Fighting with our 'selves'
How about if we all slowed down, took one step backwards, and BREATHED - Like really breathed?
How about if instead of always going to max capacity - always pushing ourselves to 100% - we tried out going to simply 60 or 80%, and see what that feel’s like?
And what if, instead of constantly reaching for something better, striving to be something or somewhere else, we stopped - still - and explored what’s already here, NOW?
Perhaps, maybe, in this slowness, this stillness – this space inbetween ‘being here’ and ‘getting there,’ we might actually learnt to love ourselves, and appreciate life, a little bit more - TODAY?
This is the philosophy that informs J.Brown’s Yoga School in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and I had the pleasure of practicing with J and some of his teachers at the Abhyasa Yoga Centre whilst I was visiting New York last week. His flexible, authentic, approach really rang true with me and the space I found in his classes helped to illuminate and consolidate some of my recent ponderings on the direction that the birth preparation world is going in.
For those of you who don’t know already, I’m currently working on a new and fruity antenatal programme with one of my best mates and (about to be) PhD-level Midwife, Julia Clark aka @birthupnorth. We’re trying to pin-down what’s a bit lacklustre in the birth prep world and create something more punchy, modern and authentic, that really speaks to the millenial Mamma.
What’s Yoga got to do with it ? Learning from The Slow Yoga movement.
J.Brown’s approach is part of what some are calling ‘the slow yoga revolution.’ Rather than any constant striving or pushing for external goals outside of our current experience, J’s practice method is about focussing on what’s here, in our present experience, using Yoga to appreciate and enjoy life today.
His teachings can be broadly summed up by his «gentle is the new advanced» philosophy, which seeks to shift the focus of Yoga to a breath-centred practice, helping us to truly slow down and take care of ourselves.
Sounds good right ? And it is – that’s the thing. It really DOES make you feel truly excellent.
So it got my juices flowing on how we might bring some of these principles to birth preparation, in an attempt to make it a bit more ‘gentle’ and realistic too.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN ‘GENTLE?’
« The idea of having to ‘get there’ IS the problem…that creates this idea of lack. Trying to ‘find something’ implies that you don’t already have that something that you’re looking for’ *»
By gentle I mean kind, tender, loving, compassionate, humane… lenient, understanding. I don’t mean meek or docile or delicate, in the flowery, whimpy sense.
A gentle approach shifts away from this cycle of harming ourselves and each other. It allows you to feel how you actually feel – in all it’s complexity – and not how you should feel or should be instead (if only you were better and a bit more like Deliciously Ella or some other chick on instagram that looks like she constantly seeps Joy out of her tits).
In acknowledging what is actually here, we send love, acceptance and compassion to all of that. Experiencing our thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they are ; accepting them into our current experience rather than perpetually running from or avoiding them.
Writ large, this constant pattern of pushing and tugging with reality simply perpetuates a cycle of not good enough or ‘not there yet’ where we persistently feel that our present experience is insufficient or incomplete, that we are somehow not yet good enough or lacking.
So what about a more gentle and realistic approach to pregnancy and birth ? An approach that’s based on the acceptance of reality as it is, and focused on – as J puts it - « simply feeling better and enjoying life today ? »
Hold your horses, or WHOA MAMMA : the slow or ‘gentle’ approach
I think the question we are really asking ourselves here is what does loving & accepting ourselves –as we are - really look like? And more specifically - how would this manifest in pregnancy ?
All of these bigger, better, faster, stronger impulses are essentially rooted in self-dissatisfaction, or a dissatisfaction with the way things actually are, right now.
It comes from this mentality that we somehow have to push past something, to get ‘there.’ And this usually involves some form of concerted, strenuous effort, or even harm and self-sacrifice. It’s what J refers to as « the other side of the line. » This image of ‘there’ being some idealised version of reality nirvana whereby if we can only get to the other side of that line we might FINALLY feel better and start loving ourselves more fully.
Except we all know that this never happens, and that once we get to the other side of that line we simply start drafting out new lines, to achieve and conquer instead…
SO here’s the lightbulb : I think pregnancy and birth runs the risk of being just another part of this destabilising, erratic line-drawing process. We draw out a line for a ‘natural’ birth or a certain, particular, idealised image of how pregnancy ‘should be’ and of course we invariably fall short of it. And then we suffer .
Unless, we STOP, still, now and switch to an entirely different frequency. And I think that’s where the gentle approach has something to offer...
Experiencing Pregnancy TODAY : integrating reality
« What would it be like, if I could experience each moment of pregnancy, each stage of this new experience….with astonishment… or wonder…or awe ? »
My concern with the antenatal world, im momento, is that we’ve all become a little bit overly-obsessed and blinkered by the birth. It’s hypno-birth, active-birth, mindful-birth, positive-birth…birth birth birth birth birth.
But there’s also a whole 9 month precursor to that all important birth (which we call pregnancy in case anyone’s forgotten). And I’m not denying the significance of birth, but what I do see – increasingly - is this tendancy for women to spend much of their pregnancy entirely consumed by the anticipation – and often anxiety – of realising this fixed, future reality of their perfect birth.
In reality - there’s a whole lot more in-between. Within this 9 months - each and every minute - lie hundred and thousands of tiny, unique micro-miracle happening , day by day, and I think it’s a real shame for us to miss even some of that.
Because, that focus on the birth experience is in the future, often the way distance future. Again it is this tendancy for grappling to be ‘on the other side of the line.’ Feeding into the idea that where you are now is not quite where you want to be.
