The Yoga of Birth

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The Yoga of Birth

It has been said that our yoga practice can be considered “one long breathing exercise” and that “luck” is defined as the meeting of preparation and opportunity. After the birth of my son three months ago, I say the same is true of the process of labor and delivery.

Two years ago I found myself suffering my first miscarriage, which completely devastated me. However, this put me on the intentional pursuit [to have a child], the same pursuit I have helped guide others through as a teacher of Strong Yoga®4Fertility.

One of the beautiful things yoga has given to me is the practice of not being attached to an outcome. Sometimes that is easier in theory. But when I finally got past the first 12 weeks of my pregnancy and began to believe in what my doctor kept reassuring me, that this was a healthy pregnancy and that I would have a healthy baby, I began to think about my impending labor and delivery.

Any woman who has given birth will tell you that her ‘A plan’ had to compromise with her ‘B plan.’ However, the bottom line is that labor and delivery is always unique to that individual and her child; they are unpredictable and filled with unknowns.

Embracing the unknown can be a hard concept. Most of us like the predictable, the known and the things that make us feel secure. However, the one constant in life is change and change can happen in an instant. That instant is usually rich with the unknown.

So, yes, I had an “ideal plan” for my labor and delivery. Although it was my first birth and I was told to expect a long, drawn-out labor, I hoped for a short, fast, natural, drug-free birth that included laboring in the comfort of my own home as long as I could. I wanted to feel it all and remember it all.

And so, determined to feel ‘prepared’, I dragged my hubby to childbirth classes where they taught us breathing exercises, how to shift the focus of your eyes to help quiet the mind, and massage techniques to use while in the throes of a contraction. In addition, during my pregnancy I continued doing yoga with a practice specifically for my quickly changing and expanding prenatal body. Connecting with other women on the same path, we shared in class how many weeks gestation we were, how we were emotionally, physically, and what fears might be arising while the exciting progression of human life grew in each of us. I was always amazed that although we could all relate so deeply with one another with what we were feeling, each of us had our own individual experience of pregnancy and therefore each woman would also have a unique childbirth.

Learning ‘the breath’ and focusing the mind were by far the most helpful tools for me. But it wasn’t the breath I learned in the childbirth classes, it was the breath I had learned in yoga. These techniques I learned in prenatal yoga included repetitions of postures and movements like a contraction, as well as how to soften and breathe through moments that felt extremely uncomfortable. We even learned specific breathing techniques which would occur during the final stage of childbirth: the pushing.

As we moved almost two weeks past my son’s due date I had still not had a single contraction or any signs of baby making his way down. My doctor knew my wishes but when he checked me once again, my cervix was 100% effaced and completely “shut down”, as my doc put it. After that “induction talk” I went home and cried, feeling completely defeated and convinced that if I was induced it would end up in a C-section.

The next morning I woke up determined to get that baby moving downward and out. In the shower I swayed. I did a ton of squats. I danced. I prayed. I breathed. And I walked. In fact, that day I went to a place in Los Angeles called the Peace Labyrinth. I set my intention and began walking with a deliberate, slow focus. I visualized the labor experience I wanted all the way from the beginning through the baby being laid on my chest for the first time. I felt in my heart space the joy I anticipated. And I had conversations with my unborn baby: I explained to him that I needed his help in order to make this happen, that we were a team. And then I felt my first contraction. In the next several hours things started progressing quickly.

I labored at home as long as I could stand the pain. When I arrived at the hospital, I was told that I was 10 cm dilated. The preparation had gotten me to that point and yet I still needed to maintain more focus to get through the final pushing. I have a vivid memory of that stage. As I began another contraction, the intensity moved into my face and throat. The nurse said, “Take it out of your face and put it in your butt!” With that cue I shifted the energy into my pelvic floor. My doctor said, “Whatever you just did then, do it again!” In two more pushes my son, Henri Bennett Carriere, made his way into the world, his cries like music to my ears. As they laid him on my chest, I panted like I had been running for miles. My body was in shock and yes, it was painful. My first thought when I saw him was, “Who are you?”

