As soon as one contraction ended, another began. The pain erupted from beneath my hip bones and a twisting, angry heat spread in all directions: up into my hardened belly, down to my bare legs, and out through my arms to my fingers, which were clenched into fists at my chin.
I asked the midwife, Renata, when I could have something, anything, for the pain. I had always expected that, when the time came, there would be some kind of medication. But labor rarely goes as planned, and in the moment – that wretched, unbearable moment – there was nothing safe for me to take. My baby girl was lying on her umbilical cord, and every time I had a contraction, her body and my body squeezed against the cord in a deadly embrace that pinched her only connection to oxygen. Drugs might have slowed, or even stopped, her natural impulse to breathe on her own once she was born.
Renata held my hand and rubbed my back. She pressed a cool cloth to my forehead, while I wondered if my child would survive. With each spasm, I filled my lungs and exhaled, over and over, like a surfer riding wave after wave.
I had learned how to breathe five years earlier, in a yoga class I signed up for after the World Trade Center towers burned and crumbled before our collective eyes. I had been a newspaper reporter then, writing stories about the people who died and the spouses and children they left behind. Quickly, the stories of loss had all become too much to bear. The images of people jumping from burning skyscrapers had taken my breath away. I wanted to go inward, to shut my eyes for a while. So I found a yoga studio, where the walls were the color of Nantucket hydrangeas and the candles smelled like lavender.
The teacher, Karen, was a petite woman with a soft voice and a graceful manner. She moved deliberately, with more awareness than I had ever seen in one person. Near the front of the studio classroom, I unrolled my mat alongside the other students and sat cross-legged, waiting for something I couldn’t name. Inner peace. Serenity. I didn’t know what.
The first thing Karen showed us was how to slow our breath by matching the lengths of our inhalations and our exhalations. Pranayama, she called it. Controlling the life force. It felt unnatural at first, but after a few moments, breathing seemed more like undulating – smooth and rhythmic, circular and endless. I could feel it and hear it. I could trust it.
I went back every Saturday, settled onto my mat and found that familiar pattern. We moved through the asanas, or poses. Some were challenging; others seemed nearly impossible. Just breathe, Karen reminded us. The trick was to keep a steady breath even when things got tough – when the room was hot, when our muscles were tired, when our minds were telling us to quit. Breathe in and out. Be full, then empty. Take it in and let it go. Continue Reading…