Nadia Raafat: Five ways to practise mindfulness in pregnancy, birth and motherhood
Research has shown that yoga and mindfulness decrease depression and anxiety during pregnancy. Now researchers are discovering that it makes labour easier too. Using the following five tools should help you stay calm and relaxed throughout your pregnancy and birth.
Presence is the holy grail of mindfulness. It means being here now, fully, in this moment, aware and awake to all that is unfolding within you. Everyone can experience mindfulness, but it is also a practice that requires cultivating. Our busy, over-active minds have forgotten how to access this deeper aspect of ourselves.
Usually our minds are ceaselessly hopping from one thought to the next, projecting forwards or backwards; planning, daydreaming or worrying about events that have not yet happened, or compulsively ruminating or reliving experiences from the past. Although a certain amount of planning and reflecting is useful, the shocking truth is that we spend up to 80% of our time absent from the present. Yet here and now is where we only ever really are. Every choice we make, every decision we take happens here and now. Everything else is a mental abstraction, a state of mind.
Practising presence or present moment awareness during pregnancy facilitates a deeper connection with all aspects of the pregnancy, from the experience of your changing body to the feelings that arise in you around it and to the quality of your connection with your unborn baby.
Present moment awareness is the key to a good labour, You remain in flow with the experience, however it is, contraction by contraction and breath by breath. Without presence the labour experience can very easily be an overwhelming experience.
After the birth, investing that time to be still and present, with your baby sleeping and feeding in your arms, lays the foundation for a healthy bonded relationship, speeds recovery and promotes a successful breastfeeding relationship.
Discover breath awareness
Breath is life
Breathing fuels the living experience. From the moment we take our first spluttering breath at birth until we draw our last at death, air flows in and out of our bodies in such a reliable manner that we become blasé about it. Breath awareness asks us to rediscover our breath.
The breath is the bridge between your body and your mind. It directly affects and is affected by your perception. Slow, deep breathing produces a calm state of mind and is simultaneously an expression of a calm state of mind. If you watch your breath for any period of time you will see that it is always changing as it reflects what is happening in your body/mind system.
As breathing occurs in the body, and the body is always in the present, breath awareness helps embody us and bring us into present moment awareness. It sounds easy, but it isn’t. That’s because the mind is very flighty and thinking is compulsive, making focusing your attention on the breath very tricky indeed. Before you know it you have forgotten about the breath and have drifted off back into your thoughts. Until we discover meditation we are essentially controlled by our thoughts.
Breath awareness is probably the most important skill a woman needs for childbirth. During labour, if you are practising breath awareness successfully, you are like a captain navigating a boat through a storm. No matter how fast or furious the contractions are, you remain steady and on course. When your body is receptive and offers no additional resistance to the process, your cervix can dilate and your uterus can work effectively to push your baby into the world, unmarred by tension and fear.
Beyond the birth there will be many moments when your patience and steadiness will be called on, whether you are breastfeeding through painful nipples or attempting to soothe a colicky baby. In these moments practising breath awareness will enable you to remain steady-minded and open-hearted instead of getting lost in unconscious stress responses.
Improve your sense perception
We have five senses, but in any given moment we usually operate from one – sight – that takes us outside ourselves to focus on the world around us, which we then organise and process through the mind.
Mindfulness asks us to rediscover the physical aspect of ourselves. This is done by awakening all the senses, especially our awareness of inner sensation and feeling.
The classic mindfulness meditation known as the body scan cultivates body awareness through the mind’s ability to concentrate using the sensations in the body as they arise in each present moment. This trains us to be with our experience fully, however it is. Whether it is blissful (such as sinking into a bubble bath) or difficult (such as handling a screaming toddler in a supermarket), you are able to witness the physical components of the experience, and in so doing inherently separate yourself from it.
Pregnancy is so physical: our calves cramp, our babies wriggle, we develop heartburn, constipation, tiredness and nausea. It’s a dress rehearsal for childbirth, which is visceral in its physicality in a way most new mothers have never experienced. Being able to contain, without resistance, all these sensations transforms the experience for us.