The ultimate outcome of my childbirth was ideal. Once the first contraction started it took only 10 hours and 7 pushes (my husband counted) for my son to make his way out.

Everyone’s story will be different but will ultimately be perfect once that perfect baby arrives. I approached childbirth with an open mind, open heart and a willingness to get an epidural if I really needed one. But I also was armed with the practice of conscious breathing. This is something I teach to my yoga students on a daily basis. Our breath is everything. It is our guide. It is our strength, and also the vehicle to our capability in softening.

I wasn’t convinced I ever wanted to bear a child myself.

I am now convinced that I must be the luckiest gal on earth.

 

written 6/22/14

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Understanding Postpartum Recovery

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POSTPARTUM RECOVERY
Whether you are a first time Mama or a seasoned baby-maker, one of the most overlooked areas of pregnancy is the time after giving birth – the postpartum recovery period. Even if you are one of the lucky ones who experiences an uncomplicated labor and delivery and feels “fine” to go home and begin a new life with baby, it still behooves you to be mindful of the myriad of changes happening in your body and life once baby has already arrived. Um, not to mention an instantaneous major lack of sleep!

Most of us are aware that there are ‘hormonal changes,’ during this time, but it is not just that alone to which we are adjusting. Even if we feel we have “prepared” ourselves in advance, no one knows exactly what life will be like until it is actually happening. A complete overhaul in lifestyle occurs, including a reorientation of our relationships, a shift in our personal identity, extreme exhaustion, possible career changes (which may also impact finances), digestive changes, and the demands of nursing, just to name a few. In the weeks, months, and in some cases years, following birth the body-mind-spirit is undergoing a healing process.

HONORING THE PROCESS
It is imperative that we honor ourselves and give our body the space and time it needs to heal. In fact, Ayurveda (the holistic medicine of India and the sister science to yoga) purports that the 42 days following birth are a sacred time. It maintains that this timeframe is possibly even more important to the health of the infant and mother than the pregnancy itself. Ayurveda implicates that the 42 days postpartum sets the stage for a woman’s health for the next 42 years! This is because during the postpartum period Ayurveda sees the mother as being just as delicate as her newborn. The combination of fatigue, rapid hormonal changes, meeting all of baby’s needs and just navigating new motherhood means that the care-giver also needs much attentive and tender care. So who is assigned to the job of caring for the care-giver? It isn’t just up to the supportive figures surrounding mother (partner, family members, close friends etc.) giving her the help needs, although these people are certainly vital to her recovery. Ultimately, the mother herself is tasked with mustering up the gentleness and patience she needs to be present in her experience as a new mother. This is an important foundation for learning and implementing self-care. It is the practice of self-care in this very early stage —in what can feel like the hardest time of your life —that will infuse the mother with the foundation needed to be a better and healthier Mom for the next 42 years. Clearly, in our society today the postpartum period is a time in a woman’s life that is gravely undervalued. However, if we open our eyes to the reality of the challenges inherent in this period, we can be better prepared to ask for what we need and give ourselves the compassion that is so well deserved.

WHAT’S HAPPENING PHYSICALLY?
Now, let’s take a moment to just focus on what’s happening physically. The normal follow up with the OB doctor occurs around 6 weeks postpartum. Mama will be checked, either vaginally or at the location of her C-section incision, consulted about postpartum depression and asked how breastfeeding is going (if that is indeed part of her postpartum plan). If all seems well, the doctor usually gives the green light to resume all normal activities, including exercise and sex, somewhere around 6 – 8 weeks. However, what most doctors do not include in that visit is an assessment of the woman’s rectus abdominis for something called Diastasis Recti. Diastasis Recti is a very common condition caused by the stretching of the rectus abdominis muscle by the growing uterus. The result is a literal separation of the left and right halves of the muscle. This is a common occurrence for women during pregnancy and doesn’t matter whether they have had a C-section or vaginal delivery. The separation can be significant or slight — sometimes so slight a woman may not even know she has been affected.

