Aerial Yoga, Pregnancy and Birthing

In general, aerialists are told that combining aerial and pregnancy is a risky combo. Pregnancy is always at the top of the list of contraindications for class. But, there is very little information online (at the time of this publication) about exactly what is risky and what is not. The few blog posts by aerial acrobats describing their own experiences of training through their own pregnancies are anecdotal and mostly refer to acrobatics and not aerial yoga.

So, is it ever ok to use a hammock during pregnancy? What about labor? Let’s dive in to the stages of pregnancy, and use some common sense to examine what might help or harm expectant moms…

TOP 3 RISKS:
My three biggest concerns about moms-to-be using an aerial hammock are nausea, fall risk, and connective tissue damage. Scarily, the easiest injuries to create in a hammock while pregnant are things you probably wouldn’t even notice until AFTER you give birth: abdominal separation, joint damage, or spinal ligament stretching (leading to spinal instability and disc injury). I know aerial yogis that have practiced during pregnancy. Some were fine, and some realized only AFTER birth that they had overdone it … and then had to deal with the reality of diastasis (extreme abdominal wall separation) or spinal injury and unstable discs.

First Trimester:
Contrary to what you might think, the first trimester is actually one of the riskiest times in pregnancy. Your baby is trying to implant itself securely into the tissue of your womb, so sudden jolts and falls can be dangerous. Luckily, your body starts producing hormones that usually result in you feeling nauseous, dissuading you from doing too much physically, thus helping to keep baby safe.

In my intro classes over the years I’ve had pregnant students (first trimester) attend without admitting they are pregnant. I have witnessed many of them get severely nauseous from the swaying movement of seaweed or forward/back swinging, especially coupled with the skin pressure and pull of the fascia. All of them at some point ran to the bathroom to throw up. Needless to say, this is definitely not the time to start a regular aerial yoga practice, UNLESS it’s specifically designed for pregnant women. (That topic is addressed later in this article…)

At the end of the first trimester, the amount of relaxin (the hormone that makes your connective tissue more elastic) spikes to its highest levels during pregnancy. Why? It’s your body’s way of helping things loosen up to prepare for birth. Pregnant woman often comment on how flexible they feel (although it’s not noticeable to all women). When working with a hammock, there is a much greater risk of damaging the connective tissue through passive stretching and small stumbles.

While muscle tissue repairs easily and fascia rebuilds itself daily, once you stretch a ligament or tendon beyond its normal range, it does not “unstretch.” The body may eventually repair itself by creating new connective tissue, but this is a long process and if you have ever damaged a knee or shoulder, you understand how long and difficult the recovery path can be. This is why you’ll often see modifications in regular floor prenatal yoga that involve lightly engaging the muscles (creating an active stretch) to protect the joints around it. In Unnata Aerial Yoga, we frequently utilize the hammock for longer holds of postures to unwind tension or holding patterns in the body. This (along with proper strengthening) helps us create and maintain healthier alignment. For pregnant women, there is a real danger in passively hanging their weight off a fixed point of the body.

Second Trimester:
This is the period where your pregnancy starts to feel visibly real. More likely your energy will go back up in the second trimester, but energy levels will shift every day. It’s generally accepted and recommended by the ACOG that woman should not lie flat on their backs after the 3rd month. Many woman find it to be ok for a few minutes, but not more. Why? When reclined, the weight of the baby can cut off its own blood/oxygen supply!

In addition to avoiding compression of the belly (through twisting or deep forward folds) this trimester brings a much greater risk of over-stretching the abdominals wall (through actual stretching OR muscular use) and can lead to diastasis recti. After pregnancy, moms are normally left with a bit of separation between the right and left abdominals because the linea alba (the connective tissue down your center) has stretched out. A cm or two is considered normal but when this gap becomes larger, this creates instability in the body and can lead to other injuries in the back and pelvis. When you are pregnant and you over use your abdominal muscles, this pulls on the linea alba, stretching it thinner. There can be many reasons for an especially large separation of the abdominals after birth, but doing “crunchie” type movements using the superficial abdominals during pregnancy can make it much worse. The scary part is that you probably won’t feel anything wrong when you are pregnant. It’s after you give birth that you realize your abdominals aren’t working correctly anymore.

