It's probably fair to say that yoga breathing has been one of the best discoveries for anyone looking for effective pain relief and a way to cope with labour.
It requires your body to make physiological changes during labour, such as stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system (the part of our nervous system which allows us not just to survive but to function day-to-day and enter states like sleep and rest). It also stimulates the production of feel good hormones like serotonin and oxytocin, both of which can be particularly helpful in easing any fear or anxiety you might have about labour.
You may not think pranayama - yoga breathing techniques - sound particularly interesting, but they're surprisingly powerful at helping you manage the intensity of contractions . Many yoga breathing techniques are similar to Lamaze breathing, with a few tweaks that make yoga breathing more effective. Since yoga breathing is so useful in labour, it makes sense to practice before you give birth as well. In this blog we'll explore some of the most important techniques that will really help you manage pain and fear during labour.
The yoga breathing technique Anulom Vilom is similar to Lamaze 'relaxation breaths'. It's the same type of breathing you might use in yoga class when you're moving through a deep stretch or if you've been holding your yoga pose for too long. When practiced during labour, it can be extremely helpful because it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and encourages your uterus to release oxytocin, which reduces pain levels. Not only does this lessen the severity of contractions by reducing their intensity, but it also gives you time to rest between contractions so that they don't hit you all at once.
Anulom Vilom pranayama is very easy - just start by breathing in for 4 silent counts, then exhale for twice as long, making a whooshing sound.
The yoga breathing technique works well with the contractions you feel in labour because it's not too rushed or forceful - this allows your body to respond accordingly without becoming overwhelmed. And since yoga breathing is performed at a steady pace , it can be used throughout all three stages of birth to support the process.
NADI SHUDDHI PRANAYAMA
Nadi shuddhi pranayama is similar to Anulom Vilom pranayama in that it encourages oxytocin production and reduces pain levels. However, it's much more dynamic than Anulom Vilom so requires a little more practice.
Nadi shuddhi can be used to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, balance out the hemispheres of your brain and ignite feel good hormones like serotonin. It is incredibly efficient at balancing your mind and body, which encourages you to stay present during labour while calming you down.
To practice nadi shuddhi yoga breathing, start by inhaling through both nostrils. Then hold your breath for a couple seconds before exhaling through one nostril while closing off the other. The cycle should then repeat - inhale through both nostrils again, hold for a couple seconds and release through one nostril while closing off the other.
Nadi shuddhi yoga breathing can be used for all three stages of birth - but you're most likely to find it useful during transition, which is typically when women are experiencing their worst pain. It really supports women during this stage because yoga breathing encourages your body to produce feel good hormones like serotonin and oxytocin. When combined, these feel good hormones can help you stay present in labour without focusing too much on the pain leading up to pushing .
Ujayi pranayama is yoga breathing that's performed through both nostrils with a slight constriction at the back of the throat to create an ocean sound . This yoga breathing technique is best suited for the second stage of labour - pushing.
Ujayi pranayama yoga breathing uses the diaphragm to encourage downward motion, which helps open up your pelvic floor. It also encourages you to make sounds continuing the ocean sound during yoga breathing rhythmically stimulates the vagus nerve, which is what's responsible for activating your parasympathetic nervous system.
An added benefit to ujjayi yoga breathing is that it requires you to breath deeply into your abdomen instead of shallowly into your chest or shoulders. That means that this yoga breathing will help with optimal oxygenation and pain management throughout all three stages of labour.
Shanti pranayama yoga breathing is performed by exhaling deeply while closing off your left nostril with your thumb. Then, after inhaling through both nostrils for a few seconds, close off your right nostril and hold for a couple more seconds before exhaling again and repeating the process by closing off your left nostril.
There are several yoga breathing techniques that can be used throughout labour, but shanti pranayama yoga breathing has the most variety of applications. It's often used in yoga classes to help students relax and prepare for meditation, so it makes sense that this yoga breathing technique would also encourage relaxation for birth.
When you're in the transitional stage of labour, shanti yoga breathing is great option because it encourages your body to produce feel good hormones while activating parasympathetic activity.
UDGATAN VATI KRIYA
Udgatn vati kriya yoga breathing can be used when your midwife, doctor or childbirth educator tells you to stop pushing and breathe. Although the name of this yoga breathing technique is associated with deep belly breaths, any slow paced yoga breathing will help at this point because holding your breath should not be an option anymore.
When it's time for you to push, make sure each yoga breath lasts long enough for your baby's head to crown - which means that udghatan vati yoga breathing is ideal for this stage of labour because your yoga breathing should be a little slower and deeper than usual.
AMA VRTTI PRANAYAMA
Sama vrtti pranayama yoga breathing isn't recommended until you're fully dilated, but it's best to use yoga breathing techniques that encourage equalising the pressure in your body - like sama vrtti pranayama yoga breathing - when you feel like all that is left to do is push.
From the deepest point of your yoga breathing, exhale while contracting your perineum muscles, then wiggle your toes and try to relax everything in between them. Only when you're completely relaxed should you allow your baby's head to crown and use yoga breathing techniques that aim at equalising the pressure in your body to help with this stage of labour.
Although yoga breathing can be used throughout the entire process of childbirth, using yoga breathing techniques that encourage relaxation or deep belly breathing will probably be most helpful during transition, when it comes time for you to push and before your baby is born .
However, all yoga breathing techniques have a similar goal - they're supposed to keep you focused and present to help labour progress while you stay calm. If you're looking to practice breathing techniques we highly recommend Prenatal Yoga classes from 12 weeks onwards, as well as workshops like our Active Birth to explore these techniques and more. Have questions about what courses or workshops might be best for you? Give our Coorparoo Prenatal centre a call on 07 3061 5050 - we would love to chat to you!