The Yoga of Birth
The Yoga of Birth: Birth as Meditation, Birth as Awakening
“All of creation is with her as she becomes the very passage for life itself. And when the moment arrives to receive the fruit of her love, she is truly there in that silent joyous space to meet the small one with reverence and wonder.” (p.210 Maria Rosenstone, cited in Leboyer).
Conscious birth and meditation share the same essential process: a deep embrace of life as it unfolds in each moment. Giving birth requires a profound letting go of our egoic selves and an extraordinary willingness to flow with the river of Life itself. This mirrors the deep aim of yoga and meditation: to realise the natural union of body, mind and heart with the essence of life itself. We will explore an uplifting and empowering vision of birth as meditation. Through birth, women can experience a profound and authentic merging with life and love. Thus, childbirth can be a powerful part of a woman’s spiritual practice.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 70-80% of all women entering labour are at low risk (WHO, 1996). A normal physiological birth should be the global norm. Protecting and reclaiming birth as a normal physiological process opens up the potential for birth to be all that it can be. Yoga and meditation practices, alongside trusted professional birthing support, can make birth an empowering, calm, loving and transformative experience for all women, including for those who need medical intervention.
Before women can fully immerse themselves in the experience of childbirth, they need to be mentally and emotionally prepared. They need to have explored their beliefs and needs about where they will have their baby, who will support them, how to deal with the social and medical context of birth and how to embrace the pain of birth. Without this practical preparation, the inner tools outlined here are unlikely to be effective as women may not feel safe to fully use them. It is especially vital that women are supported by a known and trusted birth professional who shares the same birthing values as the woman. We will assume this preparation has been done so that now we are ready to explore an inspiring vision of conscious birth.
Birth as Meditation
As Buckley describes, women in labour need appropriate support, utmost privacy and no disturbance unless absolutely necessary. This provides the best physiological conditions for birth and enables the birthing woman to enter a profound state of meditation (Buckley, 2005). This natural yet altered state of consciousness is assisted by a clear and surrendering focus on sensations, on the breath and on the inner experience of the moment as it is.
The meditative birthing trance is also helped by the body’s birthing hormones. As Buckley outlines, there are four main natural birthing hormones. Oxytocin evokes love and altruism, helping women to surrender to the birthing process. Beta-endorphins are nature’s pain-killers that allow witnessing and transcendence. Adrenalin and noradrenalin evoke heightened energy and awareness that give women the passion to birth. Prolactin triggers deep mothering feelings. This cocktail of birthing hormones helps women find within themselves an astounding blend of calmness, love, surrender, passion and empowerment needed to give birth (Buckley, 2005). Let’s now explore how yoga and meditation practices help women enter the meditative realm of the birthing process.
Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Space
To guide us in making the connections between meditation and the birthing experience, we will use the experiential metaphor of the five elements. Each woman will make her own interpretations of these elements as she makes her unique journey towards birth. We will see how the birthing woman can use four powerful tools: her movement, her breath, her sound and her awareness. As we follow our imaginary woman giving birth, we will see the intimate parallels between the inner experience of the yogini on her yoga mat and the inner experience of the birthing woman.
Earth woman: Safety, Support and Strength
Most of a woman’s physical strength is located in her legs and hips in perfect preparation for the strong downward energy of birth. The prenatal yoga practice of earth woman includes standing postures, carefully aligning the feet, legs and pelvis to build her strength and stability. Through her body she knows how to yield to the earth so she can draw on the earth’s support. She knows how to stand on her own two feet. Her yoga practice is active, but sensitively attuned to her experience and capacity. She follows her instinct to develop her strength and stamina, with yoga, swimming and walking. By embracing the earth element, earth woman arrives at the day of the birth and says ‘I feel grounded, centred and strong’.
For the mind, the earth element relates to concentration and embodiment. Meditation practice has developed earth woman’s ability to be absorbed in sensations, to hold a steady focus on her breath and practise a calm acceptance of what is. In the deepest sense, the earth element is a nourishing ground of beingness within. Earth woman knows how to simply be.
