May 8, 2012

Birth & Death are Two Sides of the Same Coin. ~ Julie Choi Trepkau

I became pregnant with my first child when I was 35 years old, after having nurtured a 5-6 day-a-week Ashtanga practice for about 7 years.

Other than the usual discomforts of pregnancy, I was blessed to enjoy a healthy pregnancy with a healthy baby. I had a lot of practice breathing myself to a comfortable place in some quite uncomfortable positions. And indeed, that did prepare me very well for labor.

I did my yoga breathing throughout the 30-something hours of active, unmedicated labor and it worked quite well for me. That is, until I “ran out of time” at the birthing center (time limit to give birth: 24 hours) and I was transferred to a hospital. There, they hooked me up to various drugs both to speed up my labor and to numb me down from the intensified pain of induced labor.

When that didn’t work after 2 hours, the doctor in charge decided I needed a cesarean section. My daughter, Leilani, was finally out of my body and into my arms, strong and safe at a healthy 9 pounds. Although I was ecstatic to meet my baby girl, a part of me felt dissatisfied with my birth experience and I wondered what went wrong. Was there something wrong with me that I was incapable of birthing my baby? Did Mother Nature somehow make a mistake since I and so many other women seemed unable to birth their babies without medical and technological interventions?

I pushed these uncomfortable questions aside, said “thank you, universe,” for gifting me with a healthy baby and a swift recovery, and jumped into the chaotic bliss of motherhood. I became pregnant with my second child 2.5 years later. I knew right away that I wanted another shot at birthing my baby the way nature intended, and the way it felt intuitively right for me. I had done my homework and knew that my best chances for giving my baby a gentle entrance into this world without unnecessary interventions was to deliver at home.

As long as my baby and I were healthy during the pregnancy, I would stay home for his or her birth. And so it happened that baby Kanoa was born in the loving familiarity of our own home (on my yoga mat!), with my husband and two midwives present. My hands were the first to touch him.

I dove deep into my yoga practices as preparation for this beautiful birth. Since both my body and my baby had been in optimal health for a low-risk, natural delivery, I knew it was my mind I had to prepare. During hours of mat time, meditation practice, research into the facts of birthing and exploration of my emotional and mental space, I realized that I actually believed, deep down, that there really was something wrong with me and Mother Nature.

I feared that even for a healthy mama and baby, medical technology could do a better job. Once I knew that this seed of doubt existed in me, I had something to work with. I knew what needed to be released.

By the time Kanoa was ready to come earth side, I was ready. Endeavoring to leave no stone unturned, I had worked through my issues and felt as ready as I could be to fully experience this birth no matter how it played out. My body received this acceptance; I breathed, relaxed and opened, and I reached the second stage of labor (the pushing stage) very quickly. The 6 hours we were in the second stage, however, dragged on.

It was exhausting, painful, beyond intense and tremendously tough on my mind. The “I” that was perceiving this pain was also resisting it, thereby resisting the birth itself. I knew that my resistance was extending the labor and I needed to go deeper and surrender.My midwife kept telling me to “go into the pain.” I tried to allow what I perceived as pain to just happen, instead of running away from it, which I couldn’t do anyway.

At one point, I was afraid, but of what, I didn’t know. My midwife reassured me to allow that emotion to happen, to release, that “even if you feel afraid, the baby will still come,” (which reminded me of the Zen saying, “If you understand, things are just as they are. If you don’t understand, things are still just as they are”). With great compassion, she held my hands, looked me in the eyes, and reminded me that only I could bring this baby out.

So I let it all happen: I allowed any feelings I had, physically or emotionally to flow. My mind found a place in the backseat and allowed my body, my instinct and my intuition to take over. I assumed any position that felt right and made any sound that came out. My baby Kanoa finally slid out and took his first breath outside of me as I half-kneeled and half-squatted – and I scooped him up into my arms.

Suddenly, the pain fell away and I was as high as a kite. My birth experiences were powerful yoga practices in self-study and the releasing of the mind, on focusing on each moment and letting go into that very moment no matter what it offered. They were about allowing my controlling mind to step back so that my body and my baby could do our jobs.

Birthing, like yoga, like life, is about being open, aware of, receptive and present to each moment’s experience and relaxing into it. It’s about honestly and directly facing what is front of us and going straight through it with total acceptance. Only by letting go is true transformation allowed to unfold. Birth, like yoga, like life, is about being present and surrendering to God, to Spirit, to the Universe.

As the days passed into the post partum period, I was enormously challenged once again to face the situation in front of me with total openness and then to surrender to it. I was able to do this while birthing my son, and during the moments that followed the birth I floated high on a cloud of bliss. However, as my hormonal balance shifted into a dramatic flux and I started adjusting to becoming a mother to two children, the joy surrounding the arrival of my son collided with an increasingly harrowing sense of loss and isolation.

