I completed a course on Yoga for Pregnancy back in November, and thought I would share my assessment essay with you guys on the blog! Grab a cuppa, it’s a long one!
This essay will explore the 5 Koshas within Yoga philosophy and how they relate to the journey of pregnancy and childbirth.
According to the Taittiriya Upanishad, we are said to inhabit 5 bodies or sheaths, known as koshas. The Upanishads describe the koshas as a system of five layers of awareness, starting with the physical body and moving inward to the core of the self.
– The physical body (annamaya kosha)
– The breath or energetic body (Pranayama Kosha)
-The thinking body (manomaya kosha)
-The emotional or wisdom body (vijnanamaya kosha)
– The bliss body (anandamaya kosha)
The koshas are often imagined as layers of an onion or the layers of a Russian doll and are said to form a barrier to realizing our true nature of bliss and oneness with the universe.
The practice of yoga helps to peel back the layers of the koshas, leading to a deeper understanding of the innermost or truest self, atman.
Becoming more aware of each of these layers can help bring them into alignment and harmony with each other, which then leads to a state of yoga or union; a oneness with not just ourselves, but with the universe.
All of these layers, or koshas, become even more apparent when a woman begins the transformational journey of pregnancy and childbirth; a time of major life changes at all levels of being.
There are the more obvious physical and anatomical changes within the body of both mum and baby (annamaya kosha) that bring with them varying shifts in energy levels (pranayama kosha), such as the variation from feeling weary and tired in the first trimester, to ‘blooming’ in the second.
As women move through these changes, they may experience a wide range of thoughts and intense emotions (manomaya kosha), from anxiety and fear of giving birth, to excitement and awe of creating a human being!
At the stage of childbirth, women learn to lean into a more intuitive wisdom (vijnanamaya kosha), to trust that the body is capable of giving birth.
Finding awareness and balance in all of these layers can then lead to that deep, inner feeling of bliss.
As Howell beautifully explains:
“If you move through the whole violent, holy upheaval of breathing a baby into the earth-side world…if you have the courage to move through all the layers of being… there is bliss in the end. No matter how hard it has been, this birth journey, you arrive on the other side an expanded version of yourself” (Howell 2020).
This essay will now explore each of the 5 koshas in a little more detail, in relation to pregnancy and childbirth.
The physical body – annamaya kosha
There is little surprise that the physical body tends to be the primary focus during pregnancy, as every system of the female body makes adaptations to make space for and support a growing baby. A physical yoga or asana practice can help the mother develop an increased awareness of the physical body so they can sensitively respond to the anatomical changes of a body that is putting the needs of the growing baby first.
For example, in the first trimester, the relaxin hormone is released to soften joints and ligaments within the pelvis. However, this leads to an additional range of motion and suppleness/flexibility throughout the entire body, not just the targeted areas, leading to strain and discomfort as the joints and ligaments lose their usual stability and structures of support. This is further exacerbated with the growing weight of the uterus and baby putting additional pressure onto the spine.
When practised safely and in a reduced range of motion, many yoga poses can help to alleviate the pains and pressures of a growing baby.
For example, goddess pose or goddess squats can help open the pelvis to relieve pelvic pain, legs up to the wall can provide much-needed relief to tired and swollen ankles and cat can encourage stability and provide relief for lower back and groin strain.
Many asanas can also promote much-needed strength and stability, such as the warrior poses.
The more restorative postures and resting positions, such as supported side-lying and supported Shavasana, can help promote a deep state of rest at a time when many women find it challenging to find comfortable rest positions and time to relax.
Looking further ahead to active birth, many of the base asana poses, such as the squat or kneeling lunge, are useful for labour, helping to provide space in the pelvis, encouraging the downward force of gravity to help push the baby and movements to relieve the difficult sensations of contractions.
Whilst asana can build strength, ease discomfort and prepare for active childbirth, more importantly, perhaps, it also teaches expectant mums to be present and in the moment, in tune with their bodies, which can be difficult when there’s often so much focus on the future.
The breath or energetic body (Pranayama Kosha)
Prana can be a tricky thing to understand because it’s unseen. It is, however, felt. Prana is often described as life-force or vital energy.
One of the organs related to the pranayama kosha is the reproductive system. The life force of a growing baby requires a lot of energy from the mother, especially in the first trimester where most women feel lethargy and exhaustion. This energy depletion is the body’s way of encouraging the mother to slow down and relax to nourish a growing baby. Yet in the later trimesters, mothers can experience frantic bursts of nesting energy.
Similar to the many changes in the physical body, there are many adaptations to the respiratory system too. For example, as the baby grows and takes up more space, the diaphragm cannot move as easily, which means less lung capacity for breathing. Just like asana can alleviate discomfort in the physical body, breathwork and pranayama can help to manage these dramatic changes in energy.
The circle of breath helps mothers to get in tune with the natural cycle of breath – something many of us struggle to do.
