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By Dr James Newham, Research Associate at Newcastle University

Although health professionals have long assumed that yoga helps with stress, the theory has never been tested. This was the first study of antenatal yoga in the UK and the first worldwide to investigate how both single and multiple sessions of yoga can effect mood and stress hormone levels among healthy pregnant women.

 

This study, funded by Tommy’s and carried out in Manchester and Stockport by myself and colleagues, showed that antenatal yoga can reduce stress hormone levels and reduce maternal anxiety through a combination of breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques and physical postures, all within a supportive group setting. A single session of yoga was found to reduce self-reported anxiety by one third and stress hormone levels by 14%. Encouragingly, similar findings were made at both the first and final session of the eight-week intervention. 

A number of complementary therapies that have been tested in pregnant women have shown an initial effect on mood symptoms. However, this often disappears over time, whereas our study found that the effects of yoga remained. 

 

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Building and maintaining muscle tone during pregnancy, with yoga poses like lunges and gentle backbends, can help minimize the aches and pains of those nine months, and are key in bringing your body back to a toned condition after delivery,

 

A top priority in Austin's prenatal yoga classes is teaching women "they can trust that their bodies will open" up to labor and birth. "When we're afraid, we tighten up," she says, and that tightening leads to what she calls a "fear-tension-pain cycle." This can sabotage a woman's efforts to remain present and calm in labor, especially if she hopes to experience childbirth with minimal or no pain medication. Working to connect with yogic methods of deep, mindful breathing can help the body loosen and relax, and help women get to a "mammalian place," Austin says, where they can let their bodies do what they instinctively already know how to do: give birth. 

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Professor Aplin said: “The results confirm what many who take part in yoga have suspected for a long time. There is also evidence yoga can reduce the need for pain relief during birth and the likelihood for delivery by emergency caesarean section.


“Perhaps we should be looking at providing yoga classes on the NHS. It would be relatively cheap to implement, could help mothers and their children be healthier, as well as reducing the costs of longer term health care.”

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The more active and fit you are during pregnancy, the easier it will be for you to adapt to your changing shape and weight gain. It will also help you to cope with labour and get back into shape after the birth.

Keep up your normal daily physical activity or exercise (sport, running, yoga, dancing, or even walking to the shops and back) for as long as you feel comfortable.

Exercise is not dangerous for your baby – there is some evidence that active women are less likely to experience problems in later pregnancy and labour.

If you weren't active before you got pregnant, don't suddenly take up strenuous exercise. If you start an aerobic exercise programme (such as running, swimming, cycling, walking or aerobics classes), tell the instructor that you're pregnant and begin with no more than 15 minutes of continuous exercise, three times a week. Increase this gradually to at least four 30-minute sessions a week

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Pregnancy is the perfect time to get in touch with your body and there’s no better way to do so than with a mind/body workout such as yoga or pilates. Check the instructor is qualified to teach pregnant women or, better still, attend a pregnancy-specific class. If you do yoga or pilates at home, make sure the exercises you do are safe for pregnancy.

Such classes aim to improve posture through stretching and strengthening exercises which should help to reduce pregnancy aches and pains. However, do be careful not to overstretch.

Yoga and meditation may help you to relax – deep breathing and relaxation techniques are essential tools to help you de-stress and will be invaluable during labour. If you prefer a gentler mind/body exercise, you may find yoga breathing and relaxation exercises very helpful – and this will also help prepare you for labour.

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