Prepare for the biggest event of your life…

I have been a sports nutritionist for over 15 years now and have worked with a variety of athletes over the years. I have also consulted on programmes that involve getting people doing more physical activity in their day-to-day life and have seen some fabulous transformations.

People who led sedentary lives being inspired to train for big physical challenges have come to me to plan their journey. Sometimes they have been unrealistic in that planning, and sometimes more modest than they needed to be. Whatever the scenario, even in the most ambitious of people I haven’t come across a single person wanting to run a marathon the following day without any prior training. Why is that? Clearly, because even a suggestion of the sort is ludicrous – how can you? The effort required by the body to run 26.2 miles is not something you can take lightly. The adaptations that the body needs to go through in order to sustain this level of activity takes months of training. Your muscles adapt to the sheer repetitive pounding; your blood vessels and other tissues respond by increasing their capacity to do more work; your lungs need to get more efficient, and most, importantly your mind needs to be prepared for the event by being able to assimilate all the physical experience of training and projecting a positive outcome for race day, so that you don’t feel incompetent and experience failure, dejection or even depression when the training gets hard.

People don’t enter marathons without understanding that this will require preparation and months of sacrifice in terms of eating right and training hard.

Yet we expect pregnant mums to ‘run the marathon of their lives’ without any systematic and goal-oriented training. They turn up at labour wards needing to exert the same level of physical exertions (if not more), with much higher levels of mental anxieties and the added emotional rollercoaster that they are perpetually on whilst being pregnant. Is it any surprise then, that we ask for pain relief and other interventions when our bodies are going through the most physically challenging moment of our entire lives? I am not for once suggesting that pain relief doesn’t have its place during childbirth; what I am arguing instead is that perhaps the need for them would drastically reduce if we put into place the preparation that is required to physically birth a human baby.

Epidural anaesthetic use is now at almost at 36% in our country, with almost double that in the US, and even higher in some other countries such as Mexico. This does not merely speak of medical advances in helping women manage their labour, but a generation of mothers now scared of childbirth.

I see these anxious mums on a weekly basis. They have all the right intentions for their birthing journey but very little guidance on how to convert the anxiety of childbirth and fear of unknown into something powerful. We start off with mums wanting to come and relax and reduce anxiety of their high emotional journey of pregnancy. But, somewhere along the way, they get physically strong; the deep squats, the planks, the downward dogs and the balancing postures – they all add up. I start off conversations in the early weeks with terrified women who fear childbirth, but end up with birth stories of wonderful resilience, of grace, of valour and of that true and deep emerging wisdom that comes from knowing yourself, your body and your capabilities.

Being an integral part of this transformation of women has made me a passionate advocate of talking about ‘training for childbirth’; just like we do for marathons, just like we do for climbing the Everest. It bothers me that we can’t see the parallels, and it bothers me even more when people celebrate their race achievements, but we as a society completely ignore and overlook the issues, the obstacles and the need to appreciate what women go through during childbirth.

In fact, it’s only recently we are even talking about physical activity during pregnancy. We do so now, even in 2017, with trepidation. If we are to bring down the rates for C-sections, epidural anesthetic and other pain relief medication use during childbirth, then addition of sensible and appropriate physical and mental preparation should be part of routine antenatal care. Simply saying it’s okay to exercise during pregnancy is like saying it’s okay to train for a marathon. The message needs to be louder, clearer, directed and more goal-oriented. It is not just okay to exercise; it is important to do so to prepare for the ultimate physical event of a woman’s life. Just like any other race, we need to get to the finishing line knowing we did the best we could for ourselves and our babies and, in turn, setting that positive example for our daughters.

This is the only way we can come out at the other side beaming with self-confidence and that strength of character that defines our demographic group.

There is a wealth of information and preparation materials here on MummyYoga. Start your journey of motherhood with the right information, slowly assimilating the positive knowhow of past generations and weave it into your birth story. Your birth belongs to you… your baby…your body and above all how you respond to your unique journey.

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The Due Date saga.

“When are you due?”

How do you answer this question?

a single date? A week window or even more vague?

The politics, the science and the cultural weight of the “due date” escapes no pregnant mum.

The other issue is the due date is also a holy grail for your care providers. This statistical little figment that is plastered all over your notes is so ubiquitous that it’s not possible to think anything else other than this one date in the calendar.

Here is the real low down on when will your labour actually start.

