Aquanatal Yoga Birthlight

Mary Freedman spoke with Mara and Natalia about their experience of Birthlight Aquanatal Yoga classes with Birthlight’s founder Françoise Freedman. Mara attended sessions throughout her first pregnancy while Natalia, in her second pregnancy and hoping for a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean), joined them for two sessions towards the middle and end of her pregnancy. 

Mara’s experience:

Mary: Did you have any previous experience of Yoga before doing Birthlight Aquanatal Yoga?

Mara: I have been doing yoga since I was around 22, trying different traditions of yoga, primarily Ashtanga and Iyengar, both in Mexico and in the UK. Then I developed my own version of what felt right for my body and I practised at home, particularly after the pandemic. But I had never, ever tried aqua yoga. That was a real discovery. 

Mary: How did you find it different… I mean Ashtanga and Iyengar are quite big poles in terms of practice. How did Aqua yoga fit into that? How has it been different? 

Mara: On the one hand it has been a real discovery and something completely new. I also feel that all the languages of the body are when the body is being taken care of and there is a feeling of somehow expanding and growing: in that way they are all one language. But, being in the pool was incredible because your sense of weight is so different , as is your sense of space and even the borders of your body become a bit blurred. So I felt there was less emphasis on control, which is so common in let’s say Iyengar – a tradition where you are always staying in a pose for a very long time – and Ashtanga which is almost bordering on exercise because it’s so intense. Aquanatal Yoga was not at all about control: in fact it was about letting go. And it was also about breathing rather than about posture, although posture matters. I felt that it was very intimately connected with breathing. And there were moments where it was really playful. I think that’s partly the way in which Francoise teaches it, which I felt was really about flowing and floating with the water; learning forms of being in the water that on the one hand tried to stretch the body and make space for the baby, but also were just playing and enjoying it. It was very pleasurable. 

Mary: Have you found any changes in your experience of the practices as your pregnancy has progressed?

“I was really discovering my body and also discovering the baby”


Mara: Yes, very much. Partly because I feel that during the pregnancy, I’ve also gotten to know my body differently and more. So in the early practices, which coincided with the early stages of pregnancy, I was more nervous. I remember not even being able to feel the movement of the baby and Francoise blowing onto my belly so that I could feel a sensation like a butterfly: she was trying to make me sense how I might feel the baby later on. And I was really discovering my body and also discovering the baby. I felt that in the later classes, which also coincided with the latest stages of pregnancy, I was much more familiar with the baby. We had established a kind of means of communication, mostly through movement. I was also much more at ease with everything: with the pregnancy and with how my body had changed. That made me feel more relaxed and free in the water. Plus, the repetition of certain movements helped me move from copying them to appropriating them and seeing what worked better for me. At times (Françoise) would say: “This works better if you are in Butterfly for certain people but maybe for you it’s better with an extended leg” – so I also knew that certain postures were not generic for everybody, but were actually targeted to your own body, your own baby, and the combination of both. 

Mary: From my experience – both teaching and doing Aqua Yoga while pregnant – the practices can feel quite different as your weight shifts during pregnancy. That sensation of freedom and weightlessness in the water definitely becomes more emphasised when gravity is suddenly a lot more present than normal! Are there any practices that stand out for you, that you really enjoy?

Mara: I’m not sure what their names are! There was one that was about turning, that was really about letting go. I think a lot of the moments of real discovery for me were letting go and undoing. Françoise would often say that giving birth is about not doing (or undoing) rather than about doing. And that made sense when I was doing that movement in which the belly leads the turn and you really don’t have to do much; you just have to play with your weight while also being so light. You just lose yourself and you lose your sense of space and it’s really, really beautiful. And when you come back it’s almost as if you are awakening from a dream. [It was actually very beautiful when we did it with Natalia in that pool. I really enjoyed that.] I also like the ones that make space. I had this tendency to close my torso and hunch my shoulders because my breasts just kind of took over and it was really good to make space! I felt like that it really left an imprint in my body after doing the stretches in the water. Then, when I would come back to the land, I would work differently and feel more open in general.  The relaxations are the best though!  The relaxations were my favourite part always.  It’s as if you are listening to the water and you feel really connected to the baby. At some point, Françoise said: “You are the baby”! And that idea is true: I mean, I am the baby in a kind of paradoxical way. But it was also like imagining the watery environment where the baby is now and the way in which sound travels in the pool. So those were my favourite moments!

Mary: I feel you! So I guess you kind of touched on this, but maybe you could sum up what you think is particularly valuable about being in the water?

