Breathing In and Out of Labor
Yoga and Childbirth - Chapter 3
Everything that we do involves our whole being. But of course different activities alter the balance between the parts of our total self. For instance, if I am swimming, some of the blood may have been taken away from the digestive tract to be circulated in the voluntary muscles. Thus the rate of digestion may be slowed but the activity of the muscles, heart, and lungs greatly increased. While swimming I am probably not thinking deeply, or aware of finer emotional feelings not connected with the physical sensations of the water. On the other hand, if I am sitting reading, my digestion can go ahead undisturbed, I am probably little aware of my physical sensations if the book is interesting, but am much more alive to the world of thought, memory, emotion and comparison. In fact, different activities concentrate our awareness on the various parts of our being; as in sleep, where what remains of consciousness contacts parts of self usually right outside our range of awareness.
Unconscious tensions and fears
If we carry this illustration farther, it also becomes obvious that habits we have formed in the past, often quite unconsciously, largely control situations in the present. For instance, my wife was nearly drowned as a young girl, and now has a dread of swimming. Because of this her emotional reaction to the water creates physical tension and timidness, making it difficult to trust her body to it. Of course, such habit patterns can be changed and gradually replaced by new ones. To do this,however, often requires us to become very conscious of the old habit and what it is doing to our body and emotions. A friend who once broke a bone in his foot, because of the pain, learnt to walk on the side of his foot, and still carried on walking this way years later, even though the break had healed perfectly. But many of the things that hurt us are not physical. As a child or even as an adult, someone we love and trust may have badly hurt us, and without realising it we withdraw our feelings in order not to be hurt again. Just as my wife cannot trust her body to water because of her original terror, so we, if hurt in love, may also find it difficult to once again trust our own feelings to the intimate relationship of sharing ourselves deeply with someone else. I wish to stress again that we may be quite unaware of this.
We have already seen how such unconscious tensions or fears may cause us to take on a posture of withdrawal or tenseness during intercourse or childbirth. If you are now wondering what all this has got to do with breathing and giving birth, it is simply that 1 am trying to show how all these different aspects of life are linked. Also, just as when the actual birth occurs, all that we have done in the way of exercises, diet, relaxation and development of helpful habit patterns, is all brought together in the one event, so in our actual study and practice I do not wish you to lose sight of the unity of these different things. After all, while you are having the baby, you obviously do not want to have the bother of directing attention from relaxing the back, to correct breathing, to surrendering, to relaxing the face, and so on. Better to have one routine that covers the lot, than a method so complex it becomes impractical. In describing it however a chapter is devoted to each aspect of the one routine to explain it more adequately. In any case, in our hurried world, who is going to have time to practise all these different techniques? Therefore we must attempt to incorporate each with the other.
The need for air
Before such incorporation can take place, we have to be breathing correctly. The habits arising out of emotional tension influence many people’s breathing patterns and have to be corrected before proceeding on to further methods. This is important, as faulty breathing cannot help but place a strain on the body, especially that of the pregnant woman. Many people tend to forget the body’s enormous need for oxygen, and that the baby breathes through the mother’s lungs. To indicate the importance of air to the body and soul (for breathing influences consciousness), there is an ancient and much quoted yoga statement, which says that while we can go without food for weeks and yet remain alive, or without water for days, we can only go without air for a few minutes. In another way we can get a similar picture of the need for air. During each day we may drink about a quart or more of liquid; we may eat several pounds in weight of food; but in the same period we breathe in about 375 cubic feet of air.
