Yoga asana practised without breath awareness is dangerously close to a gymnastics class. Pranayama literally and metaphorically brings oxygen – and energy – into the body, as it flows from posture to posture. In life, breathing without thinking about it is taken for granted, but when giving birth it’s important to pay attention to the breath and learn how to breathe through labour. By doing so you can bring in the energy and nourishment you need to meet the body’s extreme demands.
Who Needs Pranayama?
The answer is all of us, with a special focus on mums-to-be. It seems we are facing a national crisis in blood oxygenation. In her fabulous book called Mother’s Breath, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli talks about how we’re evolving to develop stressed breathing patterns as a result of a semi-permanent flight or fight mode civilised life keeps us in. This results in shallow, rapid breaths that fill only the tops of the lungs. Our bodies are convinced we are in danger and the stress loop closes. Things get tougher in pregnancy with most mums becoming quite breathless, especially in later trimesters. Several things contribute:
- Blood volume increases by 50%, but it’s mostly blood plasma, which carries less haemoglobin through the bloodstream. This results in less oxygen available throughout the body.
- That stuffy nose feeling: for a lot of pregnant mums, inhaling through the nose is a challenge.
- In the later stages of pregnancy, the diaphragm’s movement is limited since there’s a baby in the way. This means less lung capacity for breathing.
Add these factors to the usual shallow breathing patterns and the challenge become clear. It is important to remember that in pregnancy you’re not just eating for two, you’re also breathing for two. When the mother’s breathing pattern is that of anxiety and stress, the baby gets anxious too. If her breathing is relaxed, however, the baby will also relax.
Will I Forget How to Breathe?
Most active birth specialists think that teaching breath work is a waste of time. Their argument is that once in labour, all learning goes to the nearest rubbish bin. “You forget everything,” emphatically stated one friendly midwife — and she’s completely right. More often than not, complex and artificial breath training end up working against you rather than for you. Structures learned at the cognitive level live in our thinking brains. At best, one won’t remember the instructions while giving birth. At worst, attempts at repeating them may cause anxiety and stress.
Pregnancy is deeply instinctual, and in labour the more survival-based limbic brain takes over. This is why there is no pregnancy-specific pranayama. Instead, coming back to basics is vital. The first step is to become familiar with one’s own breathing pattern, whatever it may be. Increasing the breath quality and awareness is what happens next, and the good news is there are different types of yogic breathing that can help you out with this.
In an ideal world, mindful breathing can become second nature and could be practised anywhere. However, it is also a great complement to your yoga practice (or if you want to go full-out, a perfect alternative choice):
- Practise in your yoga corner, or in any clean, well-ventilated space.
- It’s best done three or four hours after a large meal.
- Kneeling, sitting cross-legged, leaning against a wall, and semi or fully supine positions are great. Personally, I love using a gym ball to make sure my hips are higher than my knees. It gently stimulates circulation in the pelvic area while maintaining good body posture.
- When working with the breath, it’s important that pregnant mothers never hold their breath. The retention may cause discomfort, nausea and dizziness. It’s also not ideal for the baby, who receives less oxygen. For this reason, forceful breaths with a retention, such as Kapalabati or Bastrika should be avoided!
- If you have asthma or suffer from a heart condition, please seek guidance from your GP before exploring alternative breathing patterns.
The Benefits Of Pranayama:
- Can help to make optimum use of lung capacity.
- Boosts energy and revitalises the body.
- Helps release endorphins.
- Detoxifies the body.
- De-stresses, calms anxiety, evens out emotional shifts.
- Lowers blood pressure.
- Teaches patience and how to feel relaxed during moments of strain.
- The baby feels each breath the mother makes. Prānāyāma can be a great tool for bonding and connecting with your baby.
See Also: Pranayama – The Silken Thread
Pregnancy Pranayama Classics
Victorious, Golden and Alternate Breath
You know how to breathe. Which means you can learn how to breathe deeper and more harmoniously. You can also make this calm-inducing pattern a habit, that will accompany you not only on the mat but hopefully in labour and in everyday life afterwards. It apparently takes 21 days to make a habit. Setting aside just ten minutes a day for breathing is a great idea. Start small:
1. For a couple of sessions, just observe the breath. Feel the air coming in and out of the nose (or mouth). Notice the depth and duration of the breath but do not change anything.
2. When you feel ready, start noticing both halves of the breath: the inhalation and exhalation. Again, be a witness to your own natural pattern of breathing.
3. A 1:2 pattern of breathing is a great start. Inhale for the count of one and exhale for the count of two. If it feels right, you can inhale for two and exhale for four. Make the flow of air deep and steady, be mindful of the sensations of the breath entering and exiting your body. This is a calming and soothing way of breathing. You can visualise sending the exhalation down into the pelvis, softening the pelvic floor simultaneously.
4. Oceanic Breathing. Great for insomnia, exhaustion and in the first and second stages of labour. Breathe in normally, closing the base of the throat on the exhalation. It may eventually sound like soothing oceanic waves. Don’t be surprised if a bit of Darth Vader comes out first!
5. The Favourite – Golden Thread Breath. Another tidbit by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, this type of breathing is helpful for inducing deep sleep, relaxing the jaw and face and for prolonged first stage labour. Inhale through the nose and open the mouth slightly, leaving a tiny gap between the upper and lower teeth. Exhale through the gap. Visualise a thin golden thread, twirling between the teeth and into the room. Make it as thin or thick as you like. Keep inhaling and exhaling the thread as long as it feels good. You can even combine it with Oceanic Breathing for an extra relaxation factor.
Breathe Through Labour (And Life!)
If asked, I would always say the best practices for pregnant yoginis are breath work, meditation and relaxation. They work wonders when done separately and even more so when used together. Simply sitting around and breathing quietly can help to reduce emotional tension, lower blood pressure, oxygenate the blood, detoxify the body and, most importantly, assist in bonding and connecting with the baby. It can also give you the lifelong gift of breath awareness, that can really come in handy in the postnatal period.
And finally, the techniques chosen above are quite subjective — there is a positive ocean of choices out there. You can start with simple breath awareness, though, and build up in time. Easy does it, no excuses. Add pranayama to your practice today, for you and your baby’s benefit.