Cathrine Mathiesen

'It is the mother who gives us breath – it is the mother who gives us life, it is through the mother’s breath that the child is nourished inside the womb, and it is through the power of the mother’s breath that the child leaves the womb and comes into the world to take its own breath.'

Uma Dinsmore-Tuli


Most of us take our breath for granted, we never really pay any attention to it or use it for what it is: the constant, faithful, never-ending rhythmic dance on which all our other physical and psychological patterns build successively. What connects our body with our spirit and our mind. Our most powerful tool to deal with anything life throws at us. Through yoga we learn to know, focus on and appreciate our breath. In yogic terms, you are measured not by how many years you live but by how many breaths you take. Longer and slower breaths translates into a longer and calmer life.

Knowing your breath is particularly useful for childbirth. If you are aiming for a natural birth you really want to be on good terms with your breath, know how to control it and make it work for you. With no pain-killers to rely on, it is your out-breath that will help you empty the body of all tension, toxins, discomfort and, ultimately, pain. We can learn to breathe all the bad stuff out with the exhalation, and to breathe new, positive energy in with the inhalation.

Before we can start controlling our breath we need to find it. So start with this this little exercise. Sit comfortably or lie down, close your eyes to be more present in your body and start observing your breath, without any judgement or attempts to manipulate it. Just get to know it. Breathe freely in and out through your nose. Notice how it feels cold when you breathe in and warm when you breathe out. Find the point on the inside of your nostrils where you feel the breath coming in, and where it is going out. Follow your breath into your body - through the nose, down the throat and into the lungs, and the same way back out again. Notice if your inhalation and your exhalation are equally long. Then slowly start deepening your breath, making both inhalation and exhalation longer, deeper and more stable. Observe the quieting effect this kind of breathing has on both body and mind. The full yogic breath is an excellent starting point for all kinds of breathing exercises and techniques, out of which I will describe two that are excellent for labour and were invaluable to me during my own.

The first one is called the Golden Thread Breath, and is perhaps your most important tool during contractions. Start with your eyes closed and your face, lips, throat and jaw relaxed (there is a link between the jaw and the cervix, so if you are able to keep the jaw soft during contractions you make it easier for your baby to descend - your partner can help remind you). Breathe in through the nose, and breathe out through slightly parted lips, as if parted only by a rose petal as my yoga teacher Tara Lee poetically puts it. Imagine that cool breeze of exhalation as a fine golden thread spinning out between the lips, and follow that golden thread into the horizon, making your exhalation long and relaxed. At the height of the contractions the breath will be faster and more determined, but try to keep it soft, don’t push or force it. Keep your lips soft too, there is no need to tighten them like a whistle. The lengthening of the exhalation is achieved effortlessly - simply because the gap through which the breath passes is so tiny it takes a long time for all the breath to get out. You might find it helpful to visualise the golden thread you exhale as being a long rope you use to climb the top of the mountain that is each contraction, or as something to hold on to as you sail through the choppy waters that is childbirth, with each contraction being tall ocean waves. The Golden Thread exhalation helps the body into a deeply relaxed state, and for that state to be mirrored by the mind.

The other breathing technique I found useful during birth to relax in between contractions is the classic yogic Ujjayi breath. This is the breath you are encouraged to cultivate when practicing yoga, especially more dynamic disciplines such as Ashtanga. It is a deeply relaxing breath that sends signals to the body to enter a deep state of rest (probably why even vigorous yoga practice such as Ashtanga can feel relaxing and meditative once you apply this breathing). In fact, it should sound like the gently noise you are unconsciously making when you are sleeping, and quite consciously making if you are pretending to be asleep! With Ujjayi you breath in and out through the nose, but it feels like the breath is coming and going through the throat. By activating the back of your throat you make both the inhalation and the exhalation longer and heavier. Although the throat is slightly ‘closed off’, keep it easy, soft and flowing.

Uma Dinsmore-Tuli writes in Mother’s Breath that ‘Ujjayi is absolutely invaluable as an immediate and effective antidote to panic.. (to use) any point during the birthing process, when fear or anxiety begin to set in, or if the peace and sanctity of the birthing environment is disturbed’. Moreover she writes ‘Ujjayi provides a rapid route to tranquility… it is as if the sound of the breath lowers the breather straight down to a place of profound peace - the foundation and peace of all comfort’. 

Using a combination of these two breathing techniques carried me through labour. The Golden Thread allowed me to stay on top of the contractions, and the Ujjayi helped me find deep rest in between them - so deep in fact, I fell asleep between the contractions, even when they were at their closest and most intense. I visualised a small deserted island in the middle of a huge calm ocean, and the Ujjayi took me there within a couple of breaths. When the beginning of a new contraction woke me up, I felt rested and ready for a new round, and the Golden Thread pulled me through the waves of the contractions. 

Back to Yoga during labour ›