The earth element also relates to the practical preparations for birth including: the place of birth; support for birth; preparing a birth plan and establishing boundaries and safety during the birth. Our Earth woman and her partner have met with her independent midwife regularly over the last six months and they have a deep trust that their carer is committed to helping them have the kind of birth they want to have. Earth woman has a steady commitment to avoid the use of drugs, unless medically needed. She feels safe knowing that her midwife will advocate on her behalf, reinforcing the boundaries that earth woman has established for her birth.
Labour begins. Earth woman leans on the kitchen bench feeling the strength of her legs. She feels safe at home, with her partner and she relaxes into her body, into the sensations. She phones her independent midwife to check in. She feels excited, a bit nervous but she also feels grounded, strong and prepared. She thinks about the things she wanted to do that day, then lets go into simply being here. She leans against the bench, feeling the strong aching sensations in her pelvis.
Water woman: Surrender
“Life moves through us simply and gracefully, when we allow it.” Sarah Buckley (Buckley, 2005).
Water woman prepares her body by practising groin and hip stretches (carefully modified if there is pelvic instability, by emphasising the stability of the earth element). She explores flowing sequences of postures that echo the rolling, circular, rhythmic movements a woman in labour naturally makes. During labour, the combination of flowing movement and meditative awareness, releases endorphins that help women go with the flow of strong sensations.
With the safety and support of earth woman, water woman can fully surrender to the birthing process. Her breathing and meditation practice has shown her how to surrender to her sensations, her body and her breath. This surrender is not a giving up, but a giving over to the river of life that is moving through her. Our water woman leaves thoughts on the surface and dives deep within the vast ocean of her inner self. Yoga traditions often describe the ego or small self as a wave believing itself to be separate from the ocean. But of course, a wave is intrinsically, and always, a part of the ocean. As water woman dives in to the flow of the birthing process she feels no separation as she allows herself to be moved by life.
Water woman leans against the sofa on all fours, circling her hips, her head bowed forward. The sensations ebb and flow and she moves in her own rhythm, naturally finding the positions that allow her to work with the pain. She focuses on relaxing and softening her body especially when she notices herself resisting the pain. She feels the quiet strength and presence of her partner and her midwife who has now arrived at her house. Her midwife encourages her to do most of her labouring in the familiarity of her own home. Water woman is in constant, fluid movement. Our water woman is swimming in another realm now.
Fire woman: Embrace the Intensity
“Contractions are at their most fast and furious between two-thirds dilation and the end of first stage. The sensations are strong, overpowering and can be at the same time delightful. You are swept away like a little boat at sea in a great storm of exultant emotions and a tremendous sweep of physical energy.” (Kitzinger p.181)
There can be times during childbirth when the intensity of birth is more than can be imagined. This intensity calls for women to stay with each moment, with each breath, to open to the strong sensations rather than turn away. This is exactly what a deep meditation practice asks of us: a burning commitment to not turn away, to simply watch, to sink deeper - even as emotional reactivity and conditioning arise. The woman in labour may not always be at one with the birthing process and may react with panic and anger. This is a normal response to being taken to an edge in life where she has never been before, where she doesn’t know herself, where she can’t rely on her usual habits of being. This is a profound opportunity to open into a deeper part of herself. Fire woman meditates in the midst of the intensity, reminding herself that this moment, however intense, will pass, so she does not move away.
Fire Woman is now in the Birthing Centre with her partner and her midwife. Labour has progressed well but now she is pacing, agitated, angry and feeling like she just can’t do this anymore. Her midwife encourages her: ‘Your baby is close.’ Fire Woman regains her focus. The intensity is amazing now and requires the whole of her attention. She does not speak. She meets the powerful waves of sensations with everything she has. She has no choice now but to dance, this passionate dance of birth. The fire of birth has melted her resistance to Life.
Air Woman: Breathing into the moment
The emphasis here is not on learning specific breathing techniques for birth. Instead air woman has an intimate trust that the natural, relaxed, full breath will guide her through the birth. She knows how to use the breath to ease the sensations of a strong stretch or strong stamina work. She uses low vowel sounds or the om mantra during long standing postures and notices how sound alleviates strong sensations. She notices how the breath focuses and stills the mind. She knows that simply following the natural breath can relax and soothe her into calm awareness.
