“Yoga poses can nurture the pregnant woman in a way that other forms of exercise won’t. Lying on bolsters and having pillows and blankets all around you – I mean, how luxurious!. And then being told to just lie there and breath…”
Canadian Leslie Hogya, an Iyengar yoga instructor currently teaching pre-natal yoga classes at Bangkok’s Iyengar Yoga Studio, certainly makes yoga during pregnancy sound like a treat. “It’s a special time in your life, especially if it’s your first pregnancy, so you should indulge and take care of yourself.”
In Bangkok, the ancient practice of yoga has been taught formally for only around 40 years – which is rather surprising if you consider that some scholars assert that yoga practice is central to Buddhism. The word yoga means “to join” – at the most basic level, to join the body to the mind, and at a more advanced level, to connect an individual person to the wider universe.
“It’s not a religion per se, but it’s a spiritual practise,” says Leslie. “Anyone can practise yoga – you don’t have to belong to a faith or believe in anything in particular. One of my favourite yoga teachers is a Catholic priest from India.”
Practising yoga can improve the average person’s body awareness, their clarity of mind and their immunity to disease; more specifically, it can reduce the effects of allergies, improve menstrual problems and strengthen muscles, among plenty of other things.
When pregnant, yoga classes can be particularly beneficial. Firstly, strength and stamina are developed. “When you’re doing the poses you’re strengthening muscles, and building up stamina while holding the poses,” Leslie says. “This will hold you in good stead when you’re delivering and also when you’re a new mother and you need a lot of stamina.”
Secondly, practising breathing and relaxation can help. “These are usually the first things people think of, but they’re definitely not the only things. When I’m teaching pre- natal yoga I always make sure there’s plenty of time for breathing and relaxation at the end of class.” This involves doing supported poses where the body is allowed to totally rest and be open to more complete breathing.
Flexibility also improves with the practise of yoga, but Leslie points out that the hormones secreted during pregnancy actually promote flexibility anyway, particularly in the hips. ”This means you need to be careful not to over-stretch. It’s important to be balanced and not be too enthusiastic about stretching the hip sockets.”
If you’re already practising yoga and you fall pregnant, it’s usually no problem to continue. “But if you’ve never done yoga at all, I recommend waiting until the end of the third month to begin yoga,” Leslie says. “Even though yoga is certainly not going to precipitate a miscarriage, that’s when most miscarriages are likely to occur. You usually have more strength, too, after that period.”
Leslie notes that as a teacher of pre-natal classes, she needs to be more open than usual to how her students are feeling: “Their energy levels can vary so much. Some women are very energetic all through their pregnancy and others aren’t – they can get very much disturbed by anything too strenuous – I can almost see them turning pale if they start to do too much.”
Other women can be hyper sensitive because of the added hormones their body is secreting. “Most people do have a greater awareness of their body – especially if they want that, and if they want to be exploring that and finding out more about how they’re feeling. And then I’ve had other women who refuse to acknowledge that they should do anything differently and they want to charge right on and do all of the difficult poses.”
Leslie notes that there are plenty of women who tend to not want to acknowledge their body is changing when they’re menstruating, or pregnant, or post-natal. But, she says, “Why not celebrate those differences? And do the poses that are going to nurture you. I think it’s good to be a little softer with yourself when you’re pregnant.”
Leslie says she adheres to the school of thought that believes you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself, whatever way you’re doing things. “There’s an aphorism in the yoga sutras that says something about yoga not being so austere that you’re punishing yourself, and not so indulgent that you don’t ever do anything – there’s a balance, a middle road. So there’s discipline, but not austerity.”
If there’s another form of exercise that you’ve been doing prior to falling pregnant, and you still enjoy it while pregnant, she suggests continuing it along with the yoga. “I think it’s important to keep active and healthy using all of your body as much as you can. Women usually know what’s right for them.”
Many women who start yoga during their pregnancy don’t expect to continue with it after delivering. However, Leslie estimates that in her experience, around fifty per cent of the women she knows who have started yoga during pregnancy have kept attending classes for at least some time after their child’s birth. “A lot of the time women will ask: ‘How many weeks do I have to wait before I can come back to class?’ It’s good to wait six weeks, as with any major surgery that you might have.
“It’s best to go back to a beginner’s class – and then try to focus on tightening everything that got loose!”
Leslie, who has studied yoga since 1970, first trained as a hatha yoga instructor, but was introduced to the Iyengar method, pioneered by Indian BKS Iyengar, within weeks of completing her training. “And I couldn’t teach. I couldn’t teach the old way because it wasn’t precise enough. And I couldn’t teach Mr Iyengar’s way because I didn’t know enough about it. So I stopped teaching for a couple of years and trained.”
The Iyengar style is a very precise method of yoga – some might even say strict – but it’s flexible in the sense that it adapts to each individual’s level of ability by its use of various props such as belts, blocks, blankets and bolsters.During pregnancy in particular, it can offer more support than other forms of yoga and allow access to more poses.
“For example when you’re doing standing poses you might be reluctant to try some of them because you think you’ll lose your balance,” says Leslie. “But in Iyengar yoga we can use the wall, or use the chair, or use a block. It opens up the possibility of doing more. Also using bolsters to relax is very beneficial – they open the chest, improve breathing, improve the lung position.”
She emphasises that women can always control how much they are doing in class themselves. “I think usually women are more sensitive to what’s right for them and their health when they’re pregnant. And I think yoga brings an awareness that makes you feel healthy.”
Bangkok’s first Iyengar yoga studio opened only recently. Justin Herold, an American who has been teaching yoga at various health clubs here in Bangkok for the past seven years, opened his own studio on Soi Thong Lor in October 1999. Leslie will be running classes at 9am on Tuesdays through to the end of September, and Justin will continue to take the classes from October. The studio is located on the 3rd floor of the Fiftyfifth Plaza Bld, 90 Sukhumvit Soi 55. Phone 714 9924 for a schedule.