Mara: I mean, this idea of being in the same environment as the baby was for me, very, very present. Also the weightlessness which the water allows is important because it allows you to unlearn certain postures and movements that you are used to doing on land. So in the water you kind of begin again. And that gives you a freedom to explore new things as well as to correct potentially bad habits that are so difficult to unlearn when you are in your normal environment. For me the breathing is challenging and it’s something that the water also takes to another level because you immerse yourself. Those slides (glides) were really challenging, but once they started working they were really rewarding. Something I’ve learned that I’m trying to take to the moment of labour is the idea of using the air until the very end, emptying your lungs even from the back. Also the idea of deep breaths that are ultimately very relaxing and would allow the baby to go through the birth canal – well, potentially! That’s my hope!

Mary: Yes, with ease! Finding the relaxation that then gives you this extra space at the end (of the breath) is very beautiful! Finally, what have you noticed about Birthlight Aquanatal practices in particular compared to other kinds of pregnancy and birth preparation classes? 

Mara: I have done some classes of Birthlight yoga with people who have been trained in the Birthlight tradition, so I see a lot of affinity because I feel it’s all the same language, developed by Françoise. But I think the most palpable difference to me is Françoise’ very playful and instinctive way which leads to a unique experience in each class.  It never feels like you are repeating the same thing, or that you’re following some kind of script: every time is different, every time is a discovery. At first I wanted answers and things I could repeat -something that’s very common in antenatal classes, almost like a manual as to how to become a mother with lists of things to buy or things to do!  Birthlight Aquanatal Yoga was not at all about that. It was almost like….you didn’t really know what the direction was but you knew you were in the right direction. It wasn’t ‘“Today we’re going to be doing this” but really feeling how you were and responding to your needs on that day and in that moment, and knowing that ultimately birth giving is something you can’t entirely plan! (I understood that) you need to be open to having an open script and be receptive to that because if you’re very tied to one single plan or one single idea, that actually might end up leading to frustration, trauma or other forms of suffering. That was the real profound learning for me. It prepares you for the uncertain somehow – which is birth itself – and helps you to connect to your body, because it’s ultimately about connecting and listening to your body at the moment of birth-giving. 

Mary: I’m so glad to hear your thoughts! I’ve had the privilege of seeing the Aquanatal practices develop and also practising them, and much of what you have said is also key to my understanding and experience! It’s a journey that’s not just yours but also your baby’s! When you cultivate that awareness of the way in which you are moving in the water, you feel that dynamic: as you move, the baby is also moving inside you. It’s a journey of both of you together and you have to be open and listen to that to be able to move together in that dance! 

Natalia’s Experience:

Mary: How did Aquanatal Yoga compare to other forms of Yoga or movement practices you have experienced, especially during pregnancy? 

Natalia: In my previous pregnancy I did Pilates and Yoga for pregnancy. This time I only did Yoga, but I was also using other therapies like osteopathy. My first impression was that the water really enhanced my perception – I was almost hyper aware of certain parts of my body, particularly those I would need to engage for birthing or preparing for birth, like my hips or pelvic area. It helped me to cultivate a different kind of awareness. The buoyancy of the water lifts pressure off joints and muscles – especially when you’re floating – so it makes you feel effortless and yet more supported than you would on the ground! (For example) if you do squats on the ground, you feel the pressure and it’s like you’re sweating over it but in the water (they) feel so mild and easy! At other times the water adds pressure: for instance, when you’re pushing the water away with your arms and legs you have to work against the water. And that’s also very interesting! So, I guess I became aware of my body in different ways.

Something that really fascinated me was the multi sensorial aspect: water enhances senses that you wouldn’t necessarily be paying attention to while you’re doing yoga on a mat or in a room. I really loved the sound of the water and in fact that’s something that I ended up using at birth. I didn’t go into the (birthing) pool, but water was very much present through sound. It created a very interesting effect for me during the practice – almost as if I could feel a little like the baby might be feeling.  Sometimes we were massaging the bump with the water, and I felt like I was sharing part of that experience! The water is warm and comfortable, so you feel a bit like you are in the womb – there is that sensation of comfort. I love taking long baths with hot water and I wondered why I wasn’t doing (Aquanatal Yoga) more often! 

Mary: Beautiful! I know you have mentioned something about your experience of Aquanatal Yoga during the sessions. Could you say a little more about the effects of those practices during but also after the sessions you attended?

“After the sessions I felt quite invigorated”


Natalia: It was interesting because just immediately after the sessions I felt quite invigorated. I felt that it had taken away some of my lumbar back pain – which is constant – and helped with spinal alignment, taking pressure away and leaving me feeling very energized! Then I felt this blissful kind of fatigue – like I was dozing off and needed to go to bed. In fact, the first time I did take a nap! I’m glad Françoise said: “You will need a nap and make sure you take it!” and I’m glad that I did. I slept for almost 2 hours which was amazing because I was experiencing some pregnancy insomnia at night. It was so nice to feel like I could just let go and embrace sleep and the sleep itself was overwhelmingly beautiful and just took me over. It was that blissful fatigue that you experience after having done some proper work – obviously I had worked hard and could feel the vigor of that practice but that then relaxed my body enough that I could get some necessary sleep! 