It’s your baby that will determine the start of your labour. The foetus’ lungs are filled with fluid when in the uterus and in order for the lungs to be able to successfully breathe in air, it will need to open and close without collapsing when air is drawn out. The fact that our mature lungs do not collapse in on themselves when we exhale is due to a funny soapy protein that the cells within the lungs create. The new born can only start to create this special surfactant protein from around approximately 36 weeks onwards. This is also the reason why it’s so challenging for premature babies to breathe.

Once this protein in created in the foetus lungs, it signals the maternal system to initiate labour. The early signs of labour is a reduction in the anti-inflammatory hormone progesterone. Progesterone is what keeps your pregnancy and a drop in that hormone is a signal towards birth. Since birth is a stress response created by your body, less progesterone helps in establishing this process.

So when the cocktail of baby hormones, mother’s hormones start to align, then birth initiates. For some women it starts around 36 weeks for some it could be a little later than 42 weeks. It’s a range and if you bear this range in your mind whilst letting people know when your time is due, then you will not feel the pressure of this ridiculous one single day that is in your notes.

Keep calm, keep relaxed, listen to your birth preparation audio guides and baby will let you know when she/he is ready to breathe freely without your help in the big world.

Ina May Gaskin and her “Sphincter law”

Declaration: I Love Ina May, her spirit, her passion, her tenacity in the face of critics, her sheer will power to fight the existing status quo and above all her ability to believe in womankind at a time when it wasn’t so cool to do so. Still isn’t, is it?

Ina May’s book Guide to Childbirth was one among many resources that helped me become confident about my first birth. I was a terrified 30 something year old, too busy with my life and career when I got pregnant in 2013. At this time, since my adolescence I had struggled with period pains so bad I couldn’t attend school and college for the first day or two every month. Then in the big bad world of career progression, I started taking stronger and stronger painkillers to get me to work when I couldn’t manage. So the thought of giving birth was a most terrifying one. I too like most women assumed this will be the mother of all period pains to endure in order to receive the gift of a child. Maybe that’s what people called the “passage”.

So I set upon preparing for this mammoth task like the way I approach practically everything, reading as much on the topic I can lay my hands on. Slowly, very slowly I realised my fear could be tamed as there was another way. In that journey was a gem I discovered, “your body is not a lemon, It is important to keep in mind that our bodies must work pretty well, or there wouldn’t be so many humans on the planet.” Now this sort of thinking; simple, logical and linear appeals to the scientist in me a lot.

I started reading more Gaskin. Then, I came across something termed, “the sphincter law” what this law proclaims is that all spinchters in our body behave the same way, are voluntary in their opening. Particularly these statements below describe Ina May Gaskin’s sphincter law –

  • Sphincter muscles of both anus and vagina do not respond on command.
  • Sphincter muscles open more easily in a comfortable intimate atmosphere where a woman feels safe.
  • The muscles are more likely to open if the woman feels positive about herself; where she feels inspired and enjoys the birth process.
  • Sphincter muscles may suddenly close even if they have already dilated, if the woman feels threatened in any way.

The issue with this “law” is that there are hundreds of sphincters in the body. Some voluntary, as the anus (actually even here the internal anal sphincter is a smooth muscle and not under voluntary control, only the external anal sphincter is under voluntary control) and a lot of them involuntary like in the blood capillaries. Not all open at the same time (well you would certainly not want that!) and not all care for privacy.

Another issue is that, neither your vagina or cervix is a sphincter. I will simply repeat this for clarity and confirmation, not effect… your cervix is not a sphincter. The cervix dilates as an effect of the cervix contracting and effacing from its top end.

The cervix cannot open and close like the anus. However, the idea that dilation may reverse is a possibility that has been documented. This is true even in animal kingdom where a potential threat may slow/stop and in some cases even reverse labour.

This threat and its effect on labour is not associated with any sphincter. It’s a physiological response to threat that is also rather involuntary in action. The outcome of course is detrimental in that the beautiful high oxytocin drenched physiological response to childbirth will now be taken over by the flight or fight hormonal cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol.

It’s not that Ina May is wrong on the outcome of fear and threat based childbirth journey, it’s just that her limiting and erroneous use of medical terms means this wonderful message of birthing from a place of love and security gets discarded by medical professionals who get more stuck up with her inappropriately used terminology.

So let’s stop calling this the “sphincter law” and perhaps just spread the message on birthing from a physical, emotional, mental and physiological safe, secure, warm and above all loving place.

How do we get fat? You ask. 

Today I revert to my beginnings. I want talk on health, nutrition and wellbeing more broadly than yoga. After a few chats this week surrounding losing weight/fat, getting fitter postnatally after the new born phase is over, I thought it was a good time to bring up some basic physiological underpinnings of getting fat.

