“My labour was full of doubt and fear. I was at the mercy of hospital staff and no longer felt the focus was on my baby, but rather a series of medical procedures and decisions that I was less and less involved in.  As my daughter entered the world I was not present. I was sick, bloated, drugged up and terrified. I believe I was in shock and I remained in this sad state for the early days, weeks and months of new motherhood.”

As a prenatal yoga teacher, I often ask my students to email me and share their birth stories. The above story was from Karen Eivers, a 42-year-old customer service agent from Sydney, who gave birth to daughter Shanti in 2008. Eivers planned on  having a natural birth, but ended up having an emergency caesarean section. What is perhaps most disturbing about Eivers’s story is how many women can relate to her experience. Stories of trauma, anxiety and disconnection are growing in regularity when it comes to giving birth.

While Australia is one of the safest countries in which to give birth, women here have fewer choices in birthing options and are more likely to have an operative birth (birth by caesarean section, forceps or vacuum-assisted delivery) than women in other developed countries. Both these factors are influential in a new mother’s emotional wellbeing during birth and afterwards.

According to the 2007 report, Australia’s Mothers and Babies, 97 percent of babies are born in hospital, with another two percent of births occurring in birthing centres (often affiliated to hospitals but less medicalised), and less than one percent of births in Australia occur at home. Homebirth is all but outlawed in Australia, as most midwives are unable to get insurance and politicians are currently discussing legislation to make the practice illegal.

The rate of caesareans has increased to about 30 percent in Australia (according to a recent government discussion paper), which is one of the highest rates among similarly affluent countries and double that recommended by the World Health Organization.

Birth is always easier when a woman is well supported, relaxed and free of fear.

By comparison, in the UK caesareans are still quite high—approximately 25 percent—but homebirths have been steadily increasing to almost 3 percent as reforms to the National Health Service in 2007 allowed women more birthing choices by providing funds for midwives to assist in homebirthing.

As well as the issues of choice and prevalence of operative procedures, another important factor in a woman’s wellbeing during birth is her expectations and emotional environment. A UK study into the psychosocial influences on women’s experience of planned elective caesareans found that negative expectations and birth partner’s fear correlated with a mother’s fear during birth and subsequent levels of pain following the operation. This suggests that both mother and birth partner could benefit from interventions to reduce anxiety and fear during labour.

Towards a More Spiritual Birth

Many pregnant women have attended a prenatal yoga class or childbirth education classes with a partner—but what do the teachings of yoga have to offer on the topic of childbirth beyond help with hip opening and pelvic floor strengthening? In several yogic texts, specifically the Bhagavad Gita and Guru Stotram, reference is made to the fact that the way in which we enter this world could impact the way our life will unfold.

“Our birth and all its elements are potential aids for our enlightenment,” says the Guru Stotram (as translated by Sharon Gannon and David Life, founders of Jivamukti yoga). “The elements of our birth include our parents, the conditions surrounding our delivery and the procedures employed to assist our birth.”

This scripture goes on to describe that the people who are present at our birth are influential in how it will unfold as the first major “spiritual event” of our lives. This is an interesting concept considering many women do not know the healthcare professionals present at the birth of their children.

These ancient texts describe human birth as a great gift—something that should be honoured and welcomed with due respect and humility. Ideally, the experience of birthing will not harm either the mother or the child in accordance with the yogic teaching of ahimsa or non-violence. Ahimsa is the foundation of all yoga philosophy and the first of Patanjali’s eight limbs.

“Birth is a miraculous and special part of life,” explains midwife and yoga teacher, Jutta Wohlrab.  “Birth is always easier when a woman is well supported, relaxed and free of fear. A birth team should be working together with love and harmony.”

Helping Hands

So we might ask who is “holding the spiritual space” for this great event of birthing?  It’s very difficult for a woman in labour to do that job—most women who are labouring are in a different type of headspace, a place of connection to the body and an experience that is somewhat animalistic and hopefully not, but quite possibly, deeply fearful.  The partner (usually the father) may also not be the ideal candidate for the space-holding role given that they are often deeply emotionally involved and may have plenty of processing of their own to do, as their emotions and deep-seated beliefs about birth surface.

Many women choose to have a close friend to keep a calm, centred and grounded vibe around the birthing experience. Women can also hire a professional to do this job, either in the form of a midwife (who can be with them for the entire labour), or in the form of a doula (a childbirth support person). Whilst a doula is not qualified to offer any medical assistance or advice, she is there to hold a hand when needed, to make sure the space for birthing is warm and cosy and feels safe. Both midwives and doulas are becoming more popular with women giving birth in hospitals.

I’ve been fortunate to experience two fantastic natural births, the first at a birth centre with my husband and a close friend as support people, and the second at home with my midwife and husband by my side. While I felt confident a homebirth would go well, I stayed booked into the birth centre until the last minute just in case. I’m blessed to have had wonderful birthing experiences, but one thing I’ve learnt is not to be too hasty in attributing these to my yogic lifestyle. I know plenty of yoga practitioners who have done all the right things in pregnancy and still had challenging births. Likewise, there are many women who smoke and eat poorly during pregnancy and have great births and healthy babies. While we can all improve our chances by taking care of ourselves, it’s important to realise that often the outcome is not in our hands.

