One of my students was recently faced with the fact that her birth was not going to go how she hoped. She was intending to have a natural birth–until she learned her baby was in the breach position. Wendy had been a dedicated practitioner of prenatal yoga, coming to the Prenatal Yoga Center two to three times a week. Yoga helped her alleviate her aches and pains, but it also ended up preparing her mentally and physically for labor and delivery–even though her birth experience ended up being a c-section.
Afterwards, Wendy explained, “In class you often talk about how you don’t know what labor and delivery are going to bring. Although I had a planned c-section, so much of what I prepared for still mattered. I used breathing techniques before and during the surgery to help me stay present, calm, and in my body despite the spinal. I know for a fact this helped me feel more like the delivery was mine. I was so afraid that the cesarean birth wouldn’t feel like really having a baby, but because I was able to stay present and feel him coming out of me, I was able to connect with my delivery and still feel like I had a real labor experience.”
Practicing yoga is often perceived as mainly a physical act. However, the very first sutra from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha, means “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” clarifying that the true intention behind yoga is to still the mind– not just stretch and strengthen the body.
Although the yoga we practice at the Prenatal Yoga Center is an asana (pose) based form, we strongly interweave the component of pranayama (breath exercises) and meditation into our classes. The intention of these exercises is to help the mother connect with her breath and baby, focus her mind, and relax her body in preparation for labor and delivery. These techniques are not limited to “traditional” vaginal births, but can relate to any situation when one needs to get calm, grounded, and present–such as during a c-section, which make up 30 percent of births in this country.
Here are a few breathing techniques any mom-to-be can practice at home in preparation for labor and delivery:
Sama Vritti (Equal Breathing)
This is done by inhaling and exhaling for an equal number of counts. It can be a great exercise to create balance and focus since it requires the practitioner to remain conscious of the length of each inhale and exhale.
Deep Belly Breathing (Diaphragmatic Breathing)
Deep belly breathing is thought to be the best way to oxygenate and relax the body. Breathing deeply into the diaphragm brings energy to the Solar Plexus, the chakra that governs ego, emotions, and intellect. This technique is also one of the most useful for pregnant women to focus on since it cultivates strength.
Deep belly breathing is done by breathing deeply through your nose and expanding your abdomen fully. Slowly and completely exhale through your nose, pulling your abdomen in so that all the air is released before taking another full belly breath. If you ever look at a baby sleeping, they naturally engage in this type of breathing.
This is a combination of a meditation, pranayama (breath exercise), and self-affirmation. (I kind of made it up!) Similar to Sama Vritti breathing, the practitioner focuses on the breath but instead of counting, puts a word or phrase to it. I often teach the mantra: “Let Go,” in which you inhale the word “let” and exhale the word “go.” When the mind starts to wander, the practitioner notices and comes back to their chosen phrase and breath. I have had experiences as a doula in which my clients spontaneously find a phrase they connect with. Some of my favorites have been: “I am okay. My baby is okay,” “I can do anything for 60 seconds,” “I am strong, I am soft,” and “OPEN!!!”
Although I have been mainly focusing on the mental aspects of yoga practice in this post, I don’t want to neglect the positive physical attributes of the practice as a whole. Even though those having a cesarean birth will not use the asanas in their birth experience, by practicing yoga throughout her pregnancy, a mother will likely have an easier recovery because she was in better shape going into surgery. She will also have had the opportunity to connect with her body to aid in alleviating the common aches and pains of pregnancy.
In the end, whatever birth experience unfolds for you, yoga is there to help guide you through it.