Mary: It’s the same with babies when you bathe them. They go through that same process where the sleep is really good afterwards – which is always very helpful!  

Natalia: Yes, right! I did feel that water is demanding, but in a very relaxing way because of the weightlessness. You’re not very conscious of how much you’re working until afterwards, but (you feel it) in a very blissful way. It’s not a constrained fatigue. More like you can let go and just have some proper sleep. I guess I felt like a baby! 

Mary: So nice! Although you only attended a couple of sessions, are there any practices that really stand out for you?

Natalia: Yes! There were many (practices) that I found incredibly instinctive, like scooping my hips in the water, but that felt very different or were more pleasant because the element had changed, my focus was switched on and everything was enhanced. Two things stand out for me: one of them is spinning the whole body with the noodle without doing anything – I found that quite hard to do! Apparently, I wasn’t too bad at it, but I found it really hard to let my body do something with the help of the water but without actually doing it (actively). That was eye-opening! It helped me understand how much effort I was making, even without realizing it. It doesn’t get any easier because you understand it, but it’s interesting what you learn from the process! (The spinning was) supposed to be relaxing but I found it a lot of work to turn in that way and when I finally got it, it was very rewarding! It was so relaxing to see my body do it without me actually pushing it. 

Another thing I really liked was something we attempted at the end of my second session with Françoise, when she asked us to push and glide* across the pool.

* ‘Push and glide’ is a practice in which you inhale and then push off from one side of the pool, gliding flat in an extended position along the surface of the water until beyond the end of that breathe, exploring what happens when you allow your body to relax at the end of the breathe rather than come up for air straight away.

It made me feel very, very relaxed (even) while breathless. Having to go through it (the end of the breath) without despairing made me feel that I have this inner strength: I can keep going. There’s this imminent end and (yet) I’m fine, I’m fine! I’m actually not breathing, but I’m absolutely fine. And it helped me imagine how labour might be:  that there would be times when it would be incredibly challenging and I’d feel I was about to scream (or) lose my temper, but that I could do it and that actually I was fine. I was relaxed and I was doing it, you know, I could totally embrace it. And it’s not that I needed to make anything happen because I was already making it happen. Gliding made that analogy really stand out for me, although I don’t know if that was the intended purpose of the exercise! 

Mary: Yes! You see that there’s this extra space in you and it’s such a quiet space as well. And you find that you can relax into it and then it does that thing that you get sometimes between contractions where time just is completely different.

Natalia: Absolutely… 

Mary: I think being familiar and comfortable with that is so useful because that makes it a familiar space that you can find during labour. And especially for the first time, labour is so unfamiliar!

Natalia: Exactly! 

Mary: When your body recognizes that feeling and knows (how to) relax with it, to be with it, and has the confidence to do that rather than panic it’s amazing. I was lucky – I did a lot (of Aquanatal Yoga) before my first child was born and I think it really prepared me very well. It also made me quite muscular because I was doing it in a pool that was deep, so all the practices were very strong! But I remember almost sleeping in-between contractions – not sleeping but just being somewhere else and deeply relaxed. 

Nataila: Absolutely. I think because my second birth was actually my first labour (because I didn’t really go to labour the first time), it really helped. Even if I only did it once in the pool, I felt like it helped me to understand that I could always push it a little more and I would be fine; that I could totally relax into it and embrace that moment of uncertainty or breathlessness or pain. And that it would be easier if I relaxed than despaired and started contracting, losing the relaxation that would help to get to the end. Also that there was an end! Like at the end of the glide there is the other side of the pool and you will come out and you will breathe! You hear a lot about that when you do hypnobirthing and that’s basically what you’re practising imagining. But doing it in the pool really got the point across to me. It was so helpful to do it around ten days before my actual birth – I remembered the sensation very, very, vividly!

Mary: I was so pleased for you, amazing! (Natalia had a VBAC without any intervention and received her baby into her own hands after a long labor) 

Natalia: Yes, it was quite empowering! Even if there were a few lulls in the process I managed not to be demoralized but keep going, keep drawing on that inner strength. Actually it made me feel like I should practice apnoea (as in push and glide) more! It’s so wonderful what it does to your mind: it sort of shakes some of (your) premises, makes you see things differently and helps you understand a few things about your own body, your own resilience, etc.. It was only two sessions but as I told my partner when I came back, it was one of the best things I’ve done! It’s amazing in terms of preparing: eye opening and empowering. I wish I’d done it longer. I certainly want to practise it more, even for other aspects of my life!

“Eye opening and empowering”

– Natalie