But it’s not just about preparing for the challenges. Embodying your experience enhances the pleasurable moments too, and improves your connection to the deeper feedback systems in your body like your gut instinct and your maternal intuition, in turn strengthening your connection to your newborn and your maternal confidence.
Acceptance is one of the fundamental attitudes of mindfulness. It means seeing something as it really is rather than as you would like it to be. It means allowing what is in your present moment awareness to be there without judgement or an effort to control it, change it or push it away.
Too often we spend time and energy denying and resisting what is already fact because it is not in keeping with our hopes, plans or expectations. How many times have you refused to believe something is true because you didn’t want it to be, or not allowed a loved one to express their truth because it was too difficult for you to hear?
Any time the mind is rejecting what is happening in the moment, there will be resistance, tension and the seed of suffering. But what you think should be happening is just a thought. Nothing more than a thought you have attached great value to.
Mindfulness teaches us to see thoughts and feelings in a wider context, as products of our own, often misguided or misinformed judgements, beliefs, desires and fears, rather than as necessarily valid reflections of reality.
Go with the Flow
Instead of compulsively seeking to fix or problem-solve reality, which is not always possible – and not always the wise solution either – practising acceptance enables you to drop your argument with what is and in so doing recognise the deeper intelligence of the present moment.
The journey to motherhood requires you to practise this skill many times as you are called on to let go of expectation and control. From accepting that your baby has not come on your due date, to the powerful sensations gripping your body, to your birth’s departure from your lovingly crafted birth plan, whether your labour is powerful and intense or long and arduous, how you cope with it will depend on how much resistance you bring. Endurance will deepen the suffering of labour; acceptance will alleviate it.
Motherhood can be deeply rewarding, it can also be seriously challenging. Usually when something is going wrong, we compulsively seek to fix it: babies not sleeping, for example. How would things be if we could allow the experience to be there without reacting or seeking to fix or change it?
Avoid judging your experience
One of the biggest discoveries people make on a mindfulness course is that the mind is always judging, breaking everything down into likes and dislikes, pleasure and pain. It’s not only judging the environment and everyone in it. It’s also judging itself. The important bit to realise is that it’s often inaccurate.
We judge based upon our – usually – unconscious conditioning. One way of understanding conditioning is seeing it as a story you have been told about yourself or some aspect of the world again and again, until you take it as true. The stories we tell ourselves shape our experience.
When we are present we are able to experience the mind in a different way. We are able to detach from our thoughts and witness the mind at work. With practice we become familiar with our judgement patterns. Because we are able to experience those judgements as thoughts arising and passing, we are able to see them without getting caught up in them, believing them and – worst of all – acting on them. This is a liberating discovery.
Pregnancy, birth and motherhood seem to bring out the harshest judges and self-critics in us all. With so many expectations to fall short of, so many possible ways to parent, the journey can be a minefield.
Mindfulness gives us the tools to find our own path, and to trust it when we find it. Practising non-judgement enables us to have compassion for ourselves when we stray from that path, as well as compassion for those who choose to walk a different one altogether.
Nadia Raafat is a co-founder of Battersea Yoga, a popular independent yoga and meditation centre in south London, and director of Becoming Mother, a mindful birth education programme. She has helped hundreds of women to manage pregnancy, stress and birth with confidence through her Yoga and Mindfulness for Birth programme.
Nadia Raafat’s DVD Yoga & Mindfulness for Pregnancy & Birth is available from
www.yogamatters.com Pictures By Emma Myrtle – Copyright and All Rights Reserved March 2016.
A recent academic study found that a single pregnancy yoga session reduced self-reported anxiety by more than 30%, and maternal cortisol rates by 14%. Newham, J.J. et al, ‘Effects of Antenatal Yoga on Maternal Anxiety and Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial’, Depression and Anxiety, 31 (2014), 631–40.
Oxford University piloted a nine-week mindfulness-based childbirth and parenting course on the back of the findings of various studies that demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness in promoting wellbeing during pregnancy and birth. Bardacke, N., & Dymond, M., ‘Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP): A health promotion model of childbirth education?’International Journal of Birth and Parent Education, 6 (2015), 34–7. http://oxfordmindfulness.org/wp-content/uploads/ijbpe_issue-6_bardacke_pep_ip.pdf