As a pregnancy yoga teacher, one of the questions I get asked a lot is: “what yoga postures are good to use when in labour?’ The thing is, pregnancy yoga isn’t about learning a sequence of postures to leap into the minute you start having contractions. What it is about is learning how to move organically, learning to use the breath to connect with sensations in the body and, ultimately, learning that we are more than capable of birthing our babies naturally, should we wish to do so.
When I teach pregnant students, the aim is that they leave my classes equipped with a mental toolkit. Inside this imaginary toolbox is a plethora of different ways to move (rather than a list of static asana) as well as breathing techniques and affirmations that students have practiced and which they might want to utilise in labour. I also hope that their pregnancy practice will have left them feeling empowered, capable and confident. This means that when it comes to being in labour, even if it is their first baby, they can whip out their toolkit and experiment with its contents in a way that is natural and familiar to them.
The hope is that in active labour, we lose ourselves within the body and move and breathe in whatever way feels good. Here is some guidance on how that might look – but remember, it will be different for every woman and every birth.
- Get down on all fours
In pregnancy yoga classes, we regularly practice on our hands and knees – the most common poses including hip circles, pelvic tilts and cat / cow. In an all fours position, the baby is held in a sort of tummy hammock. It feels great for the baby as they get a nice rocking and it feels good for you too as it takes the weight away from the pelvis and lower back. This gives a little bit of relief from the physical strain of carrying a heavy baby around. This familiar position may feel like a good one in early labour and may help with back pain.
- Let gravity do the work in a squat
Humans have always used the squat position as a means of elimination so a low squat may feel like a natural position to labour in. Gravity is on your side here. You might want to try using a chair or your partner for support by holding onto his or her arms and swaying in your squat. Try different breathing techniques here too, maybe horse lips or inhaling through the nose and sighing out through the mouth.
- Find your golden thread
I teach lots of different breathing practices but the golden rule is golden thread. By inhaling through the nose and exhaling through soft and ever so slightly parted lips, imagining a golden thread or plume of smoke spiralling and spinning out of the mouth, we extend the exhalation. This long exhale provides some pain relief, focusses the mind and also allows us to send away any anxiety, carried off on the moving golden thread. But this is by no means the only breathing technique to use. Most women find their own natural rhythm, using the mind to send the breath to wherever it is needed in the body. Regular yogis may also find that ujjayi breath is useful – I used it in my own labour, especially between contractions – it felt like a natural way to keep me very much inside my own body and mind. For a yogi, this may feel like second nature and I found that using it meant I had a quiet and internal labour.
- Find softness in your body
We spend so much of our adult lives trying to tighten our bodies in a quest for toned arms, peachy bums and flat stomachs etc. As a result, I find that encouraging students to soften their body in pregnancy is really difficult and often seems counterintuitive, especially to gym bunnies. But there is a clear link between tightness in the body and tightness in the cervix – particularly tightness in the face and jaw and tightness in the cervix. We need to soften our whole body to birth our babies. Pregnancy is the time to delight in your curves and in your beautiful, soft, rounded body. And we need to utilise this softness in labour, letting go and releasing any holding.
- Practice acceptance
There are endless anecdotes of women labouring well at home and then almost going backwards after a stressful arrival at the hospital when they tense up and hold back. In pregnancy yoga, we talk a lot about trusting in the body and in its capabilities and hard as it might be, we need to accept what is happening in labour and go with it. Visualisations can be of great assistance here – I saw my first labour as a long hill and I imagined that my baby was at the top. The fact that I would get to meet her at the end of the hill was a certainty and gave me the incentive that I needed to keep climbing it.