Ayurveda's Holistic Perspective on Pregnancy
Earlier this year, our second child was born. Welcoming our son into the world has meant working on the deepest part of ourselves to be able to honor the special privilege parenthood provides us. Having gone through pregnancy again, and having received much spiritual nourishment from Acharya Shunya's Vedic Spiritual Studies Program throughout my pregnancy, I am happy to share Ayurveda's best practices from a physical, mental and spiritual perspective for pregnancy and childbirth.
Make Vaata Your Friend
Ayurveda's big offering in pregnancy is the understanding that this is a time when your Vaata dosha will naturally rise. Vaata dosha is composed of two of the pancha mahabhutas (five core elements: fire, earth, water, air, space) -- air and space. Vata dosha represents the force of movement. This doshawill rise steadily throughout pregnancy, coming to a climax for childbirth. This is nature's way of supporting the tremendous force necessary for childbirth.
Ayurvedic analysis rests on a foundational principle -- "like increases like." During pregnancy, the body is especially sensitive to Vata-aggravating foods and lifestyle as Vata is on the rise, and therefore, the Ayurvedic approach to supporting pregnancy involves being mindful of this sensitivity. Ayurveda does not remedy the excess Vata building up in your body as this Vata is necessary for childbirth. However, it does recommend avoiding excess Vata in your foods and lifestyle during pregnancy, as too much Vata can cause a miscarriage.
Post-partum, Ayurveda makes direct interventions to bring your Vata down and help you heal. We will talk about that a little later in this post.
All Trimester Food Advice
Pregnancy requires mindfulness of your Vata dosha. During this time, it is important to eat foods that are easily digestible. Raw foods (like salads and smoothies) are not easily digestible (unless you have a truly excellent digestion), and due to their cold nature, they aggravate Vata dosha very easily. An aggravated Vata dosha not only increases the risk of miscarriage, it also makes concentration on any work difficult as the mind gets jumpy. Ayurveda recommends warm cooked foods during your pregnancy.
The First Trimester: Go Easy
The first trimester is when most mothers tend to have symptoms of nausea and exhaustion. It is important to recognize that our body is changing and to go easy. If you were already used to a certain level of exercise, you may continue it after checking with your medical practitioner. However, Ayurvedically, this is not a good time to pick a new form of exercise. The exception is gentle prenatal Yoga -- that is because it is grounding and will not increase Vata further. As Vata is on the rise, mothers can find it beneficial to ground themselves in this way.
The first trimester is also considered the most risky time for foetal development. Ayurveda strongly recommends the avoidance of high travel during this trimester. It is important to understand that this advice has to be interpreted from a relative perspective. If your body was already used to traveling, then it won't be shocked by the same pace of travel continuing on. However, if you were not used to traveling a lot, it would be a bad idea to suddenly start traveling in your first trimester.
The Second Trimester: Enjoy yourself
Ayurveda considers this the stable period of the pregnancy. If you were wanting to go somewhere on a holiday, this is a good time to do it. This is also a great time to introduce a galactagogue (in plainspeak, a galactagogue is an herb that enhances milk production so that you will have plenty of milk by the time baby is born). In Ayurveda, Shatavari (asparagus racemosus) is known for being an effective galactagogue that reduces the chances of suppressed lactation, and also a protector against miscarriage. Shatavari rootlets are processed into a powder and available online.
When consuming Ayurvedic herbs, it is necessary to understand that these herbs also come with a recommendation for the Anupana, or the vehicle that is ideal for transporting the herb into the body. Shatavari's anupana is warm milk. If a mother has a weaker digestion and cannot handle milk, water is a secondary substitute (though, not ideal).
Shatavari is also available as granules mixed with sugar and cardamom, and sold as Shatavari Kalpa. These can be mixed into milk instead of sugar. They should be avoided by those who have diabetes (even gestational).
I took Shatavari Kalpa granules cooked in warm spiced milk during my first pregnancy. I had no lactation problems then. In my second pregnancy, my digestion was weaker, so I took Shatavari powder in room temperature water, and again had no lactation problems. I also went on a long road trip with my family during this trimester and those are beautiful memories.
It is in the second trimester that you will also start noticing cravings. This may not be applicable to every mother, but when it happens, Ayurveda strongly recommends that you honor it (barring alcohol cravings or smoking that is known to cause reproductive harm). These cravings come from the fetus' need for nourishment. For me, I didn't have any cravings for my first child. However, just when labor began, I had a huge baklava craving. My spouse took me to a nearby Whole Foods where I had a baklava in between contractions in the parking lot. Just so you know, my daughter has a huge sweet tooth, and thanks to her, I am into making all kinds of desserts. For our second, the second trimester was when I would feel the need to eat something cooling in the middle of the night. I would end up eating 1 or 2 raw carrots -- I wouldn't eat more as that would adversely affect my digestion. The Ayurvedic teachings tell us that sometimes, a vegetarian mother can have a strong craving for meat -- this is not to be ignored. The fetus is asking for more earth from the five elements perspective and. To honor it, foods that are predominant in earth must be eaten. This can be found all root vegetables and a rich earth dominant food according to Ayurveda is Udad/Urad dal.
The second trimester is also a good time to enroll into a childbirth education class. There tends to be a wide range of offerings, including at your neighborhood hospital. Reflecting on the number of years it takes us to develop professional competency in any area, it is humbling to realize that we do need to put in the time to educate ourselves on the numerous decisions coming our way in childbirth. These decisions require us to think about our values and who we want to be.
The Third Trimester: Slow down
This is a time of slowing down. It is a great time to introduce a meditative grounding practice if you haven't already started one in the first two trimesters. Ayurveda considers childbirth a multi-dimensional event of which the physical is just one. There are emotional and spiritual aspects to childbirth that also need their space. Giving the emotional and spiritual aspects their due space helps you honor childbirth in all its dimensions.
