Dancing with Fear: Podcast Episode #145
Kristin and Deb discuss how to prepare for birth when working through fear. Deb is the director of the Prenatal Yoga Center. You can listen to this complete podcast episode on iTunes, SoundCloud, or wherever you find your podcasts.
Welcome. You’re listening to Ask the Doulas, a podcast where we talk to experts from all over the country about topics related to pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and early parenting. Let’s chat!
Kristin: Hello, hello. This is Kristin, and I’m co-host of Ask the Doulas and owner of Gold Coast Doulas, and I’m joined today by Deb Flashenberg. Deb is the director of the Prenatal Yoga Center and a prenatal and postnatal creator of teacher training as well as private childbirth education, and you also are the host of the podcast, Yoga Birth Babies. Welcome, Deb!
Deb: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
Kristin: So happy to have you hear. So I would love to hear a bit more about your background, since you’re a doula and have so many different trainings and credits as a yoga instructor.
Deb: Yeah, I wear a lot of hats.
Kristin: It seems like it! Share more about your background with us.
Deb: Sure. Well, I started as a new school theater performer many, many years ago. Many, many years ago. And as I continued in that path, I started to get more into yoga, and I was actually a Bikram yoga teacher for a hot second. And that didn’t really sit with me because if anyone knows anything about the Bikram background, it’s a very strict script, and it doesn’t allow you to look at the individual and serve them. And as a doula, you know, like, that’s what we do!
Deb: And so it didn’t really fit. So I was talking to some people, and they mentioned prenatal yoga. And I thought, huh. That’s interesting. That really is catering to a very specific person and their needs. So I became a prenatal yoga teacher well before I had kids. And then I still felt like there was a disconnect between just teaching yoga modifications and what was happening in the labor and delivery space. And so one of my students was doing her fellowship at one of the hospitals in New York, and she asked me if I wanted to see some births. I was, like, 28 at the time. None of my friends in New York City were having kids. And what I also realized – this was probably totally illegal because she dressed me up in scrubs and told everyone I was a med student. I know! And I went into places that I really – in hindsight, I’m like, wow, that was really inappropriate. I helped deliver a placenta. Totally inappropriate. I scrubbed in for a C-section. I didn’t last very long. And I just saw a lot of birth, and something that really struck me as watching one birth in particular, that the birthing parent was just really not – it seemed like she was not taken into consideration. It was really all about the baby, and the baby came out and everyone left. It was a bit of high stress because it was a vacuum extraction, and there was a lot going on. Then for whatever reason, I was left in the room with the baby and the nurse typing on the computer and the parents kind of shell shocked, and no one was attending to them. And that was a turning point where I thought, hmm, I need to make sure that what I teach as yoga isn’t just modifications, but it’s really giving insight and preparation for the birthing experience and all the different ways it can go. So I became a doula. And then I became a Lamaze teacher, and because I love trainings, I continued to deepen my yoga training, and I did pelvic floor yoga teacher training. And I’m right now doing – I don’t remember the exact name of it, but it’s with a doctor of physical therapy about the pregnant and postpartum body. And I’m also doing the Spinning Babies parent educator. So I just feel like the more I can learn, the more I can help my students. And then of course I had my own kids along the way. But it’s been quite the path of just going from, huh, I think I’ll teach pregnant folks to becoming a strong advocate for people having the birth that supports them and finding their team and attending to the mental and physical aspects of preparation for birth.
Kristin: And you have quite the studio there in New York. You have a wide range of instructor and options, and of course, you branched out and launched a podcast.
Deb: Yeah. It’s amazing. It’s a lot of work. But I feel really blessed that I get to have these opportunities, especially the podcast. What I find amazing is I’ve reached out to some of the really big names in the birth world, and they said yes. And they would speak to me, and I felt – I mean, you’re a podcast host. You know how much we can learn from those we speak with, and I’m also a geek for studying, and I love prepping for those talks. So it’s been a huge education.
Kristin: That’s wonderful, yes. And it’s such a great service to be able to offer women in pregnancy and postpartum to be able to have these experts on, and then they know more about their options because otherwise – you know, if you don’t know about your options, you have none. So yeah, I love that. So Deb, our topic today is centered around addressing fears in pregnancy and birth. So obviously, as a doula, we work with fears and with your childbirth education background and in prenatal yoga, certainly, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you’re able to center and reduce the stress during pregnancy.
