About Dancing

“When a normal, healthy child is born, usually in the father’s compound, the women perform the nkwa to rejoice. Then…they sing and dance their way to the compounds of the mother’s kin to inform them of the joyous event through the dance-play, gathering additional dancers as it moves from compound to compound. In this nkwa, in which only married women who have given birth perform, the dancers highlight procreative body parts, birth exercises and child care gestures.” – page 164, Hanna JL, To Dance is Human: a theory of non-verbal communication, 1979. Rev. ed. 1987.

From its inception in 1979, Dancing Thru Pregnancy® has been inspired by this passage from Judith Lynne Hanna’s amazing text, in which she describes how the Ubakala of Nigeria “announce” the birth of a child. The dance serves a dual purpose – it tells of the birth, but it also teaches the uninitiated how pregnancy and birth occur. For the dancers it also serves as a catharsis.

As a professional dancer, I long ago recognized the transformative power of dance to make experiences accessible.Molly and Miri Through Hanna’s writing we see how dance is itself one of the earliest and most profound ways in which common human experiences are taught and learned. Contemporary culture often removes this type of learning from our environment. Employing dance to help women approach birth has always struck me as an obvious first choice in preparing women for the physical, emotional, identity-forming and joyful process of birth.

In the intervening years, science and technology have reinforced our understanding of how this non-verbal learning happens. A most excellent discussion of mirror neurons appears in Acharya and Shukla’s article, Mirror Neurons: Enigma of the metaphysical modular brain, J Nat Sci Biol Med. 2012 Jul-Dec; 3(2): 118–124. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3510904/. Mirror neurons are key to how empathy and understanding of experience are produced when people view movement and gesture. The mere perception of an action sets off a low level firing of the neural pathway that executes the actions we are seeing. The authors provide a thorough grounding in the history of how we have come to recognize that mirror neurons exist and how they work.

There are more arenas in which dance also shines as a preparation. Appropriately choreographed, dance enables excellent physical fitness and includes all the elements of physical activity that research demonstrates are effective for optimal health in pregnancy and coping with the rigors of birth. From the perspective of exercise physiology, labor is an ultra-distance endurance event, followed by a strength test (birth), a long physical recovery period and 18 years or more of sleep deprivation. And, further, such a preparation aids the mother in achieving a physiologic birth as described in Buckley’s “Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing: Evidence and implications for women, babies, and maternity care.” This recent groundbreaking article describes how labor, birth and breastfeeding are promoted through hormonal actions, as well as why some technological advances in childbirth are working against these processes.

DTP at YH 12:13Achieving cardiovascular endurance (aerobic fitness) is essential. There are so many benefits of aerobic fitness that a full recitation and hundreds of citations will not fit in a blog. Our teacher training aerobic component takes several days, even for experienced fitness pros. But, to summarize: cardiovascular fitness improves implantation, enhances nutrient and oxygen delivery, reduces the incidence or severity of some pregnancy disorders, reduces the risk of fetal distress, reduces stress on maternal cardiac reserve while pushing, reduces the risk of cesarean, hastens recovery, helps maintain a healthy weight, alleviates anxiety, builds body-image confidence (Cochrane) and enhances long term maternal and fetal health. The two forms of cardio or aerobic activity most often cited for effectiveness are running and aerobic dancing.

Two other elements of dance that are useful for pregnant, birthing and parenting moms are strength and flexibility. There are Elongemany movement actions derived from numerous dance forms that promote both power and elasticity in the muscles, connective tissue and skeletal structure. Some effective positions, movements and skills are shared with other disciplines: Traditional childbirth preparation, weight training, gymnastics, physical therapy, yoga, t’ai chi, pilates, boot camp, plyometrics, proprioceptor neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) techniques, Feldenkrais, Alexander, somatic therapies, posture training, etc.

This letter I received recently from a (not pregnant) ballet student willing to share her experience is a clear reminder of how a well-designed dance class accomplishes enhancement of strength and flexibility, along with confidence about working with one’s body:

“Hi Ann,

I just wanted to let you know that I lifted weights at the gym last night… It had been at least 6 months since I had lifted weights at all, and so I figured I’d need to start at a relatively low weight and I’d be really sore the next day regardless. I was very surprised to find that I could easily lift the maximum weight I’ve ever lifted, which was the weight I used to lift at a time when I was lifting weights routinely several times a week. Every muscle group was strong. And today I am not sore at all. This is all to say that I am shocked at how much strength I’ve gained from ballet. I had no idea that just lifting my limbs against gravity could be so effective.

