Pilates and Pregnancy: where is the balance?
When I was about 6 months pregnant, I had just begun my apprenticeship with Traditional Authentic Pilates when I found out I was expecting. I was positive that I would be an very active pregnant chick, able to exercise with few physical limitations- all the way up to my due date. However, reality stepped in and gave me my first dose of humility with a very tough first trimester. I was so nauseous I could not sit in the car, much less perform rolling like a ball. Amazingly, just as I had heard, the morning sickness* disappeared as suddenly as it appeared right after my second trimester started. I thought “Great! Now back to business as usual!” and got back on track with private apparatus sessions on the reformer and cadillac. In addition to working out on the apparatuses two times a week I took mat classes and would walk two to three miles several times a week. This honeymoon lasted about 3 weeks and then I pulled something in my inner left thigh. I was in so much pain! I could not place weight fully on one leg or the other without pain shooting through my pelvis. Imagine the muscles you use when you put a pair of pants on while standing: a simple movement I had always taken for granted was impossible for me to do. I made an appointment with my doctor because I was not only concerned that I had permanently injured my body, I was deeply worried something was wrong with my pregnancy (to my relief, the baby was fine). My doctor explained that while we are pregnant, our bodies release a hormone called relaxin which does exactly what it sounds like it should : relaxes your muscles. Because of this amazing hormone that lets my uterus stretch without cramping, my ligaments were now prone to injury more than they were before pregnancy. I thought “Seriously? So, I am like a pregnant Gumby?”. My doctor kindly but sternly told me to “chill out” ( a sentiment echoed by my husband) and take it easy. These were the words I needed to hear. I took several weeks off- no walking, no Pilates.
While taking time to heal, I shamefully realized that my concern wasn’t where it should be: the safety of my baby. I am so conditioned to stay in shape I pushed my body further than it could go and hurt myself in the process. I realized that I needed to find a balance between getting the workout I wanted and treating my body with more love. I recognize now I need to move slow and deliberately. I take in to account that my ligaments are more flexible, so I avoid certain movements that tend to increase the stretch on my inner thighs (like side splits on the reformer). Some movements feel amazing because of my pregnancy. I could do semi-circles all day! I have made several adjustments to the mat work I do at home: 2 large pillows beneath my back to support the additional weight on my spine; the use of a large pillow under my top leg during side lying leg work; during double and single leg kicks I am on all fours with equal weight distributed on my hands and knees- then I kick one leg up at a time with a bent knee. My instructor, Mary Ann, incorporated the foam roller into my workouts. One of my favorites: she has me stand in a squat position with the roller horizontal behind me and the wall as I lower and hold for what feels like forever (really, it’s 8, 10, then 15 seconds ) and this gives my quads and glutes a much needed challenge. I still take walks, but only for 30 minutes and it feels good to move my body even though I lumber more than walk at this point. Moderate exercise is good for me and my baby. I feel happier and healthier when I do. Besides, doctors recommend getting 30 minutes of physical activity a day- pregnant or not.
Finding a balance took some creativity and humility. I have accepted the fact that I can’t control my body anymore. I WILL gain weight, I WILL get bigger, and I WILL slow down. While this was hard to accept at first, all it took was a kick from the little person inside me to remind me of the bigger picture. It’s not just about me anymore. And I am more than okay with that!
* as Jenny McCarthy so eloquently put it in her book “Belly Laughs“: “The label morning must have been thought up by a man who thought it was all in our heads and hoped that by limiting the definition it would make us all shut up by noon. Well, I don’t think so buddy! I say, come on over to my house around 5 p.m. so I can heave on you.”
Practicing Pilates while Pregnant
When I began my apprenticeship with T.A.P. I was two months away from finding out I was expecting. I was happy when I found out, of course, but also a bit worried, because so much of teaching Pilates relies on the instructors own ability to perform the exercises they teach. There is a phrase we use often: having a movement “in your body”. This basically means that in order to be an effective teacher, one must know how a movement feels in their own body. I believe in this concept wholeheartedly but am having a hard time applying it to myself. I teach beginners to intermediate levels presently. Quite honestly, I have performed these exercises so many times before that while I am too far along in my pregnancy to do some of them myself ( like the roll over, a full spine twist,swimming, neck pull ) I can still feel them in my body. I guess I could compare the feeling to riding a bike; it is second nature to me. I have taken a step back from teaching those clients who are advancing beyond the beginner/intermediate levels. I feel that it is breaking a code of some sort to continue teaching movements that my body is now far removed from. I am at peace with my decision but began getting a little bored with the content of my own workout routine. Being pregnant limits you physically- I can not lie flat on the floor ( on my back or stomach) and many of the movements I loved previous to pregnancy have ceased to feel good. So, when people ask : “You can do Pilates throughout your pregnancy?” my answer is ” well, yes and no.”
- The Hundreds: Standing up, hold onto 3 or 5lb weights. Make sure your body weight is evenly distributed and lift one leg about a foot off the ground. Inhale and exhale while pumping your arms beside the body for 50 counts then switch legs and pump for 50 more. I love this modification because it forces you to stay engaged in your core and works on pelvic stabilization.
- Plies: Legs are wide and open, feet flat on the floor. Lifting your arms overhead as the legs straighten, lowering the arms as you plie. Focus on deep breathing and tucking in your lower back.
- Plie Pelvic Tilt: Place your hands on your thighs and practice pulling the the kegel muscle as you inhale and tilt forward and exhale, tile backward.
- Leg lifts: the wonderful thing about leg lifts is that very little needs to change to accommodate the pregnant body. The only things I change: bend the lower leg at an angle towards your belly to support your lower back for upper leg lifts; for lower leg lifts, rest the top leg on a large pillow.
- Abdominal Series: place two large pillows behind the small of your back and engage your core. Keeping your back on the pillow, you can do thesingle leg stretch and double leg stretch comfortably.
- Squats: engage your gluts, powerhouse, and kegel muscle as you squat. Raise your arms to shoulder height as you lower, and lower your arms as you raise your body back up to standing. This can also be done with hand weights. Remember to NEVER let your knees pass over your ankles!
- Cat’s Spine and Cow: on all fours with your weight distributed evenly on your palms and kness, arch your back toward the ceiling as you inhale, pulling in your core and kegel muscles; then as you exhale, arch your back away from the ceiling as you let your belly hang over the floor.
I am still working on more to do; I love exercising and I know how important it is to strengthen the pelvic floor (especially the kegel muscle) and maintain abdominal strength.