I’ve always felt it is so important to begin a prenatal yoga class with a good long relaxation … setting aside enough time to truly arrive and completely release. Sometimes we don’t even realise how busy we’ve been and how much tension we are carrying around with us until we take a minute (or ten!) to really let go.
So we lovingly lay our bodies down in side-lying shavasana or a generously supported supta baddha konasana. We make sure we are comfortable and warm and then allow the breath (and mind) to settle. We are guided to notice (but not try to control) our breath. To perhaps link a sense of letting go to each exhalation … both mentally and also physically … giving more of ourselves into the floor and our bolster or blankets.
Once we move into our asana practice there is an opportunity to explore different aspects of relaxation. To notice what could be soft – even when certain parts of our bodies are working hard. For example when holding a Warrior 2 lunge – after a few breaths we become aware of the legs working hard and of the effort to hold the arms up. Other parts of the body may start to contract: our shoulders start to creep up, our fingers start to stiffen and our toes start to grip the floor. We may have begun holding our breath or letting it out in gasping puffs.
Here, then, is a fantastic opportunity to actively practice another form of relaxation – to explore what could still be soft …. to inquire into where and how we might relax inside/alongside the effort.
So we ask ourselves: can I make space between my eyebrows and across my forehead? Can I soften my mouth and jaw? Can I release my shoulders (but still keep my arms up?) Can I let go of tension in my fingers and toes? And Instead of battling with the breath, can I allow it to support me as I inhale and ground me as I exhale?
Exploring and actioning all these possibilities invites us towards a deep sense of mental surrender. I’ll often say to my prenatal students “Don’t spend the time here waiting for it to be over” (and this announcement is generally met with a collective exhale!) This is an invitation to stay in the eternity of this present moment. To really accept that this is all there is in this moment… this challenge, this intensity… and to just give over to it. The paradox is that when we let go into the challenge – a sense of calm can wash over us. We are still present and working hard but we have arrived at a relaxed state within that.
During my online wanderings in recent years I’ve happily stumbled across the wonderful work of Penny Simkin – a physical therapist, childbirth educator and doula. I’ve been particularly interested in her theory of the 3 R’s of childbirth. This is based on her experience of attending countless births over many years and observing the behaviours of birthing women – in particular noting what it is that women who are less likely to become overwhelmed and instead “cope well” with pain and stress actually do. She has found that the characteristics that these labouring women have in common are:
- The ability to RELAX between contractions and even during contractions in early labour.
- The use of RHYTHM
- Finding/creating RITUALS: being repeated actions or activities that have personal meaning.
I think what really excited me about discovering the 3 Rs was that it offers a framework and summarises something I knew to be true from my experience of birthing my own 3 children and something I’d already been endeavouring to share with my pregnant yoga students for some time.
The wonderful woman who was our doula for baby #1 and homebirth midwife for #2 once came along to a workshop I was teaching to share her wisdom. She said that the main thing she’d noticed from all the birthing women she’d worked with, myself included, who had done yoga before was their ability to almost instantly soften and relax when she reminded them to. Snap! Just like that! It’s something some of us can end up taking for granted but actually it’s a learned skill. Like the willing victim of a tele-hypnotist when they click their fingers … a birthing woman who has practiced letting go in yoga class can find this first “R” when the opportunity arises and fall into it almost on cue.
So on to the second R… Rhythm.
In yoga, our first foray into rhythm is through becoming attuned to the rhythm of our natural breath, watching and feeling into it’s natural ebb and flow when we are in restorative postures or meditation. Then we learn how to harness the breath, learning pranayama techniques like Ujayi breath and then adding Sama Vritti (literally same wave/fluctuation) where we create a breath that has even lengths for inhale and exhale. I begin by suggesting students mentally count 1 to 4 at their own comfortable pace. Later we can also add touching or tapping the thumb to each of the fingertips in time. This rhythm … marked out so clearly through the mind (saying the numbers) and the body (feeling the tapping) can really assist us to get into a present moment-by-moment groove.
After we have started learning mantra in class, I will suggest that students try swapping their 1-4 counting for a mantra that can easily be divided into 4 parts. Then chant mentally in time with their Sama vritti breath and perhaps even add their finger tapping too!
One example that I love to use is Om – mani – padme – hum (and I’ll write more about my utter love for this mantra of compassion in a future blog post!)
But for those who may not resonate so much with mantra per se, I’ll suggest using a short positive affirmation that also has a 4 count so can be repeated mentally and anchored to the breath….
I ~ CAN ~ DO ~ THIS
IN ~ HALE, HERE ~ NOW
EX ~ HALE, LET ~ GO
Another wonderful option is to use a gatha. These are verses usually recited mentally in rhythm with the breath as part of mindfulness practice, as popularised through the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. I first encountered these when learning walking meditation years ago. You can let your feet create the rhythm! And either breathe in time too or just go with a natural breath.
Two lovely Gathas that can work beautifully in the context of prenatal practice are:
I have arrived ~ I am home ~ In the here ~ And the now
Breathing in I calm my body
Breathing out I feel ease
Breathing in I smile
Breathing out I release
Another way we explore rhythm in yoga class of course is through vinyasa! Linking our movement with our breath. Flowing between and through these shapes we call asana. We start simply by sitting and inhaling the arms up above the head and exhaling them back down again. Staying present throughout. Then we practice flows like Surya Namaskar (modified for pregnancy of course!!) and make sure we notice every tiny part of every movement, not just the postures themselves but the transitions too… the placement of the hands, the tucking and untucking of the toes.
Any of these rhythmic elements; breath, sounds, movement etc when repeated, can come together to help create Penny Simkin’s 3rd R: Ritual. The post on Penny’s website lists out some lovely examples of positive ways that women have created ritual to get them through their births.
I created a sense of rhythm and ritual for myself in the birth of my 3rd child by focusing on a yantra decal on my bathroom wall! As I inhaled I focused on the downward pointing triangles and as I exhaled I focused on the upward pointing triangles. This is a meditation/visualsation technique taught to me by Mark Whitwell.
I love it when students come back to me after giving birth to share their stories of what ‘worked’ for them, inspired by or directly taken from what we practiced in yoga class. Of how counting breaths, tapping fingers, using a mantra, repeating certain sounds, visualising or gazing at a candle or a flower helped them stay present, connected and open to the intensity of their experience. Of how they found themselves looping a particular movement or focusing with complete clarity on a repeated stroke or massage from their birth support person or partner.
And more often than not, when a birthing story is told, these rituals created via meaningful patterns and practices are said to have just “happened”. These amazing women will share that whatever it was that got them through, seemed to arise spontaneously and intuitively… like a wonderful gift seemingly from the ether. But I smile, knowing they have connected to the deep wisdom that we all hold within ourselves to birth our babies … a wisdom that a yoga and mindfulness practice during pregnancy can help us access.