Active Birth Movement is about ‘listening to your body and being in control’
- Credit: Archant
The downward dog is the last position you want to be in when giving birth – but that doesn’t mean yoga isn’t good preparation for labour.
That’s the message of Janet Balaskas, pregnancy yoga pioneer and founder of the Active Birth Movement.
Back in 1982, when a woman was prevented from giving birth on all fours at the Royal Free Hospital, it sparked a protest on Hampstead Heath in favour of “active birth”.
This is where the woman is upright and mobile during labour instead of lying on her back, a position which is more convenient for medical staff but requires the mother to push out her baby against gravity.
Balaskas spearheaded the demonstration, which was attended by thousands and marked a turning point in her life.
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It was also a milestone in the history of childbirth in the UK after she set up The Active Birth Centre in Bickerton Road, Archway – the original centre for pregnancy yoga.
She says: “Back then, all women were giving birth passively on their backs. There was no other way. Anything else was completely revolutionary.”
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Balaskas was determined to challenge conventional thinking – and succeeded.
Her methods would bloom into the Active Birth Movement. She would write 11 books on the subject, including the celebrated New Active Birth, and train hundreds of experts and midwives across the country.
Today, NHS ante-natal classes routinely espouse the active birth philosophy, encouraging women to stand, kneel and move about during labour.
Stools, birthing balls, beanbags, hanging ropes and birthing pools have become commonplace on labour wards across the country and in dedicated midwife-led birth centres – with epidurals and caesarean sections used as last resorts.
Balaskas says pregnancy yoga is used to prepare the woman’s body and mind for an active birth.
“A woman giving birth shouldn’t be passive. She can follow what her body tells her as long as she’s not pinned down and can move around.
“It’s about listening to and trusting your body and being in control and comfortable.”
Balaskas admits when she started the campaign she “knew nothing about childbirth”.
“But the more research I did about childbirth through the ages, the more I realised we are made for giving birth in the upright position which is what other cultures have been doing for thousands of years.
“It’s just our culture which is in favour of women lying down and being passive. But it’s not natural.
“When it comes down to it, we are mammals and the birth process takes place just like it does with other mammals.
“But the medical environment inhibits natural birth. What we need is a more mammalian environment.”
What started with Balaskas and three others challenging the orthodoxy by practising pregnancy yoga in the 1970s, has now become mainstream with hundreds practising the ancient discipline in preparation for birth.
The Active Birth Centre near Archway, the place “where it all started” in the 80s, and which Janet describes as an “oasis”, offers a range of pregnancy yoga and birth preparation courses as well as postnatal classes, baby massage and breastfeeding sessions.
Pregnancy yoga involves practising birth moves and postures such as “the cat”, “child’s pose” and squats.
It strengthens the expectant mother’s muscles to help her to adopt active birth positions, take control of breathing and free her mind from the inevitable fear that can ensue over labour pains.
“We’ve all heard horror stories [about birth] and it makes for anxiety and fear which is the enemy of a good birth and exactly what you don’t want.
“Above all, you need to learn to relax. The more you learn to relax and follow what your body tells you, the better chance you have of a good birth.
“All you need is an open mind and to listen to your natural instincts.”
“Watching One Born Every Minute, you can see that active birth is becoming more and more common,” Janet adds.
“It is now chosen in about one in four births. We don’t need to protest anymore, we’ve made our point but we just want people to spread that education now.”