Deb: Well, I think a lot of it comes back to – it’s many things. So let me back up about why I think the fear – and I love that we’re talking about this. It’s so important. So on the fifth birth I did, I remember the client was really – she had a lot of pressure on herself for her birth, and I’m sure as a doula you’ve seen this. It was an older parent, and this was kind of like her one shot. And she put a lot of pressure on what she wanted this birth to look like. And it was the exact opposite, as I’m as a doula you’ve seen, and it was the first time that I’ve had one of those births that are just hours and hours and hours and hours, and it just was taking forever. Then she ended up having a Cesarean, which was the exact opposite of what she wanted. She wanted to be in the birth center, and she wanted totally unmedicated, and she had some pretty strong visions. And a year later, she calls me in to have a meeting, and I was terrified. I’m like, oh, my God, what, is she going to sue me? I know it was the wrong – like, not wrong, but not the birth she wanted. And she shared with me that throughout that year, she has been processing her birth, and what she realized during her birth was that she was so afraid of crossing that threshold to parenthood. Emotionally, she was trying to not let that birth happen. She was trying to hold that baby in because she was so afraid of losing what she had in her life and not ready for the responsibility. And that was huge.
Kristin: It is huge, and I always tell my clients, birth is as mental as it is physical. So right there – I mean, it’s hard to know right in the moment that her mind was holding her back, and it wasn’t anything to do with her body, but some women think their bodies fail them when really it can be the mental aspect.
Deb: Yeah. So it was the fifth birth I had done at that point. I didn’t have that knowledge. I’ll be totally honest, I didn’t have that knowledge. I mean, the baby was posterior, too, so I was attending to that, and I was talking to a mentor about that on the phone during this. But after that birth, it really highlighted to me about addressing fear during pregnancy, and it became one of the questions I would talk to my doula clients during our prenatals. I’d say, like, you don’t have to tell me what your fear is. You’re welcome to so I can help support that, but I’d invite you to sit with what fears do you have surrounding this experience. And what always concerns me is “no fears, I’m totally ready.” And I’d say let’s dig a little bit deeper. Because I feel like any massive change, even if it’s something you desperately want – we don’t know how the birth is going to unfold. We don’t know what it’s going to be like on the other side. And there often is some anxiety and fear. So I open that up to my students, just inviting them to sit with that, and then having that conversation with their partner or their birth team about what came up. So after doing that as part of my doula practice, it really did shine a light sometimes on – as people were preparing in our prenatals, and sometimes people would tell me what their fears were, and sometimes they would say, “I’m not ready to share it, but I’ll have a word, a safety word, that if I’m feeling this, I want you to know that I’m having these feelings. I’m fearful, and that I need a reminder that I’ll be okay, or I need my partner to step in.” I found that when we can address it and highlight it, it helped pass those speed bumps, per se.
Kristin: Yes. That’s beautiful. And partners can also have fears that can affect labor. I teach a comfort measures for labor class, and we get into communication and the partner’s spots on birth, as well as the birthing person, and it is interesting because until that moment, many couples hadn’t had that conversation. So if a partner is afraid to see any discomfort and is suggesting things the birthing person may not want, that can also come up.
