The Yoga of Birth

When I was 17 hours into labor, the midwife told me I had to get an epidural.

I’d been pushing for 4 hours—squatting, hands and knees, on my back with Joe and our doula pulling my thighs against my chest. I felt so powerful. All the chair poses and goddess poses and squats I’d done for nine months had my legs and back strong and capable of long holds and deep pushes. I was breathing through the pain of each contraction and letting it go during the pauses in between, just like I’d practiced in months of meditation and visualizations.

And then the midwife said that the baby was stuck, his little face turned upward and caught on my pelvic bone, and I was doing amazing work, but he wasn’t moving. The only remaining chance for a vaginal birth would be to have an epidural that might make me lie still for a bit, possibly allowing the baby to flip and descend. Otherwise, an emergency C-section seemed likely.

I felt all my power leave me like air from a sad pricked balloon.

I did all that yoga, for this?? THIS is where those visualizations got me? I’ve failed. I give up. I wanted to bring my son into the world myself, and I couldn’t do it.

I was sullen and resentful. I was angry. “Ok,” I said, in a flat, dull voice. “Whatever you need to do.”

Joe stood in front of me and absorbed the seismic shocks of my hand squeezes. (You have to stay perfectly still for the 15 minutes of epidural insertion or there’s risk of damage to the spine. I don’t have a metaphor crazy enough for what it’s like to try to stay still at 10 centimeters dilated.) I focused on the support I felt from him and the warmth in his eyes as I tried to smooth my raggedy breaths.

Rest, they told me. Try to sleep. But my mind was raging, berating my body, cursing this change in plans. Resisting what was happening and clinging to what I thought was supposed to be happening.

Just then, my friend Tara showed up. (Thank goodness for midwives who skirt the hospital visiting rules.) She stroked my hair and I sobbed out frustration, sadness, and shame. This wasn’t the way I wanted it. I couldn’t do it.

As I cried, the fog of resistance started to lift. I hadn’t wanted an epidural, but I needed one, and my son needed me to get one—what was I so scared of?

I prayed for my baby, so close to the world but not yet here. I gave thanks for all of the people gathered to help my son and me come through this adventure safely. My parents arrived and Joe told some jokes and I laughed, and felt some more self-pity fall away. Two hours later, our beautiful son was in my arms.

In yoga, we talk about how easy it is to confuse self with Self. The self is egoic; it’s all the stuff we identify with as we seek to describe and define who we are. I had attached myself to the idea of having a drug-free birth, and when that didn’t happen, I felt as if some part of me were lost. That attachment was blocking Self—the boundless, limitless life-force of which each of us is a part and which none of us can claim.

I am glad I practiced so much asana, meditation, and breathwork while I was pregnant. They helped me stay strong, healthy, and calm, and I believe they benefited my son, too. But the most important yoga of birth was not any of those. It was the moment of awareness that I was gripping onto some idea of how my birth was supposed to go, and that I needed to release my grip and open into what was. The moment of releasing my little egoic self to unite with the great, all-encompassing Self. The moment I became a mother.