The breath is the link between the body and the mind. In the yogic philosophy, how we breathe – long and deep or short and shallow – can affect and determine our overall emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.
Every time we breathe, messages are sent to the nervous system about the emotional state we are in at that particular moment. The breath lets the nervous system know if we are feeling stress or fear, or if we are feeling safe and relaxed. As soon as the nervous system picks up the emotional cues from the breath, it signals the glandular system to produce and disperse the appropriate hormones to the parts of the body that need them.
The two glands that work in sync with the nervous system and with each other are the hypothalamus and the pituitary glands. The hypothalamus is located within the brain, in the area of the brain that controls homeostasis, which are the bodily functions that need to be stable for our survival, including temperature control, respiration, and blood pressure.
The pituitary gland, known in the yogic tradition as the “master gland” because it controls the entire hormonal system, is located below the hypothalamus, just outside the brain and behind the nose. It has two lobes, the anterior and the posterior. It produces a variety of hormones, many of them linked to reproduction. But it is in the posterior pituitary gland where oxytocin, produced by the hypothalamus, is stored and ready to be released when the hypothalamus gives the signal.
We usually associate oxytocin, a Greek word that means “sudden delivery,” with love-making, pregnancy and labor. But oxytocin is produced and released throughout our lives depending on what stage of life we are in. The kind of parenting we receive in childhood depends on how much oxytocin our parents produced. During adolescence, oxytocin production helps us create our own social groups. As we move into adulthood, oxytocin is the hormone that prompts us to find a mate, create a sexual relationship, and eventually, make a baby or two. Oxytocin is so important to our overall development that it has been said that it “may affect behaviors and physiology to facilitate the propagation of the species.”
That’s a big responsibility for one hormone, but it is true. It is oxytocin that is produced in pregnancy in increasing amounts as the fetus matures, and it is the same hormone that eventually triggers the onset of labor and the continuation of uterine contractions that are the hallmark of labor. It is produced in its highest levels ever immediately after a woman gives birth to help create a loving bond between mother and baby. Without oxytocin, pregnancy doesn’t begin, continue or end with an oxytocin-inspired birth.
So the question is how can a woman in labor produce the most oxytocin possible to help her labor progress? The consensus is that it is through her breath. Study after study points to how conscious breathing can lower blood pressure, slow the heart rate and decrease stress. It is also clear that yoga and meditation have direct and positive effects on both mother and baby.
In her book Mindful Birthing, Nancy Bardacke, CNM, teaches an “Awareness of Breath” meditation, a simple exercise where the participant focuses all of her attention on the breath, how it feels moving in and out of the body, and how to use the breath to quiet a wandering mind. Bardacke says it is breath awareness that creates the foundation for a mindfulness practice is key for childbirth.
“The conditions that encourage your body to produce lots of oxytocin include both the external birthing environment, and your inner birthing environment, which is deeply influenced by the state of your mind,” says Bardacke. She adds that when we are in a state of stress during childbirth, we inadvertently trigger the fight or flight response and inhibit production of oxytocin just when it is needed most. But a mindfulness practice can help a women let go of her “thinking mind” in labor, and instead create a positive internal environment where she can access her more primal state, release more oxytocin and help her hormones reach their fullest levels.
Another way to access that primal state during labor is by repeating a sound or mantra to help keep the mind focused, in the case of labor, on something other than the pain of a contraction. One of the easiest sounds to make is “hmmmmmmm.” This is the first conscious breath exercises I share in my birth classes, and I often use it as a warm-up in my prenatal yoga classes. Some women are very self-conscious about making noises, so it’s a good practice for them during pregnancy. Try it right where you are. Close your eyes, place one hand on your belly, the other hand on your heart, inhale deeply, and hum on a long, deep exhale. Hum on a low note, and feel the vibration it creates in the chest, in the nasal area, and behind the eyes.
According to Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, in his book Meditation as Medicine, these vibrations can stimulate the glands, in particular, those located in the head, such as the pituitary and the hypothalamus which produce oxytocin.
“Sound currents also strongly influence the chakras by vibrating the upper palate of the mouth, which has 84 points connected to the body’s ethereal energy system,” says Dr. Khalsa. “Some of these points carry energy directly to the hypothalamus and to the pituitary.”
Ina May Gaskin agrees that deep abdominal breathing is a positive practice in labor. “It causes a general relaxation of the muscles of the body, especially muscles of the pelvic floor,” she states in her book Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. She says that when a woman is tense in her mouth and jaw, it can inhibit the cervix from opening, so she encourages women to relax their mouth and throat muscles “make a sound pitched low enough to vibrate your chest.”
The ultimate enlightenment in yoga is to develop a neutral mind, to be present in every moment, to become stillness in motion and to find peace during action. It is hard to imagine that in the very active state of labor, a woman could be any of these, yet with good support, a positive external environment, a conscious breath, and a focused sound, a laboring woman is capable of producing all the oxytocin she needs for her labor to progress without th
June Connell, founder of Happy Birth Way birth classes and doula support, is a certified childbirth educator, birth doula and yoga teacher. “If you don’t know your options, you don’t have any,” says June, whose research-based classes offer a hands-on practice of labor positions, partner support, and conscious breathing for pregnancy and labor, so that couples can choose their birth preferences based on knowledge and experience.