Not long ago, one of my students, Wendy, was faced with the fact that her birth was not going to go in the direction she had originally hoped. She was intending to have a natural birth up until she learned her baby was in the breach position. After exhausting every avenue she knew to try to help turn her baby, she surrendered to the conclusion that her baby would be born by cesarean section. Wendy had been a dedicated practitioner, coming to class 2 to 3 times a week. The practice helped her alleviate her aches and pains, but was also preparing her mentally and physically for labor and delivery.
Wendy explained, “In class you often talked 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 I really *had* the 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.”
Wendy touched upon an important aspect of the yoga practice- the quiet side. Practicing yoga is often perceived as a mainly physical act. However, the very first sutra from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha, meaning “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” clarifies that true intention behind the practice of yoga is to still the mind, not just to stretch and strengthen the body.
Although the yoga practice at PYC is an asana (pose) based class, we strongly interweave the component of pranayama (breath exercises) and meditation. 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 only the “traditional” labor and delivery of a vaginal birth, but can relate to any situation when one needs to get calm, grounded, and present. Considering our country has a 30% c-section rate, these techniques are vital for those that will be focusing more on the mental and emotional preparations rather than the physical ones.
Here are a few to practice at home:
Sama Vritti (Equal Breathing)
This pranayama 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.
Also note that the traditional Sama Vritti pranayama is done with a retention at the top of the inhale and bottom of the exhale. That is not incorporated into the prenatal yoga version of this exercise.
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 relaxation and 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 cross between a meditation, pranayama and self affirmation. Yes- I kind of made it up Similar to the Sama Vritti breathing, the practitioner focuses on the breath but instead of counting the breath, puts a word or phrase to the breath. I often teach the mantra “Let Go” in the beginning meditation of class. 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 when my client spontaneously finds a phrase they connect with and says it out loud. (I really like when they say it audibly, I know they are then breathing!) Some of my favorites have been, “I am ok. My baby is ok”, “I can do anything for 60 seconds”, “I am strong. I am soft”, “OPEN!!!”
Although I have been mainly focusing on the mental aspects of yoga practice in this blog, I didn’t want to neglect the positive 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, the mother will likely have an easier recovery because she was in better shape going into the surgery. The mother has also had the opportunity to connect with her body and aid in alleviating the common aches and pains of pregnancy.
For whatever birth experience unfolds for you, your yoga practice is there to help guide you through it. Happy birthing.