In the pit of my belly grew the aching, longing sensation of missing someone. But who? My perfect new baby cuddled at my breast and my sweet husband gave me so much love, meanwhile I desperately missed my 3 year old daughter even as I held her tight in my arms. It didn’t make sense and I didn’t want to acknowledge it, yet, with every deep breath in and long breath out, there was no mistaking the heaviness of despair weighing my heart down into my body.

I realized all that had been before Kanoa’s birth was gone and I had to surrender once again into a completely unknown landscape in which my firstborn felt suddenly so far away. The sense of loss grew. By 5 weeks after my son’s birth, I realized that my old friend, existential angst, had come to visit again. I felt death hovering all around, and “I” watched myself watching everything passing.

Unable to bear the thought of letting go, I put up a steely resistance that filled me with even more pain and longing. Each beautiful moment was stained with grief as it happened and I watched it dissolved away forever. Time played tricks on me as alternately being on fast forward or stretching on in endless tedium. There was nothing I could do to slow down, speed up, or stop time.

I delighted in each fleeting moment I spent with my family, and then mourned as the moment passed. I cried every morning after I kissed my firstborn and my husband goodbye as they left for preschool and work. I hoped that the monotonous days that my new baby was a newborn would pass swiftly by, even as I begged my precious baby boy to stay just as he was right now for just a little longer. These children kept growing (which is better than the alternative, as my husband kept reminding me)!

Some of these moments were lucky enough to be engraved into my memory so that I could take them out from time to time, lovingly caress them and then press them back into my heart. But many, most of these moments dissolved seamlessly into the past, leaving not even its memory for me to hold onto.

The post partum experience is a potentially difficult and confusing one for many mothers. Contradictions of the magical and the mundane intersect and define the daily fiber of life, all of it riding the tumultuous waves of an intense hormonal flux. It’s no wonder a life beginning engenders contemplation of life ending. After all, birth and death are two sides of a coin, the opposite and the same, steady bookends that without exception neatly frame every life. And in between these bookends is daily life comprised of both the mundane (the chores, the napping, the nursing, the errand-running – all routine, repetitive tasks that can serve to keep us grounded) and the magical (the birth, the first giggles shared by the new siblings).

Birth, like death, transforms the individual, compelling the release of all that was into the unknown – an ultimate surrender.

And as usual, the pain is in the resistance, in the holding on, in the compulsion to control that which cannot nor needs not be controlled – in this case, time (or the “insanity of clock time,” as Eckhart Tolle put it). What we perceive as a trajectory of all the past nows and future nows is all one beginningless and endless eternal Now. The only answer there ever is is to soften more, let go more, surrender more – leaving space to open more. Ishvar Pranidan. We are here, we are now and — everything passes.

Life’s mundane and life’s magic are more than intertwined, they are the same. It can all be embraced because there is nothing else to be done. This is all there is. As my friend Sidsel noted during a similar post partume experience, there is no esoteric, alternate reality awaiting us someplace else or at some other time – all is right here and right now. As the Zen saying goes, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” We do not know when or how we will meet our final savasana, but we all have the opportunity to live each day with love and celebration and mindfulness.

While my first birth experience prepared me for my second, the sum of these experiences laid the foundation for the yoga of motherhood – which is a whole new chapter in this epic adventure. The language of of parenting includes words such as “bonding” and “attachment,” which are obviously the opposite of letting go. As a mother, I now find myself attached to the pleasures of human existence even more than before as the passing of them are pulled into sharp relief. The experiences evolve and challenge us differently, but the practice remains the same: to embrace each miraculous moment as it passes, loving fiercely in the midst of the truth that all of these moments will end.

My practice continues to serve me well as I settle into being a mama to two, with all its glorious and messy cacophony of contradictions. Aviva Jill Romm put it beautifully: “Motherhood is raw and pure. It is fierce and gentle. It is up and down. It is magic and madness. Single days last forever and years fly by … Be gentle with yourself as you travel, dear mother. Don’t miss the scenery. Don’t miss conversation with your traveling companions. Laugh at the bumps and say “ooh, aah!’ on the hairpin turns. Buckle your seat belt. You’re a mom!”


Julie Choi Trepkau is a Hamburg-based yoga student and teacher, sometimes writer, seeker and lover of life.  She is also mama toLeilani (3.5) and Kanoa (4 months), partner in life and love to Joern, and passionate about exploring the women’s rites of passage of pregnancy, birth and motherhood as essential elements of the spiritual path of a woman, as well as women’s rights issues.  Julie’s website is http://www.juliechoitrepkau.squarespace.com


Editor: Carolyn Gilligan

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