Full yogic breathing, or three-part breath, encourages fuller and deeper breathing that is in tune with the natural movement and cycles of the breath, allowing more oxygen into the body, whilst also encouraging a more uplifted, open-hearted posture.
But the breath many pregnant women find most useful is the Golden Thread exhalation, which focuses on the exhalation to ease the body into a state of relaxation and to help manage pain and anxiety. Many women adopt this breath instinctively in the first stage of labour.
Linking in with the 5th layer of bliss or union, it’s useful to remember that when you are pregnant, you are breathing for your baby too. Babies tune into the rhythm of their mother’s breath and each breath taken further builds that connection and union with the growing baby.
The thinking body (manomaya kosha)
Throughout the day, most of us are overwhelmed by the constant chatter of thoughts and emotions running through the mind. Sometimes the thoughts are exciting, reflecting on something wonderful from the past, or they can be anxious, looking ahead to an unsure future.
During pregnancy, there is so much more to worry about; so many new, unfamiliar experiences and so many more unknowns and major changes to day to day life. On top of this, many of the physical, hormone-induced changes can have a direct impact on mental and emotional health, prompting mood swings, sleep difficulties and anxiety.
The aim of Yoga is to still the mind; “yogas chitta vritti nirodha”, to experience union with the inner self. On more practical terms, yoga can help us detach from these disruptive thoughts and feelings, to help us learn to be the witness to these emotions; knowing that we are not our thoughts, and to learn that, no matter how difficult they may be, our feelings will pass.
The asana practices mentioned earlier can help women to get out of their heads and into their bodies – focusing on the physical sensations of the movements.
The breathing practices previously discussed can help women to feel grounded and centred in times of anxiety and fear.
Pranayama practices involving sound can be helpful in managing difficult emotions as they extend the exhalations, promoting relaxation, they provide sound as a source of distraction for the mind and even provide a sonic massage for the baby through vibration, further enhancing the union with the unborn child. Ujayii or ocean breath, or brahmari or bee breath are good examples of sound-based practices. Mantra or chanting can have similar effects too.
Guided meditation practices can also be useful to observe the fluctuations of the mind.
Linking in with the 5th layer, it may be important to remember that, like you are breathing for two, you are feeling for two, so it’s natural to feel more deeply.
Vijnanamaya kosha – wisdom body
Once the physical, energetic and emotional layers are peeled away through yoga practices that lead to a quiet mind and an open heart, an intuitive wisdom can be found.
This intuition, or guiding light, can shine brighter through pregnancy, birth and into early motherhood as the mother connects intuitively and deeply to the needs of her child as her maternal instinct takes over.
Affirmations and intentions can help women connect to this inner wisdom during pregnancy and motherhood
Some examples include:
“My baby knows when it should be born”
“When I relax, my baby relaxes with me”
“My body is strong and capable and has all the tools to do this.
“I honour my heart, my inner teacher”
Breathing and meditation practices provide the inner silence needed to connect to this intuitive wisdom and asana can help provide the physical space for this inner stillness to occur.
Mudras, such as vayu (trust) or gyan can also accompany breath and awareness practices as they too focus the mind inwards to help access that deep insight.
Yoga teaches women to listen to and observe the body, mind, breath, emotions and thoughts and helps them to develop trust in themselves. “To trust their gut feelings, to be attentive to the deep visceral feelings that arise from their inner wisdom is a crucial message for women to hear, especially when they’re preparing to give birth” (Donelly caban, 2018).
Anandamaya kosha – Bliss body
As discussed throughout, a fully integrated yoga practice prepares not just the physical body, but the whole person; mind, heart and soul, for the transformational process of childbirth. Peeling back the different layers can help lead to edging closer to an inner state of bliss, or union, with not just ourselves and our baby, but untimely the universe as a whole. As touched upon in previous sections, yoga provides space to develop a deeper union with a growing baby as we manifest abundance in the form of creating a new life. Through this, you may develop inner gratitude, appreciation and trust in the abundance of the universe.
As beautifully described by a pregnancy yoga teacher:
My body felt whole – strong, open, full of ease, bursting with life. And I found a sense of contentment (santosha) beyond compare. Everything just seemed right. My physical body (annamaya kosha) was connected to my energy body (pranamaya kosha). In each practice, I found that it became easier to move beyond busy thoughts (manomaya kosha) to discover my own inner wisdom and maternal instinct (vijnanamaya kosha), and I felt closer to a state of inner bliss (anandamaya kosha) than ever before. At the time, I didn’t understand or recognize what was happening, but I knew that prenatal yoga had changed my life and that someday I wanted to be able to share this experience with other women (Easom 2018)
Resources referenced in this essay:
Yoga for Pregnancy and Childbirth, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli
How Yoga teaches you to breathe through labour: https://yogalondon.net/monkey/breathing-for-two-or-more/
Why start a yoga practice when pregnant:
Why I teach Prenatal Yoga:https://www.lotusblossomprenatalyoga.com/bija-blog/xp52xczyzcyjtmkytdwc5fnkejybhl