatal yoga in all its glory: the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Not surprisingly, it’s called Accessible Prenatal Yoga. What makes these classes more accessible is the way in which we deliver the integrated teachings of yoga in each class. The class begins with an open discussion among students. This not only helps students learn from each other, but they have an outlet to express themselves in a non-judgmental environment. Discomforts, issues, and health risks are openly discussed, together with the right guidance from the teacher on how yoga, meditation, and other internal practices can help. Many prenatal classes focus so much on opening up the hips that other important and sometimes uncomfortable subjects, such postnatal depression and the inability to bond with the baby, are topics that are missing. That is why Accessible Prenatal Yoga is designed for students to be able to openly discuss all the uncomfortable things about pregnancy and early parenthood that may occur. This way, if a woman finds herself going through a challenging pregnancy or is learning how to care for a new baby, she already has the awareness, the tools, and the community she needs to get through it. 

The class then follows a format where postures are adapted to suit individual abilities and the students can practice together, always allowing for decreasing mobility as students’ pregnancies progress. Another important component is offering practices for students to do at home, when lounging or in bed, as a student may suddenly find herself on bedrest. 

Here are some of my recommendations for making prenatal yoga classes more accessible: 

1) Never make assumptions about a woman’s pregnancy. Pregnancy is not always a happy picture. Not every pregnancy is planned or wanted. Some women may even be pregnant due to being violated by a known or unknown partner. For these reasons it’s important to understand the effects of stress on pregnancy and be more trauma informed. 

2) Empower students to own their sensations and make choices based on their feelings. If a yoga teacher puts expectations on students and their performance in a class, he or she takes away the sense of self control. Teachers want to encourage students to tune in to their bodies, their energy, and their needs. Yoga is not about a certain shape or form. It is about an inner experience. 

3) Create a class structure that is consistent and predictable. When a class follows a predictable rhythm, the students know what to expect, which can foster a feeling of security. To avoid being repetitive, teachers can adjust the content to cover different pregnancy topics or class themes. 

4) Adapt, adjust, and accommodate. Brush up on prenatal chair yoga adaptations and have an abundance of extra props ready to go. Be prepared to teach two classes parallel to each other and integrated with one another. Instead of telling students to practice a modified version of a pose, simply offer options for practice and demonstrate these options without saying if one is more “advanced” than the other. 

5) Offer teachings that go beyond the yoga mat and into everyday life. If a woman has to leave your class because she has reached the end of the gestation period or she runs into a health condition, she should have a few tools that she can use to help her through this time. For example, when teaching more subtler practices of yoga in class, such as warm-ups or pranayama, you can discuss how this is beneficial even if a woman goes on bed rest or when the baby is born. 

6) Be a part of a woman’s community. Although prenatal yoga teachers are not midwives, doulas, or counsellors, they can be caring individuals as part of a woman’s community. How far teachers want to take it is an individual choice. One idea is to go for a smoothie or tea after class with students from time to time. If a teacher is not comfortable with this, then simply being available for students to ask questions or share struggles before or after class is another way to make yoga more accessible. 

For more information on the Accessible Prenatal Yoga Course, please visit

Hersha Chellaram is a yoga therapist and authorized yoga teacher trainer for Integral Yoga and Accessible Yoga. She offers 200-hour, 500-hour, prenatal, and children’s yoga training programs specializing in the spectrum of ability, often going beyond the physical practice of yoga to include more internal and mindfulness practices (see Her prenatal yoga training program educates women and yoga teachers about individualizing yoga’s approach to be inclusive and adaptive to accommodate women of all abilities, health conditions, and pregnancy risks. Post-natal recovery, emotional health and trauma sensitivity are also hallmarks of her training, so that the teachings of yoga can be safely applied to women in difficult circumstances. She is founder of YAMA Foundation, a Hong Kong-based non-profit that brings yoga, arts, and meditation to underserved communities, including those with disabilities, special needs, chronic illnesses, and vulnerabilities.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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