One of my (Nicole’s) first lessons in pranayama (yoga breath training) taught me that most of us breathe incorrectly. We think of breathing in like this: suck in the belly and lift the chest and shoulders. Then exhale and slump and release the belly out.
Correct breathing is actually the opposite–we are to inhale by relaxing the belly, and exhale by hugging the navel to the spine. Try it now. Place your hand on your belly and take a deep breath without thinking about it. Just notice which way your belly goes with the inhale and exhale.
Our breath is potent.
Consider these scenarios:
When a mother is in labor and her baby’s heart rate drops significantly, one of the first things they can do is place an oxygen mask on the mom’s mouth to saturate her inhales with oxygen. In most cases, the baby’s heart rate returns to normal almost instantaneously.
When we can feel the steam building in our head and heart from a sudden surge of anger or frustration, we are told to stop and count to ten. When you stop all thoughts and focus on the mundane task of counting, the body naturally first takes a deep inhale before starting to breathe naturally, and the heart rate returns to normal.
When you feel tired or depressed or any kind of “slumpy” way, what are we often told to do? “Get some fresh air”, “take a walk”, “go for a run,” etc. And if you actually do it, how do you feel? It usually works, right?
All of these situations have one thing in common: a physiologic change happens when we deepen our breath.
The more you know about it, the more you can use it to your advantage–not just in life and motherhood, but especially during labor.
Breath affects energy. In yoga, the practices of pranayama (breathing) are introduced gradually and integrated delicately into a practice. There is a deep respect for the power of breath to affect change in the body. Rapid breathing energizes the body, slow and deep breathing brings about relaxation, activating the parasympathetic system–the opposite of the sympathetic fight-or-flight system. Then, there are even breath practices that both slow down the breath to calm the nervous system and also invigorate the body. Like the ujjaii breath, “victorious breath”, which sounds a little like Darth Vader.
Why is it so important to practice something our body already knows how to do? And how will this help with labor?
When you’re on your yoga mat and spend a few minutes “learning” to breathe, you are reversing years of tension and tightness that has stagnated around the abdomen. With consistent practice, you’ll develop the habit of breathing correctly even when you’re not thinking about it. When the body is breathing correctly, you are inviting more oxygen into the body which helps the body deal with tension and inflammation.
I’ve been coaching women in pregnancy to practice full belly breathing for years. Most moms who tell me about their birth experience say it was their ability to breathe and focus the mind with mantras or affirmations that made all the difference in keeping them calm and ready for whatever came their way.
So, do you really have to practice breathing? Not really. But if you choose to incorporate slow conscious breathing into your life, especially during pregnancy and postpartum, your chances of reducing stress, cortisol and inflammation in the body are better. When your pregnant or nursing body is reacting less to stress, you and your baby both benefit.