This is another in a series of book extracts by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli that we are publishing on the yogayoga website.
• If you are interested in further reading, we stock a small selection of Uma Dinsmore-Tuli’s books at the studio.
Golden Thread Exhalation
By Uma Dinsmore-Tuli
Golden Thread Exhalation
The most valuable tool to promote relaxed awareness and acceptance, this breath focuses attention upon the exhalation to ease the body into deep rest. It is less a ‘technique’ than a way of becoming more aware of the power of the natural, easeful breath. It is basically a way of practicing consciously the kind of breath that many women adopt instinctively in first stage labour. With each exhalation, you can let go deeper into healing stillness. The Golden Thread works well in any position.
How to do it
Let a natural flow of breath, and a respect for the rhythmic breath cycle be the basis for this breath, so that you tune into a gentle pattern of breathing that is effortless. If you find it easy to do the Breath of Life (full yogic breath) then use that as your starting point. Sitting up or lying down works equally well for this breath but be aware that if you practice lying down you are more likely to fall asleep. So choose your comfortable base, and then:
Take a yawn, release jaw, throat and teeth. Close the eyes.
Have the teeth slightly apart, the lips slightly apart – just enough of a gap that you might imagine a piece of tissue paper or tracing paper held between the lips.
Watch the easy natural rhythm of the breath.
Allow there to be a very small gap between the top teeth and the bottom teeth, between the top lip and the bottom lip. It’s such a small gap that it’s practically invisible.
Breathe in through the nose.
Breathe out between the lightly parted lips.
Feel a fine cool breeze passing out between the lips.
Have the cheeks, lips and face relaxed.
There is no pursing or holding the lips. They are soft. Feel the breath now travelling in through the nose, and out through the mouth.
Allow the breath be so fine that it feels as if a fine golden thread is spinning out between the lips. It’s a thin, golden thread, like embroidery yarn, smooth, and silky, soft and supple, and it is spinning out and out and out and out with every exhalation.
Allow the exhalation to lengthen each time, without pushing or forcing, but simply letting the out breath increase in length, as the golden thread of breath spins out into the air in front of you.
With each inhalation allow for the breath to go in through the nose and out through the mouth.
Feel the breeze of the exhalation travelling out between the lips, out into the air, in front of your closed eyes.
Because the gap between the lips is so much smaller than the two nostrils, through which the breath usually leaves, the exhaling breath will naturally and inevitably lengthen. Its exit route is now very small, and so it takes a long, long time for all the outgoing breath to leave through the little gap between the lips.
Allow the focus of the mental attention to travel out with each breath. Let the end of the golden thread carry the mental attention farther and farther away with each exhalation. It is as if the final point of the out going breath were carrying the mental focus completely out of the body.
While staying within the comfortable limits of your comfortable easy breath, the longer the exhalation, the farther out the mental attention travels, and the further out the attention travels, the more the body can relax into a quiet, mind free space of healing and ease. The longer the exhalation, the more distance there comes between the mind and the body, and the body is left to its own quiet healing space. The exhale is an antidote to pain and tension. The extended exhalation makes this antidote more powerful. The longer the exhalation, the more effective this breath is as a form of pain and anxiety management. So allow the golden thread of the breath to travel out as far as is comfortable for you, and let the body make a voyage back to its natural healing state of rest and ease. When the awareness is at the outer end of the long, long exhale, then the body can rest.
The heart of this practice is softness. You are not pursing the lips, or making them tight as if to whistle. The lips are perfectly soft, and the breath which passes out between them is perfectly gentle. The lengthening of the exhalation is achieved effortlessly: simply because the gap through which the breath passes is so tiny, it takes a long time for all the breath to get out. There is no sense of force; you simply watch the breath lengthen, following it out into the space in front of you.
This should be an entirely effortless breath. It should feel completely comfortable and soothing. If it feels as you are struggling with the breath, or as if it’s difficult to exhale, because the gap is too small, then simply widen the gap between the lips and allow the breath more space. Find the size of gap that works for you to make the exhale feel good. Then continue to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth – letting the golden thread spin out and on with every exhalation.
