Exercise during pregnancy is important for both you and your baby. While your workout routine may be modified (if you’re a triathlete), or amended as you move from Month 1 to Month 9, the right type of prenatal exercise increases circulation, maintains strength, balance and flexibility and can help to keep your “pregnancy weight gain” within the target range set by your OB or midwife at your prenatal appointments.
Read, “Exercising While Pregnant: What’s Safe & What’s Not,” to learn more about exercising while you’re pregnant.
Yoga Supports a Healthy Pelvic Floor Before, During & After Pregnancy
One of the healthiest forms of exercise for pregnant women is yoga. Not only are the breath and relaxation techniques a bonus when you’re in labor, prenatal and restorative post-natal yoga classes are designed to help strengthen and support the pelvic floor. This is great now, and will also be of benefit as women move towards menopause.
What is the pelvic floor? Good question. The pelvic floor consists of three different layers of muscles, all of which attach to the front, back and sides of the pelvic bone and sacrum. If you look at an illustration of these muscles, they appear hammock-like, slinging from point to point, providing a soft border that keeps the pelvic organs – uterus, bladder, urethra, upper vagina and cervix, bowels, etc. – in place.
For women, these muscles also control bladder and bowel function. They keep pelvic organs from collapsing and/or slipping out of the vagina, and they are also responsible in large part for your ability to have an orgasm. If you’re pregnant, a strong pelvic floor and healthy abdominal tone will help your delivery move more “comfortably” and efficiently along, and they also provide the platform for a quicker and more complete post-partum recovery.
These muscles have been largely ignored for the most part, with the only advice being “do your kegel exercises…” once the baby is born. The problem is that kegels aren’t enough. Plus, they’re often done incorrectly – isolating only a very small group of muscles – so well-meaning women wind up with a tighter, more rigid vagina – with no increased strength in the deeper layers of the pelvic floor muscles and abdominals.
This is where yoga comes into play. From deep breathing (shallow breathing leads to tighter, more contracted pelvic floor muscles) to a well-rounded routine that isolates the entirety of the pelvic and abdominal muscle layers – a regular yoga routine is just the ticket for developing and maintaining a healthy pelvic floor.
The goal is to develop muscle fibers that are long and strong, and there are several exercises that will help you do so. Here are a few to try on your own. We recommend doing them at least a few times a week during your pregnancy and when you feel up to it after having your baby.
Side Rib Deep Breathing. Remember we said that shallow breaths can contribute to shortened and weaker abs and pelvic floor muscles? Make it a point to take nice deep breaths, breaths in which your spine is elongated, and you fill your “side ribs” with air. Sit cross-legged on a rug or mat and rest your hands on your knees. Pretend there is an invisible cord running from your tailbone, up your spine, and through the crown of your head. Sit with eyes closed, body tall but relaxed. The sitting bones are firmly planted, yet the invisible cord stretches up-up-up, so the spine is long. Take at least 8 to 10 deep breaths, more if you like; breaths so deep that lungs are completely filled and your rib cage expands to its maximum fullness. Doing this every day will stretch your diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles.
Clam Shell Leg Lifts. This exercise concentrates on lengthening/strengthening the luteus medius muscle. Lay down on your side, with your spine aligned, bottom arm reaching up over your head so you head can relax on it. Your top arm is comfortably relaxed, bent over your waist or hip so the hand rests on the floor. Bend your knees at a 45-degree angle to your torso. Keep abdominal muscles active, resisting the urge to roll the pelvis forward or backward.
Take a few deep breaths and adjust your position as needed. Then, on an inhale, raise/open your top knee as wide as you can – enough that you feel tension/pull but without uncomfortable strain. Release back to center on the exhale. Repeat this for 30-breaths and then do it again on the other side.
Kegels in Reclining Bound Angle Pose. These kegels can’t be done in the car, or while you’re brushing your teeth. They can, however, ensure that your muscles are getting the very best of your kegeling attention, ensuring the full spectrum of muscles is isolated, rather than a very few. First, follow the instructions for Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana). Feel free to support your upper thighs with yoga blocks or folded blankets for extra support if needed.
Now, you are going to think about your pelvic floor muscles as parts of an elevator with two sets of closing doors. The first set are the pelvic floor muscles that run between your sitting bones, the elevator’s second set of doors is created by the muscles between the pubic bone and tailbone. Once you’ve established yourself comfortably in Reclining Bound Angle Pose, take a few deep breaths.
On an inhale, envision and “feel” for those muscles between your sitting bones. Squeeze them together on the exhale and imagine them closing – like an elevator door. You should also feel a slight upward lift, and you should focus on that feeling – trying to close and lift as much as possible. Hold for a 10-count if you can, and then release.
Next, you’ll picture/feel for the muscles between the pelvic bone and tailbone. On the exhale, close these doors, hold if you can, and release. Again, make sure you are squeezing in and up to maximize the routine. Repeat this series – isolating both the side-doors, and front-rear doors – at least 5 times.
Most therapists will instruct you to avoid using abdominal muscles when performing kegels. However, if your pelvic floor is weak, try squeezing the front of your tummy as far back as possible while doing them. Try to hit your spine with the inside of your belly, as if you’re trying on the tightest pair of skinny jeans. This will engage some of those deep-layers of abdominal muscles and will help to strengthen them. Eventually, you can phase this part out and concentrate solely on the pelvic floor muscles.
We recommend reading, “10 Pelvic Floor Yoga Positions”, published in the April edition of Yoga Journal for further inspiration. A happy pelvic floor will lead to a happier and healthier you!