Thank you so much for having a class for beginner adults, and for your patience with all of us! I’m 42 years old at this point, and started ballet because I had noticed my core strength, flexibility and balance starting to really decline…I am so thrilled with the results from ballet even though I have such a long way to go!!! Plus it’s really fun. How I wish I would have discovered ballet in my 20s or 30s, since I didn’t learn it as a child!

Glenda G. Callender, MD FACS

An additional arena in which dance shines is in building mind-body skills. Dancing relies on centering – aligning with gravity to produce the greatest efficiency for movement (balance) along with breathing as a component of movement. Centering also reduces the load on the nervous system and allows the brain to modulate into the parasympathetic nervous system state, also known as the relaxation response (autogenic training, hypnosis, meditation, progressive relaxation), the zone (athletes’ term), mindfulness (big in research presently), the trophotropic response (the scientific term) or the alpha state (the current fad term). Dancers sometimes refer to this as tuning in to the unconscious. The actual coordination of motions, such as pushing, is primarily unconscious. The conscious piece is keeping a clear image of the goal, while allowing the body to work. This is the skill that allows the birthing mother to follow her body’s urges, flowing with the labor rather than trying to control what is going on. It gives her access to the cathartic nature of birth as a dance.

Centering 2:08Align

Breathe

Focus on the breath

Sense the movement within

Then, allow the body to dance…

A part of the dance experience I truly enjoy is a phenomenon known as muscle bonding. When a group does vigorous physical activity together – dancing together, a sports team, a drill team – a special kind of bond forms. Part of the euphoria is this muscle bonding experience.  Those of us whose interest lies in understanding the mechanics of such things have a pretty good idea how this works – some of which is laid out in this blog and the reading links. But, that is not the wonder of it. The wdancing_overview from backonder of it is what the Ubakala women experience moving together to announce the birth of a child.

When I am dancing with my pregnant ladies and we are in the grove with our modified hip hop routine, we are smiling at each other and feeling completely alive. We are breathing hard and working hard, but we are strong. My hope is always that when she senses that labor and birth are starting, a mom-to-be can get in that groove with the baby and support person. Birth as a dance.

No blog on pregnancy or birth is complete without a caveat. Every pregnancy and birth is unique. Sometimes things go wrong. But, mostly they go right! And, moms can optimize the experience. One of the greatest dangers to pregnancy and birth is sedentary behavior. Regular, vigorous, strength-inducing, flexibility gaining, mindfulness, relaxation muscle bonding fun is available. Check our U.S. and International Find-a-Class listing. If there is nothing near you, start something!

Safe Pregnancy, Safe Labor, Safe Motherhood

The challenges to safe motherhood vary depending where in the world you live. In some areas the challenge may be to get adequate nutrition or clean water; in other areas, it may be to prevent infection; and in still other locations it may be trying to avoid pregnancy before your body is ready or getting access to prenatal care. In the U.S., it may mean avoiding being sedentary and making poor food choices, or having to deal with the high technology environment of medical birth that can sabotage the innate physiological process of labor and birth.

Birth begins the bonding or unique love between mother and child.

The biology of birth is a complex series of cause-effect processes…baby’s brain releases chemical signals to the mother and the placenta begins to manifest the maternal immune system’s rejection of the fetus.

To help the ball get rolling, relaxation (the trophotropic response) helps promote the release of oxytocin. With the help of gravity, the head presses on the cervix, amplifying the uterine contractions. After an ultra-distance aerobic endurance test, the cervix opens enough to let the baby move into the vagina and the mother’s discomfort moves from sharp cramping into the bony structure as she transitions to the strength test of pushing. She transitions. Relaxation modulates into an ergotropic – adrenal – response to gather her power.