Writ large the ‘I need to be over there’ philosophy prevents you from enjoying and appreciating your life and pregnancy TODAY. It prevents you from seeing what’s good and enriching about YOUR life TODAY. Equally, it prevents us from making the time&space to nourish and accept what’s difficult or challenging for us, right now.
A gentle paradigm for life makes for a gentle paradigm for birth
Here’s the juicy bit : By building this gentle, responsive, and realistic approach to pregnancy, I think we also build the foundations for a more dynamic, flexible and realistic approach to birth too. The two are entirely complementary, and the same mindset then gradually seeps into the postnatal period; facing the realities of new motherhood gently and realistically as well.
The self that meets it's self – the constantly oscillating range of emotions and sensations day to day during pregnancy - with kindness, love and understanding, is the self that also encounters the wide range of sensations and emotions during labour and meets them too with tenderness and understanding, acceptance and curiosity too (Equally, it is the self that could eventually feel the urge for an epidural during labour and meet that with understanding and acceptance as well).
Further, it is the self that can meet the undpredictable and unknowable behaviours of a newborn baby with greater understanding, compassion, and patience...
Seen from this angle, pregnancy is, in fact, a continuum, whereby the gentle and flexible mindset you cultivate during pregancy – and life itself – eventually manifests itself in the same way during birth and beyond.
In short – the more intimately you learn to meet your daily experience gently, and with love, now, the greater your capacity to meet your birth, your baby, and your experience of new motherhood with love and undertanding too.
Isn’t this just like Hypnobirthing or Mindfulness?
« there was no seperation between their meditation practice and their labour experience. They were in a dynamic relationship to the birthing process as it unfolded, moment by moment. Like the dancer who is one with the dance, their birthing became their meditation practice. » Nancy Bardacke, Mindful Birthing
Well yeah, it kind of is. But it’s also more than that. It’s more dynamic, integrative, and complex than that : because – well – women are more changable & complex than that. And pregnant women are definitely so much more complex than that !
Some people say that hypnobirthing is actually a ‘mindful’ approach, but having taught hypnobirthing and experienced its effects I honestly don’t believe it is. I think it’s a first step towards mindfulness but I don’t think it goes all of the way. In a sense, I think we need to mix the two – and then throw in some other flavours and spices for good measure.
For me, hypnobirthing just cherry picked a few of the most essential aspects of yoga and meditation practice and bottled them up and branded them as a kind of crash diet for positive birth. But you can trace the roots of both of these schools into a much deeper and more profound practice of ancient philosophy and « ways of knowing .»
The danger I see with some of these hypnobirthing ‘post-it’ style affirmations is that they can sell you an image of how you should feel, and they can ignore what’s actually happening now. If you’re not flexible – or gentle - about the way you use them, they risk to perpetuate this cycle of the illusionary future, this pattern of always needing to somehow be or feel something outside of what or where you are now. In contrast, mindfulness focusses on what’s actually here, in this moment.
Mindfuless is simply a ‘waking up’ to the essence of life as it is, now. An appreciation and a care for the present moment, cultivated through paying attention, without judgement.
Nadia Rafat sums up the difference between a mindfulness approach and other birth preparation schools beautifully in her article here.
No Pain no Gain : How is gentle, STONG ?
The disatisfied mind will inevitably asks itself, of the gentle approach: is this enough? If I’m not pushing myself, punishing myself, stuggling, striving for something that’s outside of my current experience: Am I lazy ? Am I ‘getting anywhere? Is this enough ?
And my answer to all of you, pregnant or not is this :
Where you are – TODAY – is OK
Who you are- TODAY – is OK
How things are – TODAY – is OK
What you are -ALREADY – is enough
«Everything is perfect and exactly as it should be » in the word’s of my Kriya Yoga Teacher Shibendu Lahiri:
Here’s the switch that flicked when I reflected on the gentle approach : I think our definition of ‘STRONG’ has been utterly contorted, and we all got a little bit confused.
What about if our strength actually comes in the form of tenderness, compassion and a kind of poetic beauty that slowly, and gently uncovers each day of pregnancy – whatever it might throw at us – with understanding and acceptance, until one day we finally unwrap birth in exactly the same way.
You see, birth is like christmas, and pregnancy is like the whole month of December. If you focus your attention too much on christmas day, you’ll miss the magic of the lights, and the tinsel and the mystical wonder of the stories we tell to children about Santa….and you might actually forget the presents, or the present altogether.
Going back to our 'selves': You are already strong
TRUE LOVE, compassion and kindness seeps into everything , starting with yourself.
Here’s what I think : I think women are made to give birth. Or more specifically I think women’s bodies are made to give birth. We’ve just all become so wildly confused about that because we’ve been SO long submerged in this virtual reality of bigger, better, faster, stronger.
So I suggest that our strength, is actually rooted in this gentleness. Because women ARE stong. But we are a different kind of strong to the ‘virtual reality’ we’ve been sold. We are stong because we are tender, compassionate, and kind.
It’s by paying attention to that, cultivating that, wiring our brains to use that as our default ‘action and reaction’ that we get stronger. Not by somehow mentally or physically ‘pumping iron’ as it were. It’s by cultivating this gentle approach – to ourselves – that we tap into our utmost strength.
It’s not about becoming anything. It’s about cutting through these layers of virtual reality that we’ve been sold; that we need to be tougher, better, something other than oursleves, as we are.
Because in reality, you are already strong, you are F**cking Strong.
My darling, open your eyes to the dazzling reality of that which you already ARE; you are entirely, and unshakably POTENT.