Deb: Yeah, I’ve seen that where – I have one – this actually was a good friend of mine, and I know the couple outside of the birth world. And so it was really interesting seeing that. I know how their dynamic is, and I was watching the father be very uncomfortable with how his wife was doing, my friend, and she was very clear. She’s like, I know I can do this. I want an unmedicated birth. And he kept saying, like, “Are you sure you don’t want the epidural? I think you’ll be more comfortable.” And it was hard to step in and try to help him say, we need to trust her, because he’s like, “Are you sure? Are you sure?” So we had to have a little, like, taking it down a notch, like a little conversation. He and I went off in the corner, and I was like, do you trust her? He’s like, I do. I’m like, do you trust the process? He’s like, I don’t know. So he was really, really honest about that. So you’re 100% right that the fear aspect could be family; it could be partners. I’ve had – I know with my own births, my family was like, are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure? And having that in the back of my head wasn’t helpful, and I’m sure as a doula you’ve seen this where I’ve had my students say, “My doctor is saying my baby is really big. I don’t know if I can do it.” Like, when you have fear laced in your mind, things are bumpy. Then you go to, oh, maybe they were right. Maybe I can’t do this. So I think it’s really important to recognize that this could come up and build buffers. And then also recognize, okay, my doctor said my baby’s really big. So then instead of taking the fear aspect of “I don’t know if my body can do it,” it can open a conversation of, “All right, so what are my options? If you think my baby’s really big, what are my options for ways to labor? Do you need me to be still? Can I have the option to move my body? If you think my baby’s really big and you’re not sure my body can do this, let’s talk about what birthing positions we can use to maximize pelvis space.” So I think sometimes we can use those fears and turn them around to how can we make more choices and how can we empower ourselves. But that also takes somebody really willing to look at that, ant that also takes the environment to build that competence in the person. I think it’s not easy for a lot of pregnant folks.
Kristin: Yeah, and having those conversations with their provider about what their options are, like you mentioned. Even positions to labor and deliver in if that is a concern. Some positions are better if, you know, a potential big baby is a hurdle. Some people, again, you know, it can be intimidating to have those conversations.
Deb: It’s really hard to have those conversations. You know, I say that as – I’m always telling to my students to talk to your care provider. I remember one time trying to talk to my midwife, who I felt super comfortable with. I was stuck. I had a really hard time. So also sharing with my students, this is – like, I recognize the challenge of what I’m asking you to do. And I think that also then takes the pressure off because sometimes we can advocate for them without recognizing how hard it can be.
Kristin: Exactly. So one thing I love about all of your background and training is also just doing bodywork. I mean, the body can store tension, anxiety, trauma even. So I’m a big fan of prenatal yoga and movement during pregnancy. So let’s talk a bit about that related to fear and how it can be helpful.
Deb: Sure. I think that sometimes – we’re talking about birth is as much in the body as the brain, and then sometimes I think when the brain gets too fixated on a fear, then we feel – we have that fear, tension, pain relationship. So we’re fearful. We have more tension. Then we feel more pain. It just keeps going back and forth. So what I think is really helpful, and we do this in class a lot, is we look for ways to keep the breath and body moving. And we know that when someone often is uncomfortable and tense and strained, if we can get them to exhale and move, that often releases some of that tension, and then it helps the breath and endorphins. So we talk a lot about putting ourselves in poses that have strong sensations and working – instead of giving into, this hurts, oh my gosh, what am I feeling, this is getting worse and worse and worse – see that change a channel in the mind and then find some sort of breath pattern. We talk about the three Rs. So find some sort of rhythm and rituals. So maybe we’re holding warrior two, and the legs are really warming up. So instead of just sitting in that discomfort and getting more freaked out, can we either find a mantra that’s working our breath; can we find a movement with the arms; can we recognize where this unnecessary tension and then working to release that. And then we also recognize that when our nervous system is really overactive and the adrenaline is shooting up, that’s going to affect labor. So looking how to down regulate the nervous system through movement and breathing is also something we do a lot in class.
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Kristin: Yes. And breath is so key in birth, so whether it’s in early labor – and I even tell my clients when they’re having that warm-up labor, Braxton Hicks, to focus on practicing their breath work and using yogic breathing to prepare for birth. And even saying things like give your baby oxygen. Especially in the pandemic, wearing masks at different points during labor can be challenging. I love that you mention breathwork in addition to yoga.
Deb: Yeah, I think you’re on to something. I think about birth and all the different coping skills; I always feel like breathwork is the foundation. And then different accessories. So maybe somebody’s using the breathwork with sound. I’m a huge fan of sound. I came up with a thing years ago called “open throat, open vagina” because I was a singer, and I remember my singing teacher having me move my hips one time when I was singing because I was getting really tight, and then I remember, like, a couple days later, I attended a birth, and I was listening to her sound, and I’m like, oh, my gosh, she’s really tight in her throat. I bet her pelvis floor is really tight. So I was having her do the same thing that my singing teacher had me do, move my hips, and the sound opened up and her whole body relaxed. We do a lot with using the breath and sound. We do a lot with using the breath and affirmations. Sometimes we count the breaths. So the breath, it feels like the foundation, and if we can get the breath to help relax the body, I think then that fear and that tension can really subside.