Pushing is an interesting term…more masculine, I think, than the one I prefer:  Releasing. Releasing or letting go of the baby. It’s a catharsis. In this portion of the labor another set of important processes help the baby clear its lungs of amniotic fluid, stimulate its adrenal system and challenge its immune system, as the contractions drive the baby downward. The mother’s deep transverse abdominal muscles – if strong enough – squeeze the uterus like a tube of tooth paste, to aid this expulsion. In the meantime, the labor is helping set up the mother to fall in love and produce milk. When the baby emerges and moves onto the mother’s chest, s/he smells and tastes the mother, recognizing her mother’s flavor and setting up the potential for bonding.

Any way you slice it, there are two parts to safe motherhood. One is a safe pregnancy…healthy nutrition, physical fitness, safe water, infection prevention, support and a safe environment. The other is a safe labor. In a safe labor, there is both an environment that promotes the natural process of labor and the means necessary for medical assistance when needed. Women die at an alarming rate from pregnancy or birth-related problems. Despite some progress made in recent years, women continue to die every minute as a result of being pregnant or giving birth.

What keeps us from having a better record on motherhood is often lack of care in the developing world and too much intervention in the U.S.. They are two sides of a coin. Mothers’ experience and health needs are not on equal footing with other cultural values. In places where basic prenatal care or family planning are low priorities, at-risk women are vulnerable to the physical stresses of pregnancy and birth. In the U.S., machine-measured data is paramount, even if it produces high rates of false positives, unnecessary interventions or counterproductive procedures. We are learning that obesity and sedentary lifestyles have detrimental effects, but fewer pregnant women than their non-pregnant counterparts exercise.

Despite the money spent to support the technological model of pregnancy and birth in the U.S., there are parts of the world – especially Scandinavia, Northern Europe and parts of the Mediterranean and Middle East (Greece, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Italy and Croatia) – with lower rates of maternal deaths. In fact, in the U.S., maternal deaths are on the rise.

It’s a tricky business. Clearly Western medicine has a lot to offer the developing world when there are medical concerns. On the other hand, importing the U.S. model could create more problems than it solves. Instead, the micro-solutions now being developed in many locations will be observed and evidence collected by organizations such as the White Ribbon Alliance and UNICEF.

There is an effective international midwives model adopted by JHPIEGO, the Johns Hopkins NGO working toward improved birthing outcomes. It assesses the local power structure, social connections, potential for trained birth assistants, and location of available transportation to create a network so that locals will know when a labor is in trouble and who can get the woman to the nearest hospital.

In the U.S., there are in-hospital birth centers that allow low-risk mothers the opportunity to labor and birth in a setting designed to encourage the innate processes. Women are beginning to vote with their feet…staying home for birth. Women are going abroad to give birth. At the same time, women are coming to this country to give birth, believing it is safer than where they are. There are several ways these scenes could play out.

But, I’ll wager, improving outcomes will involve compromise:  Watchfulness and support in most births, plus better ways to assess danger and provide technology. No matter where you live in the world, the solution may be essentially the same.

Safe Birth – Who’s in Charge?

Who Controls Birth? Defining the Argument.

Periodically, arguments arise in the birthing field over who controls the way we give birth. Often this happens at times when birthing women change their behavior trends, putting financial pressure on professionals working in this field. The major players in this argument are medical doctors (obstetricians), certified nurse midwives and professional home birth midwives.

Currently we are seeing women leave the traditional hospital setting for birth in larger and larger numbers…and taking their dollars with them in the process. While the question of home birth safety arises every time this control argument comes around, the question of whether it is safe to intervene in a labor that is progressing normally is a new component of the discussion. This time the argument is: The safety of home birth vs. the safety of using hospital technology to intervene in normal birth.

How Money Affects this Issue

As with all commercial ventures, controlling access to safe birth requires controlling the information in the market place. This information needs to address the perceived wants of the target audience. For a long time the main message has been:  Safe birth is only available in a hospital.

The financial pressure of giving women (consumers) what they want – a normal experience of birth in a safe setting where medical help can be quickly available – has powered the birth-center industry. Free-standing and in-hospital birth centers have grown in numbers, and are largely enabled by certified nurse-midwives. Meanwhile, professional home birth midwives have increased both their credentials and practice standards, as well as their visibility.

