There are two perspectives through which we can view Ahimsa with regards to pregnancy and birth; the point of view of the pregnant woman and the point of view of her care giver. To get us started, let’s understand what Ahimsa means:
Ahimsa is the first of the Yamas, or Precepts of Social Discipline. It means non-harming; non-violence; not harming other people or other sentient beings; not harming oneself; not harming the environment; tolerance even for that which we dislike; not speaking that which, even though truthful, would injure others.
From the perspective of the pregnant woman this means, in short, listening to and trusting your body. During pregnancy, your body will tell you what it is that you need. You have cravings for certain foods, so that means you are missing certain nutrients in your diet. You tire more easily, so you should take a nap, etc. Ignoring what you body tells you can lead to larger problems.
If you ignore your food cravings, or if you give into the inappropriate ones without interpreting them, you cause issues. Ignoring a craving for meat may mean that you don’t have enough protein in your diet. Giving in to a craving for a McDonald’s burger, although it fills the protein need, comes with all kinds of other things that are bad for your body. Translating the craving to a more healthy protein option is Ahimsa.
If you ignore your fatigue, you are more likely to ingest a caffeinated beverage; have more intense mood swings; or find yourself over eating to compensate. By practicing Ahimsa, you’d slow down, take a nap and then go back to your activities.
Doing things to our bodies while pregnant affect our babies, we all know that. So, we need to be aware of what we eat; the amount of rest (and exercise!) we get; and our sensory input. If we watch scary movies, and we feel scared, then baby feels the fear as well. If we listen to loud angry music, then baby gets a loud angry vibe. Practicing Ahimsa means being considerate of baby’s needs and feelings, while at the same time being considerate of our own needs and feelings.
It means being tolerant of other women’s choices in pregnancy and birth. Remember, there is no “right” way to do this pregnancy and birth thing. There is a fair amount of judgment and excessively opinionated perspectives. Although we are entitled to our opinions, we are not entitled to hurt others by expressing them. Ahimsa is showing compassion and understanding when another makes a choice that isn’t harmful, but of which we simply disapprove.
Ahimsa also means finding appropriate prenatal care, with a care provider we trust. We must have open, honest communication with our care provider (and they with us) if we are to have safe healthy pregnancies and births. If we have a strong difference of birth philosophy with our care provider, being kind to ourselves means switching to a new provider. This is also being kind to the care provider. The provider will no longer have to try to convince us that we are wrong and that we need to submit to tests or procedures we feel are not appropriate. Instead of trying to change their mind or trying to sneak around their policies in a dishonest manner, we accept what the situation is and move on to a more comfortable relationship.
For the care provider (and yes, this means either OB or midwife), Ahimsa means putting the pregnant woman’s needs before those of “policy”. (See previous blog post: Great Expectations or What Not to Expect from Your OB)
It means seeing the pregnant woman as an autonomous, intelligent person who has the capacity to understand the real ramifications of her decisions. It means giving her full information, and supporting full informed consent before any tests, procedures or medications are administered. Ahimsa means taking a few extra minutes and really listening to her concerns about her pregnancy. It means seeing her as a person, with needs and feelings, rather than seeing her as just another patient. It means adhering to the Hippocratic Oath.
“I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism. I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug. I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.”
All of this rolls neatly over into labor and birth. Ahimsa means respecting your body and your baby. If your body says move, then move. If you baby doesn’t like the position you are in (often noted by fetal heart rate decelerations), then change positions. If your body says to eat, then eat, and so on. Lamaze Healthy Birth Practice # 5 includes “follow your body’s urge to push. When we either resist what our body is telling us to do or if our care providers have us do something that is counterintuitive, we can slow down our own labor and impede the birth process.
It means treating your care providers with respect, so that they may be encouraged to do the same for you. (See previous blog post – Does Your Attitude Towards the Hospital Staff Affect How They Treat You?) For the staff, it means honoring and respecting the laboring mother’s needs and honestly listening to her concerns. It also means maintaining a safe environment for mom and baby.
With regards to the baby, Ahimsa means looking at the innate needs of the infant and supporting them by keeping mom and baby together, Lamaze Healthy Birth Practice #6. It means encouraging mom to breastfeed and assisting her, as needed. It means following the infant’s cues for feeding, contact and interaction.
In summary, Ahimsa (non-harming) during pregnancy and birth comes down to having respect for your own needs and respect for those of others. It means paying attention, being present and following through. Ahimsa is honoring your body and your baby while maintaining appropriate behavior and attitudes towards others. It means having support people and care providers who treat you with kindness and respect.
Sat Nam (Truth is my Identity)