Mountain. Half Moon. Pigeon. Dancer. These are the English words for some well-known “asanas” (or poses) which make up the body’s yoga vocabulary. Most people – especially the uninitiated – equate the practice of yoga with physical exercise. But movement is only the beginning.
Any authentic yogi will tell you that yoga is not just about holding postures and moving our bodies. A huge component of yoga teaches us to breathe and move consciously with awareness. This delivers well-documented and numerous benefits that can be accessed anytime in order to achieve a sense of calm and well-being.
Pregnant women are often surprised when I encourage them to try yoga prenatally, even if they have never practiced before. They observe their growing bellies and wonder how in the world they could ever bend their bodies into even the most benign of poses. But I tell them that if they have the slightest curiosity, they should check out a prenatal class. As a doula, I see the difference in laboring women who practice yoga – whether they are advanced veterans or prenatal novices. That difference is often expressed in how a woman breathes, how she moves, and how she stays in the present moment.
Why is that last one especially important? Because when a laboring woman is too much in her head, she gets wrapped up with all kinds of thoughts (“how long has this been going on?; “when is the baby coming?”; “how many more of these before the baby is born?”; “did we feed the dog before all this started?”; “who’s idea was this, anyway?”) that do her no good. They use up too much energy – energy that is required for the 24 or 52 or 4 more sensations to come and for the birthing of her baby. When a women stays mindful in labor, she copes when she needs to, she rests when she needs to. That rest – and the ability to reduce her whole body to noodles even if only for a few minutes at a time – will be of tremendous service.
Make no mistake – yoga doesn’t make labor all rainbows and candy corn. But it does offer many invaluable benefits. For example, increased flexibility, strength, balance, toning and stamina – all of these things help a woman in labor to have more energy, maintain certain positions for active birthing, and encourage her baby to move down and her body to open.
Another of yoga’s greatest teachings is the value of breathing.”Did she actually just say that?” you’re asking yourself. “The value of breathing? DUH! The value is in staying alive!” But let’s put this into the context of labor. Often, when our we are anxious or fearful, our fight-or-flight response kicks in, and we either become shallow, rapid-breathers, or, even worse, breath-holders. These states do nothing to serve us in labor, and can actually gunk up the works.
Yoga practice teaches us to slow and deepen our breathing which spreads oxygen and prana (“the life force”) to every cell in our bodies. When we do this, our brain thanks us, our limbs and digits thank us, our muscles and joints and bones and skin thank us. And most of all, our central nervous system thanks us. When this happens, our heartbeat slows, our blood pressure lowers, our shoulders drop, we experience discomfort less acutely and are showered with serenity. That, My Friends, can be helpful on an epic level during labor and delivery!
Childbirth is always unpredictable and how you deal with its challenges remains to be seen. You can’t know exactly at any given moment how, from where or from whom you’ll derive comfort. You may have a lot of mobility, you may not. You may need to lie down, you may need to pace the hallways. But no matter where you are and no matter what you are doing – your breath is always with you. When you practice yoga, you are able to access this knowledge and be conscious of it at any point during childbirth. The breath is your refuge; it gets you out of your head and into the rest of who you are. It’s essentially a one-way ticket to the present moment, just where you need to be in labor, and in life. When you get there, you’ll experience a sense of awareness that lets you see life clearly. Of course, we can learn lessons from the past and we can plan for the future, but spending too much time in these spaces can sometimes overwhelm us and cause suffering. Mindfulness is a way for us to temper the stress and tension that are part of life, and actually embrace it with inner calm and joy. Yes, joy.
Additionally, yoga is the gift that keeps on giving! That breath work will serve you beyond your wildest dreams as you become a parent, and in just about any other situation in which you find yourself. Boss kinda cranky today? Breathe. Your 2-yr-old has just spilled coffee into your pocketbook? Breathe. Power out just as your holiday guests are arriving? Breathe. Your partner comes home and – oblivious to the unfolded laundry, the dirty dishes and the Mt. Everest of toys – inquires (while you’re nursing the baby) as to why you weren’t able to get to the dry cleaners? Breathe.
Will mindful breathing solve all the world’s problems? Probably not this week. But it might ameliorate yours. It’s an awfully comforting, totally portable, zero-calorie, 100% organic, wildly helpful tool in pregnancy, labor, and in life. You don’t need to order it online and it doesn’t require a delivery mechanism. Be good to your lungs, establish a regular yoga practice, get some fresh air on a daily basis, and as the song says, “just breathe”.
For a list of my favorite home yoga practice supplies, many of which you can use in labor, check here. Try some local prenatal classes to see which is best for you, but if you do not have any in your area or for days when you can not get to a class, you can yoga at home. Here are some great ones to start with.
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