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visionLife is one.  That’s the message I got from Ina May Gaskin last Friday night in Ottawa.  It’s the message of Yoga too.  The action of Yoga is to surrender your breath to the Whole/Ishvara.  Your whole body participates in the flow of Life.

It was a clear fall day when Isabel Perez and I drove from Toronto to Ottawa.  Blue sky touched red and orange leaves and the pink stone cliffs beneath them.  The vivid colours reminded Isabel of the great quantities of brightly dyed sawdust she helped her family make when she was a child in Guatamala.  People bought the material at Christmas time to decorate their handmade nativity scenes.  Isabel’s memories have merged with the Canadian landscape and have added another layer to my perception of it too. 

Isabel and her family came to Tennessee in the 70’s so that she could train as a midwife with Ina May.  Our journey to Ottawa was a brief reunion.  Ina May was the final speaker at the Breech Birth Conference.  It was billed as a storytelling event.  Ina May is a wonderful entertainer.  I spent most of the evening laughing.  Her stories were of the link between childbearing women and other mammals.  How we share the one process of Life.  

Ina May said she loves old books.  They are often sources of lost knowledge and alternate frames of mind.  In an 18th Century medical textbook , she found suggestions for relieving milk engorged breasts that included an “intelligent maid” and a cooperative goat.  This was in an era before the invention of the breast pump.  Intelligent, cooperative husbands were the standard solution on the Farm, she said.  In the weeks before his baby was able to latch onto the breast, Ina May told of one skinny vegan man who blossomed in his efforts to build and maintain his wife’s milk supply.  Breast is indeed best.

In order to give birth, the primal brain stem, the part of the brain we share with all living creatures, must be freed from the tyranny of the modern, rational brain.  In order to give birth, we must surrender to our animal selves.  It is in this surrender that we experience love.  Images of the direct connection between animals and us are in the media now.  Perhaps we are remembering our link with Life.  Ina May mentioned the photo of Tori Amos suckling a piglet.  I happened on the less provocative but very beautiful mixed media exhibition of Gregory Colbert, entitled ‘Ashes and Snow’ which opened in Venice in 2002 and has been touring the world since.  The photo of the boy and the bird at the top of this post is one of Colbert’s. 

The audience for Ina May on Friday was a young one.  I felt quite ancient in its midst and quite delighted.  I have hope.

orchidWhen we give birth, we open so completely that our centre dissolves.  Our cervix melts.  Our belly becomes utterly soft.  In this receptivity the boundaries between our baby and ourself are magnificently transparent.  Breastfeeding sustains this unity while helping our body to regain its strength and realign around an expanded centre.   While the uterus needs about six weeks to return to the size of a pear, connective tissue needs about a year to regain its pre-pregnant state and the transformation that happens in our heart is forever.  In the most literal sense of the word,  post-partum isn’t a limited period of time after birth but extends through the rest of our lives. 

An uncomplicated birth initiates us into an awareness of our wholeness.  Obstetrician Michel Odent says women enter an altered state when they give birth.  We experience  a physiological transformation that ensures we are able to give and receive love.   When the process is interrupted by major medical intervention, the integration is also interrupted.  A woman experiences the spiritual aspect of birth without being able to process the intensity of it through her body.  In the case of a ceasarean section, dis-integration happens not just because of the physical trauma of surgery but because a woman loses touch with herself, with her source. Integration will need to take place after the birth rather than through it and the early weeks of motherhood will likely be a particularly vulnerable time.

One in three women who give birth in Toronto today will do so by caesarean.  It is such a common event and yet as a society we don’t honour the immensity of the experience or the multi-layered healing that needs to take place afterwards.  Every woman needs deep nurturing after giving birth but after a caesarean this is especially so.   I met a woman a few days ago who has gone through two caesarean births in the space of three years.  She said her children are happy, her husband is happy but two years after the last birth, she is still in pain.  While not a usual situation, it is not an uncommon one either.  After talking to her and seeing how she breathed and moved, it became clear that she has yet to recover the connection to her strength that was severed in the course of two major abdominal surgeries.  As a place to begin, I gave her some simple Yoga to do every day. 

When the ujayi breath is the inspiration for movement (see previous post) Yoga engages and strengthens precisely those muscles that were most stressed during pregnancy and birth: the pelvic floor and abdominals.  In a caesarean, the abdominal muscles aren’t merely stressed, they are cut in two.   A reconnection of above and below needs to happen in order for the body to regain its fluid strength.  When it does, the spine aligns and the internal organs, including the bladder, uterus and intestines, find their place.  A linking of above and below is also necessary for our heart’s equalibrium.  When softness and strength balance each other, we feel good.  

In a caesarean birth, a woman’s body doesn’t get the opportunity to complete the full birth process and her participation is restricted to that of a witness.  Mind and body separate and “hormones of love” don’t flood through her system like they would in a spontaneous birth.  Sadness and grief are a natural part of the time after birth but they can be a particularly strong reaction to the parameters of a caesarean experience.   As the baby isn’t brought immediately skin to skin with the mother when it is born, more time and support to establish a satisfying breastfeeding relationship might be needed. 

Having someone in the recovery room who can unwrap the baby and help latch it to the breast in the first hour after the birth can be a great help in bringing mother and child together again.  I do this in my role as a doula.  It is a great source of comfort to have your newborn suckling at your breast even as your body is coping with the immediate effects of surgery.  I often see vital signs in the mom stabilize as soon as she and baby are reunited in this way.  Oxytocin and endorphins flow; Life moves and all is well in the world.  Getting consistent breastfeeding support in the subsequent days and weeks is also invaluable.  It is a mother’s relationship with her child that is her primary Yoga.  Connected to each other, both find their strength.

In traditional societies all over the world, it’s recognized that mother and baby flourish when the mother is completely cared for in the first forty days after birth.  She needs warmth on every level: a warm, quiet, space; hot food and drink; warm baths and gentle touch.  Nurtured, she can nurture in return.  While our urban, technological environment suggests otherwise, we need no less.