Like many childless women in their late thirties, I had the illusion of having control over my life, including when it came to family planning. I knew when I was going to have a baby, how I was going to have my baby, and before I’d even bought my first jar of antenatal vitamins, I had my pregnancy path all mapped out. I was going to be one of those wonder-pregnancy women who only ate organically, went for daily swims and long walks on the beach, and who experienced regular surges of creative inspiration thanks to the life-giving hormones flowing through my veins.
And then I fell pregnant. Almost instantly my plans fell to pieces. My energy levels plunged while my pregnancy hormones soared, and I was vomiting all the time. The low point came when I was 10 weeks pregnant and I was so dizzy I had to crawl to the bathroom with vomit on my nightie, before the force of the retching caused me to have a bladder accident. So much for my sense of control.
Pretty soon I began to doubt my ability to even get through the next trimester, let alone birth my baby vaginally (just wheel me into theatre and give me a C-section, please). As the vomiting persisted and my work deteriorated, I started to worry about my lack of coping. And then I started to worry about worrying.
I’d read that chronic stress and anxiety in expectant mothers can lead to adverse outcomes for their babies. For example, there’s some evidence that it can contribute to low birth weight and reduced placental blood flow, and maybe even lead to long-term behavioural problems in children. And that made me worry even more. I knew I had to do something to bring my stress levels down, so when I saw an ad in the local paper for a yoga class, I was eager to give it a try.
The class was held not far from me in the Queensland coastal town of Airlie Beach. Getting out of the car with a packet of dry crackers and a sick bag in my hand, my new yoga mat under my arm, I made my way inside the hall. It was light-filled and scented with cinnamon incense. Rainbow lorikeets chirped in the sugar palms outside and through the open louvre windows came the salty smell of the sea.
Everyone was welcoming and while this wasn’t an antenatal yoga class, Sophie, the instructor, who was dressed in loose pants and a singlet top, was happy for me to join. She assured me it was safe and said she would modify some of the poses to suit my pregnant belly. She had lived in India while she was pregnant with her daughter and credited yoga with helping her achieve a natural, drug-free birth.
Our class began with the ‘savasana’ pose, which involves lying on your back with your eyes closed. The objective is to achieve complete relaxation. At first, with work deadlines looming and my stomach on the verge of emptying its contents, I felt so uptight you could have bounced a coin off my taut muscles. But when Sophie began to speak, her docile voice washed over me like a thick, warm wave. She told us to imagine ourselves as a lotus flower, floating on water. Cool, weightless and peaceful. This visualisation worked and my muscles began to loosen.
Then she instructed us to focus on our breathing, to picture our diaphragm moving upwards as we slowly exhaled, letting our tension float away. Mine floated away so effectively I nearly fell asleep. We then moved on to some seated poses, which are great for posture and for opening up the pelvis. Next was a form of yogic breathing called ‘sitkari’ breathing, which literally means ‘tongue hissing’. We were to breathe slowly in through our mouth, while curling our tongue upwards (this creates the slight hissing sound), before exhaling through our nose. Sophie later told me this breathing technique is thought to reduce fatigue, aid digestion and help bring your body temperature down.
Of all the poses I learnt on that first day, the ‘warrior pose’ was my favourite. The act of positioning my legs on the mat and stretching out my arms gave me a feeling of empowerment and strength, as well as a sensation of opening up my whole body to make room for the growing pregnancy. Finally it was time to lay back down on our mats for the breathing and relaxation that concluded the class, and as Sophie softly spoke over the sitar music that was playing, I felt my overanxious mind had let go of all my worries. What a difference an hour could make!
Afterwards I stayed behind to chat to Sophie. She told me that yoga was a wonderful way for pregnant women to learn to relax, de-stress and regain a sense of control. She admitted that when it came to the mind, it could prove a difficult task to simply ‘shut off’ the endless chatter. So she advised me to let my mind race if it needed to, but to control the direction in which it was going. She gave me an example of when you’re trying to eat healthily but the sweet cravings are beginning.
When you start to visualise eating a chocolate bar, your saliva increases, your stomach growls and your body begins to take you on a journey that may see you face down over the toilet bowl. But this all begins in your mind and as soon as it starts you can switch the channel, so to speak, and align your thoughts to a new imagery, like the one where you can see yourself as a lotus flower, floating on water. Cool, weightless and peaceful.
Keeping calm and carrying on
For me, the mind-calming effects of yoga certainly proved beneficial. Even if I didn’t always feel completely in control, I felt more confident along the bumpy pregnancy road. When Sophie asked me if I felt yoga was helping, I was able to give her a definite “yes”. The best thing about it, I told her, was knowing that the stress-reducing effects of yoga were not just benefiting my mind, but the mind of my unborn daughter as well.
Yoga was also fantastic for when it came time to give birth. My husband, Luke, and I practised a set of moves I’d learnt from an antenatal yoga practitioner and together we were able to manage my 20-hour labour in a calm, controlled and relaxed manner. With the strength and resilience I’d learnt through yoga, and the help of my wonderful midwife, I believe I was able to avoid a caesarean, something my obstetrician later told me he was certain I would have ended up needing because my baby’s head had still not properly engaged by 40 weeks. My darling daughter, Amity Maree, was also born with extremely healthy vitals, evidence that things had been relatively easy and stress-free for her as well.