Part 14 - Yoga and Placenta Previa

Placenta previa or not, I was determined to continue life as normal and enjoy the magic of pregnancy. I was resolute that I wouldn’t bleed, and the baby wouldn’t arrive any earlier than absolutely necessary. It gave me a mission, and I love a mission. It also gave me the opportunity to drop deeply into my spiritual practice and listen.

Being a qualified pregnancy yoga teacher with a solid understanding of how to teach and practice yoga to support a pregnancy and prepare for birth.  However, my training centred around preparing women for a vaginal delivery, and while we did address some of the common pregnancy complications such as symphysis pubis dysfunction, we didn’t study placenta previa.

I researched ‘yoga for placenta previa’ on the internet, but found very little. I suspect no one really wants to take responsibility for advising women what they should or shouldn’t practice as there is such a huge risk of bleeding with this condition. Furthermore, many women are told to avoid exercise and others are put on bed rest for the duration of their pregnancy.

I quickly realised that I was going to have to figure this one out for myself and practice intuitively. This meant putting aside the pregnancy yoga books, and the mental conditioning I had around yoga for pregnancy, not least from my training but from teaching pregnant ladies in my general classes, and figure out what might work best to support me and my condition.

This is how yoga should be practiced ideally, aimed specifically at the individual depending on what is going on for them at any one time.  Of course there are generalisations and the energies of alignment to consider, but every body (quite literally) is different, and in an ideal world yoga should be adapted, and have the flexibility, to suit the individual student’s needs.

Once again, the Universe had provided me with a further opportunity to deepen my experience of yoga, not that I realised the blessing in the curse at the time. I’d invited the Goddess of the Moon into my life so I shouldn’t have been surprised.  She was dancing and weaving her magic in my life but I was so caught up in it I couldn’t see her light.

I was angry with my diagnosis and agonised whether I had caused it. Ordinarily, during the first trimester, one is encouraged to ease off from all physical activity including yoga, due to the higher risk of miscarriage that this trimester brings. Certainly I never knowingly accept pregnant ladies into my class before 12 weeks. However, I paid little attention to this and fairly much carried on as usual depending upon how sick and tired I was feeling.

Often the yoga practice would ease my nausea and give me a little extra energy. I found backbends helpful with this, and twists, although I was mindful of the extent to which I took these. The cells are multiplying at a massive rate during this period and I tried to practice regular yoga nidra to rest and support this process.  I attempted to sit daily too, although this became increasingly tricky as my mind would be so easily distracted by the nausea.

I like to chant mantra but during the first trimester I found that I couldn’t do this as it made me feel very sick. I suspect the energy was too strong for the sensitivity of the developing cells within me and it was only later in the pregnancy that I was able to chant again. I was keen to do all I could energetically, to bathe the growing baby with as much light energy as possible and I made sure to play uplifting music during my practice.

I researched the potential causes of placenta previa but no mention was made of exercise. Instead, research suggests that a pregnant woman is more likely to have this condition if she has had previous pregnancies, a previous Caesarean section, uterine scars, is carrying twins or more, is a smoker, uses cocaine and/or is an older mother. I certainly ticked the older mother box but that aside none of these other causes resonated with me, and I finally let myself off the hook, and concluded that it was just meant to be that way.

During the second trimester (13 to 28 weeks) when my normal energy levels returned again, I found movement absolutely essential in helping to keep my mind as strong as my body. This became even more important when I discovered that I had placenta previa, especially as I was so irritated in those earlier days, and welcomed my practice as an opportunity to work through my frustration and try and stay grounded.

It was a tough period. The pregnancy hormones alone left me tearful and angry at times and this was now compounded by the recent diagnosis.  Up until that point E had never seen me having an anger outburst and to be honest I naively thought I’d worked through all my anger issues during years of yoga, Reiki and other healing work.  I was wrong, and I was as surprised as E. Clearly pregnancy was bringing up a whole other level of stuff that needed expression.

It didn’t help that I knew that anger was a waste of energy.  One of the Reiki principles is ‘just for today, do not anger’. The reason being that anger is a destructive emotion when expressed inappropriately and can create disharmony in the body. That said I was also aware that it can be a powerful motivator for change provided you are consciously aware of your reactions and take charge of your emotions.