Air woman breathes. Her breath feels like a rope to hang on to, a life-line. In the lull between contractions, her breath is quiet, an anchor for her mind. Then the next wave of sensations begin and as they rise to a peak she exhales in a long, low groan, sending the sound and the pain into the ground. She rides each wave of sensation with her breath, with her deep primal sounds. Every breath helps her stay merged with this birth that has its own rhythm, her rhythm, one rhythm. There is no effort to focus on the breath – she is the breath.
Space woman: Consciousness Itself: Birth as Awakening
“The greatest preparation that can be made for the birth of a child is to allow for the constant arising of birth in one’s self. And this arising can take place only in a space that is clear and free of expectation.” (p. 210 Rosenstone, cited in Leboyer, 1978).
Consciousness can be likened to a vast and open sky. Thoughts, sensations, emotions are like clouds moving through that sky or like birds taking flight. The clouds and birds come from space and return to space. Rather than identify with the limiting, circling thoughts of the small self, we can rest into this spacious source of everything. We can return to this sky of consciousness that is naturally luminous and awake.
For the woman in labour, this requires an enormous trust in the mysterious and majestic unfolding of life that arises from the spacious unknown. Meditation gives her this deep trust in consciousness itself, as revealed in this moment, in the awesome flow of life. If she meets the intensity of the birthing process with her trust, birth can release the usual grip of the ego. Her conditioned self can be unravelled by birth, if she lets it. Conscious childbirth is, literally, meditation in action and can be deeply awakening. “The intensity of childbirth brings the supreme moment in which the usual hold on one’s self can be shaken and undone. One falls into the exultation of life as it lives itself.” (p.211, Rostenstone cited in Leboyer, 1978).
The baby is coming now. The long pauses between contractions feel like forever. In the space between the surges, space woman looks so relaxed she could be asleep. She has lost all sense of time. Her mind lets go of the last contraction and doesn’t anticipate the next one. She is expanding beyond herself as far as she needs to go. The next wave moves through her. She goes with the strong internal pushing that happens by itself. She is simply a witness, in awe. All she knows is this breath. All she knows is this moment. More than that she cannot say and does not need to know. She is empty and open and here. She is Life birthing itself.
We need a Vision of Birth
The World Health Organisation estimates that 70-80% of all women entering labour are at low risk (WHO, 1996). A normal physiological birth should be the global norm. Protecting and reclaiming birth as a normal physiological process opens up the potential for birth to be all that it can be: empowering, calm, loving, transformative and even exhilarating. Yoga and meditation practices, alongside trusted professional birthing support, can help manifest a woman’s deepest birthing vision into a lived and joyous reality.
Giving birth can be enjoyable! When I was pregnant, my sister described her birth experience like this: ‘Giving birth is like reading a great book. You love every minute of it so you don’t want it to end, but of course, you can’t wait to get to the end.’ This description heartened me. In our current fear-based and highly medical birthing culture, we desperately need real and inspiring conversations about birth. We need authentic and uplifting visions of birth. Conscious birth may be against the tide of the current societal norm, but it is deeply aligned with nature. Similiarly, meditation is against social conditioning, but is a natural state. Conscious childbirth is meditation in action.Meditation not only gives birth to our deepest selves and to our babies, but to new worlds and majestic visions – if we are courageous and bold enough to let it.
Anahata Giri, 2015
Anahata teachers yoga, meditation and prenatal yoga and is passionate about helping women embrace birth as a transformative life experience. She is the Founder of One Heart Yoga & Meditation based at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, Australia. She runs The Yoga of Birth Prenatal Yoga Teacher Training which offers comprehensive and inspiring 50 Hour Training that is registered with Yoga Australia. She is a member of Yoga Australia (YA) as both a yoga teacher and a yoga therapist.
Buckley, S. Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering. One Moon Press, Australia, 2005.
Kitzinger, S. The New Experience of Childbirth. Orion Publishing, Great Britain, 2004
Leboyer, F. Inner Beauty, Inner Light Yoga for Pregnant Women. Borzoi Books, 1978.
World Health Organization, Care in Normal Birth: A practical guide. Department of Reproductive Health and Research, WHO, Document No: O/FRH/MSM/96.24, 1996.