Both of these options, birth centers and home birth, threaten the livelihood of traditional obstetrical practices. Low risk births (about 70% of births) have the potential to be normal births, requiring little or no intervention. But, giving birth in the hospital means participating in measurement procedures that intervene in the labor process.

So, to convince women they need to be in a hospital to be safe, medicine has maintained the argument that home birth or out of hospital birth is not safe.  However, research does not indicate this is true. The nature of this ongoing argument is discussed in a 2002 article from Midwifery Today.

What’s New? The Counter Argument.

The physiology of normal labor is dominated by parasympathetic, meditative, gonadal energy systems. Measurement is a sympathetic, rational, adrenal energy dynamic. Only when it is time to expel the baby does the underlying energy system make a transition (transition, get it?) to an adrenal impetus for the strength activity of pushing. Immediately following normal birth, maternal physiology is again dominated by gonad-driven energy along with a rush of endorphins.

“Intervene enough and things will go awry. You can easily end up being cut and/or separated from your baby at birth.” These ideas have gone viral. With the arrival of the internet, women have found a very quick way to do what we have always done:  Share information.

Thus, in my exercise program and in my childbirth preparation classes, I have more and more frequently been fielding the following question from women who want a normal birth and want to be safe: “How can I avoid interventions while I am in the hospital?”

So, I ask them what leads them to ask this question.  And, they say:  “I read on the internet and/or heard from my friends that interventions make birth less normal and less safe. I want to protect myself.”

Women themselves are entering the argument in a much more conscious way than in the past. Some professionals would like to keep women out of the argument. But, like with many things in our 21st century world, we have already past the point of no return. As they say, the horse has already left the barn!

Word has gotten around. More and more, as a prenatal fitness expert who strives to listen to my clients, my job has become educating and physically training women to cope with a strenuous and primitive process in a technological world.

Hopefully, we can all keep our eye on the ball here. Preventing trauma should be one key goal. Just as we have learned to hold our newborns skin to skin so they can smell and taste us, listen to our heart beat and voice, and maintain their core temperature, let us learn to comfort and nurture our new mothers, while we steel them for the rigors of birth.

Pregnancy Pathway, Birth – Birth Mode

How the baby is born is the birth mode

The Second Stage of Birth is different from the First Stage. The actual expulsion of the baby requires a change in energy axis. During dilation (first stage), oxytocin is most easily released from the pituitary gland during relaxation (see previous post), but during transition, a change occurs so that the ergotropic response takes over and adrenaline is key in helping oxytocin to spike.

What does this mean as far as preparation is concerned? While it is important to learn to relax or maintain positions such as one does in yoga, the ability to sprint, or turn on an aggressive action at the end, is critical. You need  good aerobic conditioning. Begin exercise with easy breathing and movement, then practice aerobic endurance and power moves at the end of your workout! Finish up with cool down and stretching.

The contractions themselves change. They remain intense for a longer stretch, but the time between them increases. Pushing involves not only the uterus contracting, but the pressure exerted by the transverse abdominal (TrA) muscle. Similar to squeezing a tube of toothpaste, TrA pressure helps press the baby toward the exit – yes, that is the vaginal opening. If the laboring mother is not able to apply adequate pressure, labor assistants sometimes apply pressure manually to the top of the uterus or – if need be – forceps or a vacuum extraction may be necessary.

How can a mom best prepare so that the TrA can provide the needed pressure? Strength training the TrA! Like any other motion requiring power strength, this muscle can be strengthened to do its job! Here’s how:

picture 1:  sit upright, inhale

picture 2:  exhale, compress abdomen and curl down

Return to upright and repeat 8 times. Rest. Repeat 8 more times.

What if something goes awry? Cesarean, or surgical birth is an alternative. Major complications before labor include a placenta previa, infection or undeliverable breech position. During labor, the most common problem is dystocia – stalled progress through dilation (first stage) or pushing (second stage). In the pushing stage, head too large for pelvis is the most common difficulty.

What happens next? If the birth is natural, you will feel a tremendous euphoria. Bring the baby right up onto your chest for skin-to-skin contact. If you have had medications, your response may be slightly blunted, but you will definitely be overwhelmed by the emotions of birth.

