September 16, 2013

The Real Yoga of Birth (From a Prenatal Yoga Teacher). ~ Michele Bickley

 “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

~ Martha Graham

It was almost midnight on Valentines Day, 2009. I was 36 hours into labor, lying on a hospital bed—crotch open to the world—with a couple nurses checking my dilation repeatedly.  My doula was talking me through contractions, my chiropractor was adjusting my hips, my husband was rubbing my feet, my best friend was giving me ice chips, and my mother-in-law was massaging my aching sore back when my brother-in-law and his girlfriend (that I had only met once!) poked their head in the room to ask if anyone wanted a coffee?

It was at this point that I barked, “Everyone out, please!” (OK, maybe I forgot to say please)

This was not the birth I had planned.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. We haven’t even been introduced.  My name is Michele, I am a yoga teacher and happy mom with two children (ages 1 ½ and 4). I love teaching yoga, especially Prenatal yoga. It brings me deep fulfillment to be able to create a nurturing space for pregnant women, where they can learn how to take care of themselves and prepare for their birth with yoga.

Many women come to my class with the hope of having a natural childbirth. Natural childbirth and the yogic lifestyle go hand in hand. Yoga inherently supports women who want peace, mindfulness, simplicity, and connectedness to be part of their birth experience.

And, because I am a teacher of these wonderful ideals, many who take my class have an expectation of what my personal birth experiences must have been like. That surely, I must be one of those women that had a beautiful and natural birth.

And, it makes sense to expect that. I certainly did.

I remember going to my first prenatal class, as part of my Yoga Teacher Training, and imagining that the teacher had her child naturally and vaginally. That she breathed like a spiritual warrior through her contractions, delivered her child drug free in Utkatasana pose, and then, immediately after her empowering birth, started nursing her angelic child on her bare chest.

We like to believe that our teachers are living their yoga. (Thankfully, most of them are!) So, I understand why my prenatal students come to my class thinking that this must have been my birth experience.

Well, um, not so much.  I wanted that. I dreamt of that. I planned for that.  And, in the end, my experience was NOT that.

When I became pregnant with my first baby it was surreal. I loved being pregnant. I had a “good pregnancy” with no complications or major issues and did everything by-the-book to be healthy. And, I was a yoga teacher, so I even had an insiders handbook of what to do (you know the one, the “I Teach Yoga so I Know How to Be Healthy, Volume II” book).

I did Malasana daily to open my hips, practiced Moola Bandha (Kegel exercises) to strengthen and tone my pelvic floor, did Down Dog to relieve the pressure the baby-weight put on my back, and I did Cat/Cow to help the baby get into an optimal birthing position (*see video for these poses: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QS2pAlPmKZk).

I meditated daily, breathing in peace and exhaling any tension. I taught yoga and dance until a week before I was due. I ate super foods. I hired a doula to coach me through my natural birth. I learned how to use my breathing to prepare me to “surf” through the pain of contractions. I went to the best prenatal chiropractor and acupuncturist in LA to help baby get in a good position and make sure my pressure points were clear and energy was flowing freely. I took birthing classes to learn everything about how to have a drug-free experience.

I knew to labor at home as long as possible. Once at the hospital, I knew not to get hooked up to machines or remain on my back so that I could be free, walk around, do my yoga, and encourage the baby to drop down. I knew what procedures to avoid that could lead to an epidural or C-section. And, I even had the perfect playlist to help me relax during the different stages of labor.

I was choosing how to take care of myself while pregnant and I thought I could choose how to give birth.

Now, many of you gently warned me about being attached to a specific birthing plan. You told me that babies do what they do and sometimes all of the planning in the world doesn’t make a difference. I heard you. So, when I wrote my birth plan for my doctor, I was very clear to write “IF POSSIBLE” next to all of my instructions (which, I might add, didn’t deter my doctor from laughing out loud when she saw my long, overly detailed list).

Yes, I even “knew” not to be attached to my birthing plan. Ah, to have it all figured out.

In yoga, when I think I “know” a pose, it never fails that something shifts in body or mind and causes change. The second I label my practice, a pose, or even yoga, I get turned upside down. Seeing this over and over again in my practice has taught me to trust that my movement and breath are guided by something bigger than “me.” That it isn’t me doing yoga, it is something, the force of life (prana), coming through me that I get to tap into. Typically, my intention for my practice and teaching is: may I be part of that flow of life (on and off the mat).

So, on my due date, I was in the flow of life and we were ready as can be. Come on, baby!

Then, my due date passed. I was given a week (maybe two) before they would induce me. I knew that my chances of a C-section increased with induction. I thought, “I had better help this flow of life along.” I did everything possible for a “natural” induction (which, by the way, you should not do unless you get a clear from your doctor!).  I started walking more (encourages baby to drop), sex and more sex (I swear, doctor’s orders – the semen contains prostaglandins, which ripen the cervix, and an orgasm releases oxytocin, which causes contractions.

Yes, since you asked, the sex is oh-so-graceful at 10 months pregnant), nipple stimulation (can create uterine contractions), massaged my perineum with Evening Primrose Oil to help open the birth canal and soften the cervix, and had acupuncture done to the “induction points” at my ankle, shoulders, and hands.

