‘Focus on the outbreath’

Thursday night is my favourite night of the week. Not because it’s nearly Friday (though that always helps), nor because Question Time is on. It’s because it’s the night I teach antenatal yoga.

Tonight two new mums came in to do ‘show and tell’ at the end of the session. So after an hour of breathing and relaxation – none of the wrapping your knees around by your ears that the woman on the street associates with yoga – we were treated to two women grinning from ear to ear, showing off their beautiful daughters, who were both three weeks old.

I always ask the new mums what they’ve found most helpful from our classes, and what their ‘top tip’ is. And yet again, one of the mums said ‘focussing on the outbreath.’ The other woman nodded.

How is it, that culturally, we’ve totally lost the ability to use our breath to control our moods, our perception of pain, our sense of tension or relaxation? How is it that it’s second nature for a woman to ask for strong pharmaceuticals that have to be supplied by someone with a minimum of three years (and more likely six years plus) training, instead of calling on a skill that in fact she has been practising every minute of her life? How is it that deciding to call on that skill rather than opiates and anaesthetics, is somehow seen as a hippy option, even risible?

I remember asking a midwife during my first pregnancy when I would be introduced to The Breathing – spelled with a capital T and a capital B – welcomed into some secret sisterhood which involved doing something other with my lungs than what I did every day. She replied that I would know what to do when the time come, and that she believed there was no point in ‘teaching’ women to breathe because they did it all the time anyway.

I *did* know what to do when the time came, but with hindsight that came from six or seven years of intensive yoga practice that I’d begun in my early twenties, incorporating breathing techniques which had been new to me when I started. So I think that midwife was wrong.

Fast forward umpteen years and here I am, every Thursday night, re-teaching women to breathe. It turns out that even though we’ve done it every minute of our lives (all being well! And commiserations to you if you’ve skipped a few minutes, and congratulations for getting through that and still being well enough to read this!), there are a few very simple ways you can adjust your breathing enough to make a vast difference in labour – or in fact in any challenging, stressful or painful situation that you might be faced with.

Here is one of them:

Breathing slowly and consciously is also a brilliant way of connecting with your baby

Get yourself into a comfortable position. Most of the women I teach do this lying down on one side, but you could lie on your back, or sit with your feet up, or whatever works for you. Just take your focus onto your breath. You might do this by focussing on the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe in and out, or perhaps the cool in your nostrils as you breathe in, and the warmth as you breathe out. Don’t worry if your mind starts racing – that’s normal. Just keep the focus on the in-breath… and the outbreath.

Notice the two parts to your cycle of breath, and then slowly start to notice the little pause between the inbreath and the outbreath, and between the outbreath and the inbreath. You’re not holding your breath; it’s just a moment of complete stillness as the direction of the breath changes.

Then consciously deepen the breath. It’s sometimes helpful to think of your spine at this stage – breathe all the way down to the bottom of your spine, then notice the pause, and then breathe out all the way up to the base of your skull. Notice the pause. Breathe out again.

Once you’re happy here – and that’s the basis for all the breathing techniques I teach – all you’re going to do is start to count. Count with the inbreath. Then start again from zero with the outbreath. But your job is to count two higher with the outbreath. So if you’re counting to four with the inbreath, you’re getting to six with the outbreath. If you’re counting to ten with the inbreath, the outbreath lasts for a count of 12. You get the picture.

And that’s it. Like many big life-changing ‘secrets’, it’s not that complicated – or big. But its implications are enormous. Because by giving a woman this tool it will, I promise, vastly increase her chances of a normal birth. And that changes her life, and her baby’s life. It even has public health implications – less surgery, less risk of complications for mum and baby, higher chance of breastfeeding, less chance of surgery in subsequent labours, lower rates of post-natal depression, you name it.

I have had a few gurus on this journey of combining antenatal education and yoga, and one of them has to take the credit for so much – it’s Uma Dinsmore-Tuli and her wonderful book Mother’s Breath. If the exercise above worked for you, go out and buy her book, and get someone to talk you through some of the other exercises in it.

I know I have made a big promise, saying that it will increase a woman’s chances of having a normal birth. And I know very well that the evidence-base for such an assertion is shaky as hell. One of the eternal questions, when we say ‘yoginis have better births than ‘ordinary’ people’, is – well actually it’s about their mindset. Their mindset gets them to seek out yoga – and it’s not the yoga that sorts out the birth experience, but the mindset. Or phrased in another way – they’re a self-selecting group with a vested interest in the natural and they’d do it anyway.

But do you know what? Does it matter? As another one of my antenatal yoga gurus, Virginia Campbell (author of The Breathing, with Charlotte Whitehead) said, ‘well if it’s a self-selecting group, you might as well select yourself in.’

Uma Dinsmore-Tuli says ‘the outbreath is the antidote to the pain.’ Next time there’s any pain at all, then, be it a stubbed toe, a headache, a leg wax or even an emotional pain, try it and see. Focus on the outbreath.

Yes, I worked it out for myself when I had my first baby, but lots of women don’t. Unlike full-on drugs, medics, and even modern technology, I, like every single person on this planet, have my breath. And it’s a wonderful tool: a gift, even. Just those three words ‘focus on the outbreath’ could be the first steps on an amazing, life-changing journey for many, many women.



~ by Kedi Simpson on March 10, 2011.

2 Responses to “‘Focus on the outbreath’”

  1. Thursday is my fsvourite day too – thanks to RSB! About to have a couple of the mums and babies back too… v exciting.
    Elodie x
    PS. Just broke even today for the first time woohoo – 11 women and counting 🙂

  2. Kedi, I think you’re spot on. From my personal experience is say there is evidence that it contributes to a better outcome but a sample of one doesn’t count! I too thought (and was told) I’d know what to do when it came to it. I didn’t. With my first baby I panicked and ended up with an epidural. With my second, having read Ina May Gaskin three times, I ‘moo’ed my way through a home water birth with no drugs. I could feel the difference so please keep up with your crusade!

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