Since the Golden Thread works well in any position, including lying down in bed, then if you find yourself labouring well in a side lying resting position there’s no need to move, just use this breath in whatever resting position you find the most comfortable. If you find that at this stage in your labour you are more comfortable upright and walking about, then use the breath as you move about.
Some women find that the addition of a simple hand gesture enhances the effects of the Golden Thread breath. To try this out, turn the palms of the hands upwards, it’s a simple gesture of acceptance. You may like to use a mudra such as apana mudra – a hand gesture that brings the middle and ring fingers to touch the tip of the thumb – this is to promote the downward flow of energy – the energy of childbirth. The pressure at the fingertips can be very light, or quite strong, depending on what suits you. Be aware of the contact between the fingertips and thumb tip on the exhalation. If you don’t feel comfortable with the mudra, then just let it go.
If you have trouble sleeping during pregnancy, this can be a helpful breath to help you wind down and rest well: for this it works best if you keep your mind focused on the breath by counting at the end of each exhalation. If you count down, for example from eleven to zero, it can feel as if each breath lowers you deeper into rest. If you’re still awake, then count back up to a higher number, and then count down again. If still awake then roll over and repeat the process lying on the other side. Occupying the mind by linking its focus to the breath in this way can help you to enter a restful state even if you are not fully asleep. Used in this way, the golden thread breath can be very soporific. You may even find that it helps you drop off to sleep in early first stage labour, between contractions.
First stage of labour
This is the application of Golden Thread breath about which we get the most letters. Here are some examples of the typical comments our students make:
‘The golden thread breath was a great way to not focus on the pain and would recommend it to anyone else to try. In fact the breathing exercises throughout really helped more than anyone can imagine’ (Amanda).
‘I had the birth I dreamed of and delivered in water at St Thomas hospital after a 4.5 hour labour. I had no tearing and Ava has taken to the breast well so no problems with feeding either. The Golden Thread breath was my friend through every contraction!’ (Sarah).
‘Baby Jai was born last Wednesday 8th February at 10:50am ... I wanted to let you know because I managed a 17-hour labour with no pain relief and lots of Ujjayi breathing and Golden Thread breath which I learned in yoga! My partner and I also went to one of your birth rehearsals and found it really helpful in getting us through the labour’ (Veena).
During the first stage of the birthing process, when the cervix is thinning and opening, this is the breath which eases most effectively through the uterine surges. Many women find it helpful to visualise the golden thread of the breath as pulling them safely through the surges, which can be seem either as steep mountains, where the grip on the breath is the rope that helps the climber move up and over each peak, or as ocean waves, with the golden thread guiding the sailor or surfer up and over the crest of each wave.
Knowing what we do about the breath/heart rate connection, we can understand why the Golden Thread exhalation has such a relaxing and quietening effect upon the body. It also serves to occupy the mind, sending attention out of the body, and away from the focus of the intense sensations within. It is a potent breath, which allows for the body’s deeply relaxed state to be mirrored by the mind. If the mother is relaxed enough to tune into her instinctive inner guide as to what can most help her during the birthing process, then some version of this Golden Thread exhalation will probably arise quite naturally. The yoga practice just helps it into being.
This is the breath that most of our students find they adopt during first stage labour. Nicola’s story of the birth of her first baby is a very typical tale of this application of the breath, with a surprise additional use for the practice post-natally:
‘I had a baby girl, Emma, on 20 January at home … I am pleased to say that I had a good labour (as good as childbirth can be) and was told that my nineteen hours were a good time for a first birth. I have to say that nineteen hours was still a very long time for me. I wanted to let you know that the main thing that got me through that day was my yoga and particularly the Golden Thread breathing. I also used this to good effect for super yogic expressing [of breast milk] as Emma and I had to spend a few days in hospital afterward as Emma has problems feeling.’