Third Stage is expulsion of the placenta, which can no longer remain connected to the shrinking uterus. When it detaches, the nurses or midwives will ask you to push and !plop! out it comes. It can be interesting to see what has nourished your baby for so long!

CONGRATULATIONS!  YOU’RE A MOM!

Pregnancy Pathway, Pregnancy – Behavior, part 1: Exercise continued!

MORE?!! You didn’t think that was it? Only a few comments on evidence as to WHY moving around, burning calories, being strong and learning to relax while pregnant is beneficial? No, of course not. You know there is more to it, like WHAT movement is safe and effective during pregnancy?

So, what is safe? Well, first, unless you have a very few conditions that your health care provider considers unsafe, every woman – fit, currently sedentary, young or a little older – can exercise safely in pregnancy. How much of what kind depends on your fitness level and exercise history. Get medical screening first.

If you are fit, you can do vigorous exercise

If you are fit, you can do vigorous exercise

If you are fit, you just need to learn how to modify some movements to accommodate your biomechanics. As your body changes, stress on the joints and tissues means a little less jumping or ballistic motion will be more comfortable and safer. If you are fit, you can continue with vigorous exercise and it will be of benefit to you and your baby.

If you are not so fit or are sedentary, find a certified pre/postnatal instructor and join a group where you will have fun, get some guidance and be monitored for safety. How do you find such a person? Try our Find A Class or Trainer page.

What is effective? Don’t spend your time on things that may be nice to do but don’t help you focus and prepare for birth, relieve discomforts or have the stamina for birth and parenting. There is substantial scientific evidence and information from large surveys that these things are helpful.

Cardiovascular or aerobic activity is the most important activity you can do. Already fit? Keep working out; join a class if you want support or new friends. If you are sedentary or somewhat active, you can improve your fitness by doing at least 20 – 30 minutes of aerobic activity 3 times a week. Work at a moderate pace – somewhat hard to hard – so that you can talk, but not sing an aria! If you are more than 26 weeks and have not been doing cardio, you can walk at a comfortable pace. Aerobics is key because it gives you endurance to tolerate labor and promotes recovery.

Strength and flexibility exercises that do not hurt and are done correctly are also safe. There are some special pregnancy exercises that actually help you prepare for birth. Essential exercises that aid your comfort, alignment and birth preparation include:

Kegels (squeezing and relaxing pelvic floor muscles) – squeezing strengthens them and thus supports the contents of the abdomen, and learning to release these muscles is necessary for pushing and birth.

Abdominal hiss/compress and C-Curve® – contracting the transverse abdominal muscles reduces low back discomfort and strengthens the muscle used to push and later to recover abdominal integrity after birth.

Squatting

Squatting

Squatting – getting into this position strengthens the entire leg in a deeply flexed position; start seated and use arms for support, stability and safety. Leg strength improves mobility and comfort in pregnancy and postpartum; plus, deep flexion is a component of pushing in almost all positions.

Strengthening for biomechanical safety – strengthening some parts of the body helps prevent injury to bone surfaces, nerves and blood vessels within joints re-aligned in pregnancy. This can be done using resistance repetitions (weights, bands, calisthentics or pilates) or isometrics (yoga or ballet). A responsible class will focus on upper back (rowing), push-ups, abdominals, gluteals, hamstrings, and muscles of the lower leg.

Stretching of areas that tend to get tight – relieving some discomforts through flexibility helps you maintain a full range of motion. Static stretches, used in combination with strength exercises or following aerobics, is most effective. Stretching prior to exercise tends to produce more injuries than not stretching. Areas needing stretching include the chest, low back, hamstrings and hip flexors (psoas).

Mind/Body skills are very important. There are two activities that exercisers constantly tell us are a big help in pregnancy, birth and parenting.

• Centering employs a balanced or neutral posture, deep breathing and mindfulness to help you work in a relaxed way. Athletes and dancers call this “the zone.” Starting your workout in association with your body establishes economy of motion, something very useful in birth and parenting, and reduces risk of injury.

• Relaxation is another key activity; it relieves stress, promotes labor in the early stages and helps you enter the zone!

Remember: Birth is a Motor Skill™