Almost everyone you know can tell you a million ways to lose body fat. From the 1950s’ advocacy for smoking cigarettes to yesterday’s newspaper there is a weight loss article to read. But if you understood how we get fat (no, not the simplistic idea of calories in and out), and how the body works to store excess energy, then hopefully despite all the faddy diets and exercise regimes you can reverse-engineer your body composition to a more healthy level. That has been my premise for twenty years now in maintaining healthy body fat levels, despite having a strong familial predisposition to be obese. So, in this post I am going back to basics. But before I start let me just say, once you know something that is only the beginning; the big prize goes to those who act on the knowledge. Remember the post on habit forming?

In this story of fatal attraction, there are two suitors and one princess. The handsome hunk is called muscle tissue and the ugly ogre is called fat tissue. The princess is sweet and delicious (even a slice of wholemeal toast eventually breaks down to sugar!). The princess secretly likes muscle, but muscle is such a Casanova, he is always hanging out with many girls. So the princess has no choice but to cosy up with fat. The End.

You see, our muscle tissue is the storage pot for all energy we eat. The size of the pot depends on the amount of muscle you have. The more muscle you carry, the more energy you can store as valuable ‘glycogen’ (the only way a body can store carbohydrates). Any excess energy is then converted to fat and stored as fat tissue. Every time you use your muscles the glycogen in them reduces, and every time you eat it gets replenished. However, if you eat when the muscle glycogen levels are not low, then it has no choice but to get stored as fat.

So, if you use this simple principle of making sure you have depleted your glycogen before meals (physical activity) you are less likely to store the energy as fat. Another time the glycogen is low is after your overnight sleep, when the glycogen is used up to repair the body as you sleep. So the simple principle here is to exercise first and eat after.

How does this food energy get into the muscles? There is a master controller in this game of storing energy, and his name is ‘Insulin’. Every time you eat carbohydrates, insulin is sent in to mop it out from the blood (the carbohydrates break down as sugar and come into your blood through the intestines) and store it in the muscles as glycogen. The amount of insulin sent in is generally well matched with the amount of sugar from the food in your blood. Especially if you have eaten complex carbohydrates (e.g. wholemeal bread) and their breakdown has taken some time for the sugar to drip feed into your blood, giving your brains plenty of time to calculate the amount of insulin to be produced (by your pancreas). However, if you eat (or drink) simple sugars (e.g. white bread/sweets) then its panic time! Since there is nothing to digest, all the sugars rush into your blood almost at the same time, leaving your brain very little scope to calculate the right amount of insulin needed.

It is very dangerous for you to have excess sugars floating in your blood, so the brain deploys as much insulin as it can in this rush to clear the excess sugars from the blood. Invariably you are left with more insulin than what was needed, and the blood sugars drop below the optimum levels. This is the cue for the other master controller to come in – ‘Glucagon’; he is the restorer of sugar in the blood. Mostly, this is done by giving you food cravings (particularly carbohydrate) and so the see-saw starts. Eat simple sugars, and after a while you will want to eat some more. See how that bag of sweets disappears despite all the will to eat only one?! This is how you end up eating more than you need to store the energy in your muscles. The overflow then gets stored as fat instead, as we are not programmed to let go of any spare energy (in case of a famine).

The other problem with this see-saw effect is that it also plays havoc with your energy storage system, as I explained earlier, and in the long run this perfectly calculated ‘insulin-glucagon’ synergy breaks down, leading to type 2 diabetes. Once you have reached this stage, your attempts for general weight loss will also be an uphill struggle.

So, here are my top five tips on working with your body rather than against it to maintain a lifelong healthy levels of body fat:

  1. Exercise – it fine-tunes the insulin-glucagon system, especially resistance exercise.
  2. Do aerobic/endurance exercise on an empty stomach (to accentuate the effect, exercise early in the morning when your glycogen stores are low anyway, forcing you to use stored fat as energy).
  3. Eat a mixed meal after exercise, not a high-sugar drink. Meals containing protein and fat reduce the rate at which the sugars come into your blood. If you want to drink something instead of eat, try milk.
  4. Control portions, and don’t eat too often – spiking insulin levels all the time will continually keep you in the energy-storage mode, and if you don’t have space in your muscles (which you won’t if you eat all the time) then that energy will get stored as body fat.
  5. If you must eat sugar, eat it first thing in the morning or after an intense exercise session, so the insulin can drive it into the muscles.

Sounds and Emotions

#MummyMonday

Dear Rehana,

One of the things I learnt from your yoga classes is the jaw release technique when I am stressed. I cannot believe how much that has slowly helped me with my anxiety. What I have also found is that I didn’t even know how much I used to clench my jaws till I started paying attention when you mention it in class.

