Improving pregnancy and wellbeing beyond childbirth

How can yoga help to improve not only the quality of pregnancies but also the wellbeing of women beyond childbirth? This is the challenge Birthlight took on from the time of its foundation in the 1980s in Cambridge, as pregnant women who had prepared for birth with yoga completed their ‘fourth trimester’. Some stayed on longer in circles of ‘Well Woman Yoga’: they needed to integrate their births into their lives, to empower themselves in physical and emotional ways and to feel supported in a space of self-mothering to restore and recharge. They brought their mothers, sisters and even grandmothers whose bodies still harbored unresolved aches and pains from their births. The beauty of pre and postnatal yoga is that it's simple techniques reach deep into the body through time.

Yoga for pregnancy unlocks the potential for lasting health benefits by developing women’s inner wisdom and trust. By learning to calm our breath, accessing the parasympathetic nervous function and triggering precious hormones that make us feel safe and balanced, we transform fear into confidence. We dwell in our core centers as ‘queens of the castle’, watching our breath when we get out of kilter.  We gain steadiness, strength and also happiness as those around us, first of all babies and partners, respond to our inner state positively, mirroring us. In turn, we are delighted with their response and this creates an expanding spiral of positive being. The ancient yoga texts say that this spiral reaches the outer ridges of space-time, with incalculable rewards. When there is little time for self-care, yoga breathing while walking with infants or feeding them can lead to instant relaxation.  These simple practices that blend with baby care may be more fundamental than the numerous exercises, including those of Yoga and Pilates, that prioritize core integrity. Abundant new research shows the impact of our state of consciousness and our moods on body tone. Tools of calm breathing affect the whole web of connective tissues, nerve endings and chemical receptors in our bodies.

Even the gentlest of birth transforms a woman’s body, the first birth most of all but also subsequent births. In Ayurveda, the ancient Indic health system that supports yoga, pregnancies are seen as great opportunities to optimize each woman’s physiology in the long term. Some inherited weaknesses exposed during pregnancy (tendencies to varicose veins, lower back pain, mild pelvic imbalance and joint pain, and most of all impaired pelvic floor tone) may not be serious enough to warrant medical intervention but deserve caring attention. Even if the idea of preparing for a healthy menopause is the last thing we want to think about when we are just coping with early mothering, pre and postnatal yoga are a life investment. Maintaining an aligned posture, the key to healthy cranial-spinal connections between reproductive tissues and organs and our brains, is possibly the best foundation for long-term women’s health. Yoga for pregnancy equips us with many of the tools needed to face the hormonal challenges of ‘the change’ as a life transformation rather than a panic-ridden ordeal.

Sri Krishnamacharya, one of the founding fathers of yoga as we know it, saw breath, not poses, as central to yoga ‘because Breath is central to Life and Yoga is about Life’. In pregnancy, yoga breathing and chanting help us connect with our growing babies. After birth, breath awareness helps us modulate our relations with our babies through days, weeks and months. Developing these skills through life creates the embodied mindfulness that women need to take charge of their health holistically through their unique life journeys.

Françoise Freedman

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