Essentially it comes down to expectation and the need to let go of expectation, whether the expectations are those of other people or situations, it doesn’t matter. We get angry when our expectations are not met so the idea if that we let go of expectations, just for today, and see each situation as it is right now. Needless to say I was struggling with this, and it didn’t help that I should have known better.

So I took to my mat with extra vigour.  I continued with my vinyasa practice and paid little attention to the usual guidelines as I moved intuitively. For me it felt great to practice deep backbends as they energised me and helped to relieve the strange sensation of my stretching skin. I also continued inverting as I knew I was going to be having a Caesarean section so I didn’t need to concern myself with the positioning of the baby and thus compromise a vaginal birth.

Intuitively it felt necessary to avoid the poses that women are generally encouraged to practice during pregnancy, the ones which help to prepare the body for a vaginal birth. Instead I felt that I needed to do all I could to keep this baby inside me and to reduce any pressure on the placenta, nestled as it was snuggly over the cervix.

This meant no wide legged seated or standing poses and no squatting. Instead I ended up practicing poses such as Gomukasana (Cow’s face), Virasana (Hero’s pose) and Garudasana (Eagle pose), which helped to draw everything in. I also continued with the back bends, arm balances and the inversions right up until the end of the pregnancy as these felt supportive to the pregnancy.

The amazing thing was, during the latter part of the second and into the third trimester (29-40 weeks) my body made it extremely clear to me which poses to practice and which to avoid. Not only did the bump make it obvious that poses on the tummy and closed twists should be absolutely avoided, but I started experiencing increasing sacral-iliac pain.

This is not uncommon in pregnancy, and certainly there is a prevalence of this condition amongst flexible female yoga practitioners. During pregnancy the body produces a hormone called relaxin, which softens the ligaments and, in theory, helps the baby to pass more easily through the pelvis during birth. This means that the joints can become more mobile during pregnancy and this can cause all sorts of problems, especially for the sacral-iliac joint.

Interestingly the pain around that joint was aggravated by all the poses that I had already felt I should avoid during my pregnancy.  It was genius. My body was absolutely leading the way, and I had no choice but to listen. It was deeply empowering to recognise that my body knew what was best for it in such a profound way.

It was for this reason that I made sure to prioritise a daily 20-minute meditation practice and enjoy regular yoga nidra during my pregnancy. There is no doubt that both my mind and body benefitted immensely from these practises and helped me to stay strong mentally and physically. Pregnancy provided me with an enormous opportunity to hear, listen to, honour and respect my body in a way I hadn’t done previously.

Pregnancy also helped to significantly shift my awareness and experience of yoga, albeit not in the way I had imagined, and it took me a few years to realise this.  I had been so keen to embody the teachings of my pregnancy yoga training that there was a part of me that felt cheated that I wasn’t able to use yoga to prepare for a vaginal birth as I’d seen so many others do and use it to their benefit too.

During my second trimester I started attending a weekly pregnancy yoga class taught by my doula and friend, Anita. Initially in the earlier days when I didn’t have a bump, I found these classes challenging simply because I wasn’t used to practicing so slowly and gently. But as the pregnancy progressed I absolutely loved them and they became the highlight of my week, two hours every Sunday evening to truly indulge in the pregnancy.

Anita created a very sacred and special space with a beautiful altar and candles brightening the room, and calming music playing in the background so that you couldn’t help but feel nourished and nurtured. It was a good balancer for me to be able to practice a gentler and more feminine approach to yoga movement to compliment my more active and yang home practice. It was also a real treat to be guided by someone else, and especially someone as passionate about pregnancy and birth as Anita.

I loved sharing the space with other pregnant ladies as we all took the opportunity to connect with our growing babies. I loved feeling the energy of the baby inside me and I was fascinated by how this shifted throughout the pregnancy so that it became denser and more attuned to my own energy, or me to the baby’s energy perhaps.

It seemed to me that the baby had come into the world, in utero then, with its own energy field (which I couldn’t penetrate) and energetic disposition. This isn’t to say that my own energy work and indeed my thoughts and emotions wouldn’t impact on it in some way; I believe they do and there is research to substantiate this, but more so that the baby was clearly its own person from the outset and I was his/her nourishing vessel. Thus I wanted to do all I could to ensure a loving and nurturing environment for his/her growth.