The jaw release technique is amazing and instant. I keep talking about it to everyone.

Thank you.

Dear xxx,

I know! I too was so impressed with it when I first started using it. I found that I recognised my stress as soon as I payed attention to what my jaws where doing! Well done for using the valuable technique outside of our class environment. This is exactly how I hope our classes can impact our lives, not just our pregnancy journey. Let me explain some science behind it all.

But first, here is a bathroom experiment for you to try. Scream at the top of your lungs as if you have seen a scary monster.Where did you ‘feel’ that sound? The pitch of the sound, did it reverberate through your head?

Ok.

Here is another, what happens when a dear friend shares something unfortunate with you? That sound that comes out of you when you hear the bad news? Where do you feel the ‘aaw’?

And the last sound. You come back home after a long day. You finally sink into the sofa and kick off your heels… that sound you make as you sink in, where did you feel that?

I would highly recommend you try these three different sounds. It is quite an amazing experience to ‘feel’ sound in your body. The vibrations your vocal cords make are not restricted to your throat.

High pitched sounds rattle your brains and make you alert, flood your system with adrenaline and you have to mostly clench your jaws to make a really high-pitched sound. The kind our ancestors would have used to alert their companions of an oncoming cheetah.

The sound you feel when you connect with a loved one is the pitch that you can feel in your chest, thoracic cavity and upper back, I guess that’s why people use the term “heart connection”

And that deep guttural sound that comes from slacking our jaws and letting go of muscular tension as you sink into your sofa can be felt in the pit of your belly. That’s a deep low octave sigh. That’s the feeling of calm, relaxation and letting go.

These different sounds are an information source of our emotional states and our hormones respond accordingly. When you hear another high-pitched sound from somewhere, you get agitated. When you can hear the compassion and empathy in the heart sound you feel connected and when you release your muscular tension with deep guttural sounds you feel relaxed.

Using the power of your sound during birth is one of the oldest tricks in the book. It’s so old that we do it instinctively. When left alone women make deep sounds while giving birth. Unlike what television may have you believe women don’t actually choose to scream during birth.

There are many cultures where women collectively sing to encourage the birthing mother to sign along. Guess what singing does? It allows you to slacken your jaws and when you do that the brain interprets the message as relaxation, induces relaxation hormones, particularly the ever-important oxytocin (the hormone that flourishes in times of love, safety and comfort). More oxytocin levels also mean less cortisol and adrenaline (less stress).

The sounds we feel is not just for when we birth our babies, it’s the very calming tool we can use whilst mothering. Our simple humming and low-pitched sounds we make to put our babies to sleep is another example of how our brains perceive sounds as proxy for emotional states.

Use your sound to change or regulate your emotions which will help you regulate your hormonal environment too and thus manage stress and anxiety.

That sacred space you can call your own.

#MummyMonday question:

Hi Rehana,

Your pregnancy yoga classes were a godsend when I felt anxious due to my past history of miscarriages. I got hooked on to that calm feeling after class. I also managed to get some home practice in when I finished work for maternity leave.

Now with an almost 7 week baby, I don’t feel I can get any time to do some yoga apart from your once weekly sessions. I love how yoga makes me feel calm and relaxed and more patient as a mum. Please can you give me any tips on how I can do a bit more in between your classes?

Xx


Dear Xx,

I often wonder what would people think if they saw my home yoga practice space? As a mum our priorities are so stretched that self care including yoga is hard to justify. The days when I have a million things tugging at me, is the day I need a bit of space the most. You are not the only one struggling to squeeze in a home practice, I do too!

When you aim for a home practice, the major hurdle I find is the contrast between what your available space can be and that imaginary ideal space. Despite a lot of #reallife images slowly emerging, our social media streams are still full of unattainable, unrealistic ideals that serve no one.

Here is the corrupted, narcissistic, egotistical instagram version we are pressured into believing is the only way to practice… that beautiful empty space where the outer space helps us reconnect with our inner peace.

How I wish this is what my own practice looked like too! Instead, I am going to dare to share with you #myrealyoga space.

Here is a photo of what my practice space can look like!!!! This is a typical day when I feel like the chores around me will slowly swallow me like a boa constrictor eating it’s prey. But at times like this, as my baby goes down for a nap, I make a choice…I let go… and sweep things to a side till I can just about squeeze a mat on the floor.

I try and find any physical space and convert it into a haven with my breath, a few drops of my favourite smell and my playlist and I am ready!

