Hot Topic: Heated Pregnancy Yoga

Practicing hot yoga while pregnant

Hot yoga was popularised by Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s, and since then has developed many devoted followers both male and female. Although Bikram’s name has definitely become a brand in itself over the last decades, it takes two to tango. Rajashree is Bikram’s wife and partner who modified Bikram’s series of postures into what is known as Rajashree Pregnancy Yoga.

The Origins Of Heated Pregnancy Yoga

Although yoga is inherently a spiritual practice, it is also recognized as an official sport discipline in India. Yoga competitions are held regularly and Rajashree won several champion titles herself. Through this, she felt inspired to promote yoga as a sport as well as empower her students through the practice. She is a regular Bikram yoga teacher and teacher trainer, and has created the Rajashree Pregnancy Sequence which is essentially a modified version of her husband’s yoga class.

Although the contents vary slightly from studio to studio, most Rajashree pregnancy classes start with breathing exercises and then follow a modified Bikram yoga sequence. The combination of poses is meant to aid the respiratory system, alleviate high blood pressure, bring overall relaxation, help with blood circulation as well as strengthen and tone the muscles — although there has yet to be any independent research that supports these claims.

The medical recommendations for pregnant women for hot yoga class are the same as classes done at a regular temperature: you should be in the second trimester of pregnancy, consult a doctor and preferably have some practice in hot yoga prior to the pregnancy. The length of a Rajashree class varies, but expect to be in there for about 75 minutes. Regular hot yoga classes are generally heated to 40 degrees Celsius, but a Rajashree class would be carried out in much gentler heat.

Is hot yoga good for you and your baby?
Image Credit: Alan Antiporda on Flickr.

A Heated Debate

There has been much debate and controversy around the use of heat in the yoga world. Opinions are extremely polarized, ranging from full acceptance of the method to absolute rejection. Not surprisingly, the debate becomes even more heated when it comes to pregnancy yoga. While it is quite natural for an experienced Bikram yogini to switch to Rajashree when pregnant, the question arises: is all that feels good to mum also good for the baby?

There are many risks of practising hot yoga during pregnancy, with overheating and hyperthermia chief among them. Overall, pregnant women are warmer than the rest of us ordinary mortals, and the baby’s temperature is even higher: one Celsius degree more than the mum’s to be exact. The baby’s temperature regulation is completely dependent on the mother’s since the foetus has no sweating mechanism. Simply put, if the mother’s body heats up, the baby’s does as well.

Motherisk published a study in January 2014 which discovered that unnecessary heat can be very negative for the baby. Amongst other side effects it can contribute to neural tube defects, malformations and spina bifida. While some pregnant students beyond the first trimester milestone wear a body thermometer to monitor their temperature, there is no solid evidence that this is enough to keep the baby safe.

To Surrender Or Not to Surrender?

Rather than rely on willpower to feel in control during pregnancy and birth, use yoga to help you listen to your body and respond calmly.
~Francoise Freedman

Peaceful pregnancy through yoga
Image Credit: Randy Pantouw on Flickr.

As a prenatal yoga teacher trained in tradition of Janet Balaskas Active Birth and inspired by Vanda Scaravelli, I’ve been always slightly perplexed by the phenomenon of hot yoga during pregnancy. To me, pregnancy is a magical time of letting go, surrendering and accepting change with grace. It is also a period when we begin to forge a bond with the yet unborn baby. In Swahili, mother and baby are called Mamatoto – Motherbaby. I feel this is a great illustration of what pregnancy really is: a union of mother and child. Not-so-coincidentally, the word ‘yoga’ can be translated as ‘union’. Do we really need to add the word ‘hot’ to it?

To me, hot yoga is a sign of the times. The focus is on performance, linear sequence, control and physical appearance. Yet birth is an ultimate opening. Labour and motherhood will bring new unpredictability and vulnerability into your life. Above anything else though, this is the most important question: would Rajashree yoga serve you and your baby well? Meditate on that before making your choice.

Hanna Skomra
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