By Dr James Newham, Research Associate at Newcastle University
Although health professionals have long assumed that yoga helps with stress, the theory has never been tested. This was the first study of antenatal yoga in the UK and the first worldwide to investigate how both single and multiple sessions of yoga can effect mood and stress hormone levels among healthy pregnant women.
This study, funded by Tommy’s and carried out in Manchester and Stockport by myself and colleagues, showed that antenatal yoga can reduce stress hormone levels and reduce maternal anxiety through a combination of breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques and physical postures, all within a supportive group setting. A single session of yoga was found to reduce self-reported anxiety by one third and stress hormone levels by 14%. Encouragingly, similar findings were made at both the first and final session of the eight-week intervention.
A number of complementary therapies that have been tested in pregnant women have shown an initial effect on mood symptoms. However, this often disappears over time, whereas our study found that the effects of yoga remained.
Anxiety peaks in the first and third trimesters
In pregnancy, anxiety generally peaks in the first and third trimester and dips in the second trimester. The common explanation for this is that in the first trimester there are concerns about early miscarriage and the health of the baby. The third trimester is focused on aches and pains from increasing size and uncertainty of childbirth.
The relaxation exercises and postures in standard antenatal yoga classes can help to reduce anxiety in the third trimester by teaching women skills and techniques that can help with physical discomfort and also be used in times of heightened stress.
Conversations with the women involved in the study showed that there were many benefits to be gained from attending; some benefited from the relaxation elements, some found the physical exercises relieved strain and fatigue and some enjoyed the social element of meeting other pregnant women.
Research provides an evidence-base for health professionals
To many reading this blog and the recent paper, these findings will not be surprising. Many midwives, obstetricians and mothers who have attended antenatal yoga have advocated the use of yoga.
Janine Hurley, the British Wheel of Yoga-accredited instructor who taught our yoga classes said: ‘For years midwives have known the anecdotal benefits of yoga in pregnancy. No one can guarantee how labour will go, but skills learned through yoga can help a woman maintain calm and retain focus during childbirth. This research is crucial as now health care professionals have an evidence base that highlights the benefits of yoga. More importantly, antenatal yoga classes are becoming more accessible to women, with classes running across the country; some at minimal cost at SureStart centres and in hospitals. Over the years it has been a pleasure to see women come back to my classes for their second and third pregnancies and tell me how beneficial they found the classes in the weeks leading up to and during childbirth with their previous pregnancies’.
While most people are familiar with postnatal depression, many do not realise that it is influenced by mood during pregnancy. If antenatal yoga can help improve mood during this period it can only be of benefit to the mother. Recently, research has shifted from focusing only on addressing ‘ill health’ to trying to improve wellbeing in pregnancy. Yoga may help by reducing negative mood and promoting maternal wellbeing more generally.