I remember one moment very clearly in our birth course at the hospital: the nurse had just explained the process of birth. The contractions, how the baby descends, all that good stuff. My husband looked at me and said “The uterus is a big muscle? This is going to be so easy for you! You’re so strong”.
And in fact, that was the “running” theme throughout my pregnancy. People would look at me, comment on how in-shape I was and assure me (with some random confidence that they had) that birth would be so easy for me.
Turns out, it wasn’t. I won’t go into to any traumatic birth story or detailed description of how my labor went because I strongly believe that my birth story will have zero to do with anyone else’s birth story. I believe that we’re only pushed further into a competitive place when we are constantly told about how easy, how fast, how simple someone else’s birth was and pushed further into fear when we hear about how painful, how traumatic, how out of control others were. Mine was mine and that’s about it.
However, those comments did get me thinking, especially now, in anticipation of my second birth experience, about whether my body was “too strong” for birth and what, if anything, I could do about it. Confused? I’ll explain.
In pregnancy yoga, especially in yoga teacher training for pregnancy yoga, we discuss the pelvic floor a lot. We guide our students through breathing exercises to relax and strengthen the pelvic floor (you may have heard of a variation of these by another name, Kegals). My yoga teacher in particular, talked a lot about finding the balance between strength and softness for pregnancy and labor. I think it’s a tricky balance to attain.
We need to be strong to face labor. Most first labors aren’t short and most aren’t casual walks in the park. It’s also completely new and depending on where you’re giving birth, it can be a stressful situation. Moms need to have stamina for birth and being in shape can certainly help with this. But moms, we also need to be soft as well.
As explained to me by my yoga trainer, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, to whom all credit for inspiring my knowledge on this goes, birth is not something that happens due to tight muscles and brute force. Birth is a process of opening, of relaxing and of letting your body naturally push your baby out. So, if during pregnancy we spend the majority of our time getting stronger and fitter but ignore learning how to relax through our pelvic floor and manage our breath, we probably won’t have a nice balance between soft and strong when our little one tries to arrive.
What can we as moms-to-be (or as in my case, second time around moms-to-be), do to make sure that we’re moving towards this balance? Well, for one we can focus a bit of time and energy on learning about and working with our pelvic floor muscles. What are the pelvic floor muscles exactly? Well, they’re the layer of muscles that support the pelvic organs and they cross over the bottom of the pelvis. You can think of them as the muscles that hold up your bladder, uterus and bowels and they help control bladder and bowel functions (including gas!). Weak pelvic muscles are one of the reasons why during and after pregnancy, women oftentimes find that they are unable to control their pee!
Working the pelvic floor muscles during pregnancy is not just about tightening or strengthening these muscles but also about learning where they are exactly and how to allow them to relax. This ability to relax and soften the pelvic floor will be key during labor. Instead of how it’s depicted in the movies, during the “pushing” phase of labor, you will benefit more from softening through the pelvic floor muscles than you will from trying to “push” or tighten them.
How can we achieve this softening? By practicing throughout pregnancy with various breathing techniques. I like to do the following with my students (and myself).
Starting on your hands and knees, open your knees wide and bring your toes together. You can rest your head on your hands or on stacked fists (in yoga, this is generally referred to as Child’s Pose).
Start taking long, deep breaths and imagine your breath going all the way down to your pelvic floor.
We want to imagine three separate parts to the pelvic floor. For simplicity, we will refer to them as the “front”, “back” and “middle” of the pelvic floor.
Focusing on the “front” of the pelvic floor, which is the urethra (i.e. where you pee from), imagine that you had to pee. On an inhale, tighten through the front of the pelvic floor, just as you would if you were holding your pee. Exhale and release. Repeat this with 4 more full breaths.
Now, focusing on the “back” of the pelvic floor, which is the anus, imagine that you have to do a tiny fart. On an inhale, tighten through the back of the pelvic floor, just as you would if you were holding that little fart. Exhale and release. Again, repeat this with 4 more full breaths.
Finally, focus on the “center” of the pelvic floor, which are the walls of the vagina. On an inhale, tighten through the center, just as if you were lifting the walls of the vagina up into yourself. Exhale and release. Repeat with a final 4 breaths in and out.
You have now worked on isolating the three parts of the pelvic floor and in addition to becoming aware of each section (and strengthening them a little), you have also practiced relaxing them. You can start working on your pelvic floor at any point during your pregnancy but try to be consistent in your practice. I do these exercises during every single pregnancy yoga class that I teach so my students can benefit from regularly practice. Once you get the hang of it, you can take this practice anywhere. No one will know you’re doing it but you!