My introduction to yoga and subsequently the world of pregnancy and birth began when I arrived in London in 1969 from South Africa. I immediately got swept up in the first wave of enthusiasm for yoga coming from India. I found some wonderful teachers including B.K.S. Iyengar and began my study. I became a vegetarian, and as there were hardly any decent vegetarian restaurants around in those days, 3 of my girlfriends and I decided to open up a vegetarian restaurant in St. Johns Wood. It was an amazing place and became a hub for writers, psychotherapists, actors and musicians as the famous Abbey Road Studios were just down the road. We were the first to serve macrobiotic food, sushi and tempura as well as the full range of vegetarian and vegan fare.
The night Mr. Iyengar came to have a meal was one of the highlights. I also began to teach yoga. In 1973 my now husband John Stirk walked into the restaurant for a meal and one and a half years later our daughter Sarah was born! In the 70s, natural birth was in trouble. The quite recent move to hospital birth had become very controlled. Women were being induced the day after their due date, we were confined to the bed during labour and continuous monitoring sent the C-section rate way up.
So we decided to have our baby at home with John, my midwife, my girlfriend and our two cats in attendance. It was the birth of my daughter that sparked my career in pregnancy and postnatal yoga and Childbirth Education. During labour I was never frightened as I had my team around me and through my yoga practice I trusted that my body would do its job if I let go to it. My breath awareness was key to keeping me steady and calm. We managed to get through what was not an easy birth as my daughter was in the posterior position. However the outcome was a joyful experience and left me elated and confident in my ability to give birth. I felt compelled to pass on what I had discovered to pregnant women so that they too would have the possibility of giving birth with confidence by trusting in their own bodies.
I started taking pregnant women into my general classes and soon realised that teaching pregnant women was a totally different ball game and needed my full attention. I started one of the first yoga for pregnancy classes in London in my front room in Maida Vale. No one was specialising in yoga for pregnancy classes and it was such a joy as the news spread, to be on the cutting edge of what has now become a common phenomenon. Over the years my life’s work became and continues to be the development of a style of yoga which is appropriate and beneficial to pregnant women. My aim has been to see them through their pregnancies, prepare them for labour and birth and restore them back to normal after the baby is born.
Many of the women who came to my classes in the 70s, 80s and 90s gave birth at home. Those who preferred to go to hospital started requesting not to be confined to the bed, but to have the freedom to move around instinctively during labour and give birth in the upright position. It was partly through my campaigning and that of my colleagues plus pressure from the women themselves that gave rise to the birth centres which are nowadays part of many hospitals especially in London.
Over the years I have trained scores of yoga teachers who specialise in pregnancy and postnatal yoga and who are also fully qualified as childbirth educators and bring this education into their classes.
Teaching yoga to pregnant and postnatal women is a dedication and not just an adjustment to a general yoga class. Physically you are working with a totally different human being in every sense. You are passing on confidence and trust as well as lowering fear levels, which is indeed valuable work. You are working with two intimately connected people and the effect you have on that relationship is profound and this spreads out into the family as a whole.
Breathing, essential to life and birth, is the core of my classes. Over the weeks through the practice of simple breath awareness, visualisation and sounding, women become familiar with the natural rhythm of their breath and increase their ability to focus inward. The repetitious nature of this work is a form of self-hypnosis. When practised in simple yoga postures ‘hypnobreathing’ leads women into their “zone” – a meditative state which is perfect for labour. This practice is healing and calms the busy mind during pregnancy, clearing the way for each woman to listen to their own intuitive voice. When the time comes and the body takes over during labour she will instinctively know how to use her breath to soothe, steady and guide herself through the waves of contractions and breathe herself and her baby to an easier birth.