As far as science is concerned, oxygen combines with carbon in the body cells and forms carbon dioxide. This union produces heat and energy. If the supply of oxygen is cut off to particular cells, the flame of life literally goes out in them. If it is reduced below their needs, they are made to function inadequately. Yoga, and some aspects of modern research, such as that done by Dr Reich, also see the breathing rhythm as an expression of life itself. Reich has postulated a cosmic energy radiating from the sun, which he named ‘orgone’, which when acting upon matter expresses its innate qualities by producing our form, movement, and consciousness. One of the basic movements expressed when this cosmic energy activates a physical form is pulsation, or contraction and expansion, tension and relaxation. This we see in the spontaneous sexual movements already discussed; also in breathing, and childbirth. Every spontaneous movement is in fact an expression of this relationship between what yoga calls prana, and Reich calls orgone, and the body. Heartbeats and breathing are particularly good examples of this.
If this idea is difficult to grasp, and it seems hard to understand how an energy can cause spontaneous physical movements, insight might be gained by thinking about a simple example. I believe everybody must have had the experience of hearing a pin, or other small object, vibrate in a vase or on a shelf, when a particular note or sound is made either on the television or by passing traffic. Particles of sand on a piece of stretched cellophane will also vibrate when we sing or speak near it. This is how the telephone works. If we realise that our body is a very complex receiving instrument, and can be made to respond in the most amazing ways to the sea of energy in which we live, this is a very basic idea of the yoga philosophy regarding the cause of existence. But while the example of a pin bathed in the sea of energy we call sound, and sometimes moved by it when there is resonance between pin and sound, helps us to understand the resonance between our physical form and the energy which enlivens it, yet something remains unexplained. It is that the pin has no choice as to whether it will surrender to the spontaneous movement, or fight against it through fear, habit, or self will. As, in our case, consciousness and decision, or will, are produced by energy interacting with matter, we can interfere with the instinctive patterns of expression that arise in us.
It is strange that the thing created, even though it depends utterly upon its source, can yet interfere with that which creates it. This opens up the possibility of seriously injuring the natural function of creative on created. In other words, it is like a car destroying some of its wiring or turning the ignition control, and thus advancing or retarding the ignition, and putting the engine out of tune. As far as yoga is concerned, this is the major cause of misery in our life. Knowingly or unknowingly our will has been directed against that which creates us, causing it to malfunction in our being. (I would like to point out for those who are thinkers with scientific background, this explanation is only analogical. Yoga does not separate matter and energy, or matter, energy, and mind. It does see that what we call energy interacts with what we call matter, but it points out that these are merely polarities of a single thing just as the left hand can interact with the right hand, yet are one and the same body.)
As I hope you will begin to see, the golden thread of this book is to give methods which will help you to find your natural, spontaneous source of health, love and life. Throughout the book the attempt is made to let go of those habits and fears that are acting against your own innate nature. This chapter on breathing follows the same aim. Although in theory it is sufficient to surrender our will, habits and fears to the natural and spontaneous workings of our being, in practice we often need to help the process along. We do not need to look for the reason. It is that many of our fears or habits are so deep rooted or unconscious, that we cannot let go of them even when we decide to. This is because we no longer have hold of Them – they have hold of us. Thus, a man who, despite the fact he loves his wife and has decided to be faithful, yet allies with several other women, does so because despite his decision, his passions have too strong a hold on him.
Analysis of our breathing pattern
Therefore, before we can integrate our breathing practice into the exercise routine already given, we need to view the overall pattern of our breathing, and maybe help it into line a little. To analyse our own breathing pattern, a simple method can be used. Sit in a chair, or kneel on a yoga blanket, hips on heels, back straight. Put one hand on chest, one on solar plexus, just breathe in as far as possible without letting the chest rise. If this is successful the hand on the solar plexus will rise, without the one on the chest moving much at all. A point will be reached in the inhalation where your cannot breathe in any more without moving the hand on the chest. At this point allow the chest to rise until full inhalation is reached. As this happens the hand on the solar plexus will probably drop back a little. This is quite normal. If your pregnancy is fairly well advanced there will be less ability to raise the solar plexus hand first, but there should still be some ability to do so.