For the emotional aspect of childbirth, we found it truly helpful to hire a doula the first time around as we concluded that there was so much to learn and navigate in the medical system that we really needed guidance. It led to a great outcome -- we learned a ton about childbirth from someone who assists mothers all the time as her day job. In Ayurveda, much respect is accorded to the "midwife," who is the holder of ancient wisdom. Midwifery is an active profession in the United States and supports mothers who'd like to go with home birth. We decided to go with a hospital birth and took the services of a midwife as a doula. We were transparent about our decision process and communicated to my obstetrician that we would like to include our doula in the decision team. Doctors tend to be sensitive about how doulas communicate and they want doulas to speak openly and not behind the back of the doctor. Our doula was comfortable with that and so were we. The relationship with the doula is not just one of transacting information. Treesa felt like a second mother to me and I felt relieved to have her in the delivery room.
Emotional support in childbirth also has a community aspect to it. This is a time when you lean into your vulnerability and allow others to support you. We have a special gratitude for those who helped us out during this time. Friends came together to offer us food support post-partum. It is important to let friends know about the kind of food you need post-partum (see the next section). Our friends also made the time for us during the third trimester. I remember fondly the outdoor picnics and the pampering that comes a mother's way during this trimester.
The spiritual aspect involves working on the deepest part of ourselves to be able to honor the special privilege that parenthood brings us. For our second child, my spiritual nourishment came through my Vedika Global Ayurveda clinic practice, teaching Ayurveda and my teacher's discourses in the Vedic Spiritual Studies Program. No matter what your spiritual path is, this is a great time to view pregnancy from your spiritual perspective.
Childbirth and PostPartum: The 40 Day Rule
For both my children, thanks to the classes my spouse took, he was able to correctly identify that I was in labor, while I was in denial -- I had wanted our children to come a few days later! I cannot sufficiently emphasize how important it is to treat childbirth as nature's classroom and a great opportunity for education. My spouse will hopefully write a decision-making guide soon for this part. All I will say for now for mothers is that don't beat yourself up for anything that happens or does not happen during childbirth. I have known mothers who were crushed by the fact that they had a c-section baby after all the work they put in to be healthy. What is important is that your child is healthy and well, and that you are recovering well. Ayurveda takes a super-practical approach and meets you wherever you are.
Now, let's go on to post-partum healing. A little after your baby comes out, your contractions will continue in order to deliver the placenta. Right after that, it is very important that your nurse caregivers do an abdominal massage with warm compress to start the process of healing. These massages will need to continue once you come home, and I will say more about it a little later.
Right after childbirth, it is important to have light digestive meals that are healing. I had khichdi cooked liberally in ghee. Khichdi is an Ayurvedic superfood that balances all the three doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. I avoided the hospital meal options (my spouse ate those).
This is the time to make major interventions to reduce your Vata and heal your uterus. As we have already mentioned, like increases like. Therefore, to reduce Vata, we must increase the opposite -- Kapha, or the force of stability. We bring the earth into our body in multiple ways. One of the most important ones for the rapid healing of the uterus is the consumption of wheat laddoos (balls).
This is also a great time to introduce methi(fenugreek) in your diet. This is an herb that is somewhat bitter and a known post-partum galactagogue. In the United States, this can be found in Farmers Markets (the Chinese farmers tend to carry it). It can also be found in Indian grocery stores. In my first pregnancy, while I had no lack of milk supply, I did experience pain in my breasts (engorged breasts) due to channel blocking. Consuming methi helped alleviate that. I cooked every meal with methi in some form. If I was having chapatis or parathas, I would mix methi in the dough. If I was having lentil soup, I'd cook the lentils with methi. A favorite dish was aloo methi (potatoes sauteed with methi).
Post-partum warm oil massages are great for reducing your Vata and a strong recommendation from Ayurveda. These massages are very liberal with the quantity of oil to be used. I used Dhanwantaram oil. Sesame oil works best. Heavier oils (like Dhanwantaram also sesame based) are better than lighter ones as they have more earth. The stroke of the massage should always be clockwise on the belly to aid digestion. In Ayurveda, metabolism is not limited to what you eat. Even your skin digests. So the oil is rubbed into the skin with the intention of absorption by your body. I did the massage every day for an hour for the first forty days. For babies as well, oil massages are therapeutic because their Vata is also high, and also because an oil massage strengthens their bones. However, for babies, the oil massage should begin only after the umbilical cord falls off. My son continues to get a 15-20 minute massage every day. His massage is gentle (don't pull baby limbs) with extra care taken around the neck.
Finally, Ayurveda puts a strict recommendation on new mothers to stay at home for the first 40 days, as getting in contact with outdoors air is considered as a major Vata aggravation. Ayurveda cautions that not taking adequate rest in the first forty days will lead to major weakening of bones later in life. This may manifest as early onset arthritis or osteoporosis. For both our babies, I followed this dictum and rested for the first forty days. One exception was our doctor's checkup for our babies, where we kept our exposure to a minimum. During this 40-day period, it was greatly helpful to have the support of my spouse. He ensured that everyone knew we were going to nest during these 40 days, and therefore would not be in a position to welcome visitors. We only started meeting friends after the first 40 days. Our wonderful friends understood this and supported us in a big way during this time.
About the Author
Shaaranya Geetanjali Chakraborty is a long-time student of Acharya Shunya in her Vedic Spiritual Studies Program and is the Dean of Vedika Global's Ayurveda Studies Program. She has served as Chief Ayurveda Consultant for Vedika's Ayurveda Wellness Clinic at the India Community Center and has taught Ayurveda at a variety of venues, including Stanford University's Health Improvement Program.
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