Can I Teach Downward Dog to Prenatal Yoga Students?

Out of all of the yoga postures, downward dog is the one that yoga teachers ask us about the most. There is a good reason to question this pose with regards to safety and benefits in pregnancy.

When we get asked, we often say, “yes and no”. Clear as mud, right?

We also ask a very important question.

What benefits are you going for?

Before we dive in, you should know that we believe that no one yoga pose is good for everyone.

Also at MamaNurture, we have established a list of 8 Contraindications for pregnant yoga students (to get the list sign up on our homepage). These are the poses or breath practices that we do not teach to pregnant students.

We also have a list of Cautioned Poses.

Downward dog is on that list.

There is a lot of controversy over if downward dog is okay and safe during pregnancy or not. We, (Kim and Shannon of MamaNurture) have come to our own personal answers through experience (through pregnancies and as prenatal yoga teachers). We have also done a lot of research on this topic and on the anatomy/physiology of the prenatal yoga student.

We have summarized our own thoughts here along with the information so that you can hear both sides and then decide if you want to practice this pose or teach it to your pregnant students.

Kim’s Thoughts on Downward Dog in Prenatal Yoga

When I first began teaching prenatal yoga I was all about the downward dog.  As a new yoga teacher, I remember thinking, “How can I possibly teach a yoga class without downward dog?” It weaved through every class I had taken or taught up to that point.

As a newly certified prenatal yoga teacher I saw most instructors were continuing to teach prenatal yoga with downward dog, so I thought there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with it, right?

Wrong.

As I continued to teach and got past the nervous “just follow the plan” type of teaching, I began to observe the students in my class.  I noticed that most were struggling with down dog and that it didn’t look comfortable in most pregnant bodies.  

I noted that many of the women coming to my prenatal yoga classes were brand new to yoga and had never done down dog.  It began to feel wrong to encourage their bodies into this pose when it seemed like it could potentially cause more harm than benefit.  

I unconsciously started omitting it from my classes without even really thinking about it and then it was just gone altogether.  

Shannon’s Thoughts on Downward Dog in Prenatal Yoga

Downward dog wasn’t a big focus in my Kundalini Yoga Teacher Training. Actually, it is referred to as Triangle Pose in that yoga tradition. Imagine my confusion as a new teacher, attending yoga classes of other lineages.

During my prenatal yoga teacher training, I remember learning about alignment in downward dog as well as to limit the pose to be just 3-5 breaths.

I went on to take more teacher training and do more and more vinyasa flow. My preference was fast and heated. Two years into my journey as a yoga teacher, I tore my rotator cuff. No more downward dog. I had to modify my practice and as I did, my teaching evolved. I began to see that downward dog was a difficult post for many students.

When Kim and I met to write the MamaNuture manual I was anti-downward dog for prenatal yoga. Kim told me that she was comfortable teaching it, with certain cautions, to her pregnant students.

We both listened and took a lot of notes. When we met the next time, we had flipped. I had started to give students the option of downward dog and Kim had taken it out of her classes. We had a good laugh and continued to research both sides of the controversial topic.

 

Downward Dog is on our Cautioned In Prenatal Yoga List Because…

  • As pregnancy progresses, more weight is held at the front of the body.  Putting a pregnant body into a down dog position can strain the low back as well as the connective tissue between the abdominal muscles (linea alba) increasing the likelihood of diastasis recti.

 

  • Pregnant women can be prone to carpal tunnel syndrome due to increased fluid in the body.  Downward dog – when done with aligned hand position should keep pressure off the carpal tunnel, however, even experienced yogis sometimes have trouble with this.

 

  • The majority of prenatal yoga students are new to yoga and have not done downward dog before. Many healthcare professionals will encourage women to continue to do the activities they were doing before pregnancy but often caution against adding in new physical activities.

 

  • Pregnant women experience increased laxity in their joints and ligaments. This combined with the balance and strength required to hold downward dog with continuous, steady breathing can be challenging. Alignment and balance are challenged more with this laxity.

 

  • If heartburn is an issue or if a woman is further along in her pregnancy, doing a pose which brings the weight of baby up can induce heartburn, discomfort, dizziness or indigestion. Some yoga traditions refer to downward dog as an inversion because the head is lower than the heart.

 

  • Some women experience round ligament pain with inversions or downward dog.

 

  • Downward dog may aggravate both high and very low blood pressure. It can also increase pressure to the sinus area and be contraindicated if you are at risk for a stroke, have any placenta issues or have glaucoma.

 

  • Forward leaning inversions (defined by Spinning Babies to be more like dolphin pose) are proven to help to turn a breech baby. This can be wonderful news for an expectant mother who wants baby to move to head down, but as a yoga teacher, it makes me worried that a baby could also have room to turn to be breech in this pose.

 

Whether you have a class full of pregnant women or just 1 pregnant woman in your weekly class, it is good to know what poses to offer instead of downward dog.

So let’s swing back to the magical question we like to ask.

What benefits would you like to gain (or share with your students) via downward dog?

 

Are you after a nice stretch for the back of the legs? An inversion? An opening for the shoulders or a lengthening of the spine?

What other poses can you think of to get similar or even better results?

 

Here are some of our favourite poses to use instead of downward dog.

Puppy Pose

The most common pose we use instead of downward dog is puppy pose.

  • From table pose, near the back of your mat
  • Walk the hands forward until you can (with straight arms) allow head and shoulders to lower towards the mat
    (or to a block, blanket or bolster)
  • Sacrum is in the air
  • Activating the shoulders, arms and hands can be done by clawing the fingers into the floor gently

Legs Up the Wall

Half Forward Fold

Modified Big Toe Pose

Calf Stretch Bird Dog

In Summary

Downward dog is not 100% contraindicated for prenatal or postnatal yoga. There are some cautions. Ultimately it is up to the yoga practitioner and it is great to get suggestions from an RPYT (Registered Prenatal Yoga Teacher) as well as the healthcare team.

Every body and every pregnancy is unique and offers the opportunity to embrace constant change.

At MamaNurture we believe in honouring the body and doing what feels right for the moment we are in. We encourage letting go of what “should” be or what we have always done in a yoga practice. We look for poses that will help us to reach the same intention, while putting less strain on the body.