This was a tricky awareness for me at times, because I was keen to do all I could to ensure that the baby didn’t absorb the anger and frustration I felt towards the placenta previa. And yet I struggled at times with this, because it then became easy to beat myself up about it! I was also very aware that I didn’t want the baby to absorb the fear I felt towards the Caesarean section, but try as I might, it was difficult not to become consumed with this. 

So my practice became important to me energetically and emotionally too, to try and shift my thinking and immerse the baby in lovely yogic and feminine energy.  Anita’s classes helped considerably with this as they gave me the space to just be with my baby and deepen my connection to him/her in utero. S/he was certainly an active baby and responded immediately to me getting on my mat or placing my hands on my bump to channel Reiki.

During the pregnancy yoga classes, Anita was keen to share with us breathing techniques and visualisations which may assist us during the birth. The combination of these and the guided relaxations left me feeling incredibly calm and nourished by the end of the sessions. The only trouble was that towards the end of the pregnancy when I knew with certainty that I was having a Caesarean section (I had been praying for a miracle, just in case!), I switched off from the preparation for birth bit.

It didn’t seem important to me to know how to breathe through contractions or how to use the visualisations to manage my pain, as I wouldn’t be contracting or experiencing the pain that accompanies this. There was a part of me that was desperately sad about this and while I went through the motions, my mind was often elsewhere, running through lists of what I needed to do that week, as my life certainly hadn’t slowed down.

If anything I became busier, it was a coping mechanism I realise, to keep myself occupied so I wouldn’t think too much about the impending birth and the Caesarean section.  It’s perhaps no surprise that in practicing a yang style of yoga daily, I was very yang in my approach to life, just getting on with it, helped by the fact my workload in the office was incredible demanding at the time.

Anita would read these most beautiful quotes during her yoga classes, which talked about the surrendering and letting go that pregnancy and birth encouraged. While I understood this intellectually I didn’t really know what she meant in practice and figured this only really applied to a vaginal birth.

I certainly wasn’t doing any surrendering and letting go, quite the opposite in fact, I was holding on for dear life.  I didn’t want to bleed, I didn’t want to have the baby earlier than necessary and I was still resistant to the idea of the Caesarean birth.

While my connection to the Goddess of the Moon in all her divine feminine beauty deepened during pregnancy, so that I’d bathe in her 28-day light and give thanks and pray to her, I still didn’t yet know what it meant to dance with her.

Anita leads regular wise women workshops too and I was fortunate to attend one of these sessions during the latter part of my pregnancy. Together we belly danced and moved our bodies, swaying and circling and enjoying the movement that resonates with the feminine aspect of ourselves on a very deep level.  We drew labyrinths and doodled on stones, and I found this opportunity for creative expression hugely enlightening.

I shall always be eternally grateful to Anita for her love and the energy she put into these sessions, to help us recognise a part of ourselves that we may not have acknowledged previously. Here we were, all pregnant ladies, embodying both the energy of creation in its most primitive sense and spirit in its purest expression. And these wise women sessions helped me to truly tap into the energy of this; the power of the divine feminine.

This is not to say that the divine feminine is only present in pregnancy however. She is present in our everyday life experience, regardless of the stage of life, whether maiden, mother, crone or otherwise. More so that it took me a long time to recognise this and to know it as an absolute truth within me. And this wise women workshop, which created a collective feminine energy that I had not experienced previously, laid a seed for the future direction that my life and my yoga practice would take.

Still, as the birth approached and I sat with the energy growing inside me, I had to dig very deep into my practice, to overcome the increasing dread I felt. It was for this reason that I kept things active right up until the end, to the extent that at 29 weeks pregnant, I attended a workshop in London with Cyndi Lee, a truly inspiring American teacher, with a sign-off from my doctor for travel off-Island

I continued teaching right up until I was 36 weeks pregnant too. This wasn’t right or wrong and certainly not an indication of what others should do, just this felt right for me during that pregnancy. It gave me a purpose and took my mind away from what was, inevitably, to come.  It unsettled one of the male students in particular though, as each week my bump grew bigger and he was worried I may go into labour during a class!

The baby was breech in the end.  Whether this was due to the positioning of my pelvis, or the placenta previa, or me inverting my body throughout my pregnancy I shall never know. But in practicing in the way that my body guided, I didn’t bleed once during my pregnancy and I didn’t have to go on bed rest or avoid strenuous activity, and the baby didn’t arrive earlier than planned either. It could just have been luck but I like to believe it was the yoga!