While Nicola’s story lets us know how helpful the Golden Thread breath can be for the mothers, Krista’s comments emphasise the value of teaching the breath to whoever will be providing support during the birth:
‘I just wanted to thank you for giving Peter and I a private birth rehearsal a couple of weeks ago. Noah Benjamin arrived safe and sound at home one week earlier than expected (on 25th Feb) in the pool in our sitting room after an apparently 'text book' labour. I managed to stay pretty focused throughout, helped enormously by breathing as you taught me. Even if Pete did have the giggles at the rehearsal he kept reminding me about the 'Golden Thread' the whole way through and could see that it worked!!’(Krista)
Punctuated Golden Thread Exhalation
This variation on the Golden Thread exhalation helps the out breath to lengthen.
To extend the exhaling breath easefully lowers the body deeper into a resting and healing space. Even within this pattern of extended exhalation, the rhythmic breath cycle is still respected, and as much of the full yogic breath as feels accessible is used throughout.
How to do it
Be in a comfortable position.
Follow the instructions for the standard Golden Thread breath, and establish a comfortable rhythm.
Then simply alter the exhalation so that it comes out with some little pauses along its length. Exhale – pause – exhale – pause – exhale – pause.
Divide up the breath in whichever way you find easiest.
So instead of there being one continuous thread of breath, one single extended exhalation, there is now instead a series of pauses along the length of this breath.
Exhale – pause, exhale - pause, exhale – pause.
It’s as if the breath was a sentence, and the pauses are the commas.
Put in as many pauses as feels comfortable along the length of the breath.
The breath should still feel comfortable – so don’t over-do it on number of the pauses – just as many as feels easy.
The effect is to further extend the exhalation, and to deepen the effect of the out breath as the antidote to pain.
Feel the breath passing out through the lips in a long fine straight line, as far away as it will comfortably travel.
Or, visualise the out breath passing out now in the shape of a corkscrew, spiralling round after every pause. Start with just one spiral, and then extend the number of spirals as you increase the number of pauses along the length of the breath.
Now it is as if the breath is exiting in a spiral – like a corkscrew.
Exhale around every loop of the corkscrew, and pause before breathing round the next loop in the descending spiral.
Perhaps each loop gets smaller – exhale round the loop and pause, exhale round the loop and pause, exhale round the loop and pause, until you reach the end of the corkscrew – the point.
Keep the breath coming in through the nose and out through the mouth – in through the nose, and out through the mouth.
See which image works best for your length of breath – the long straight line with the pauses, or the corkscrew with the pauses. Choose the version that fits best with your length of breath.
You may discover, if you are using this breath over a long period of time, or if you are using it to help you cope with pain or difficulty of any kind, that the size of the Golden Thread changes. Many of our students report back to us that the breath began with a very fine thread, but ended up growing thicker and thicker, transforming itself from thread to string, to skipping rope, until it resembled one of the heavy steel hawsers that moor gigantic ferryboats to the port wall. When we allow for a breath practice to help us through intensity, we give it permission to take on its own life, in a form that suits our needs at that moment. It’s as if we start by learning the basic theme of a piece of music, and then, in performance, are free to improvise, to respond to the momentary inspiration and create something new. The basic method is just a starting point, and once you are familiar with it, then you are free to rely upon it to work for you, and to create whatever you need from what you have learnt.
This variation has many of the same applications as the standard form of Golden Thread, and seems to be especially helpful during established first stage labour, when the thinning and opening of the cervix is well under way, and a lengthened exhalation is of especial benefit. It keeps the mind focused outside of the body, and the extension of the out breath gives the physical body a chance to come into its resting and relaxed mode. The conscious but easeful continuation of the exhalation also promotes an acceptance and welcoming of each uterine surge.
Punctuated Golden Thread with silent count-downs can also be a very helpful means to accompany babies and young children on their journey to sleep. It’s a practice I have used a lot, but my most vivid experience of this breath in action was at a lively gathering of the Healing Field camp in Somerset, when I was having trouble settling my youngest son to sleep. He was barely two years old, and had found the arrival and the setting up process really far too exciting. All the other Healing Field people had arrived, and the site was buzzing with the sound of old friends meeting again, and singing, and chat and children’s laughter. Abhisheka was so tired that he didn’t know what to do with himself. His older brother had long since surrendered into a deep sleep, but Abhi was troubled, and alternately weeping and fighting sleep. I was finding the whole experience as difficult as he was, and began to be eaten up with crossness and angry resentment about the sounds of all the revelry outside. I started to head off down a dark mental pathway marked ‘It’s all everyone else’s fault. Why aren’t their children asleep in their tents? Can’t they stop making all that noise…’. Things got worse. I stopped, realising that my own resentments and discomfort were some of the obstacles to Abhisheka’s sleep.