My mat becomes this wonderful physical boundary between my inner world and my outer world, that sacred space that no one can enter without permission. Some days I inhabit this space only for a couple of minutes before a sleeping baby wakes and some days I have the luxury of a good length of time. I tend not to count the minutes, just my breath.

Come to your practice without any expectation, see what it can give you without demanding from it.

Do you fear meditation? 

When you think of the word meditation, what pops up in your mind? A big banyan tree with cascading roots and a saffron robed, crossed-legged, bald guy feeling at one with the universe? Ha ha or this poised image of me whilst pregnant with Alice-Ateyka imitating the social media hysteria of meditation! This image was taken to prove the point that I would never ever mediate if this is what I would aspire to.

Meditation mostly happens while everything around you is melting in hoards of chores, screaming kids, washing-up and blog posts to write, you gently start to focus on and notice your breath. The more you focus, the less shallow it gets and the spinning world around you slows down and in the following moments, you rediscover your priorities and options?

It’s this vast chasm between the supposed look of meditation and the actual way it works that creates the biggest barriers to start your meditation practice, in my view. Rationalising our fear that stems from not being able to commit to the bald guy version of meditation, is what we do well. We have no time, no space, no flexibility to sit in the lotus posture…perhaps even the lack of dreadlocks is sometimes a good enough hideaway.

On average, 70% of adults when polled to see if they would like to do more meditation answer yes, but approximately only 6% of them actually find the time and inclination to engage in it. If you fall outside of this minority of people and think meditation is either hard, needs special mindset, is for a certain demographic, requires commitment to a place, time or clothing…then you simply need to stop going to these elitist sources of information that pretend to help you but simply make things less achievable if you don’t follow the rules. Unfortunately, the internet has made everything into a competition these days. If you fold your pizza the wrong way there are social media repercussions. It’s so easy then to feel that, unless you sit in absolute stillness like this celebrity who clearly finds it effortless, any of your feeble efforts can’t be the real thing.

My first advice to anyone who asks me about meditation practice, is to not make it into a “thing”. By this I mean, it’s not like the habit of brushing your teeth, that without the right room and the right equipment it’s not possible. Meditation is already a part of you. You take it along wherever you go, even when you are totally oblivious of its existence inside of you. It’s with you in the shower, it’s with you at the supermarket, it’s with you when your child lies down on the pavement and rolls on his white shirt… more like your hands are with you all the time. If you need to carry something, do you have to remember to take your hands along? The reason you don’t think about the use of your hands is because you are an expert at using them. You have got that way as a result of constant use and exploration of this tool/equipment from infancy. By the time you are a two-year-old, using your hands is a breeze. Just as a thought experiment, think of that infant/child who would be exposed to meditation techniques the same way – would they think twice before employing this powerful stress diffuser when they need it most?

So, just like that infant who is exploring their hands, don’t wait for the right cot mobile to get started; get started now! So, stop reading for the next few minutes, look away from the screen once you have finished reading the instructions, and get started right here in the middle of this blog post along with tens of others.

Close your eyes

Start to notice how your belly sways with your breath

Ignore that little voice that says your breath is not long enough or deep enough

Notice your belly rise and fall

Start a count — one for every time your belly rises

Stop at 10 counts

If you didn’t get to 10 without your mind starting to wonder what’s for lunch, then thats fine. Go back to it again in a few hours, even minutes, and see if you can get to 10. Once you get to 10, don’t increase the count; just increase the frequency of your practice. Doing three sessions of 10 counts will achieve more than one session of 30 counts. The longer you stay with 10, doing it more frequently, the better your foundations of meditation will be.

When you get started, try to set the stage for your mind by practising your count in a low-stress situation. Once the mind consolidates the low-stress connection with your breath count, then every time it hears your counting it responds to the situation as if it were low-stress. A perfect trick to use at the supermarket meltdown situation – your brain will not know the difference.

So you see, despite all the jazz about nirvana and eternal bliss, at the core of meditation lies a tool for everyday situations: simply teaching your brain to respond to something with the same calmness that you would need to apply when you are building a house of cards. If you are a Poirot fan then you know this life lesson already. Whenever he began doubting his capabilities or was lost for inspiration (which, by the way, is so easily blocked by stress), he would calm his nerves by building his card tower. It’s the same breath control for both activities. It’s the same technique of training your mind to respond calmly and not react as you would in the adrenaline-filled, stressful conditions.

If you have been postponing trying meditation, and this post has encouraged you to try, I would love to hear your experiences. Let me know what happened when you tried it for the first time, let me know what happened the tenth time, let me know where it takes you.