A Matter Of Perception

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali teaches us that the whole of reality is only based on our perceptions. Nowhere is this truer than at a birth. The outcome of a birth will often be influenced by a labouring woman’s optimism, although there are important exceptions to this rule and we must also be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking it’s all up to us.  For myriad reasons, a birth may not go according to plan.

For 36-year-old Idit Heffer-Tamir, who gave birth to her son in 2009, her birth plan didn’t eventuate but she still had a positive experience.

“I had planned for a natural birth—I had a doula as well as a dedicated midwife assigned to me and I was confident everything would be great,” explains the Sydney-based yoga teacher and mother-of-one. But after arriving at the birthing centre already exhausted from two nights pre-labour and no proper sleep, Heffer-Tamir was in low spirits.  “At 7cm-dilated I stopped progressing and, to cut a long story short, ended up with a C-section,” she recalls. “This was not the birth I planned, but as a practitioner of yoga I know it’s not all up to me. What I can control is my reaction to how things turned out. I can be grateful that my baby is well and so am I. I can choose to focus on that or I can dwell on a birth that wasn’t ‘perfect’.”

Heffer-Tamir’s experience echoes the Buddhist teaching that in any situation of stress we have the choice to “react” or to “respond”. A reactionary approach is one of panic, of fear and often comes from a place of little reflection. A response, however, is considered, comes from a place of peace. This teaching is at the heart of a yogic birthing experience.  It’s not about what happens in the birth, so much as how we cope with the events as they unfold.

Healing Words

There is enormous power and healing in sharing our life stories and feeling that we are being listened to, and nowhere is this truer than for women after giving birth. Eivers says she’s learnt a great deal from her traumatic birthing experiences and has realised how important it is to talk to other women about them. There is great comfort and healing that takes place having your experience heard and validated, rather than just dismissed with comments such as ‘at least you have a healthy baby’. “That is a given but it doesn’t make the birthing mother’s experience or pain less important or valid,” Eivers admits. “I know for sure my birthing experience has had a major impact in me being passionate about birthing issues and reading, researching and talking to women about birth. I think it is important for women to share their stories openly, with honesty and respect.”

There is great comfort and healing that takes place having your experience heard and validated.

Whether birthing for the first time or not, pregnant women may have to work on healing their own emotional wounds before being able to birth another being joyfully.  It’s often in pregnancy that those areas requiring healing surface. I remember in my own pregnancies having a very strong desire to spend time with and talk to my own mother.  The maternal bond was strong, both ancestrally and in terms of my vision for the future—seeing myself becoming a mother.

Perhaps the most pertinent lesson of all about birthing is that the process of giving birth prepares us for becoming a parent.  If we can learn to let go, to surrender for birthing—then we can do the same with our children. As the poet Kahlil Gibran says, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.  They come through you but not from you.”  Birth is like that, too: we do not “own” our experience in birth and we have the opportunity to surrender to it.  Birth is the ultimate yogic adventure—bringing a new soul into the world while giving birth to our potential to be wise, compassionate parents who raise our children with kindness and grace.

Creating Sacred Space for Birth

Regardless of where or how you birth, you can prepare to have a graceful and peaceful experience:

Be mentally prepared. Try to have a clear and open mind as much as possible. You may wish to spend some time before you are due thinking about a simple ritual you would like to do when pre-labour begins.  It could be as simple as having a shower or warm bath, or lighting some incense and saying a short prayer.

Set a clear intention. Consider having a birth affirmation or resolve (known in Sanskrit as a sankalpa).  Write a sankalpa as a clear sentence and place it in various places around your home. For example: ‘My baby arrives in the world peacefully and easily’.

Prepare the physical space. This will help you to stay focused and calm in labour.  Think about fragrance, music, lighting and perhaps creating a small alter in your birth space.

Have a birth plan but don’t be overly attached to it. A birth plan should cover your hopes and dreams, as well as your favoured choices if things do not go according to plan. Keep in mind that a caesarean section, forcep delivery and other interventions are all normal outcomes.

Choose your support people carefully. Being present when a child comes into this world is not a spectator sport. Ideally the people who are present will be those with whom you are very close and feel comfortable, such as your partner, a doula or midwife who you know and with whom you feel comfortable.

Nurturing Yourself for Labour

It is worthwhile to take at least a few weeks from your normal routine and work responsibilities before baby’s due date to rest and prepare in these ways:

Prioritise your own spiritual practice. Whether you meditate, practise yoga asana or find peace and serenity from a walk in nature, make a real priority of these practices now while you have the time and energy.

Ask for help if you need it. Think about where will you get emotional support as well as practical help.

Drink lots of water.  This is obvious, but in the busy time of preparation you might forget to keep well-nourished and hydrated.

Laugh and have fun. It’s all too easy to get overly serious at this time, and perhaps a little anxious.  Hire some funny movies, go to a comedy show and make sure you hang out with people who make you laugh. Raise the vibration!

Reflect with gratitude. This is a very special time in your life that will never come again in exactly the same way, so take the time to appreciate it.

Katie Manitsas is co-director of Samadhi Yoga in Sydney’s Newtown, and the mother of Christos, 3, and Ziggy, 6 months.  Katie’s latest book is Yoga for Birth, available soon through www.samadhiyoga.com.au

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