Diastasis can contribute to low back pain, pelvic floor instability (including incontinence) and digestive concerns. Often times it will heal on its own, however in cases when the wrong kind exercise and activities are introduced too early in the healing process, it can actually become worse. In fact, it usually isn’t until months later when the postpartum woman is complaining about ‘the bulge in her belly’ even though she has been working out religiously. Her problem lies in the type of exercise she has been engaging in.

You may recognize this scenario: Mama is soooooo very ready to start exercising again and get her pre-baby body back. She decides to engage in lots of belly crunches and/or baby bootcamp type activities thinking she is doing her body good. However, unfortunately, if Mama has diastasis recti there is a good chance she may be making things worse. So, what’s a Mama to do? First, although there are ways to do a self-check of the condition, I recommend getting checked for diastasis by someone who is trained to test for it. It’s an easy, non-invasive test. Knowledge is power so once you know for sure this is happening in your body, you are poised to make educated decisions and prepare a game plan for the postpartum recovery process. Secondly, find instructors well trained in Pilates or yoga therapeutics who can safely lead you through exercises that help to strengthen and balance the body. Finally, because our bodies want to live in a state of homeostasis (i.e. balance), we must be patient and trust that our bodies will restore the integrity of our abdominal muscles.

THE INTELLIGENCE OF OUR BODY
I have offered yoga therapy to many women postpartum and I have recently moved through my own postpartum recovery as well. I must say, I am amazed again and again at the inner intelligence of our bodies. When we set up our bodies optimally and give them the time and attention they need, they will heal. Our body may not look exactly the same as it did pre-pregnancy, but we aren’t the same! We are now “Mama.” And perhaps we can be okay — dare I say even proud — that our body bares the experience of pregnancy and childbirth upon it. Having a child forever changes our lives so couldn’t it be considered normal for our external appearance to be, if nothing else, slightly different? As we move through the throws of motherhood and begin to patiently adjust to the changes in our lives, we can offer the same kindness to the adjustments in our bodies. Invoking a feeling of physical strength and balance in our body is a beautiful goal. If along the way to that aim we happen to get our ‘pre-baby body’ back, then well, we can consider that as just an added benefit!

SUGGESTION
To protect your mid line during pregnancy and keep your back safe, always use the “log roll” maneuver when rising from the floor or out of bed. This practice should also be used in the first couple months postpartum until you have been checked and cleared for diastasis.

Log roll: With your torso and head aligned (in one piece), roll over onto your side. Then, use your arms to help push yourself up to a sitting position.

[Re]New… From the Inside Out

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By now, I would guess that most of us know the importance of having physical exercise regimens of some kind to choose from for our weekly rituals to keep the body energized, strong and flexible. Additionally, it is imperative we make healthy choices with our foods and practice moderation when we decide to ‘splurge.’ And just as necessary is to understand that what we put ON our body can have as significant an impact as what we put IN our body.

Our epidermis (skin) is the largest organ of the body. What we put on our skin has a large effect on long term health and a balanced system. So, becoming mindful of what personal care products we use on a daily basis (i.e. hair products, body lotions and soaps, cosmetics, and even household cleaners) is just as important as the foods we are ingesting each day. Why, you may ask? Because the majority of these products include harsh chemicals linked to cancer, as well as those acting an “endocrine disrupters” (i.e. disrupts fertility and hormonal balance) in both men and women. Many of the big culprits to avoid include:

1) Parabens
2) Sulfates
3) Phthalates
4) Artificial Fragrances
5) BPA (Bisphenol-A) as well as its counterpart and now substitute in many cases BPS (Bisphenol-S)

BPA and BPS are usually found in the packaging of foods, personal care product containers and just about anything made of plastic, including baby toys and such. Although there have been strides made to create “BPA-free” products, many of those products use BPS in place of BPA. In general, it’s best to choose products packaged in glass over plastic, for example.

Unfortunately, we can’t trust the product by just reading the front label. Labels on these products can say “Natural” and “Organic“, but that doesn’t mean the product is free from toxins. Learning to read the ingredient list on labels is a key factor in making educated choices in the products you purchase.