Kristin: Exactly. And in Lamaze, I mean, it’s all about being aware of where you’re carrying tension and how you and the partner connect and help loosen some of those areas, whether it’s the forehead or the shoulders. And then again, like you said, breathwork and being open and wide versus your fists clenched and tight will help labor progress so much more quickly. That is amazing. And when women get high pitched in labor versus that tonal, low, moaning, that is also something to look for and recognize, if you’re getting high pitched, to go low. And what are your thoughts as a singer, and what are suggesting to your students as far as toning or using their voice during labor?
Deb: Oh, I love using the voice, and one of the things – for my own second birth, I actually was able to kind of step outside of my situation. I remember being in the shower and listening to the sound, and there was a beat where I’m like, oh, that sounds really good. Like, I was able to get out of the sensation and almost, like, float above the situation. I’m like, oh, that sounds like a really open, good sound. So we do a lot of vocal toning in class. Now, I know not everyone is comfortable using their voice, and so I always just put myself as kind of like the biggest fool in the room. Like, I will be louder than everyone else so you don’t have to be self-conscious about the sounds you’re making. And then we’ll look at different sounds, so we’ll do – I have a pose I call screaming toe, and it’s a really strong stretch of the foot, and I’ll say, see what happens if you just naturally open and let your voice out, and most of the time it’s this high sound. I’ll then mirror a lower sound and ask them to see if they can match that, and that is something that I would do when I was a doula. If I heard this sound, I would try to help bring the sound down. And that usually helped. And then I would share that and say, practice this with your partner, and let your partner or whoever’s going to be attending your birth, your birth team, have them be attune to the sounds you’re making because that’s going to give a lot of insight to your mental state and your body tension and how well your breath is moving. And so we do practice that a lot for the experience and then for them sharing that with their partner. I love open throat. I love relaxing. And I think it’s something that I can remind them that their baby is hearing and feeling their voice, and then they get excited about that.
Kristin: So true. I love it. So Deb, what are your favorite affirmations related to reducing fear?
Deb: I have a few. One is “this too shall pass.” I feel like I use that a lot in my own life. Another is “I trust my body. I trust this process.” And what I love about that is it’s not promising any outcome. It’s trusting your body, which doesn’t mean it’s going to go how you want it to go, but you trust that your body knows what to do, and then you trust the process again. It’s not saying that this is going to be birth I have totally envisioned, but I trust this process. So I trust my body; I trust this process. Sometimes it’s “I trust my body; I trust my baby.” Because also when we go back to trusting the baby, that’s also not promising a certain outcome because sometimes a baby is born in a different way than a birthing parent had in mind. I had a client that really worked hard for a vaginal birth. She hired an obstetrician that had a very low Cesarean rate, and she ended up having a Cesarean. Every time she would push, her baby just decelled, and then it would bounce back up. And the care provider tried everything, everything. And when they finally had a Cesarean birth, the cord was really short. Like, it was a high placenta at the very top of the fundus, and a really short – like, there was just no way. Like, the baby could not – she was trying. That baby was swimming downstream trying to get out, but it was literally a rope pulling it up. So that was “I trust my baby” because sometimes the baby has a different path. So I’ve seen that can be helping to let go of fear, that I trust my baby knows how it needs to be born. Another one that I use a lot in class with breathwork and movement and releasing fear is “let go.” And that’s just an invitation to let go of anything they don’t need to be holding onto; any pressure they put on themselves to have a certain birth, any pressure that they feel that they need to experience or sensations. So let go of that; let go of tension; let go of fear. That’s a go-to in my yoga classes as well as births. So those are some – oh, and then another of my favorites is “the breath is the pathway through the sensation.” I used that a lot in my own birth. I used that a lot with clients. I use that a lot even when I cycle. “The breath is the pathway.” I’m a big cyclist. If I’m going up a really big hill, my legs are burning, and I have to remind myself, “my breath is my way through this.” So I’m a big self-talker that way.
Kristin: I love that. That’s great. Yeah, my favorite affirmation for clients who are, especially in that transition point when they doubt themselves, is “I can do anything for 15 minutes,” or a minute, even. There are so many incredible ones, but I hadn’t heard some of the ones you shared, so thank you for that.
