The Yoga of Birth: An Examination of Peace and Pain
Updated: Apr 21
I am so grateful for my profound birth experience. I was lucky enough to deliver my daughter, Eden Margaret, body-conscious and at home. Out of the various techniques I studied, my yoga practice was undoubtedly the one that prepared me most. It allowed me a deeper understanding of what peace actually means and how it relates to pain. Here is my take.
Early signs began two nights before my active labor. These were small, short, yet significant “surges” of intense sensation in my uterus. Surge was the recommended descriptor for contractions in our HynoBirthing Program.
Three weeks earlier I had finished the HypnoBirthing course. Basically this is a philosophy and practice of hypnotizing yourself into a relaxed state for birth, including rewording the entire process. Their main idea, in my opinion, is to make the birthing process less daunting and therefore less painful by creating softer language. They painted a beautiful image of deep serenity and peace during birth.
Let’s be clear, these first contractions were momentous enough to stop me in my tracks mid-sentence or mid-task, make me close my eyes and deep breathe until they passed. They were fierce commands from a distance. Imagine forceful god-like voices miles away, warning you, screaming: get ready, your entire life is about to open wide up!
Only when I heeded and let them be heard would these voices dive back into silence. Only then was I able to open my eyes and continue my conversation or action. After an hour of this I thought to myself, if this is not even labor — “early signs,” they call them— I’m in for it.
I wanted to buy into the Hypnobirthing notion childbirth didn’t have to be painful. So, keeping a grain of salt in the back of my mind, I told family we could play board games in my early birth. I told friends overseas I would give them a call and let them know our little one was on their way. I listened to their hypno-audio tracks and visualized a calm birth. None of these things came to fruition.
To be fair, my birth was very “easy” compared to some stories I’ve heard, but, just as I wouldn’t have called growing from my traumatic childhood easy, I would not call my birthing experience this either. However, because of my yoga practice I can say birthing Eden was not traumatic and it was peaceful.
Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha
Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 1.2
There are many translations of this ancient yoga definition. Many wiser than me have created beautiful transliterations. After my birth experience I was called to revise my own personal connection with this sutra.
Yoga is awakening the mind and therefore consciousness to direct life experience.
Essentially, yoga is pure awareness. Awareness often requires change of mind and knowing true relationship. My great teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar defined yoga as change and relationship.
We use different methods to arrive at direct experience, free of conditioning; we use postures, mantra, counting, breath, focus, etc. These are often described as yoga, but yoga is actually the awareness these techniques bestow. This was key understanding going into one of the most painful experiences of my life.
September 27th, The Day of Birth
I planned this birth years before I was pregnant. I needed to birth as consciously as possible. Clear and direct decisions about how, when and where to bring new life into this world has been paramount to healing my own childhood trauma. I also knew I needed a discipline to help me construct and manifest a strong intention for birth.
Intention is a big aspect of yoga practice. Usually we set one at the beginning of class to guide the actions and therefore frame our minds.
My known intention in birth was to swaddle this new life in a protective layer of fierce kindness, love and peace. This meant coming back to the US. This meant creating a flexible, warm, and inviting environment, one that trusted my body and the birthing process. Because of the surgery-driven practices of hospitals in the USA I knew this meant I was having a home birth.
However, there was another intention underneath it all. Even though I hadn't codified it yet, most of my life I have had an intention to be good. As trite as it might sound I simply wanted to be good at delivering my child. Many of us live with this underlying intention.
After being up two nights in a row with “early signs,” stronger contractions began kicking in. My husband, Dave, took off work. He grabbed the electric heating pad and we both hunkered down.
#2. BREATH & VIBRATION
I used ujjayi breath with early contractions— strong warming exhales that reverberated through my throat to the rest of my body. Progressively, ujjayi became stronger until the ujjayi became full-on guttural screams. These continued going forward the entire time. I chose to embrace them. It brought me great solace to give voice to the intense sensation.
