Yoga instructor Mary Barnes wears many hats – mom of two, yoga teacher, teacher trainer, and long-time New York City resident. However, for the many pregnant women who spend their pregnancy in her popular Anusara-focused yoga classes around the city, she is also known as a strong advocate for moms-to-be, a gentle encourager, and constant cheerleader.

Barnes began teaching prenatal yoga well before it became a ubiquitous part of the NYC pregnancy experience. In 1992, while pregnant with her first son, Barnes recognized a growing demand from pregnant women to explore yoga during what is often an interesting and challenging season of a woman’s life.

Now more than two decades later, Barnes teaches prenatal, postnatal, and mommy & me yoga classes at luxe studios like Pure Yoga, community centers like the JCC, and public spaces like the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy. She even teaches prenatal and postpartum teacher training workshops for instructors looking to work with expectant moms.

Here she shares her thoughts on yoga’s benefits before, during and after pregnancy.

Tell us about what yoga can offer a woman during and after her pregnancy.

My intention is to teach students how to balance the “hard” and the “soft” in order to become stronger and more resilient, both on and off the yoga mat. This balance is so helpful for women during pregnancy, childbirth, and as they begin their journey of motherhood. In prenatal yoga, we practice deep inner awareness in order to observe the physical changes of pregnancy. We also focus on mindfulness of our breath, including soft, low sounds to lengthen the breath and relax the body; and physical postures to increase strength and flexibility while also bringing comfort. This results in a class that feels good for pregnant women and ultimately can help a woman ride through the sensations of childbirth without feeling frightened. Practicing yoga during pregnancy can also increase a woman’s pain threshold by allowing her to consciously call on her body’s “relaxation response” while avoiding the fight-or-flight response that often arises in a stressful situation.

What makes prenatal yoga unique?

Prenatal yoga includes basic modifications to accommodate the growing baby. This often means no poses on the abdomen after the first trimester (or earlier if it feels uncomfortable); no deep spinal twists, as these can cut off circulation to the internal organs; and no deep backbends or abdominal crunches, which can cause a diastasis recti (separated abdominal muscle). We also do any inversions on the wall for support and for a shorter period of time and in the last half of pregnancy, we limit the time spent on the back which can hinder the return of blood from a woman’s lower body back up to the baby. Being pregnant and becoming a mother requires strength, so prenatal classes can be strong and invigorating, provided they are balanced by restorative poses at the end of class. Classes often include poses and breathing techniques that can be helpful during childbirth as well as exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor and transverse abdominals.

What is the most common challenge women wrestle with post-delivery and how can yoga help?

Many women struggle with breastfeeding in the early days or weeks after giving birth and yoga breathing can help mothers stay calm during this challenging time. Physically, many women have weakened pelvic floor and abdominal muscles so starting with pelvic floor and transverse abdominal muscle exercises as soon as possible can help women regain their strength in these areas. Here’s a simple exercise to try: engage the Kegel muscles while drawing your navel back to the spine and hold both sets of muscles for 10 seconds, building up to 20 and then 30 seconds. Make sure you don’t hold your breath!

What is your favorite yoga pose for women in the early post-partum weeks?

Back discomfort is a common complaint from new moms. Here’s a great restorative pose to do when your baby takes a nap: Fold a blanket in half and then in half again. Roll it up tightly. Place the blanket roll on the floor and lie down length-wise, so that your buttocks, spine and head are on the blanket. Place your legs into any position that is comfortable. Close your eyes and breathe, as your back muscles melt onto either side of the rolled blanket.

What has teaching women during and after their pregnancies taught you?

I find such joy teaching pregnant women and new mothers because, although it may be a time when women feel vulnerable, it’s such an empowering season of life. I love being able to share the wisdom that I’ve learned over the years from my own experience and from the experiences of hundreds of other women I’ve had in classes. Raising kids can be exhausting, so it’s important for women (and dads!) to remember to take something back for themselves every day so that they don’t become depleted. This can be as simple moment as pausing to focus on your breath while you’re feeding the baby or dropping in to a yoga class to bond with other parents.

Images courtesy of Pure Yoga.