Turning back from my journey towards further resentment and crossness, I chose instead to lay down beside my restless child in the tent. I held him, and began to breathe a long, slow audible breath. Abhi listened to the soft sound of it. As the exhale lengthened I began to calm down, and so did he. As I extended the exhalations further I began to put the pauses along them, and then to spiral the breath around loops, from one pause to the next. Abhi was softening into quietness, and so was I. Something in me needed to measure out what I was doing, to count it down, to put a limit on how long I would lie there doing it, and so I began to count down the pauses, starting with eleven and intending to work down to zero. But I never got to zero. By the time I reached four, Abhisheka was asleep amidst the noise, and my angry resentment had vanished. The breath I had breathed for him had worked for me too.
Golden Thread with affirmations
Many women find that it is helpful to accompany the pauses in the breath with positive affirmations or resolves which they repeat silently to themselves. For example, it is useful to use the pauses in the breath as a way to remind yourself to remain focused in the present moment, by mentally repeating the words ‘Be - here - now ’ for each section of the exhalation.
How to do it
Follow the instructions for the previous practice.
Keep a strong golden thread breath going, with pauses along each exhale.
Use whichever form of the exhale-pause breath that works beast for you – either the straight thread, or the corkscrew.
Each time you get to a pause, hear a powerful silent inner voice from your own heart speaking to you.
The voice should be the kind of voice that comes from a place of deep wisdom.
This time, in the pauses along the exhale, hear that inner voice repeating a positive affirmation, or a resolve.
Choose something that resonates with your present need for encouragement, reassurance or compassion.
Something simple like ‘Be here now’, ‘Yes, be here now’,
A reminder to deal just with this present moment.
Maybe the voice could remind you to take courage, and be strong in your knowledge that
‘I can do it and the baby can’.
Choose a phrase that speaks to you from your heart, and use that.
Hear the voice of the heart’s wisdom repeating your chosen phrase in the pauses along the exhale.
This practice works best when you feel as if the voice is really speaking the wisdom you feel in your heart. Whilst it’s helpful to have external encouragement from those around us, it is more powerful to have that silent inner voice than any number of outer voices.
There is a powerful element of practice in yoga called the sankalpa, which means positive resolve. The sankalpa is rather like an affirmation. It’s a short statement in simple language that frames a positive goal or intention. It is often expressed in the present tense, to give it immediacy, and to provide a focus on an aim or an intention that brings great joy. One’s sankalpa is a private matter, and it often feels best to keep it secret. Traditionally, the sankalpa is repeated at the beginning and end of yoga nidra (a deep relaxation practice), but it can also be used in the context of the pauses of the Golden Thread breath. Take time to frame a positive resolve that resonates with you at the level of feeling and higher wisdom. Reflect upon your priorities and your immediate and long term aims before finally settling upon the right positive affirmation for you. Keep it simple and always use the same words and phrases whenever you repeat the sankalpa.
Traditionally, the sankalpa is made and repeated and repeated until it comes to fruition. A lofty, ideal type of spiritually elevating kind of sankalpa might remain the same for a lifetime. But it is perfectly possible and quite practical to adopt short term, pragmatic sankalpas specifically appropriate to the stage of life in which we currently find ourselves. These ‘short term’ sankalpas serve to focus mental energy and can be really encouraging and strengthening in the face of difficult challenges or as a way to overcome fears and anxieties. Examples of sankalpas that are appropriate to pregnancy could include ‘My every breath nourishes my baby’, or ‘I have everything I need to birth my baby’.
Examples of positive resolves that are helpful during labour could include: ‘Be here now’ or
‘Every contraction is one closer to meeting my baby’.
Examples of sankalpas that can be appropriate during postnatal recovery, or when facing mothering challenges, could include: ‘It won’t always be like this’ (Lasater 2004:53) ‘My child has chosen me to be his mother’, ‘There is enough time’ (Lasater 2000:16).