Again HypnoBirthing touted screaming wasn't needed but I needed to scream. Not necessarily how you see in the movies but not so far off either. I screamed or created loud external vibration, very similar to a wandering AUM. I never directed my screams at anyone like we see so often in movies. I never blamed or projected the sensation onto someone else but I did scream, LOUDLY.
Screaming was needed to meet those god-like voices. I was having the conversation of my life. They came knocking louder and louder each contraction and I came to the door meeting them with my own incredibly fierce vibration!
Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha meant meeting my direct experience with screams or vibration.
However, after a few hours of these screams I began to question my "goodness."
I was on my knees bearing my upper body into the bed while Dave rubbed my low back. I remember turning my head against the pillow, looking out into our backyard, into the trees and finally tears came.
"I wanted to do it better," I told Dave. Then speaking to the trees, to Spirit, "I thought I'd do it so much better."
This one moment escalated to my whole self uttering this about my entire life -- my whole self desiring to do it better.
Dave assured me I was doing really good. And there it was. This pain and birth process dug up the burial ground of my childhood intentions. Any good yoga practice does that.
I needed to hear I was doing good. I had been needing to hear that my whole life. People had been telling me, because I was trying so hard at it. Now, if I didn't recognize this for myself then I would never rest searching for... my goodness?...the acknowledgement of it? What was I searching for?
On my knees feeling another intense "surge" coming I tried to acknowledge the goodness I was creating. Through that acknowledgement I could feel growth.
This is how we grow up! Toward spirit. Our capacity for awareness grows. Directly related, our capacity for peace grows. Just because I was screaming didn't mean I wasn't aware or wasn't good. So I wondered, just because I was in pain did it mean I couldn't be in peace?
Because of my yoga practice, I knew 6 breaths would be about a minute long. So, I counted, but not exactly like they teach in Lamaze classes. It was not quick and rapid; I had yogic intention behind them.
As I counted I said to myself: This is what 1 feels like; this is what 2 feels like; this is what 3 feels like; this is what 4 feels like; until the contraction passed. Then I fell into a savasana-like release. I began to track and know that my contractions varied between a 5-8 count. It gave me solace to know the height of my contractions were always around a 3-4 count.
We were finally in active labor! These contractions were less than 5 minutes apart and definitely over 1 minute long. Yes! We could finally call the midwife! We called...she didn't answer. Dave left a message. I concentrated on my practice even though worry began to penetrate.
We moved to the bathtub. Water is a natural relaxer. The sensory of the water on the skin helps soothe the mind. This was a great take-away from the Hypnobirthing class.
I kept up my practice: vibration and counting to create yoga -- awareness. Yogas chitta vritti nirodha. Now I added dristi.
#4. FOCAL POINT
As your practice intensifies a dristi is needed to link you more with your efforts.
There was a crack in the tile of the tub, just a little higher than my eye level. This was my dristi for four hours. Screaming, counting and a crack in the tile allowed me to be present and hold my experience.
Of course the famous Leonard Cohen line entered my consciousness. "There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."
In between the contractions I would rest the dristi, close my eyes.
We called the midwife again. She didn't pick up. Worry crept in a little more. I said to myself: keep connected to your practice, Holli.
The most common time dristi is instructed is during balance postures. This helps to maintain physical balance and the balance postures helps us find balance in the mind.
My balance in labor was between extreme yoking of consciousness to the moment (stiram) and complete relaxation, almost like a retreating of consciousness from the moment (sukham). The contrast between these alternate states became more stark the more I dilated. The balance of effort and relaxation became more and more needed.
We called the midwife again. This time she picked up! Whew! She got the details and she would come in an hour. An hour! Okay, another hour.
Screaming vibration, counting, dristi, the balance of effort and ease -- my practice was being put to the test.
The hour whizzed by.
The midwife arrived! Instant relief came over my mind and body. She did her check up. Dave and I were waiting with baited breath to know how far we had come. We were prepared for a small dilation.
She removed her fingers, snapped off her glove and said, Okay, we're at 6 centimeters. This baby is arriving today!
Dave and I looked at each other with incredible elation! Most likely there was audible celebration! What I remember the most was his energy, his presence, his love.
