Mindfulness in Childbirth
By Riga Forbes, JUNO Magazine October 2017
Come back in time with me some years ago to a small rural cottage in England, late on a November afternoon. In a tiny, darkened, candle-lit living room there is a big wood-burner and next to it is a labouring woman with her partner. She is breathing deeply, eyes closed, completely focused on the rhythmic, physical process she is in.
A recording of deep vocals akin to a digeridoo sound at low volume while her partner massages her back through each tide of energy surging through her body, helping her to open more into this experience. In this space there is a quality of peace, yet alertness, of concentration, surrender, and a sense of complete dedication to what is happening.
As the hours pass midwives attend to check and support her. The dark evening embraces her tiring body and her world becomes breath, sensation and perseverance. Some hours after midnight her physical sensations are as intense as they could possibly be. She almost becomes like a wild wolf-mother as she pushes out her first child, who flies all at once into the skilful hands of her midwife. Then she rests, shocked, euphoric, relieved, cradling her tiny newborn.
In years to come I would reflect back on this experience and find deep gratitude for my body’s ability to give birth and breastfeed my baby. And I would acknowledge the bravery of women to undergo and surrender to such a powerful initiation as childbirth.
And over time, as I began working with pregnant women preparing for birth, I would return to this period of 14 hours in my life and ask questions: what helped me to be able to do this? How did I support myself inwardly? How did I perceive my birth experience as it was happening? Before exploring these questions I had to recognise from the outset that neither I nor my baby had encountered any complications during the whole process of pregnancy and birth. This blessing alone offered me a good opportunity by laying the way clear for my body to do what it did, uninterrupted and without intervention.
I was also surrounded by the perfect environmental conditions and influences: a supportive and loving partner, a warm fire and a darkened room that was my own home, over-brimming with familiarity and comfort. But there was another layer of personal preparation I am convinced played a part in the straightforwardness of this experience. Firstly, I had consciously looked into the face of my fears about childbirth and motherhood during my pregnancy and had found a way using meditative observation to know and accept these without reacting in panic.
And secondly, I had spent years exploring my inner world and was already very familiar with being in deeper states of consciousness though practicing dance, yoga and mindfulness. I believe that my whole body-mind was primed in ways that I didn’t even realise would benefit me in labour. But I know now that these aspects supported me to go deeper and to become that primitive birthing woman I needed to be.
During childbirth women can drop into a trance-like state, supported by the huge levels of hormones being secreted into their bloodstream with each surge or contraction of labour. And if we are able to do this, our labours can be significantly easier. Metaphorically speaking we can move into the darkened cave of our bodies and release ties with the outside world of schedule, reason and consequence. Darkness itself also enables the secretion of melatonin which helps the uterus to contract, and the more ‘cave-like‘ and private our environment can be, the better.
As I laboured for the first time, in my own cottage-cave all those years ago, I felt a sense of navigating between ‘thinking’ and simply ‘experiencing’ in my inner world. Everything in my physiology opened me up to just being in labour, yet because our human thinking-minds are always at work, I also found myself creating a commentary or story about my experience. And sometimes this commentary included self-doubt, fear and the desire to know or control what was happening.
Yet my training in meditation for many years leading up to this moment in my life, played a constant part in this process of navigation. I was able to step out of my thoughts from time to time and be with my body’s emersion into birth. I could easily focus on my breathing, which I used as a tool to release tension during each crashing wave of sensation. And ultimately I could rest into my labour with more acceptance, observing the physical experience in my body with some measure of curiosity. But most significantly, I was able to give birth without fear.
It was as if the practice of mindfulness had subtly woven a powerful web beneath me so that I could surrender to those endless waves without losing myself into doubts that might stall my progress, or in developing strong resistance to the physical feelings present. Childbirth is like a journey that asks you to go with it. A mother’s personal state is powerful. Her self-belief and willingness are key. The whole venture can be unpredictable, but when a mother can be her own rock in the ocean, she is in a good place and a mindful approach can offer her the tools to do this.
So as I work with women and couples in pregnancy, birth and post-birth, it is my greatest wish that effective natural techniques such as mindfulness practice can be used to support families during this delicate and formative perinatal phase. And that these can be shared widely from parent to parent, so that all of us, and our children, may continue to feel the benefit.
Riga is a birth-preparation facilitator, doula, therapist, artist and author of “Mindful Pregnancy & Birth – Nurturing Love and Awareness”. Alongside writing, she facilitates courses, workshops and groups for women, both during pregnancy and postnatally. She lives in East Sussex with her husband and two children.
The following exercise is taken from Riga’s new book “Mindful Pregnancy & Birth”, available from her website, major bookstores and online. Free audio recordings of this exercise and others can be downloaded at www.rigaforbes.co.uk
“Mindful Acceptance Meditation”
Find a quiet time and place to do this exercise, when (hopefully) you won’t be interrupted for about 10-15 minutes.
Make sure you are supported if you are sitting or reclining and try to go slowly through the following stages:
• When you are ready, close or lower your eyes, whichever works best for you, and bring your attention to your breath as it enters and leaves your nose or mouth.
• Become aware of the sensations in your body as you inhale down into your chest and belly, and as you exhale.
• Remain awake to your breathing and when you find your focus drifting away, see if you can accept this and return your attention to your breath.
• As you continue to focus on your breath awareness, see if you can begin to bring a quality of acceptance into each and every aspect of your meditation experience.
• If you notice any tension or discomfort in your body, try again to meet it with acceptance. You can still change your position to get more comfortable if you need to.
• When thoughts, emotions, memories, future projections, hopes and fears emerge into your mind, just welcome them as they are and return to your breath.
Complete this exercise when you are ready and perhaps take a moment to reflect on it. As the weeks go by, try to practice this meditation regularly and see how your relationship with acceptance develops.