Tai Chi For Pregnancy

by Beth Hopkins-Acampora, AP
presenter in the Center for Natural Health
DVD Tai Chi for Expecting Mothers


Introduction

Most doctors and fitness experts agree that moderate exercise during pregnancy is beneficial for both mom and baby. While walking, swimming and light aerobic movement are often recommended for pregnant women, there is an ancient exercise program from the China called Tai Chi that is gaining popularity here in the West. It is now being recommended as another fitness option for pregnancy, because it is a gentle, slow moving, and non-impact exercise.

What Is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi literally means “the supreme / great ultimate.” Its philosophy points to a way of living life that promotes health through moderation. With the hectic pace of our modern world, many here in the West have found their way to Tai Chi classes to learn to relax, breathe and reflect on the wonder of life. Many people seeking the ability to moderate their lifestyle, feel inwardly peaceful and get healthy have done so with Tai Chi. There may be no better time to do that than during pregnancy.

History

It is believed that Tai Chi originated in China over 1,000 years ago by a sage called Chang San Feng who patterned a series of dance like movements after watching a crane protect her nest from a snake. These slow moving, graceful postures have been handed down for centuries not only as effective methods of self defense, but as beautiful life affirming exercises that help us stay flexible and strong on the outside while feeling focused and relaxed on the inside. Its popularity here in the West has led to research studies that have confirmed its many benefits not only for adults and the elderly, but also for pregnant women.

Benefits of Tai Chi: Medical/physical

Pregnancy is a challenging time physiologically because there are so many changes happening to the body in a short period of time. It is not uncommon for women to experience unpleasant side effects during the nine month cycle. These can include nausea, vomiting, heartburn, appetite changes, excessive weight gain, loss of balance and falling, backache, swelling in the hands and feet, insomnia, and fatigue – just to name a few. One reason why Tai Chi is an ideal pregnancy exercise is because it helps alleviate many of those unpleasant side effects.

Tai Chi movement is very slow and done while standing up. Unlike yoga, there is no getting up and down off the floor which could be a problem for pregnant women in later trimesters. Each exercise encompasses a circular type movement that gives a full range of motion to each joint in the body, beginning with the neck and ending with the ankles. The term whole body workout accurately describes a Tai Chi session. The circular movement helps to strengthen and tone all the muscles while keeping the joints well lubricated and moving freely. This prevents swelling in the hands and feet. Women who practice Tai Chi during pregnancy have reported that it relieves back pain and cramping. This is due to the circular, full range of motion movement of Tai Chi.

The slowness of the exercises helps to increase awareness of body posture and weight distribution which greatly improves coordination. A landmark research study conducted at Emory University in 1996 proved that practicing Tai Chi helped reduce the incidence of falling by almost 50%. Any exercise that can help reduce falling is of tremendous benefit in pregnancy. The improved strength and coordination developed by practicing Tai Chi keeps pregnant women well balanced, on their feet and pain free throughout every trimester.

The non impact aspect of Tai Chi is another unique and extremely beneficial aspect for expecting mothers. No doctor recommends high impact exercise out of concern for the baby. Increased weight during pregnancy puts a strain on the joints, particularly if any movements are done too quickly or in a jarring, repetitive manner. Some pregnant women who were used to running or high impact aerobics have initially thought the slow movements of Tai Chi would be too easy or boring. Marci K., who practiced Tai Chi during her pregnancy said, “While people who have done aerobics or other strenuous activity may find it (Tai Chi) too slow, I find it is a good workout for my muscles and has helped me focus on my breathing. Each time I finish I feel so much better and ready to take on the day.” After doing the exercises, many have been surprised to find the movements physically challenging and enjoyed working out without the danger of injury.

Another benefit of Tai Chi for pregnancy is the practice of deep breathing. During all the exercises, breathing is deep and slow. Tai Chi is probably the only exercise program where the stomach muscles are relaxed. In other words, it’s okay to have a poochy belly in Tai Chi. As the old Tai Chi saying goes, “empty the chest, fill the belly.” This means that the shoulders and chest are relaxed, and deep breaths are taken all the way down to the lower abdomen.

In Chinese medical philosophy, it is believed that the body’s center of gravity and storehouse of energy is located about 2-3 inches below the belly button. Tai Chi, which is a part of Traditional Chinese Medical practice, incorporates this belief by creating exercises that enhance the circulation of oxygen and nutrients the lower abdomen. In pregnancy, this enhanced flow of oxygen and nutrients directly benefits the baby. Sara B. practiced Tai Chi during her pregnancy and reported that, “I could actually feel as though toxins were leaving my body! I feel not only as though I've exercised and done something good for my body and baby, but I actually feel cleaner." In addition, the relaxation experienced by practicing proper breathing techniques will calm the digestive and nervous systems, counteracting any nausea, appetite or sleep problems associated with pregnancy. This will also help expecting mothers prepare for the deep breathing and relaxation necessary to facilitate labor and delivery.

During pregnancy, hormonal ups and downs can greatly affect women emotionally. Coping with changes in body shape/size, lifestyle, work and family dynamics can also be stressful. This is where the meditation portion of Tai Chi can be really helpful. The relaxation experienced by deep breathing and focusing the mind on the slow repetitive movements provides great relief to the whirlwind of external changes pregnant women go through. The nervous system relaxes and re-boots to help normalize hormonal levels. This helps the body adapt to the many changes it is experiencing. A few minutes of mental stillness can really help counter balance feelings of stress. Pregnant women who practice Tai Chi have reported feeling relaxed, alive and refreshed after their sessions.

Who’s it For?

When recommending exercises for pregnant women, consideration must be given to their current state of health and fitness level. While yoga or light aerobics may be beneficial for women who are already fit, women who have never exercised before may injure themselves or overtax their systems when trying to get in shape for the baby. This is another factor that makes Tai Chi such a desirable exercise option for pregnancy. It is safe and gentle enough for any trimester and appropriate for all levels of fitness. It is the perfect beginner’s exercise because it moves slowly and is non-impact. Women who are overweight or very out of shape can start very slowly and work into a whole body routine over time. For women who work out regularly, it is a great addition to their fitness routine because of its unique ability to workout the whole body while incorporating meditation for the mind and emotions.

Pregnant women should take care to stay hydrated and cool during their workouts by keeping water handy and exercising in well ventilated places. Tai Chi is best learned through an experienced instructor. You can locate qualified instructors online or through the yellow pages under the martial arts heading. Be sure to ask potential instructors about their training lineage (there should be a Chinese teacher somewhere in the listing of their instructors) and inquire about their knowledge of pregnancy and experience with teaching pregnant women.

Pregnancy is a special time to enjoy the miracle of new life. Learning Tai Chi can enhance that experience and help expecting mothers prepare for the wonderful years to come after the birth of their child.

[ Tai Chi & Qigong (Chi Kung) ]