This little test shows us whether we have the natural cycle of abdominal breathing. If you cannot breathe in and raise the solar plexus hand first, then wrong habits or tensions are interfering with normal breathing. The fact that the abdomen does not rise shows that your breathing is also inadequate, and the lungs are not being sufficiently filled with air. This will obviously decrease the amount of oxygen available within the lungs – and, just as important, the waste products that pass out of the body via the lungs will not be properly eliminated. This is a sort of thoracic constipation. During pregnancy it is more important than ever to make sure that our elimination from the lungs is sufficient, as the baby also eliminates some of its own poisons through the mother’s lungs. We do not have to be fanatical about this; but we do have a goal in view, that of helping nature’ to produce a beautiful and healthy child. Efficient breathing is part of the activities that together mould and form the baby.
Another test for tensions
Another test to determine how much our own breathing pattern is controlled or disrupted by tension is as follows: Sit or kneel as before. Take a slow deep breath in. Now breathe out rapidly until the lungs are as empty as possible. If this out-breathing is in one unbroken stream from ‘full’ to ‘empty’, then all is well. Many people will find however, that try as they may, they cannot exhale in an unbroken stream. There will be ‘catches’ where they stop for a moment and then continue. Clinical work done by a number of therapists has shown that this disturbed exhalation is a sign that the person is controlled by a fear, resulting in tension. Such tension not only influences the breathing of the person, but also the relationship with other people, and events in life. This usually produces unsatisfactory sex life, and other emotional or life problems. Because we are concentrating here only on yoga as it directly relates to pregnancy we cannot go into a long description of how to deal with such problems in detail. But at least a general method must be given because such tensions usually cause unnecessary difficulties during confinement.
The following breathing methods are not necessary for those whose breathing cycle is normal. They are recommended for those who, in the above tests, found that their natural breathing was interfered with. If you found that you could not breathe abdominally and move the solar plexus hand, it is sufficient to frequently practise the movement until it is attained. The aim is to make proper abdominal breathing into a habit. This will require persistence and patience. Our ingrained habits arise because we have performed the activity hour after hour. In the attempt to breathe correctly we not only have to instil in ourselves the correct pattern, but we also have to eradicate the old method.
Therefore, if you do not breathe abdominally, for ten minutes after the postures sit or lie comfortably, one hand on the chest, one on the solar plexus. Breathing slowly and fully, try to breathe raising the lower hand first as already described. Keep steadily at this for ten minutes, and keep at it each day until you eventually learn how to do it. Once you get the hang of it, you can naturally dispense with the use of the hands. Also, once the method is established, concentrate on it at odd moments of the day, such as while out walking. In this case breathe in and out in time with your strides. For instance three strides breathing in, three strides breathing out – or whatever is easiest for you. By concentrating on it frequently like this, it will quickly become a habit.
If you are unable to breathe out in one smooth flow, the recommended exercise is as follows: Sit upright in a chair, or cross-legged on the floor, or kneel on the floor with the hips on the heels. Breathe in slowly and deeply, hold for a moment and breathe out quickly with a rush through the nose. Breath slowly in again and repeat. The aim is to gradually break down the resistance that stops the smooth exhalation. This resistance may be an emotional one. For instance, crying causes us to breathe out fully, and if the suppress ion of grief has caused us this tension then if we break through we will release a lot of grief and weeping. Of course, it may be other fears or suppressed emotions that are behind the faulty breathing. If these arise during the breathing we have to have the courage to let them out and express them.
This is a very stimulating exercise, and it is difficult to give a -general length of time to practise it. This is because some people may become slightly dizzy due to the amount of oxygen absorbed. Therefore, you will have to experiment to find your own level. I would suggest at least fifteen repetitions, and not more than one hundred. Practise it daily until the breakthrough to normal expiration occurs. Then, if abdominal breathing is possible, pass on to the ordinary breathing practices mentioned later. Otherwise practise abdominal breathing. If your breathing is abdominal, with a steady exhalation, only general breathing methods need be practised. I stress particularly the importance of deep rhythmic breathing while walking as already described.
