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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.

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Unexpectedly, in the wake of the Yoga Festival Toronto‘s Roundtable on ‘Yoga and Birth’, my mind has been mulling about death. The other half of this Roundtable event will take place on May 2nd, and its topic is exactly that. It’s clear that Matthew, Dennison and Scott have created a wonderfully natural structure for us to delve into what is at the heart of Yoga. Birth and death are two aspects of the same process. They interpenetrate. We found ourselves in this liminal territory by the end of Saturday night, at the place where opposites merge.

We spoke of how in order to give birth, our concept of who we are and where our boundaries lie dissolves. What is inside? What is out? What is me? What is not? We  die to who we were and are reborn as mothers. We encompass everything.

We spoke of maternal death and abortion and afterwards, in private conversations, of miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death. They are a part of Feminine experience and yet so often, they crouch in silent places full of grief and shame. As a Yoga teacher, I was once forbidden from referring to the Goddess Kali and how she reigned over birth and death. Saying the word “death”, I was told, might upset women who had had miscarriages. In the denial of the Feminine, in the denial of life, we also deny death. Between one in five and one in three pregnancies ends in miscarriage. It is such an ordinary, if I can use that word, part of being fertile and yet the social taboo around speaking about it remains. Additionally, the abortion rate in Canada is approximately 20% of all pregnancies. To speak of death in a group of women is to acknowlege what many have already experienced and what all face in potentiality. Speaking the “unspeakable” is to make our lives whole.

We spoke of how vital it is for a woman to be nurtured and nourished in the weeks after birth. While the form of that nourishment changes through time, the need for it never leaves. I’m reminded of Germaine Greer’s words that living in a body that isn’t nurtured yet is responsible for nurturing is a form of female madness. Some related statistics… 70% of the 1.2 billion people living in poverty are women; 80% of the world’s 27 million refugees are women; only 1% of the world’s land is owned by women… you get the picture. Here in Toronto, I’m aware of an emotional starvation even among women who are not lacking materially. On this level, fathers need nourishing as well. Men need men, a tribe of men, who know that loving and honouring women and children is what makes them strong. Nurturing the Feminine in all of us, we give children what they need to live and love. We get it back. Children are, quite literally, our life.

My thoughts come back to Yoga practice. Just as breath envelops movement, so life contains death. Yoga  gives us the strength to receive life and everything in it. We can embrace our beginnings, our endings and each other with less fear and more love. We can stand on the threshold with our heart wide open.

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