If you are really keen to imbue the positive resolve that you have chosen with plenty of spirited energy, then you may find that you want to use the resolve in a number of different yoga practices in addition to hearing it repeated in the pauses between each section of the exhale. Traditionally the sankalpa is repeated three times at the start and the end of the yoga nidra practice, but the positive resolve can also be used more informally to mark your transition from one state of consciousness to another – for example, it can be the first thing that you place in your mind upon awakening in the morning, and the last thing of which you have conscious awareness as you drift off to sleep. It can also be used at a specific point in each breath cycle when using a full yogic breath, or any rhythmic easeful breath practice, such as Ujjayi: for example hearing it repeated on each exhalation, or placing it consciously at the transition point between inhale and exhale.
It can be helpful to think of the repetition of the sankalpa as the planting of a seed. Each time you repeat it, it is as if you are nourishing and nurturing what you have planted. When you first repeat it in a particular practice, or at a particular session, that first repetition is like the planting, and every subsequent repetition is the nurturing, tending and attention to the seed you first planted.
Choosing the right sankalpa for you can be a daunting task. Listen to your heart and adopt something that feels absolutely right. For help in framing your positive resolve, I recommend Judith Lasater’s inspirational book Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life (2000). At the end of every chapter she includes a selection of ‘Mantras for Daily Living’, many of which are perfect material for developing your own sankalpas, and some of which I have included in the examples given above.
Using a positive affirmation can be of great comfort and reassurance during labour, for example. But whilst it appears to be operating just at this level of having something to ‘hang onto’ during a major challenge, in fact the sankalpa works at a far deeper level than that. The sankalpa is buried very deep into our subconscious mind, and it works to transform our whole way of being and thinking. This potential for transformation is increased when the sankalpa is allied with the breath.
Perhaps the most moving account of this transformative power of the positive resolve is that told by Andrea, a mother who attended our pregnancy yoga classes during her second pregnancy. A nurse, Andrea was unused to being on the receiving end of care in hospital, and she found it very hard to step out of her concerned care giving, health professional role whilst she laboured in hospital on her first son. His birth had been a difficult and very challenging experience for her. This meant that as she entered her second pregnancy she brought with her a lot of pain, sadness and fear. She loved the yoga classes, and found them relaxing and enjoyable, but sensed that the fear and pain she was carrying from the first birth would be a great burden to her in the coming labour. She worked with hypnosis and with yoga to develop some short-term sankalpas that were specifically intended to assist her in resolving her feelings over the first, difficult birth.
Every time Andrea practiced yoga nidra, or breathing practices that provided a pause for the repetition of a positive resolve, she would affirm to herself her heart’s desire for ‘A lovely home birth’, or she would calm her fears by mentally repeating with the breath ‘I have everything I need to birth this baby well’.
Her second son Sean was born at home, after a peaceful labour during which Andrea felt she was ‘running the show’. When Andrea offered to return to tell her birth story to couples at one of our yoga birth rehearsals, she was positively glowing with pride as she told the story of Sean’s birth. I always ask the tellers of the birth stories at these occasions to identify if they can the single most valuable thing they took from their yoga practices with them into labour. Andrea had no hesitation when she answered: ‘The positive resolve’. She described how she had used the sankalpa she had made and practiced during pregnancy, and how she believe they had transformed her fear and dread into a positive and openhearted attitude. ‘For my first birth’ she explained ‘I had a five page birth plan – and was terrified of anything going wrong’. ‘Lots of my family were surprised that I wanted to have a homebirth second time around because it had been so tricky the first time. But I had my resolve, and I kept an open heart, and was much more accepting about everything that could happen, because I had this really powerful sense inside that my resolve was true: whenever I felt scared I used the resolve: “I have everything I need to birth my baby”– and I knew if it turned out that I didn’t have what I needed then I could just ask for it. It completely transformed my attitude to birth.’
Pregnancy & Postnatal yoga book extracts by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli:
Mother's Breath: Postures for Pranayama
more extracts from 'Mothers Breath' soon to follow...
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