To check the toxicity levels in the products you use, get more education overall and receive updates on the latest regarding environmental and food news, explore these fantastic resources:

http://www.safecosmetics.org/

http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/

http://www.ewg.org/key-issues

TIP OF THE WEEK –
When you are looking to buy cleaner personal care products, but may be in a rush and don’t have time to visit your local natural market (i.e. Whole Foods, Erewhon, etc.), visit the baby product aisle in your locale CVS, Rite Aid or Walgreen’s. They tend to have ‘cleaner’ products for babies – and great quality products at that! But, unfortunately, you still have to read these labels very carefully, even in the baby section.

[Re]Charge the Soul

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‘Recharging the Soul’ is necessary and can look (and feel) many different ways. Sometimes a change of scenery is the answer: a trip out of town, a different rhythm of life to move through, a ‘breath of fresh air.’ But for many of us, we may not have the time, funds or energy to take a trip, take a break from our daily responsibilities, or even go take an afternoon hike exactly when it may be needed.

Yoga is a science and an art form of transformation. And consider here that ‘transformation’ doesn’t have to be something that is very involved and huge in order to be extremely effective and powerful. Yoga is a beautiful and multi-layered practice that can shift our current state any time of any day. We don’t even have to gather our gear and get ourselves into a yoga studio to make this happen. It is accessible (and quick) to find those necessary ‘recharges’ throughout our day — whenever needed — just simply focusing our attention to the Breath.

Breathing is the most vital part of human life. And yet, when things get busy or stressful, our breath is one of the first things to suffer. Poor breathing patterns negatively impact the body on many different levels. Yogic breathing techniques are simple and can be integrated throughout a day, seamlessly. The benefits of consciousness and proper breathing include: elicits the relaxation response in the body; creates a balanced source of energy moving through us; increases our lung capacity; boosts the immune system; feeds our organs with vitality; stabilizes the mind; maintains emotional equilibrium; facilitates the reduction of depression… just to name a few.

So, the next time you feel tired, sad, overwhelmed, unfocused, burnt out, or just feel you need a little ‘pick-me-up,’ try this yogic breathing technique (this one can also be helpful for insomnia):

Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (means ‘alternate nostril breathing’ or ‘channel cleansing breath’)

Benefits:

  • Lowers heart rate, reduces stress and anxiety & soothes the system
  • Said to synchronize the two hemispheres of the brain
  • Said to purify the subtle energy channels (nadis) of the body so the prana (life force) flows more easily

Notations:

  • You can practice this breath work up to 15 minutes at a time.
  • You are breathing normally through each nostril (NO constriction/sound at back of throat).

How-to Step by Step:

Sit in a comfortable seat, with a tall spine, soft shoulders and a long back of neck (chin slightly down).

                        Gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, fully, then close it with your   

                        ring and/or little fingers.

                        Open and exhale slowly through the right nostril.

                        Keep the right nostril open and inhale through it***.

                        Then close it, and open and exhale slowly through the left. 

                        This is  one cycle.

                        Repeat 3 to 5 times (or more), then release the hand at the nose and go back to normal breathing

                        though both nostrils*.

                        Feel the impact on your body, mind and spirit.

 

*** Depending on your needs this breath can be practiced in a few different ways:

  • To balance: begin with the LEFT nostril — do many rounds back and forth — and end with the RIGHT nostril
  • To calm (also good for interrupted sleep): begin with the LEFT nostril — do many rounds back and forth — and end with the LEFT nostril
  • To energize: begin with the RIGHT nostril — do many rounds back and forth — and end with the RIGHT nostril

Confusion is…

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A teacher of mine once quoted someone else by saying, “The recognition of confusion is a form of clarity.” I so love that. It somehow take the pressure off having to know something right in that moment; or sitting in an uncomfortable place of guilt, beating ourselves up thinking we must ‘figure things out’ or ‘get it right’. Sometimes we actually just need to sit in the confusion and enter a place of rumination. Allowing ourselves the time and space to be; to feel; and in a sense to ‘try things on’. To get quiet and be gentle with ourselves.  Then we will ‘see’ more clearly. We will feel the answers surface from our deepest intuition; a place of truth. And so, we will know. We will be grounded in that knowing. And we will have our clarity. At least until the next time…