Pre and post natal movement: Pilates v yoga

The body changes so much during pregnancy, and every woman’s experience of carrying a baby is in many ways so unique, that really – when it comes to yoga and Pilates, no one shoe fits all. There are benefits to both, as well as things to bear in mind.

For the first 12 weeks of pregnancy those new to either discipline should avoid embarking on anything new: particularly women with a history of miscarriage. Those who are familiar with yoga or Pilates and practice regularly may continue but should focus on breathing exercises and gentle movement. It’s worth saying that if a pregnant woman is considering any kind of exercise or movement regime she should run it by her doctor first.

Because in Pilates each movement is so precise, it’s a good option for women who have injuries – sacroiliac joint problems for example which often develop during pregnancy. The use of equipment is another bonus in instances of injury and from a purely practical perspective is supportive – literally – as the baby grows.  Pilates’ focus on trunk stability and biomechanics means it is particularly good for strengthening, important obviously as the pregnancy progresses, and of course for labour.

Yoga on the other hand is very grounding – an absolute asset throughout pregnancy, attended as it is by often dramatic hormonal fluctuations! With its emphasis on breathing – expansive breathing and in this case a longer out breath – yoga is also more tailored to supporting women through labour. In Pilates by contrast the breathing is specific and small, supporting short dynamic movements, which contractions of course are not!

Where Pilates and yoga work equally well is on alignment which underpins muscle balance, maintains joints in a neutral position, and therefore is particularly important in the immediate, intense post natal period when sleep is in short supply, the body is tired and lacks its usual resources.

In the absence of any complications in pregnancy there is no reason why yoga and/or Pilates can’t be practised – bearing in mind all of the above – until the very final stages.

Whilst there are undoubtedly benefits to yoga and Pilates during pregnancy, both have contraindications. Women who suffer symphasis pubic dysfunction for example, a condition that causes excessive movement of the symphasis pubis – should avoid yoga. Those who are already mobile should take care not to over-stretch when exercising as some of the pregnancy hormones promote greater stretch in the ligaments around the joints – yoga poses therefore should not be held for too long. Anyone who has or is a candidate for high blood pressure, or who is carrying twins, should avoid either discipline.

Of the two approaches, in a post-natal context Pilates is hands down the best: it targets the core, knits the abdominals back together and strengthens the pelvic floor muscles. How soon after the birth one should resume class depends really on how the birth went and the wellbeing of the mother. Practically speaking I would recommend allowing 2-3 months before returning but that’s really because it can take that time to regain some equilibrium: if all is well and you can manage it, some gentle breathing and movement such as pelvic tilts can be done at home.

Whatever your approach, attending class once a week is sufficient. Studio sessions here are small and tailored to work with clients individually which is particularly important through pregnancy and teachers will advise on good practice at home – how to observe and maintain good posture for example, which can come under strain as the pregnancy progresses.

Working with pregnant women is a delight: they are so often more intuitive about what is and isn’t right for their bodies because they’re tuned into their baby. Above all they want to protect their baby and won’t do anything that might harm them.