Have you ever noticed how much you use your core just shifting yourself around to access different simple stretches seated inside the fabric? Even something as simple as shifting adds extra risk for mom.

Third Trimester:
In addition to the Relaxin, as you progress through your trimesters you’re adding 25-40 extra pounds of pull… and even more if that weight is moving through space and stops suddenly (which happens not just in an acrobatic flip or drop but as you invert, revert, or gently jump in to the fabric. Thus your risk for over stretching joints and ligaments surrounding the spine increases. In this trimester, moms are dealing with a whole new center of gravity, and they are prone to stumbling. The shock of a fall is something medical professionals want you to avoid at all costs.

So, what CAN you do in a hammock?
This is not the time to become a superstar aerialist. Rather, it’s a time to journey inward and connect to your needs and your baby’s needs, which right now are one in the same. If you are an experienced aerial yoga teacher or avid aerial yogini and choose to continue using the hammock thru pregnancy, follow regular modification guidelines for (floor) prenatal yoga, and consider these additional modifications for yourself when using the hammock:

Trimester One: Avoid long passive hangs (rib hang, hip hang, back straddle) throughout pregnancy. Instead, find gentle postures that allow you to gently engage your muscles and protect your joints. Use the hammock at a lower height where your feet can touch the ground while seated. Utilize the fabric as a balance tool. Avoid overheating and pick a single drishti for any gentle exercise when you are moving. Do less (or nothing) this trimester, depending on how you feel.

Trimester Two: Guard your tummy! Avoid anything that forces you to use your outer abdominal wall, and modify your twists to be shallow and upper-torso focused. Be extra careful when you are maneuvering inside the fabric, as this uses more abs than you realize! This is a great period to focus on building strength in your legs and arms. The fabric can be used as a tool to open the chest and arms, but make sure to gently press against the fabric as you stretch to protect the joints. You should feel the muscles opening/relaxing but NOT a pulling sensation at your shoulders or joints.

Trimester Three: The hammock is a wonderful tool in the last trimester for deep squatting support or using it on the belly to take pressure off of the low back. Side-lying feels amazing but make sure to enter and exit in a gentle way that doesn’t require your abdominals, and prop between your knees if necessary. Since your center of gravity is different, transition between things mindfully.

All this said, when used smartly the hammock can provide amazing support for pregnant women both before and during labor. The hammock can be used to remove pressure on certain areas of the body, release tension, and build strength and flexibility to prepare for labor. For prenatal use, the hammock is just another tool preparing your mind, body, emotions and spirit for birth… but the way you need to use it during pregnancy and birth is far different than we generally use it in a typical aerial yoga (or aerial fitness/acrobatics) class.

Want more information?
In 2016, I began selling aerial hammocks to hospitals and birthing centers as an aid in labor. At the time these were pioneered, they were used more like rebozos. Months of research and input from dozens of midwives, doulas, nurses, doctors, and mothers helped me design a more supportive (and sanitizable) style of hammock as well as specific positions moms can comfortably and safely use in their labor to utilize gravity and help reduce contraction pain. In 2017 I also created a simple hammock prenatal curriculum tailored to the needs and opportunities of each trimester. More info can be found at www.birthinghammocks.com

About the Author

Becky is an Unnata® Aerial Yoga Course Leader, since 2009, based out of Minneapolis MN. She is the creator of the Airbella Birthing Hammock and Prenatal Videos and has outfitted and trained hospitals and birthing centers across North America on hammock use in the birthing room. She is founder of www.AerialYogaOnline.com, a resource for aerial equipment, rigging, instructional videos, and trainings.

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