Mamas on the Mat_lowres

A woman assumes the Lotus position during a prenatal yoga class at Wild Lotus Yoga Studio. "I can't imagine being pregnant and not doing yoga," says instructor Kellie Panus.

When one is heavily pregnant, the idea of standing on one foot while grasping the other ankle behind the back can be, to say the least, comical -- if not out of the question.

Yet here at Wild Lotus Yoga Studio on Perrier Street, about 10 women in various stages of pregnancy are doing just that. Instructor Kellie Panus then leads the class into the Half-Moon Pose, in which the student leans with her back against the wall, balancing on her right foot and right hand that's resting on a yoga block on the floor. The left leg extends straight out against the wall with the left arm upward -- so the women look, as one student describes it, "like bugs squished against a windshield." Panus prefers "flying pregnant goddesses."

The students are not performing any sort of remarkable feat; these are standard poses in Panus' prenatal yoga class, and many of the women even began the classes after months or years without regular exercise. But in prenatal yoga -- which teaches women how to adapt to their ever-burgeoning bodies -- many students learn they are capable of more strength and flexibility while pregnant than they had previously imagined.

That's one of the reasons why prenatal yoga is so widely touted for moms-to-be: In a time of a woman's life when she often regards her body as ungainly and unfamiliar, yoga teaches new ways of movement that can contradict the physical challenges of pregnancy.

"You learn how to work with, rather than against, the shifting changes of gravity in your balance," says Panus, who became certified to teach prenatal yoga last year when she was pregnant. "Let's face it -- we're gaining a lot of weight. I stopped counting at 45 pounds. And gaining all that weight over the span of a few months is a lot of stress on the body. So learning how to use your body, to work with the shifts of balance and weight, really helps. I can't imagine being pregnant and not doing yoga."

The poses in prenatal yoga aim to stretch and strengthen parts of the body typically strained by the rigors of pregnancy. Especially targeted are the hips, lower back and feet, with strength-building positions for the arms and legs. The exercise itself is gentle enough to be approved for all stages of a normal pregnancy.

Amy Powe, who is eight months pregnant with her second child, says she physically feels better this time around and credits her yoga classes for the improvement. "I am a lot more flexible and a lot stronger, and I'm not having back problems, which I did have the first time," she says. Powe had followed a yoga videotape during her first pregnancy, but is taking prenatal classes now. "Going to a class does make the difference. The fact that there's someone there guiding you, who can correct you, means your pose is better."

In addition to Wild Lotus, a number of other local studios offer prenatal classes, including New Orleans Yoga Center and Alvina's Yoga Studio, plus The Big Top Gallery. Proponents of yoga say the ancient Indian discipline is a natural aid for pregnancy and childbirth. Yoga helps to foster flexibility, strength, relaxation, improved circulation, breath control and awareness of one's body -- all of which can improve the quality of a pregnancy and of labor and delivery. "To me, it's great preparation for childbirth," Powe says. "Some of these poses are not very comfortable, so getting through it with breathing is good practice."

Margaret Wilson credits prenatal yoga with a much easier delivery for her second child than she'd experienced with her first. "My first labor was 32 hours, and when I became pregnant again I was scared," she says. "I hadn't done any exercise since I had my first baby -- she had just turned two, and I needed to do something." Wilson read about prenatal yoga in a newspaper article and signed up for classes. "My second labor was fabulous," says Wilson, who had her baby in late July. "It was the night after a yoga class, and it was five to seven hours start to finish."

Panus, whose son Jake is now 6 months old, has practiced yoga for eight years and taught for four. When she became pregnant, she did her own research about which yoga positions were appropriate or inappropriate, and says she found conflicting information. Around that time, she agreed to teach prenatal yoga. "I needed to get certified."

Panus took an intensive one-on-one course in Dallas with Karen Prior, founder of the Mamaste prenatal yoga program. "I went with the safest training program in the U.S., because I wanted to feel completely comfortable that everything I was teaching would be sanctioned by an obstetrician," she says. "The entire program is approved by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology."

Panus says she came away from the training surprised at some of the information she learned. "I was shocked to learn you are supposed to take it easy in the first trimester," she says. "I assumed I could do whatever I wanted -- I had already done eight to 10 weeks' worth of yoga and jogging, and I didn't realize that the first trimester is when the placenta is trying to implant." As a result, Panus' classes are open only to women in their second and third trimesters.

She also had to get used to the alternate breathing patterns of prenatal yoga -- in through the nose, out through the mouth -- in contrast to regular yoga, which encourages breathing only through the nose. "When you're in labor, you're not going to be breathing out through your nose," she says. "This trains you to get used to the breathing you're going to be doing." And some beneficial prenatal poses, Panus also found, should not be done by women who are late in their pregnancies with a breech baby. "After 34 weeks, if your baby's head is not down, you can't squat anymore," she says. "Because you're engaging the baby in a more breech position if you squat."

Panus' classes involve lots of talk about labor, and how certain poses can help prepare the body for delivering a baby. During one squatting pose, called the Goddess, she encourages the class to grunt loudly "so you get used to the sounds that are going to come out of your mouth when you're in labor." She cheers when the students respond with thunderous primal noises.

Stretches to loosen the hips, lengthen the spine, and open up the chest and lungs are emphasized, and Panus discourages any moves, such as bending at the waist, that would compress the abdomen. "You always want to make plenty of room for the baby," she says, demonstrating how women should squat when they need to pick something off the floor, instead of leaning over. Panus then shows the class how to lift themselves out of a pose by using their arms instead of their back. "You've got to strengthen your arms every time you can," she tells them. "Because carrying a baby around is hard work."

Panus says that after her son was born, she was surprised by the physical challenges of caring for a baby. "Yoga prepares you for how physically demanding motherhood is," she says. "Picking your baby up, over and over again, all day long -- you need to be strong. I was completely humbled by it." She says her feet also took a beating during and after pregnancy, one reason she puts so much stock in foot-stretching techniques in class.

Before the students begin the actual poses is a roundtable of sorts, where they share pregnancy issues, ask questions and offer advice. Some of the students say that the sense of community is as important to them as the yoga practice itself. "It's nice to have other pregnant women to talk to," says Margaret Wilson, who took Panus' prenatal classes and now attends Parent and Baby yoga sessions with her 4-month-old daughter Stephanie. "After women give birth, they sometimes tend to forget about aspects of pregnancy. They have the baby and that's their focus now; pregnancy is no big deal to them anymore. But when you're pregnant it is a big deal to you, and it's so nice to be with people who are involved in it and who understand where you're coming from."

Besides the physical benefits, prenatal yoga offers another much-needed respite for the overwhelmed pregnant woman -- a chance to wind down. "You're creating a peace of mind during your yoga practice; you're de-stressing," Panus says. "And your baby picks up on that. The mental and spiritual aspects of yoga, I think, are just as beneficial as the physical. Getting yourself to relax during a very transformational time in your life -- when everything is new and there's so much information to process -- it's invaluable."