Ten days past my due date, I was two cm dilated and having very mild and far apart contractions. I asked my doctor to strip my membranes to help move things along (still in the flow).  I then went home and, per my doctor and doula’s instructions, had more sex. I lost my mucus plug and the very next morning I started labor. Finally!

I was so excited. It was happening. I labored at home all day until contractions were four minutes apart and my doula said it was time to go to the hospital.

Around midnight we walked through the hospital parking lot and stopped every few minutes so I could grip my husband and breathe deeply until the contraction passed.

It was in those contractions that I was most connected to prana. The surges of the body are so strong that the “I” falls away and just is. In those moments, my body did exactly what it wanted, as if it knew what to do from deep within. I found myself becoming my breath (this all sounds like yoga, huh?). Occasionally, strangely enough, I would stand on one leg and circle my wrists and ankle. I have no idea what that was about. I just know it wasn’t me choosing to do it.

Once inside the hospital, there were 26 more hours of labor (after the 10 hours I already had at home, because you are counting, right?) that would stall and then start again, an induction, water breaking, an epidural (that didn’t work, which I didn’t even know was possible!), and the final circus scene that took place near midnight with about 10 people in my room trying to help my baby come into the world.

It was then that my doctor told me that if the baby didn’t drop in the next hour, she would need to do an emergency C-section because my baby was starting to show signs of stress (I can’t imagine why!).

I did my best to breathe, alone, for that hour. I was so tired and in so much pain and my baby just would not drop.

The very thing I was trying to avoid ended up happening anyway.

I had a C-section. While I was on the table, I heard the doctors snapping into action to untangle the umbilical cord that was wrapped around my baby’s neck like a noose. Turns out if she had dropped, she would have been strangled. I guess she knew what she was doing after all. In the end, my new baby girl was healthy and I was fine.

Two years later, I was pregnant with my second baby and this time I knew (on more than an intellectual level) that I had no idea what was going to happen. With all of my heart’s desire, I wished for a VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Caesarian), but I didn’t know anyone that had actually had one and Western doctors frowned highly upon them because there is a less than 1% change your C-section scar can rupture.

This pregnancy was different. I was now raising a two-year-old, and you can imagine how much time that left for me. We had recently moved across the country, sold a condo, bought a house, and endured a massive flash flood that destroyed our new house.

So, by the time I went into labor with my son (late again, I might add), I had surrendered, fully open to the process, whatever it might be. This time, it was just me and my husband and a nurse in the room. It was pretty calm, especially compared to the first birth. I labored for 8 hours, pushed for 45 minutes, and had an actual VBAC. It was amazing. A 9.5 pound baby came out of me. It was primal and I felt connected to every woman that has ever given birth throughout time.

It was a miracle. Just like my first birth was a miracle.  Because giving birth, in any form, is a miracle.

Giving birth to an idea, a piece of art, a song, a story, movement, business, the creation of a gorgeous meal, the feeling of love ~ it’s all the same and it’s all equally wonder-full.

When I practice and let yoga really, truly happen, I feel as though I am giving birth. We get to be part of something new coming into the world—talk about creativity in action! I actually think my first baby might not have been my daughter; it was a company that I birthed years before she came. I labored for far more than 36 hours to allow that baby to come into the world: a thing that is not me, came through me, and manifested itself in this world.

When I allow my body to be a vessel, without imposing my thoughts, beauty takes birth in so many forms. For that, my only job is to be open—physically, mentally, and emotionally.  That’s what yoga teaches me.

We breathe to make space. Soon, openings are created in the physical body.  We move our physical bodies, and soon flexibility is brought into our mind.  We draw attention to those openings and all that surrounds them and then simply allow them to exist. Soon, we birth the world.

With all that said, I feel honored to teach prenatal yoga. I am lucky to be part of a woman’s journey to this special kind of birth. And, yes, even though we can’t control what is going to happen, it is still important to prepare for this unique type of birth. It is in the actions of caring for the body, the spirit, and the unborn baby, where we experience the flow of life, where we learn true acceptance and surrender.

I love that I can share how powerful it is to breathe. That when we listen to and feel our breath, we become one with the present moment. And, it is that presence that takes away the fear.

I love to teach the tools that will help people relax and soften. When we carry tension, our body goes into protection mode, and openness becomes twice as difficult. When we practice relaxing, over and over again, our body learns to trust. Only after trust, can surrender happen.

Let me say that again: When we relax our body, our brain will get the message that all is safe, and that is when we become open and flexible on all levels.

I love to help people stretch their sore body parts and strengthen their weaker ones. If we build strength in a yoga pose, our bodies can show up for the physical task of birth. If we feel that strength, over and over, in a pose, we can tap into that reservoir when we need it most. The more we experience something (like our strength), the more we believe it.

And, I love to create a safe space for women to bond with their unborn child and get to know who they are, as a mom; to let them know they are connected to a lineage of brave women throughout all of history that have gone before them.

So, as we practice opening our hips, relaxing our jaws, making space for baby, we feel the force of life, as us, and moving through us. And, the more we experience that, the more we relax and truly are ready for whatever gift birth brings.



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Assistant Ed: Katharine Spano / Ed: Catherine Monkman

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Michele Bickley