For hundreds of years yoga has taught a variety of breathing practices. Some of these are aimed at calming and stilling the mind, others at cleansing the body, others at oxygenating the cells. During childbirth one of the greatest needs is to keep the muscles of the uterus well supplied with oxygen so that it does not become exhausted under the pressure of work. Also, the baby itself may develop an enormous oxygen debt unless the breathing is sufficient during the birth. I am indebted to Erna Wright’s description of how psycho-prophylaxis uses breathing methods during childbirth. I have attempted to describe here how to use the traditional yoga methods however, although it must be admitted that as far as I can see it is psycho-prophylaxis that has had the genius to pioneer the use of these practices.
Just as a man who is walking and suddenly starts running will immediately need more oxygen, so in childbirth there are different levels of needs as the body contracts and relaxes. If we completely expressed our instincts, we might pant as a dog does, when contraction occurs. However, being often out of harmony with our instincts it is a wise insurance to prepare ourselves through training, to meet the need as it arises. The following breathing practice should therefore be done every day while relaxing. This should be done whether you have perfected abdominal breathing or not.
Take up your position of relaxation. Begin your relaxation as described in the chapter dealing with it. When you reach the point of tensing parts of the body and at the same time relaxing the rest of the body, incorporate the following: Before you begin the contraction breathe fully but slowly as in the abdominal breathing method. After three or four breaths say to yourself mentally ‘contraction beginning’. Now gently contract both arms, relaxing all the rest of the body. As you do this begin the following breathing method. Breathe in through the nose as in the abdominal breathing, but when it comes to breathing out, blow out through the mouth just strongly enough to make a blowing noise. Take three breaths in this way, then tense the arms as hard as possible by, bringing the hands to the shoulders as when tensing the biceps. As you do this go into the next stage of breathing. Imagine you are a dog panting. Breathe in and out through the mouth, blowing as you breathe out, to make the characteristic panting noise. This is approximately one out breath per second. Hold the tension and carry on breathing in this way for ten seconds, which is stage three breathing. The others are stage one and stage two, respectively.
At the end of the ten breaths in stage three, relax the arm tension slightly and drop into stage two breathing for three breaths. After this relax the arms and entire body, and drop into stage one breathing, at the same time saying mentally, contraction finished’.
It is fairly obvious that what is being attempted here is to perfect the ability to change the breathing rate at will according to the need of the moment, and at the same time be able to relax all of the body not being contracted. This will undoubtedly seem extraordinarily complicated at first, but practising each session will gradually perfect it so that ‘on the day’ you will be adept at it. When you have taken three or four breaths in stage one go through the whole procedure again, but this time tense the right arm and left leg instead of both arms. Obviously, at the same time you must keep all the rest of the body relaxed.
After having repeated the cycle using right arm and left leg, go through it one more time using left arm and right leg. When this is finished carry on with the relaxation as described.
When you first start this practice of relaxation and breathing, not only will it seem very complicated, as already said, but it will also take a long time to pass through the various stages of relaxation as described. After a few weeks, however, you will find that the strange ideas are becoming meaningful, the routine is becoming second nature and the whole thing will take far less time. But as a whole it should take at least half an hour.
Erna Wright gives a much more complex method, which I am sure in general is very necessary to achieve the pain-free birth aimed at. Noting the tremendous difference that diet and supplementation makes on the length and progress of birth it is unnecessary to go to such lengths, if the diet given is followed. Many women have a problem-free birth simply through taking the dietary supplements of C, E and calcium. My own wife, during her last pregnancy and eating largely a raw-food diet, practising the yoga postures and taking vitamin supplements, was only three-quarters of an hour in labour. Therefore, as long as the diet suggested is being used, far less discipline need be applied in these other ways, as the vitamin E alone aids oxygenation of tissues, the calcium decreases pain, and the C increases energy level and recuperation. In a later chapter, more details will be given as to how you use the breathing stages on the actual day. Meanwhile, once you have really established the breathing method, after about two months of practice, they need only be practised once each week.