Breathing for Two

Swami Hridayananda Saraswati

Prana means life-giving essence or vital force. It is within all living things and closely related to the air we breathe, but more subtle than air, being an energy essence rather than just a mixture of gases. Ayama means expansion. Pranayama is a series of techniques which stimulate and balance the flow of prana. During pregnancy and birth a woman needs every bit of help she can get because of the physical and emotional demands being made on her; therefore knowledge and practice of pranayama are invaluable.

Become aware of your breathing whatever you are doing, wherever you are. When you are calm and relaxed your breath is deep and slow, and when you are frightened or upset the breath becomes fast. Maintenance of awareness on your natural rhythmic breath can become a vital thread of harmonization which strengthens you in your emotional and physical progress through pregnancy and birth. Walk with your breathing rhythm; sew, knit or stir the cooking pots in time with it.

Breathing Techniques for Pregnancy

  1. Abdominal breathing: Sit or lie down comfortably and direct your awareness to your abdomen. Inhale and exhale deeply through both nostrils. As you inhale, feel the abdomen expanding outwards. When you exhale feel the abdomen contract and expel as much air from the lungs as possible. Centre the awareness on the navel and feel as if you are breathing in and out through it.
    Practice this technique for a few minutes every day until it becomes automatic. The benefits are: tranquility, increased efficiency of the digestive system, a plentiful supply of oxygen and good circulation. This practice also helps to develop concentration which is very useful when labour begins.
  2. Thoracic or chest breathing: Sit or lie down comfortably and direct your awareness to your chest. As you inhale feel your chest fully expanding, while exhaling feel the chest contract. Benefits are the same as for abdominal breathing but the lungs are charged with extra oxygen.
  3. Yogic breath: This is a combination of abdominal and chest breathing. Feel your breath flowing naturally and rhythmically like a huge wave on the ocean. As you inhale feel your abdomen and chest expand and as you exhale feel them relax. The more you practice the more automatic it becomes. Yogic breathing helps prevent coughs and colds. Bronchitis and asthma are relieved. Tiredness disappears and there is renewed vitality. Thinking power is improved and equilibrium develops. Yogic breathing is an essential practice for developing internal awareness of your body.
  4. Ujjayi pranayama (psychic breath): This is performed by contracting the glottis in the throat. It is a deep, soft, gentle snoring breath which is felt mainly in the throat. Although you are actually breathing through the nostrils, the awareness of the flow of breath is in the throat. This simple practice has a subtle influence on the whole body, producing calmness in the nervous system and soothing troubled minds. It is a good practice for everyone who can't sleep.

These practices need to be done in this sequence as they prepare you for the relaxation practices used during pregnancy and labour. All of these breathing techniques develop concentration and prepare the body to rest in between contractions.

Breathing Techniques for Birth

  1. Navel breathing: This is a refinement of the abdominal breathing practiced throughout pregnancy. Here the awareness is trained to feel that the breath is actually flowing in and out through the navel itself. Its particular application is in labour between contractions as a source of energy and rest. Imagine, as the breath flows in through the navel, that prana in the form of golden streams of light is flowing from the navel point all over your whole body, through your entire physical form- energizing and relaxing everywhere it goes.
    Particularly if the labour is prolonged, this practice can give incredible stamina and endurance. If practiced during pregnancy, women who have difficulty maintaining stable body temperature, or who have problems with morning sickness or digestion will benefit greatly. It helps to rebalance the endocrine system through its effect on the adrenal glands.
  2. Bhastrika: Breathing through the mouth, inhale and exhale quickly but rhythmically. Expand and contract the navel area so that the abdomen (not the chest) expands and contracts with the rhythm of the breath. Keep the breath moving gently like butterfly's wings and do for as long as possible without strain. After finishing the practice, fold the tongue backwards against the palate in khechari mudra. This helps saliva to flow, relieving dryness of the throat. Bhastrika produces a lot of heat in the body, so the next practice, sheetkari, is to cool the entire internal system.
  3. Sheetkari (hissing breath): Clench the teeth together and separate the lips as much as possible. Fold the tongue backwards so the lower surface touches the upper palate. Inhale in a controlled manner through the teeth then breathe out silently through the nostrils. Sheetkari cools the body and eliminates thirst. It induces tranquility and muscular relaxation. Always finish bhastrika with sheetkari.

These breathing practices increase the efficiency of the whole body, especially in the lower pelvic floor, the lumbar sacral region. During labour the mother will find contractions easier to handle and the baby, who is also working hard, will have more energy.

Application of the Techniques during Birth

As labour begins, maintain breath awareness throughout, concentrating on breathing through the navel between contractions and into the beginning of each contracts As each contraction begins, start the gentle bhastrika pranayama (panting through the mouth), increasing the intensity of the practice to keep pace and cope with the severity of the contraction. As it eases, move into sheetkari and then navel breathing, allowing the whole body to relax. As second labour begins - when the head has begun to emerge from the uterus into the birth canal - there is very often an alteration to the pattern of contraction with a sensation of confusion at its peak and strong urges to bear down. It is important to make a supreme effort to hold back at this time. Do not push. This holding back from pushing voluntarily is to ensure that the cervix is fully dilated - when this is the case you won't be able to stop yourself from pushing. The pranayama acts as a source of strength and awareness at this time. From this point on you will find yourself doing the bhastrika automatically as the vagina finally stretches to allow the emergence of the head.

Yoga teaches you to become aware of conscious energy. Systematic and regulated breathing practice will not only help the mother in terms of providing her with extra oxygen and energy during labour, but will increase her awareness and sense of harmony with what is a very wonderful moment in her life.

She can be mistress of her emotions and her physiology because she has the capacity to completely control and direct the life force to flow where she wills. Prana is the light in the child's first home - the mother's body.

Note: These techniques are best learned under the guidance of a competent yoga teacher. They also have application in terms of relieving premenstrual cramps and also abdominal pain and congestion.