We talk to yoga teacher Mercedes Sieff, creator of the three-stage pregnancy yoga method rolled out by our Pommama teachers
Q: You have two healthy daughters born 18 months apart. Can you describe your experience of pregnancy?
A: I had generally good pregnancies. I kept very active, I didn’t have any of the common physical issues such as fluid in my legs or back pain. I had the odd niggle here and there but having a strong regular yoga practice really helped. The most uncomfortable parts were the nausea and the reflux. I was in hospital both times hooked up to IV drips because I couldn’t keep food down in the first trimester.
Q: How did you feel emotionally?
A: The first trimester was a very emotional and hormonal time; you can feel very tired and teary. I don’t think any amount of yoga would help with the influx of hormones, although second time around I knew what to expect so I just let the feelings pass. After that, I felt really joyful. I’d turn the music right up in the car and dance around. I believe feeling positive has a lot to do with staying active.
Q: How did staying active help you in pregnancy?
A: When we exercise, it changes our mood, whether we’re pregnant or not. It’s even more important in pregnancy as it’s so easy to wallow, with all the hormones affecting you. You feel physically heavier so it’s easier to feel emotionally heavy. Energy creates energy. I was buoyed by being pregnant and still being able to work and do all the things I loved to do. I kept working all throughout my pregnancy and although I sometimes didn’t feel like teaching a class, afterwards I always thought, “I was so glad I got off the couch, I feel so much better".
Q: Any cravings?
A: I was a pescatarian and found it so weird that I became the biggest carnivore. I was like a mamma bear – I would tackle someone for a lamb shank. I clearly remember how primal the cravings were. The baby is telling you what you need. With the second pregnancy, I was more fish-oriented. It’s funny, both kids are different in that way. Rumi, my first child doesn’t have meat that often but when she does she devours it and Indra, my second, really likes fish.
Q: How was your labour?
A: Not as I expected. In fact, I was convinced I wasn’t in labour the first time as the baby wasn’t due for four weeks. I was on the train from Devon to London when I started having pains three minutes apart, but they didn’t feel like contractions. They put a call out for a doctor on the train and I was advised to get off at the next station, where I was taken to hospital. I was in Basingstoke, I’d never even been there before. It was late at night, I was by myself in a dark room and was very relaxed. I still didn’t think I was in labour and even the doctors weren’t sure. But suddenly my waters broke and I was 9cm dilated. The baby got stuck and I had a C-section - my husband got there just in time. I’d been to hypnobirthing classes and was hoping to do it all naturally without drugs, but in the end a Caesarian was the safest option. The second time was a natural birth, but strangely it was bit more chaotic. There were more people around and there was a lot more intervention. It just goes to show that you that it’s never what you expect. One of the things that you learn in pregnancy yoga is to let go of your expectations - great preparation for birth and parenthood generally.
Q: How else can prenatal yoga prepare you for birth?
A: So many more women are fit these days and while pregnancy is not a time to perfect your headstand or push yourself, prenatal yoga can really help you maintain your strength. Giving birth, after all, is a physically demanding process! In general, you still want to feel strong during pregnancy and that your muscles haven’t atrophied. Women are sometimes surprised to find that they might need arm strength to brace themselves during the birth. That’s why in pregnancy yoga we keep up chaturanga (push-up) but safely modified with knees down to give space for the belly. We still do poses such as camel, to keep the back working strongly, but rather than dropping back (because your belly is too big) we walk the hands into them. Especially in the later stages, your legs can become heavy and retain fluid. We use warrior poses to keep the circulation flowing through the legs. Leg strength is really important, especially if you end up having a squatting birth. Pregnancy yoga does focus on the pelvis, but it’s not just about that. A loose and open pelvis needs to be supported with strong legs and strong back.
Q: What surprised you the most doing yoga when you were pregnant?
A: That I could do much more yoga than I expected. I could still do many yoga poses such as handstands that required core strength even with a big belly. I wasn’t straining so I knew it was OK for the baby. I realised that the core in yoga isn’t where you expect it. It’s not your six pack, because the rectus abdominis muscles separate in pregnancy. It’s much lower down, in the pelvis. That realisation has changed the way I practice and teach all my classes. In pregnancy yoga, we do work on this ‘yoga core’ but not in the traditional way of sit-ups, of course (that wouldn’t be possible, or safe). But we do little things that keep the yoga core working. For example, all balances are core work (don’t worry, we don’t do handstands) – even just standing on one foot and moving around with the other foot, or playing with your leg and moving it to the side. This is something we focus on more in Stages One and Two of pregnancy yoga.
Q: Your best advice for pregnancy?
A: People always ask me, “do you get your body back? Do you get your strength back or is this it?” It’s important to trust that your body knows what it needs to do at this point in time. I can’t guarantee that you will or won’t get it back, but I can guarantee you that you won’t really care once the baby comes whether you can still do chaturanga. More than likely it will all come back. Don’t keep pushing yourself to keep up with something you could do before or get down and depressed because you can no longer touch our toes. Be patient and let your body do what it needs to do. Yoga develops a strong and flexible body, but it also helps you gain a strong and flexible mind. You build that big picture thinking and the knowledge that things will shift. You learn to sit with that discomfort and be OK with those not-so-perfect moments. Because that’s what it’s like going forward with kids. When you have a crying baby and you’ve had no sleep, you need these tools.
Pregnancy yoga definitely helps with your recovery after the birth, whatever kind of birth you have had. Yoga means to ‘yoke’ and the connection, the yoking, the bonding between mother and baby is unlike any other. That moment when this life comes out of you, whichever way it comes out of you, is the most beautiful and most advanced yoga there is.