How blessed I was to have Dave by my side. Every contraction he touched me: held my hand, rubbed my back, stroked my head or arm. Between every contraction he was there to hold dialogue or silence with me. He was my witness. He was part of my yoga.
As I mentioned, Desikachar defines yoga as relationship. The more common definition of yoga is to yoke. But what are we yoking with? This definition implies duality or other which requires relationship.
As you can imagine, birthing changed my relationship with Dave. The most intense yogic experience of my life burned away disagreements, past transgressions and petty grudges. In that moment, Dave and I were simply and purely love supporting love. Every touch, every word, every minute held together -- our love and purpose for union had never been more clear and never been so simple. This is yoga.
And although it didn't mean the disagreements and pettiness ceased, they haven't been quite the same. We have a new foundation. This is yoga.
The other relationship that had been developing for nine months was with Eden. At this point I felt her eagerly kicking. Most of the time this was right before a contraction. I am sure her help and her efforts were responsible for my quick labor. We all three came together in this effort. Life depending on life. This is yoga.
It was almost time to move toward the room we wanted to birth in. Not wanting to get out of the water we had a large birthing pool in the kitchen. Before we left the bathroom I sat on the toilet, a common seat for relief during birthing.
To be completely honest, one of my petty fears was crapping all over the place in front of numerous people. It was one of those child-deep fears (samskara) I had to confront, just like the intense desire for goodness.
I had strong sensations like I was going to poo, but it never happened. I knew it was a sign of Eden's progression. The midwife assured me this was the head making it's way down.
Now the contractions turned to full pushes. At this stage my uterus was the one pushing and the best thing for the rest of my body and for my mind to do was to surrender to it. I was in awe of my uterus! There was no controlling it. If I tried it would have created a negative effect -- stronger contractions and longer labor. So I gave in -- surrendered.
Screaming vibration, counting, dristi, the balance of effort and ease, pure love in relationship, confronting samskara, surrendering the ego mind -- this was the ultimate yoga experience!
We finally made our way down to the pool. The last stop. The water felt divine. I leaned back into the side of the pool and into Dave.
The thing my midwife didn't tell me (I later found out she told everyone else) was that the last stage of labor could take up to two hours! Maybe it was good I didn't know. Innocence is bliss, as they say.
My instinct was to float upward out of my lower body. (The midwife warned I would have a harder time grounding in water.) During my contractions she ordered me to ground my buttocks to the bottom of the pool as she pressed extra weight on my feet.
My instinct was also to internally rotate my hips, to close from the experience. Here my midwife reminded me to turn out and open my hips wide. Basically, she commanded me to open to my experience.
There was a part of me that wanted to dissociate, to close off and go upward into spirit rather than open to my bodily experience. This is what I had done to survive before, why wouldn't I do it now?
Many of us have felt this before in times of great intense pain or trauma. I had to make active decisions (with the help of my midwife's reminders) to not only take my energy into the lower body, into the pain, but also receive it with openness.
This process was in the breath as well. Exhale -- I sent my awareness down and body down. Inhale -- I received prana. I found inhaling very difficult. It basically required me to fully receive and open to my life in this moment, pain and all. Grounding earth yoga had never been more challenging!
The more I engaged my practice the more I progressed.
As Edie descended my uterus required more and more of my help. Hypnobirthing had me believing I didn't need to bear down and push with all my might. Again, the opposite was true.
I had to bear down with all my strength and coordinate it with my breath. Now I used powerful kumbahka -- retention of breath. As my contraction approached I took a deep full breath in and held it for a good count of 2. Then I directed all that prana toward apana vayu -- downward flow of energy. I transferred all my life force from the inhale to push with the exhale, then, very quickly, I took the biggest inhale I could, held it (kumbakha) and then used all that prana to push out again.
I did this until I felt the uterus needed to rest, meaning the contraction ended. So I still let the uterus lead me.
This last stage was the most difficult and most painful. I pushed during the contraction, employed all of my yoga and Edie's head moved down. But when the contraction ended, I rested and I felt her head retreat back. I felt like every ground I gained I lost.
