Happy Baby on Board: Prenatal SUP Yoga

Stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga has increased in popularity since bursting on to the yoga scene as a hybrid beloved by water-loving yogis several years ago. The sport of stand-up paddling has roots in ancient Polynesia, and was popularized in the U.S. over the last decade thanks to surfing greats Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama. It didn’t take long for yogis to recognize the potential of the sturdy board resembling a floating yoga mat. With many yoga companies offering SUP yoga teacher training, the sport is popular in Maui, Malibu, Maine, and the Maldives.

As a SUP yoga teacher since 2012, I’ve always been focused on how to safely adapt poses to the board. So when I’ve been asked by pregnant women if they could participate in my classes, I’ve demurred, concerned for their health and safety. As I delve into the study of prenatal yoga, my mind is always on the water, and so I set out to answer the questions: Is prenatal SUP yoga safe for mom and baby? If so, under what conditions should it be practiced?

Since SUP yoga is in its infancy as a sport, sources have proven scarce and largely anecdotal in my initial research. While some sources discuss the physical and emotional benefits of practicing SUP while pregnant, I was unable to find published information on prenatal SUP yoga specifically. So I asked the experts – SUP yoga pioneers with personal experiences either teaching pregnant yoginis or becoming mothers themselves. The following are my findings, and what they mean for prenatal SUP yoga.

Jana Mars is the founder of Aqua Vida, a SUP yoga company based in New Jersey and operating in several locations in the state and in the Philadelphia area. As a mother, experienced stand-up paddler, and SUP yoga teacher, Jana teaches prenatal SUP yoga – only if conditions are ideal. The main focuses of her prenatal classes are pranayama, gentle stretching, seated postures, and connection with the elements and the baby. Jana has allowed pregnant yoginis to stand up on the paddleboard in “ideal” conditions, such as mild wind, no wake, no motorized boat traffic, and mild current. I can imagine that locating these conditions could be difficult in some locations, and that scouting a spot in advance for prenatal SUP yoga would be even more important than for regular SUP yoga.

In the winter months, Aqua Vida offers SUP yoga in an indoor pool at Drexel University. The classes were very popular this past season and Jana says she’s pursuing an indoor prenatal SUP yoga program because the “level of safety indoors is unparalleled.” An indoor pool certainly eliminates the risks of wind, wake, current, and boat traffic – I can see this being an ideal environment for developing prenatal SUP programs.

Jana practiced SUP Yoga and paddled while pregnant with her youngest child. She describes being on the water while pregnant as “an experience I hold so dearly, as it allowed me to experience all of the benefits of yoga and paddling, which we know so well.”

Another SUP yoga trailblazer, Julie Roach, also has experience teaching prenatal SUP yoga. Based in Florida, Julie leads H2YO! SUP Yoga and Fitness on Water, taking yogis for SUP adventures along the chain lakes of Winter Park, among other locations. Julie allows pregnant women to participant in SUP yoga under very specific conditions: she teaches moms-to-be in the first trimester only, or in the second trimester after an interview. If the women have SUP experience and are athletic, Julie will allow them to participate in SUP yoga in the second trimester.

Beyond the second trimester, according to Julie, “balance can be an issue and falling onto the board may be dangerous.” Another risk of falling off the paddleboard in the third trimester is having trouble getting back on the board with a baby bump. Usually, paddlers climb back on to the board from the water as if pulling themselves out of a pool: using their arms to maneuver the body belly-down onto the board. In the third trimester, the abdomen protrudes so much that this approach is likely to prove difficult, and is not recommended, as the additional pressure on the abdominus rectus can have adverse effects on mom and baby.

Julie believes it’s safe for pregnant women with yoga or SUP experience to practice SUP yoga. While she doesn’t think it’s dangerous for beginners to yoga or SUP, she doesn’t see the benefit in adding additional risk to “a very important time for mom and baby.” SUP Yoga isn’t something Julie suggests for someone to start after they become pregnant, though she notes that she’s supportive of prenatal SUP yoga for experienced paddlers who are comfortable with the additional challenges of balance while pregnant and whose doctors clear them for exercising in local waterways.

Julie brings up an important point regarding environmental conditions. In some areas, being on the water can mean exposure to pollutants, chemicals, and wildlife that can be harmful to humans and to the ecosystem. It’s important to understand the risks in your local waterways and take precautions to avoid exposure. Additionally, as with any outdoor activity, effective sun protection measures should always be followed. Another consideration for pregnant women on the water is the mounting evidence of the risks of the mosquito-borne Zika virus. It’s vital to seek up-to-date information in order to make informed decisions based on each yogini’s individual situation. The bottom line is to avoid putting mom or baby at risk.

Julie emphasizes that she feels strongly about moms staying active all throughout pregnancy, and she agrees that prenatal SUP yoga in indoor pools could be popular for the reduced risk a stable environment provides. She notes the availability and benefits of yoga classes on land that simulate SUP yoga, such as Indo yoga board classes, and classes with other equipment that mimics the imbalance of being on water. I think these can be ideal options for moms-to-be, as they eliminate many of the riskiest environmental elements of prenatal SUP yoga.

Another SUP yoga innovator, Ashley Quinn, is an experienced teacher and owner of Liquid Bliss Yoga on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. While Ashley has not seen a demand for prenatal SUP yoga throughout the last several years of leading SUP yoga classes, she would allow pregnant yogis in her classes. Ashley would tailor a prenatal SUP yoga class to “serve as a restorative practice with rest and relaxation as the main goals.” In addition, Ashley goes on to recommend that four points of contact (between the woman’s body and the board) always be a consideration for safety and balance. She outlines the importance of keeping the center of gravity low, stable and steady during prenatal SUP yoga.

