Thresholds : giving birth

As part of my regular yoga teaching schedule, I have the joy preparing many lovely ladies for birth and beyond in Pregnancy Yoga classes. I started teaching pregnancy classes at the request of a student, for whom weekly yoga was already a saving grace in an otherwise busy London life, wisely she knew this needed to continue in pregnancy.

Four years later, and many pregnancies, birth stories, Mum & Baby yoga classes, two DVDs on pre and post natal yoga, and a lot of research into the subject of giving birth, I find myself happily pregnant with my first child. I have been in the rare position of having researched pregnancy and birth from the mothers perspective before getting there myself.

I have often joked that it seems to me that giving birth in hospital is a lot like arriving at the airport for a flight (until pregnant I travelled a lot). Once checked in, your arrival time and the way in which you get there is largely out of your hands. Sometimes you will arrive ‘on time’ (and most likely you’ll rave about the easy journey you had) and sometimes you won’t, you’ll miss your connection, your luggage will get lost and when you eventually make it to your destination you’ll be praying for a shower, a comfy bed and a good cup of tea. A mother’s magic resource in birth is her ability to stay relaxed and calm in the face of a series of bodily functions, activities, people and experiences that can easily throw calmness to the wind. Just like an air traveller your locus of control is how you choose to respond to what happens along the way. You can be annoyed, frustrated or despairing of every step, or you can hand yourself over to the system and focus on staying present calm and relaxed.

Here are four things I have learned from teaching :

  1. Having a baby is always an extraordinary experience : no matter how birth progresses, giving birth is unparalleled in human possibilities. If you are preparing for birth, you are currently in the process of growing a person! Take a moment to acknowledge what an incredible feat this is. In preparing for birth it is important to remember that no matter how your baby arrives into the world there will be some extraordinary perfections to be found in the midst of any turmoil a new life brings. By playing down the enormity of what you are doing, we miss the opportunity to honour and process the enormity of feelings and emotions that rise and fall as we get closer to the event. Getting joyous and comfortable with how you are feeling can help generate some faith in your body’s ability to birth your baby. As Kathryn Graves points out in her book “The Hypnobirthing Book” – we allow our bodies to grow the baby all the way up to our due date and then so often decide that we now need to take over and run the show. It’s a quizzical approach and one that might need revising.
  2. Birth can take the middle road : pregnancy in the media is often presented in one of two ways – either horrendously dramatic, or as some remarkable feat of breathy relaxation. There are so many approaches to this moment, and like most of life in comparison to flashy movie screens, the reality is often a lot more gentle and mundane than what we see on-screen. I particularly like this father’s description of his wife’s home birth where he admits that there are long parts of labour that just take time and patience, and are essentially deeply boring (I wonder how his wife would describe this!) However, what we expect holds many of the keys to what unfolds, so it is a very worthwhile activity to take a good look at where our expectations come from and do some wider research to see if that matches the millions of experiences that have created all the humans on the planet. Both Ina May Gaskin’s books, and the Birth Hour podcasts listed below are great resources for this. As is asking your loved ones who have been there, although be mindful that we all love a drama and when it comes to birth stories, people will often share the most memorable i.e. intense bits with you.
  3. Your body is phenomenally intelligent : the intricate dance of chemistry and energetic impulses of your nervous system are woven throughout the birth experience to create a crescendo of power that enables the miracle of birth. In the absence of any pathology (complications that need and require very necessary medical help) a body left to its own devices will be able to complete this dance. Medicine interferes with this dance, creating a new drum beat that your body has to adjust to, as does fear. Sometimes we are not okay, or our baby is not okay and thank goodness for modern medicine when that is the case. Obstetric research and understanding is literally life saving and when we are lucky enough to live in affluent countries with extraordinary advances in science we can be so grateful for these saving graces. But it is also valuable to keep medicine in its place, and learn as much as you can about “letting your monkey do it” as Ina May Gaskin describes it in her book listed below. Ina May is midwife in the USA who has specialised in a lot of natural births. She speaks here about getting out of our own way in birth and overcoming fear in labour.
  4. Who surrounds you as you give birth matters : the deep sensitivity of a birthing woman means that what people say, how people touch you and even the way that others (especially strangers to you) enter the room affect how birth unfolds. You will have a better and easier time in birth with continuous support from people you are comfortable and at ease with. This might be your partner, but it’s important to remember that if it’s your first time then it’s most likely all new to him too, and a little research and conversation can go a long way to guiding him in how to support you. A doula can be a wonderful resource who will stay with you throughout the birth experience, while your midwives may need to change shifts, and a new midwife in the midst of birth can create a change in your energy. Remember that you need to be able to literally and fully let go of your baby, which may mean letting go of a lot else, decorum is out of the window, so be comfortable with the people around you while you do it.
  5. Getting in the zone : a mother’s level of control in birth lies essentially at her ability to keep herself calm, using breathing and relaxation techniques (meditation, yogic breathing, hypnobirthing) which she will need to have practiced prior to getting into the birthing state. Because in the birthing state you will default to what your unconscious offers – you won’t be thinking straight and nor should you. Your unconscious mind will be better at guiding the process of birth than you can do consciously. Which means that the people around you need to be acting in a way that is genuinely supportive to you (not what they think should be supportive, but what you actually find supportive).

Essentially what I would love to remember heading into birth is this ; prior to giving birth it will seem to be a mystery. After having given birth, we will have our own stories to tell. From the outset, you do have some capacity, however limited it may be, to control how that story unfolds, but as any good author will tell you, you can’t expect to just sit down and type out your first novel without having done some research first. Finding good people, teachers, therapists, birth educators, doulas, midwives, GPs and friends who can support you in preparing for birth is invaluable. Finding good resources, books, websites and classes are all useful too. You can prepare for what is coming, and that preparation can make you feel curious and excited. Know that these resources are working for you by the way they make you feel. Calm, confident, and as supported as one could be about walking into a life changing moment is good, or at least moving in this direction. Nervous, in denial and ignoring what is ahead is less likely to give you the birth experience you desire.

One last thing, you don’t need to retain all the information you read. When it comes to giving birth, your main strength will be to keep yourself relaxed, breathing well and as calm as can be while letting your body get on with doing some intense and extra-ordinary manoeuvres to stretch and slide your baby out of you (doesn’t the word ‘slide’ sound and feel so much better than the word ‘push’?! The words we use matter). You will want to be able to feel at ease with switching your thinking brain off, which is why meditation, relaxation and hypnotherapy can all be excellent skills to practice in the run up. You will as a result feel at ease in a semi-conscious state that birthing requires. So think of your research as a process to shift your awareness, guide and shape your instinct, and enable you to feel as prepared as can be.

Resources

Christiane Northrup : Perfection in action  ; article that heralds women’s bodies and their capabilities from an OBGYN in the USA.

Gowri Motha : The Gentle Birth Method  ; organisation and book that beautifully describes preparing for a gentle birth – based in the UK

Tara Lee Yoga : Pre and Postnatal DVDs ; the DVDs Tara and I have worked on for the past two years. Great at home sequences that can support your preparation.

Ina May Gaskin’s : Guid to childbirth  ; the book I first read while training to teach. Full of women’s wisdom.

The Birth Hour : podcasts and newsletters regarding birth 

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