Deb: Oh, absolutely, yeah. Taking it by minute by minute – I love what you said. It’s very important. Because it can feel overwhelming. You know, you’re in the middle of this, and you’re like, when is this going to end? But then you just remind yourself, these teeny tiny increments of time.
Kristin: Exactly. So any other tips related to addressing fears in labor and birth?
Deb: I think just giving yourself the time to sit with it and invite yourself, okay, what do I really feel around this? And I do think it’s important to share with your team that the care provider should know, especially if there’s any trauma from the past that they may want to know; making sure they ask permission to touch your body if that is something – I think in general, they should always ask permission. Consent is very important, but especially if there’s trauma. Really indicating, I’m touching your leg. May I touch your leg? So creating that space. But giving yourself the time to explore what fears; talking about ways if fear comes up, what do you need to help yourself get to the other side of it. What do you need from your partner? What do you need from your team? Do you need maybe more space and time if things are feeling really rushed and you’re feeling overwhelmed by how quickly things might be going? Can you ask for more time? So being as open about what’s taking place so that those supporting you have the space and the knowledge to support you, and sharing – I guess just really sharing how you’d want to be supported.
Kristin: Lovely. So how can our listeners and our Becoming a Mother students who happen to live near you connect with you? You have, again, so many different programs, along with your podcast and blog. So fill us in.
Deb: Yeah. Well, since the pandemic, we’re actually online as much as we are in person. In fact, I think maybe even more. So we have livestream prenatal classes seven days a week, and we have postnatal classes once a week. And so people can either jump on Zoom and join me there, or they can take classes in person, so New Yorkers who are on the upper west side, and they can check all this out on my website. And then we’ve also got a ton of workshops because I think the more education – as you mentioned, if you don’t know your options, you don’t have any. So education, workshops. We’ve got a ton in person, online, on demand. And then my podcast, Yoga Birth Babies, has almost 300 episodes. So I’m pretty confident that people can find pretty much whatever they want to find on there, and I love that we continue. In fact, you’ll be a guest pretty soon. I’m excited about that. So they can find me there, and then of course on Instagram. And then if there’s anyone listening that’s also a yoga teacher, and this is something that excites you, to learn how to support the pregnant person, we’ve got a very in-depth prenatal and postnatal yoga teacher training. All this can be found on my website.
Kristin: Wonderful. So, Deb, another question for our listeners who are really looking for in person prenatal or postnatal yoga. How can you find a qualified center in your area if they’re not in New York?
Deb: That’s a really good question. I would say look at their training. So there are not a ton of centers that are just pre- and postnatal throughout the country. It’s a very specific niche. There’s a couple. But if you’re just looking for a prenatal class, look at the person’s bio and see if they have been trained. I actually was just looking online, and someone DM’d me saying, oh, I’m following your Instagram because I’m pregnant and I teach yoga, so I’m going to start teaching prenatal yoga. And I thought, that doesn’t really equate to – like, you’re pregnant and you’re a yoga teacher doesn’t mean that you should be a prenatal yoga teacher. And then of course I’m like, do I say anything, do I not? But at least for the listeners that are listening here, find out and make sure they’re actually educated in this because there are considerations to take for the pregnant body. One of the things that we do a lot in our classes is we work a lot on balancing the pelvis and the soft tissue in the pelvic floor for a more efficient and functional birth. And it’s not just about modifying poses around a belly. It’s how can we use this practice to have a smoother birth. And so I hope that a lot of – I’m confident a lot of prenatal teachers approach it that way. But I guess they should not just look at, are they certified, but maybe ask what’s their methodology; what’s their belief about how to support pregnant folks in a prenatal yoga class. Because I really believe prenatal yoga can be a tool to help prepare the mind and the body for a more efficient birth. No one wants a long, arduous birth. Everyone wants that baby in a good position and kind of rotating and descending out easily. No one wants those speed bumps. So I think yoga can help or hinder. So make sure that the person is well-qualified. That’s a very long answer to your question. Sorry about that.
Kristin: That was perfect. Appreciate it. It was so great to chat with you, Deb, and I look forward to being on your podcast in the future, as well.
Deb: Thank you so much.
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