- 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 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? Most people would report that it works.
What all of these situations have in common is that a physiologic change happens when we deepen our breath.
Our breath is potent.
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, with 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, such as ujjaii breath, "victorious breath", which sounds a little like Darth Vader.
So why is it so important to practice something our body already knows how to do? And how will this help with labor?
One of my first lessons in pranayama 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.
So when we arrive on our yoga mats and spend a few minutes "learning" to breathe, we are reversing years of tension and tightness that has stagnated around the abdomen. With consistent practice, we develop the habit of breathing correctly even when we'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.
After years of coaching women in pregnancy to practice full belly breathing, most who report back about their birth experience say it was their ability to breathe and focus the mind with mantras or affirmations that made all the difference towards keeping them calm and ready for whatever came their way.
Your breathing matters.
If you want to read more about the science of the breath and the positive physiological changes it can create in the body, NPR published this fascinating article a few years ago that's still relevant: Just Breathe: Body Has A Built-In Stress Reliever
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.