MINDFULNESS DURING PREGNANCY AND BIRTH
Interview with Riga Forbes for Sussex Life Magazine by Hazel Silver, April 2018
Mindfulness can reduce the potential complications stemming from fear during pregnancy and birth. Hazel Sillver spoke to Sussex-based doula Riga Forbes, who has written a book about this empowering practice.
Having a child is a beautiful female act, which is at the heart of matriarchal culture. But whereas once many of our ancestors worshipped fertility Goddesses and viewed birth as a quiet private, sacred process governed by the mother, in the modern world labour can often be a highly medicalised spotlight moment, which many women find disempowering, and sometimes frightening.
When I came into the world, my mother had been given so much medication that she passed out and then came round in excruciating pain with no control over her contractions, and I was yanked out with forceps. One would hope that today birth is a smoother ride, but a female friend’s recent experience involved being shouted at throughout her labour by a male obstetrician.
Increasingly, many mums-to-be are turning to birth companions (known as ‘doulas’) to aid them in avoiding such hells and hopefully to have a very positive experience of labour. The doula is there throughout the birth to provide caring physical and emotional support, alongside the midwives and obstetricians who look after the important medical process.
The doula also supports the mother through her pregnancy, providing emotional support, practical information and sometimes other techniques to help her prepare for more relaxing birth. “When a woman gives birth, she naturally produces the relaxant hormone oxytocin, which enables the womb to contract, but fear and stress create adrenalin which can interfere with its work, and so may delay or complicate the labour,” says doula Riga Forbes, who is based in East Sussex.
*Riga teaches mums-to-be the ancient art of ‘mindfulness’, which means being fully present in the moment, rather than lost in thoughts or fears. “Relaxation is a woman’s best birthing tool,” Riga writes in her brilliant new book Mindful Pregnancy & Birth (Leaping Hare Press, £8.99). “By establishing a mindfulness practice, a mother can access her ability to relax…because as we work with meditation, we not only address the physical tension in our bodies and our breathing, but we also develop more awareness of the inner realm of our thoughts and emotions, where stress is generated. A pregnant woman can use this in pregnancy to alleviate fear she may be holding around the coming birth, just as she can use it in labour to reduce fear and discomfort and to let her body do its extraordinary work.”
Studies show that women who have used mindfulness to prepare for birth feel more empowered during labour, require less pain relief, and experience less postnatal depression.
There are various meditation techniques that encourage the experience of mindfulness. They can be seated or moving (for example dance or walking), but most will involve focusing on the flow of breath. Watching the breath move in and out of the body is a wonderful way to move out of repetitive thoughts, which can sometimes feel like listening to a bad radio station all day long! “Breath-focused meditation is an especially good technique for pregnant women because breathing can be used in labour to help reduce the build-up of lactic acid in the body,” says Riga.
All meditation techniques are greatly aided by a healthy diet, exercise and stress-reduction. Anyone can experience mindfulness momentarily if they focus all of their sense perception on the sensation of their body and the flow of their breath. But having a continued mindfulness practice enables this experience to deepen into a rich awareness of oneself, and that this ‘self’ exists in the present moment. And further beyond this we may encounter an experiential understanding that we are connected to everything. Another word for mindfulness is yoga, which translates as union. Maya Angelou described it simply as “all”. It is a very simple sensation of wholeness, which stems from the heart.
“The word mindfulness is often misconstrued here in the west because we are so cerebral,” says Riga. “In Buddhist culture the word originates from the term ‘Awareness’ which refers to the heart as much as the mind, so in fact to be mindful means to be centred in the heart with awareness, and therefore it is also a practice of love and kindness.”
The Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who has written several books on mindfulness, has compared the attention of mindful awareness towards one’s own emotions to a mother embracing a child: “The energy of mindfulness and concentration is the same as a mother recognising the suffering of her baby and holding the baby in her arms. Recognising and holding tenderly our fear or anger, which can only bring relief.”
Because mindfulness places us outside ego, it gives us the power to observe our strong emotions (such as fear of birth) without being consumed by them. “Having a quiet space to witness our feelings, to experience them as they are, without judging them or being overwhelmed, can also be very liberating,” Riga writes. “It can help us to feel calmer and more empowered and to develop compassion for ourselves, whatever state we are in.”
Riga’s fantastic book encourages women to take charge of their own bodies and emotions during pregnancy and labour through this mindset of self-awareness and self-compassion. Pregnancy and birth are earthy, natural experiences that can feel at odds with our fast-paced intellectual tech society. Mindfulness helps women tap into a grounded, maternal part of themselves, which is essential during labour. “When we give birth, instinctually we want to go in to a cave-like inner world,” says Riga. “Mindfulness enables us to know, and to try to create, whatever supports that.
So we don’t necessarily want lots of people in the room, we don’t want loud noises or bright lights or anything unexpected, and we don’t want to hear negative, frightening things around us. An increasing number of midwives and obstetricians are dedicated to achieving this person-centred approach to birth, and are keen to work with doulas to help the mother feel empowered in labour. Mindfulness is key to this as it encourages the self-compassion to know that our needs matter, to insist upon the environment and support we want externally, and internally to hold a calm anchor and remain in touch with our bodies, which instinctually know how to give birth.”
Riga Forbes offers one-to-one and group classes, and workshops in East Sussex, as well as online webinars and guided meditations at rigaforbes.co.uk