The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word, YUJ, which means to link together. The ideal yoga practice links physical breath with movement. Each physical movement, or asana, is designed to prepare you to sit comfortably in meditation. The word asana actually means easy, steady seat. Thus all the downward dogs, sun salutations, backward and forward bends you see at your local gyms and yoga studios are actually designed to help you sit still comfortably and breath. For many of us, this is a novel concept.

Why Practice Meditation and Asana?

Meditation is the act of sitting still and focusing on the breath. It can be practiced anywhere from the subway to the yoga studio or in the comfort of your own home. Generally, there are repetitive breathing techniques practiced at the onset of meditation. The techniques bring awareness to your breath. Eventually the mind begins to let go. This process initiates what Harvard M.D., Dr. Herbert Benson entitles the relaxation response. Dr. Benson found that the relaxation response counteracts the fight or flight response.

Our fight or flight response activates in response to daily stresses. A car alarm, a sharp noise, a fearful memory, the thought of a stressful activity or task are all capable of engaging the response. Internally, the fight or flight response sets off a series of nerve cell firings and releases adrenaline, noradrenalin and cortical into our bloodstream. As a result, our respiratory rate increases. Blood is redirected from our digestive tract to our limbs and muscles. Our sense of sight intensifies. Our awareness of pain declines. For example, notice your reaction when you are frightened or anxious— your shoulders lift up as your arms pull closer to your body and your muscles become tense.

Dr. Benson acknowledges what the yogis have known for thousands of years— stress takes a toll on our bodies’ circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems. He also found that meditating for 15 minutes a day, several times a week lowers blood pressure and heart rate. Importantly, he discovered that the simple act of trying to sit still compounded by a repetitive breathing exercise is enough to initiate the relaxation response. Thus, all one needs to do to reap the physiological benefits is simply, meditate.

Yogis designed asana practice to help prepare the yoga student to meditate. Asana including inversions, sun salutations, forward bends, back bends and hip openers— all release muscle tension as well as build muscular strength and balance so that you are able to sit still comfortably for long periods of time. The yogis have found a myriad of other benefits associated with asana including raising your heartrate, lowering blood pressure, increasing flexibility and strength, elevating your mood and improving concentration.

The Stress of Pregnancy

Speaking of stress, for those of you who are currently or have been pregnant, you are well aware of the increased pressure on your bodily systems. One of the most noticeable changes for not only you, but also those around you, is the fluctuation in hormone production. New hormones are released and other hormones such as progesterone and estrogen increase in production.

Rest assured there is a method to the madness associated with these hormonal changes. The increased production in progesterone and estrogen enables the growth of the baby, uterus and breasts. The hormone relaxin softens the connective tissue, cartilage and ligaments that support the joints to prepare for an easier delivery. If you are currently pregnant, it is important to be aware that relaxin allows you to stretch further than usual. As a result, you should be careful not to push yourself too far as you may cause injury to your joints, tendons and muscles.

The hormones released during pregnancy also cause dramatic changes in the cardiovascular system. The hormones relax the muscular walls of the blood and lymph vessels, increasing the fluid content of the body’s tissues, cells and blood. Furthermore, the heart has to work much harder to distribute the additional blood. Blood volume actually increases 40-45 percent, and the heart rate increases ten to 15 beats per minute. This added stress on the cardiovascular system can not only cause edema or swelling in pregnant women, but it can also cause breathlessness.

The respiratory system, like the cardiovascular system, changes dramatically during pregnancy. Normally when we breathe, our diaphragm pulls down and our rib cage expands. As pregnancy progresses the uterus presses up against the diaphragm and the lungs have less space to expand. This actually induces the fight or flight response and restricts breathing patterns. To make matters worse, a pregnant woman processes 40 percent more oxygen during pregnancy to support the baby.

The muscular system also goes through significant changes during pregnancy. The added weight of the baby pulls the front of the body forward which hyper-extends the lower back. This often leads to lower back pain. Similarly, the abdominal muscles need to be strong to support the increasing weight of the baby and the stress on the lower back. In addition, the pelvic floor muscles need to withstand the added weight as well as the process of labor. The pelvic floor muscles work with the uterus to push the baby out during labor.

Yoga and Pregnancy

While yoga is beneficial for everyone, pregnant women stand to benefit greatly from a regular practice. A prenatal yoga practice will ease the stress on the heart and lungs. Regular meditation will bring the heart rate down and lower blood pressure. Furthermore, initiating the relaxation response regularly will greatly release stress on the respiratory system, not to mention the increased efficiency of both the heart and lungs induced by regular, moderate exercise. Asana also strengthens the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles, minimizing lower back pain and easing the stress of labor.

Beyond the physiological benefits, the emotional benefits associated with reducing stress levels for both mother and baby are astounding.