Here is where my confidence shattered. But like any great spiritual journey doubt was a key ingredient.
After half an hour of the last stage, I started to believe nothing had changed. Even though my midwife assured me I was making progress, assured I was actually gaining each push, I felt as though her head never budged.
At this point I changed positions to table top in the pool. After another big contraction and giving my best effort I fell into my biggest despair. I desperately screamed, I can't do it!
Immediately I apologized to everyone in the room and particularly to Edie. "I'm sorry," I panted, "I don't want to be negative but it's not working."
Doubt is part of the design of self growth. It is essential to any good yoga path. As teachers we're taught to confront the student's doubt with love and patience. Bolstered with practice and trust in that practice, doubt can lead us to our deeper resources.
I buried my face in the side of the pool next to Dave. He leaned into my ear and said, "You got this. You're doing so good."
I heeded his words; I found the part of me that believed I was doing good. I had to acknowledge within myself I could keep doing good no matter how long this took. I turned back over, sat down, grounded into my feet, into the earth and began the last of the crowning.
Almost every chapter of The Bhagavad Gita has a different definition of yoga because yoga is so vast. Think of it like defining art.
The Gita defines yoga as great skill in several chapters. There is great skill involved in meeting the direct moment, in dissolving conditioning and acting in any given moment consciously.
As Edie's head emerged I employed great skill. My midwife told me to push and stop on a dime. Even though I could push more she instructed me to stop so that I didn't over stretch and tear.
Stop?!?!?!? Here?!?!? In the most painful part of this whole process????? Let me tell you, they don't call it the ring of fire for nothing. Not only my vagina but more so (for me) my whole sacrum was on fire!!!!
A big part of me wanted to push through, to just get it over with, but I knew in the long run following the midwife's commands and only pushing to a safe edge would be better for everyone.
We need skill of mind in our yoga poses and other aspects of our lives, particularly in the most painful moments. It is meeting that edge of pain with consciousness that can bestow greater awareness -- again, yoga.
Okay this was it! We were getting the head through with the next contraction. And as soon as I pushed she told me again: STOP! The cord was wrapped around Eden's neck twice. I held her body with all my might as the midwife unwrapped the cord and as soon as she gave me the go-ahead my whole body dropped in the pool giving permission for Eden's torso and legs to slither out.
The next thing I knew Eden -- this greyish little creature -- was in front of my face and my midwife said: reach out and take your baby.
#9. BLISSFUL PEACE
Yes, bliss became the dominate experience. Yes, there were chemicals involved. No one said chemicals weren't a part of this yogic process :) For those of us that choose to become parents, we are given the oxytocin of our lives when we hold our child for the first time.
As I held her, I purposefully, with all my life's intention, chose this towel to wrap my little one in:
Concluding this Examination on Peace and Pain...
What is the relationship between peace and pain? From my life experience, it seems they are directly related.
Sure, awareness can be a way to manage pain but it will not eliminate it. Awareness -- yoga -- helps us relate to pain in a holistic way. It creates space to know when we experience pain, however intense, it is not all there is. Awakening -- yoga -- changes the mind to see pain differently. This is why it is a darsana, or method of seeing. By changing the frame of mind and expanding around the pain rather than being succumbed by it, yoga frees us of pain's oppression and domination. Yoga is "peace of mind" in whatever the moment is offering you.
Peace is expansion, not eradication.
When we experience trauma we often freeze, fight, or flee pain. I wonder in doing so are we freezing, fighting or fleeing peace. Now, I'm not advocating for victim blaming in the slightest, but my own healing from trauma has been a process of recounting the pain and surrounding it with peace. My birth experience echoed that truth. By becoming a channel for the moment, allowing the experience to move through me while not denying the pain, I had a peaceful birth.
For many of you reading this, I'm not speaking anything new. I only hope to share how bringing a yoga practice to the birthing process -- whether it's a child, project or growing from trauma -- can grant peace.
I wouldn't have changed my birthing experience for the world. And my intention in sharing this is to help others experience a commitment to being.
All my love and with deep respect,