The more I journey along this unpredictable path called life, the more I am coming to know just how vital relationships are for fulfillment and a sense of purpose.
Despite the emphasis we place on independence and individuality, we really do need each other. We spend hours a day on our phones, email, and social media, and less time involved in authentic, face-to-face connection. More than ever, we need practices that can help get us out of our heads, and reconnect us to ourselves and one another in relationship and community.
Yoga is an example of an ancient system that can ground us in our body and in a present, moment-to-moment awareness.
As both a yoga teacher and birth doula, I am struck by the similarities between yoga and birth, and of the importance of relationship in both. Watching women in birth using movement and breath to bring forth life from and through their bodies seems to me to be what yoga is all about. Birth can bring a woman into intimate relationship with her own body, as well as drawing her into deep connection with those who are supporting her. Assisting women as a doula has taught me a lot about yoga, and how important it is to practice in a way that supports the vital energy within the body at every stage of life.
Connecting to our selves in this way can help heal feelings of separation, isolation and aloneness, creating a foundation for establishing and maintaining healthy relationships with others.
The essential nature of both yoga and birth is relationship. Through consistent practice, yoga can help us to feel a sense of wholeness from within the internal realm of the body. A supportive yoga practice is a self-guided experience, where the true work is to become present to the sensations happening within the body and to adapt one’s yoga in response. The breath is the thread that weaves us into relationship and connection. When we practice in this way, yoga becomes a process of healing and transformation. Through our movement and our breath, we begin to experience what it feels like to be fully present and alive in this moment, to find and integrate forgotten parts of our being, and to feel and nurture the internal stirrings of acceptance and compassion.
Teaching yoga to expectant mothers makes the importance of a breath-centered and adaptive practice even more apparent. During pregnancy, a woman’s body is constantly changing. As her belly grows, her relationship to gravity changes, her breath changes, and so do her energy levels, moods, and physical needs. Postures that feel supportive in her practice one day may not feel good or appropriate for her body the next. Through a regular yoga practice, she can learn to listen to and trust her knowledge of her self, so that she can adapt to her body’s changing needs. She can also cultivate resilience by staying present and connected to her breath while sustaining postures that create some physical challenge or good discomfort (sensations such as tight muscles gently stretching, or weak muscles strengthening).
Cultivating adaptability, resilience, and trust in oneself on the mat can help a birthing woman immensely. During birth a woman has to go into her self, join with her breath and be able to move as her body wishes her to move. Her connection to her breath can help her to listen to what she is feeling in her body, so that she can follow her body’s needs and urges, and can respond by moving, changing position, or asking for help from her support people or caregivers.
In the same way that we can build resilience and stability by connecting to the breath and sustaining yoga postures that challenge us, a birthing woman can integrate with the painful contractions of labour through mindful breathing. Over the course of her labour, she becomes much less verbal as she is drawn ever deeper inside of herself, immersed in an internal world of sensation, breath, rhythm, movement and often sound. It is through this process that she can connect to the source of her strength during birth—her relationship to herself and her baby.
Practicing yoga in a way that supports birth offers insight into how to practice yoga in a way that supports life, which is beneficial for everyone.
A birthing woman’s relationship with her caregivers and support people play a crucial role in protecting her sense of safety so that she can allow herself to soften, let go and be vulnerable. During birth, women have a heightened sensitivity and awareness of those around them. Their relationships to health care providers and support people can have a positive or negative impact on the physiological aspects of birth, either by supporting the flow of a woman’s natural birthing hormones and the opening of her body, or causing her to close up out of fear and stalling or slowing down her labour.
Softening, letting go and opening into vulnerability are the feminine aspects of yoga that are more often overlooked but much needed in our intensely driven and fast-paced culture. Without attending to the softer, internally guided and more relational aspects of yoga we run the risk of hardening our minds and deepening our habitual patterns, instead of liberating ourselves.
Being in the presence of birth is an immersion into the watery world of the feminine, and the realm of feeling and emotion. As a doula, I have often felt an overwhelming and indescribable energy wave of pure feeling that overtakes me in the first moments after a baby is born. Trying to stop this wave is totally impossible, and I’m completely helpless to the flow of emotion and tears. I have also seen this powerful surge envelop those who are with me, often in the exact same moment. This shared experience forges an incredible bond, and one that is never forgotten.
It is the feminine essence within us that seeks to relate to others and build relationships and community. Bring a group of women together for a prenatal yoga class and you will see the feminine principle naturally at work. Pregnancy and motherhood is a time when women want to reach out to other women and share their experiences, ask for advice, and receive support. The dynamic of a prenatal class can be very different from a regular yoga class. I am often told that one of the most beneficial parts of our weekly class is the time spent beforehand introducing ourselves and engaging in open conversation.
Commonly, women who come to prenatal yoga build friendships that extend beyond the studio. Many moms look forward to returning after birth to practice postnatal yoga, re-connect as mothers and share their challenges and joys. This knowledge and story sharing about pregnancy, birth and motherhood among women is an ancient tradition of passing on women’s wisdom. Nowadays, we have the internet as a resource for information about birth and motherhood, but the sheer overload of information can feel overwhelming and empty. Nothing can replace the intimacy of connection that happens when a story is verbally transmitted from one person to another.
During the early weeks of my pregnancy, I had many questions about what I was feeling and noticing in my body, and was aching to talk with friends and family to find out whether or not what I was going through was normal or should be a source of concern. I longed to know what the women close to me had felt and experienced in their bodies during pregnancy. At that time, my husband and I were still keeping my pregnancy under wraps, so I spent hours online looking for answers and input from other unknown women. I eventually found the answers I needed (some online, some from my doctor), but the longing to relate on a more personal level didn’t go away.
Regardless of technology, the need for authentic, face-to-face connection is universal and one that we are constantly seeking whether we know it or not. We want to be acknowledged, listened to and heard, and we want to know and see what others are thinking and feeling.
Being in the presence of birth is an incredible meditation on the feminine, an education on what is needed to sustain and nurture life. Mindful practices such as yoga that incorporate the feminine are much needed for our time, offering us a means to integrate the fragmented parts of ourselves so that we can heal the pain of separation from within and feel whole as individuals and as a community.
Author: Adrienne Wetherell
Assistant Editor: Kendra Hackett/Editor: Renee Picard
Photo: Anathea Utley/Flickr