According to Ashley, stand-up paddling can at once be a relaxing activity that provides ease in the body, while also creating strength and increasing flexibility. “The connectivity to water is a spiritual experience and also provides a sense of relaxation in the mind,” says Ashley. Sounds like the perfect way for water-loving moms-to-be to release and recharge.

After consulting the experts, several considerations for prenatal SUP yoga float to the top.

Based on my findings, I believe prenatal SUP yoga can be a beneficial for moms-to-be, as long as important biological, proficiency, and environmental factors are carefully respected.

As with any exercise during pregnancy, it’s important for moms-to-be to check with their doctors about prenatal SUP yoga. Biologically, the body is undergoing so many changes at once, including an evolving sense of balance and center of gravity. Some women are genetically more disposed to certain complications during pregnancy, and prenatal SUP yoga is not for everyone. It’s important to for moms to be aware of any biological factors that would inhibit them from participating in prenatal SUP yoga.

The progression of pregnancy is also a consideration for prenatal SUP yoga. Just as regular prenatal yoga poses change from the first through third trimesters, it’s important that the poses in a prenatal SUP yoga class are adapted to the woman’s changing body. For example, only very gentle heart-opening/back-bending postures should be included in prenatal SUP yoga, so as not to overstretch the rectus abdominus and connective tissue. Likewise, lunges should not be deep in any trimester of prenatal SUP yoga, to avoid injury to the round ligament. These and other poses for moms-to-be should maintain three or more points of contact with the board to ensure they keep their balance.

In addition to biological factors, it’s clear that the environment in which one practices prenatal SUP yoga is crucial to the benefits experienced. On rivers, bays, lakes, and oceans, the SUP board responds to natural changes like currents, waves, and wind, in addition to man-made wake and boat traffic. As much as these elements are avoided in regular SUP yoga classes, it becomes even more critical to seek favorable conditions when the student is practicing for two. If possible, a cove protected from the majority of these elements would make for an ideal location. In addition, indoor pools provide an incomparably stable environment. SUP yoga can also be simulated and adapted to the studio with special equipment. Any efforts to minimize destabilizing environmental factors in prenatal SUP yoga are likely to result in a more enjoyable (and therefore beneficial) experience for mom and baby.

Another major factor contributing to determining if prenatal SUP yoga is safe and beneficial is the level of experience of the mom in either activity. If she is a complete beginner in either SUP or yoga, combining them for prenatal SUP yoga is not recommended in any trimester. Conversely, if a mom-to-be has experience paddling or practicing yoga, prenatal SUP yoga may be an option for her. When a student has a particular level of comfort on the paddleboard and in yoga poses, she’s more likely to have an enjoyable experience. An effective prenatal SUP yoga teacher would ensure appropriate sequencing for the pregnant body, as well as the minimization of environmental variables.

In conclusion, the approach to prenatal SUP yoga should be carefully considered based on several biological, proficiency, and environmental elements. My recommendation for moms-to-be interested in prenatal SUP yoga (given they are cleared by their doctor) is grounded mostly in proficiency level and trimester. If a woman in her first trimester has experience stand-up paddling and practicing yoga, I believe she can benefit from prenatal SUP yoga, either in a group or private class setting. In the second trimester, if a yogini has significant experience stand-up paddling and practicing yoga, prenatal SUP yoga in a private class setting is my recommendation. In a private class setting, the teacher’s focus can remain on the mom-to-be at all times and ensure her safety. I don’t recommend prenatal SUP yoga for moms-to-be in the third trimester, as balance is likely to be an issue, as are the effects of falling off the board.

As a SUP yoga teacher exploring prenatal recommendations, this research provided me with sound conclusions I look forward to sharing with my students. It also raised questions for me, such as: Is there demand for prenatal SUP yoga? Do the mental benefits of outdoor prenatal SUP yoga extend to an indoor setting? What is the ideal sequence for a prenatal SUP yoga class? With the summer SUP yoga season approaching, I look forward to exploring these topics in more depth.

 

Sources:

Ashley Quinn, Liquid Bliss Yoga [http://www.liquidblissyogastudio.com]

Jana Mars, Aqua Vida [http://www.aquavidasup.com]

Julie Roach, H2YO SUP YOGA [http://h2yojulieroach.com]

 

For more information:

Jessica Bellofatto, The Pregnant Athlete, Athleta Chi blog, Oct. 2, 2013: http://www.athleta.net/2013/10/02/the-pregnant-athlete/

Stand Up Paddle Boarding While Pregnant: 5 Tips, Isle Surf and SUP, by Stephanie Myers, August 17, 2015: https://www.islesurfandsup.com/stand-up-paddle-boarding-while-pregnant-5-tips-infographic/

4 Yoga Poses to Try On Your SUP, Yoga Journal, by Lauren Ladoceour, May 3, 2013: http://www.yogajournal.com/article/cross-training/joy-ride/

Suzie Cooney, Stand Up and Sweep Your Way to Better Health, Athleta blog entry, May 5, 2010: http://www.athleta.net/2010/08/20/stand-up-and-sweep-your-way-to-better-health/

Surfing Through Pregnancy – What to Know, Seeababes blog, February 7, 2014: http://seeababes.blogspot.com/2014/02/surfing-through-pregnancy-what-to-know.html

Jane Daly Danese