Pranayama is an essential part of yoga and there are probably as many pranayama techniques as there are different styles of yoga. What we have to remember in pregnancy is that not all breathing techniques are suitable for expectant mothers. Any pranayama that includes forced exhalation, or controlled retentions beyond the natural rhythm of the breath, are not suitable practices in pregnancy or the postnatal period. These techniques lock the pelvic diaphragm, making the pelvic floor muscles tense. This is counterproductive when it comes to childbirth. In labour, the mother needs to be able to relax the pelvic floor muscles, so that she could deliver the baby to this world by using a minimal amount of pushing and shoving.
Adopting the full and deep breath
The most important advice regarding breathing is to “go with the flow”. Whatever the pranayama technique is being used, the most important thing she should feel is the easy flow of her breath. There should be no holding or gasping of the breath. A pregnant woman who has no previous experience on pranayama should start the practice from the basics. Good practices for a pranayama novice involve the simple observation of the natural rhythmic cycle of the breath, and becoming aware of how the breath flows in and out through the nostrils.
It is Important to familiarize yourself with your own breath, and learn to feel when the breath is full and when it is not, and the effects of full and not full breath on your body and mind. After becoming aware of the natural rhythmic cycle of the breath, its focus can be directed to the location within the body where it is felt. This helps to notice whether the breath is superficial or deep. In superficial breathing, the breath stays in the upper lungs and chest whereas deep breath is created by using the whole breathing capacity, expanding the entire rib cage. Only after reaching this state of awareness of the breath, can a person start deepening and lengthening the breath. In the first and second trimesters of pregnancies, the focus of the breath can be the use of diaphragm. Later in the pregnancy, the breath awareness should be directed into breathing at the back of the lungs, ribcage, and belly. It is also good to learn how to notice the small pauses after each inhalation, before the exhalation begins, and after each exhalation before the next inhalation starts again. It is Important that the breath is not being held during these small natural pauses, but just to make a mental note that the pauses exist. This makes the pranayama practice more profound, and takes the breather deeper into their own inner world. This way the breathing becomes very meditative and relaxing. In a hectic life it is very calming to notice the absolute silence that each of these pauses contain. It is mentally important to realise that even if the outerworld is sometimes loud and chaotic, you can just close your eyes, consciously breath, and find your own inner peace and silence.
The Golden Thread Breath
The Golden Thread breath is considered to be the most valuable pranayama tool for pregnant women, due to its focus on the exhalation to ease the body into deep rest. This is a way of practising the kind of breath women usually adopt in the first stage of labour. The Golden Thread breathing can be practiced either sitting or lying down. When practiced lying down, you are more likely to fall asleep. In this breathing technique, the inhalations travel through the nostrils and the exhalations through the very small gap between the lips. The gap should be so small that it is barely visible. As the gap between the lips is so small, it takes longer to fully exhale. Should the breather feel that her breath is becoming harsh and difficult, she can make the gap between the lips a little larger, so that the air may travel out faster. The long exhalation, the soft cool breeze of air on the lips, and the image of the golden thread exiting through the lips makes this breathing technique very calming and soothing. Every exhalation takes the mental attention farther and farther away, making it travel completely out of the body. Being able to deliver the mental attention away from the body helps deal with the strong first-stage contractions.
Maybe one of the most used and known pranayama practices is called the Ujjayi breathing. In this breathing technique, the breath flows through a narrowed glottis, making a soft and audible sound. Ujjayi effectively slows the breath by helping make the inhalations and exhalations longer. When practiced regularly, these lengthened inhalations and exhalations help reduce high blood pressure. Ujjayi also reduces feelings of anxiety and panic, making it an effective breathing technique also in labour. Ujjayi offers a fast ticket back to tranquillity when fear or anxiety set in during the birthing process. The long and deep Ujjayi breath is also very calming and relaxing not only for the expectant mother, but for the baby in the womb as well. The Ujjayi breath has a calming and quieting effect upon the movements of a restless baby inside the womb. Some women find this breathing technique so enjoyable, that they use it throughout their pregnancies and labours, whereas others find Ujjayi discomfortable. Listening to the audible sound of Ujjayi breathing helps stay more focused on the breath, because the mind has something more concrete on which to focus. The sound makes it more difficult to forget the breath, preventing the mind from wandering. Ujjayi can also be used to help with insomnia. A few rounds of soft and long Ujjayi are already calming and restorative.