Research into yoga & its potential efficacy during pregnancy & beyond

Yoga best know in the West as a form of gentle exercise consisting of body postures, breathing techniques, relaxation and meditation.

The word yoga (from same root as the English “yoke”) is Sanskrit for “union”. It is originated over 5,000 years ago in India as a complete system of mental and physical training.

Yoga was introduced to the West in the 19th century, when scholars translated ancient Hindu religious texts. It has grown in popularity since 1960s and has been integrated into some health care programmes, such as Dr, Ornish’s regime to treat heart disease (1). Most research into efficacy of yoga has been carried out in a last 40 year. A well-know US study from 1960s was done at Menninger Foundation, Kansas, showing that yoga meditation clearly affects the heart and circulation (2). A research published by British Thoracic Society showed that yoga breathing reduced the frequency of asthma attacks (3). Hundreds of academic papers have been written on the effect of meditation alone. A study reported in 1992 in the American Journal of Psychiatry demonstrated that meditation could reduce anxiety, panic and agoraphobia (4). Researchers at the University of San Diego had found that yogic breathing technique can shift cerebral hemispheric activity, helping to alleviate the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsory Disorder (5).

In a last decade extensive research has been done into efficacy of yoga on pregnancy outcome. Growing number of medical professionals believe that integrated approach to yoga during pregnancy is safe. A large clinical study that included 335 pregnant women has been done in Gunasheela Surgical and Maternity Hospital in Bangalore, India (6) showing that the number of babies with birth weight more than 2500 grams was significantly higher (p<0.01) in the yoga group. Yoga practices, including physical postures, breathing and meditation were performed by the yoga group one hour daily from the date of entry into the study (18-20 weeks) until delivery. The control group walked 30 minutes twice a day (standard obstetric advice) during the study period. The research concluded that as well as improving birth weight, yoga helped to decrease preterm labor and Isolated Intrauterine Growth Restriction (IUGR) in isolation or associated with Pregnancy Induced Hypertension (PIH). There were no adverse effects noted in the yoga group.
Study completed at the Department of Obstetric Gynaecological Nursing and Midwifery, Prince Songkla University, Thailand had been focused on yoga during pregnancy and its effect on maternal comfort, labor pain and birth outcome (7). The study examined the effect of yoga on 74 pregnant women. Different instruments, including demographic characteristics and trait anxiety scores were used. The experimental group practicing yoga was found to have shorter duration of the first stage of labor and higher maternal comfort during labor and 2 hours of post-labor compared to control group.

Most recent study has been done at the Walden University, Baltimore (8) in order to examine the feasibility and the level of acceptability of a mindful yoga intervention during pregnancy on maternal psychological and physical distress. Baseline and post-treatment measures examined state and trait anxiety, perceived stress, pain and morning salvatory cortisol in a single treatment group. Outcomes were measured from pre- to post intervention and between second and third trimester with repeated parametrical analysis. Results have shown that women practicing mindful yoga in their second trimester reported significant reductions in physical pain from baseline to postinternention. The 7 weeks mindful-based yoga group has demonstrated that women in their third trimester showed greater reduction in perceived stress and trait anxiety. The study concluded that yoga has potential efficacy in reducing maternal distress, particularly if started early in the pregnancy.

Research conducted at Greenwich University, London demonstrated that 34% of UK midwives are using complementary and alternative medicine in their practice (9), indicating a trend towards more natural childbirth.

Undoubtedly, women are experiencing significant hormonal, biological and anatomical changes during pregnancy that may cause discomfort. They may also feel insecure and unsure of the outcome of the pregnancy. All of this may cause physical and emotional distress.

However, practising yoga during pregnancy with proper modifications and approval from their health care professional can help women find much needed relief, not only through reducing stress and instilling calmness, but also in helping to strengthen the body, releasing tension in the hips in preparation for birth, and increasing oxygen level. It relaxes the mother during labour and helps her focus and regulate her breathing when labour pains and contractions begin.

Stamina increases through regular practice which helps during labour, and continuing yoga after delivery will help bring back the strength and tightness of the core muscles of the stomach and back. Through meditation and relaxation techniques, the presence of Alpha and Theta waves increase in the brain, creating a state of calmness and equilibrium.

– edited by Elena O’Keeffe


  1. Ornish D. Dr Dean Ornish programme for Reversing Heart Disease, Ivy Books, 1995
  2. Butler F. Lubar J., The Biofeedback and Self-Regulation, Applied Physiology and Biofeedback, Vol. 5, No 3, 1980 pp.355-391
  3. Manocha R., Marks G., Kenchington P., Peters D., Salome C., Sahaji yoga in the management of moderate to severe asthma: a randomised controlled trail, BMJ Publishing Group and British Thoracic Society, Thorax, Vol. 57, 2002, pp.110-115 4)
  4. Kabat-Zinn J., Massin A., Kristeller L., Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction programme in the treatment of anxiety disorders, American Journal of Psychiatry, July 1992
  5. Shannohoff-Khalsa, Stress technology medicine: a new paradigm for stress and self-regulatory, Neurobiology and neuroendocrinology by Brown, River and Kobb, New York, Marcel Deccer, 1991
  6. Narendan S. et al, Efficacy of yoga on pregnancy outcome, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, April 2005, pp. 237-244
  7. Chuntharapat S. et al, Yoga during pregnancy: effects on maternal comfort, labor pain and birth outcomes, Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, Vol. 14, Issue 2 May 2008 pp.105-115
  8. Beddoe A. et al, The Effects of Mindfulness-Bawsd Yoga During Pregnancy on Maternal Psychological and Physical Distress, Journal of Obstetric, Gynaecologic and Neonatal Nursing, Vol 38, No3 May/June 2009 pp.310-319
  9. Tiran D. Report by the School of Health and Social Care, University of Greenwich, 1997

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