Kyria dancing pregnant on beach

Guest Post from Kyria: How instructional DVDs helped me become the bellydancer I am now

Dear readers, Kyria is back with another wonderful, deeply informative post on how she uses bellydance DVDs in her practice. See the previous post for her top ten DVDs for intermediate and advanced bellydancers. And check out her website, www.buikdansereskyria.com

Kyria bellydancer Netherlands

Before I dive into my lengthy love story with instructional DVDs, let me start by saying that although I’ve been a professional bellydancer for ten years, I will never have much of an international career, be part of the Bellydance Superstars (whatever happened to them?) or believe I am the next best thing. I have regular breakdowns when I critique myself on practice and performance videos, after which I pick myself up and make a plan to work on my weak points. At times, I wonder why I still bellydance because it is so much work to keep up and maintain good form and consider giving it all up. And then a student tells me how she looks forward to class every week, I browse through pictures of the friends I made and the events we organized and I fall in love with bellydance all over again.

Let me introduce myself

I meet up with dance friends, I organize haflas and perform for a small and intimate audience. I get hired for private parties, sometimes in a castle, most often in someone’s living room or a party center. I went on dance trips to Egypt, Turkey, or less exotic locations like Belgium, Great-Britain and Germany where I met wonderful women who all love to dance. I see my students grow week after week and doing research for my classes is one of my favorite ways to fill my lunch breaks at work.

I am part of two troupes: the Dalla Dream Dancers, a troupe dedicated to offering high quality group performances in Folkloric and Oriental Style. We came to be after working together on several theater projects and thinking ‘this is neat, let’s make this a regular thing!’. We also work on performances for theater shows and such. The second troupe consists of teachers in my area. We’ve connected over our mutual interest and have created a fair share of haflas, workshops and performances in the past six years or so. Sometimes we meet two times a month, sometimes we meet once every two months depending on what’s cooking.

My main dance style is Egyptian/oriental and though I take weekly ballet classes and have a background in jazz ballet, I prefer to dance to Arabic music with the bellydance movement vocabulary.

Welcome to my life.

One of the biggest challenges of being a professional dancer is how to continue my education. I love going to workshops but due to constraints in time and finances I can only attend a limited amount of workshops per year. Early on I discovered the wonderful world of instructional DVDs, helping me to keep on learning on a tiny student budget. An added bonus is that instructional DVDs contain excellent examples of teaching styles and different methods and technique that I can use to shape my own practice and the classes that I teach. It took me a while to get the hang of it though.

Getting started with instructional DVDs

Let’s go back in time to when I was a bright-eyed intermediate student, looking for a challenge. I was taking two bellydance classes a week and was on a budget. Through eBay I bought my very first instructional DVD: a four-DVD set by Dolphina.

dolphina bellydances

I did like her taste in back drops and practice attire though

Putting the DVD in the tray of my computer (I didn’t own a DVD player at the time) in my student room, I was excited that I could practice in my own home. It wasn’t long until I realized that from the four DVDs, I really liked one (warrior) and some of the others contained material that I disagreed with or didn’t work for me. Let’s just say that I am not the type to imagine goddess-like scenes during my practice. Some of the advice on technique and posture also didn’t work for me. If you want to try Dolphina’s instruction, go to her YouTube channel. She recently put some of her DVDs on YouTube for you to practice with.

How I got hooked

In my country, we weren’t big on credit cards or online shopping at the time. A local Arabic music shop in my street carried several instructional DVDs and I bought copies of Veena & Neena’s instructional DVDs. Yes, I know that those DVDs are not aimed at bellydancers but in 2003, it was hard to find affordable instructional DVDs. The IAMED DVDs were great, but they cost over 40$ a piece, plus international shipping and import taxes. I had to start small.

Veena and Neena bellydance

The instruction included genie arms ☺

The Veena and Neena DVDs worked well for me, going over most basic moves and a couple of combinations. I can honestly say that at the time, I had no clue about my own dance skills or if I made progress or not. All I knew is that I loved bellydance and that these DVDs got me hooked on practicing at home. The great thing about not being a professional is that I was still able to take weekly classes with various teachers, receiving corrections on posture and technique. When I turned professional in 2006 (as usual in retrospect too soon and lacking in technique and various other skills) I signed up for a two-year course on becoming a bellydancer. I also knew that I couldn’t take classes with other local dancers anymore due to conflicts of interest (teachers were afraid you’d copy their classes or choreography and teach them as your own). By profiling myself as a professional, I needed to show that I had the skills to teach my own class, create my own choreographies and work on solo performances. Thus I entered the workshop scene and started investing in more expensive instructional DVDs.

The next level

I highly recommend signing up for a longer program if you are interested in oriental dance. Even if you don’t want to be a professional dancer, it is great to get in depth knowledge in the various styles, rhythms, instruments and other facets of bellydance. By now I had ‘graduated’ from the Veena & Neena DVDs and was looking for a different challenge. I had to make a couple of wrong turns when it came to choosing bellydance DVDs before finding what worked for me.

The fitness type bellydance DVDs were the cheapest ones and I soon found out why. They barely contained bellydance! Instructors would string together a couple of moves and called it a workout. After a couple of errors, I bought a couple of second hand IAMED DVDs on Bhuz. What a relief to get high quality material in a neat package! Each DVD contained enough concepts and material to work on for weeks. I liked to run the DVD and press pause, then practice to make sure I got it before moving on. What I was lacking was regular, structured practice of the basic moves. I needed to keep my omi’s smooth and accents sharp. But how?

Getting my act together

The biggest influence on structuring my home practice came in the shape of three big names in the dance community. The first one was the 3-DVD set from Jillina that came out as the BDSS were rising to fame. The choreographies were challenging and different from what I had learned. It really helped me to look my own choreography skills and use of footwork and make changes.

The second one was also a BDSS DVD: Tribal Fusion with Rachel Brice. This DVD contained several drills with a fair amount of yoga. I got my mat out once or twice a week and started doing my asanas and breaking my moves down into smaller pieces.

The third was the fitness fusion DVD set by Suhaila. My earlier experiences with bellydance fitness DVDs in mind, I didn’t expect much, but I was pleasantly surprised. Suhaila’s method for breaking down movements and drilling (mixing it with stretches and a bit of yoga and Pilates) impressed me with the need to cross train. I couldn’t take local bellydance classes but I could join the local yoga school and a Pilates class!

I still like these dancers, though in the meantime they have developed even better DVDs that I like to use on a regular basis.

Meeting the instructors in real life

When Jillina and Rachel came to Amsterdam to teach workshops, I got a chance to experience their teaching method in real life. It was such a pleasure to see the dancers that I’ve been ‘training’ with on DVD in a big dance studio. Getting used to their training method helped me to make the most of the workshop and retain as much as possible. I got to ask Jillina for advice on how to keep advancing and she was adamant: take ballet classes. So I signed up for adult ballet classes in 2008 and continue to take these classes until this very day. She was absolutely right: I have learned so much from my wonderful ballet teacher. Footwork, arms, carriage, posture and lines. But ballet is not bellydance: sometimes the concepts conflict with each other.

With Rachel Brice there wasn’t time for me to ask personal questions, but she credited and mentioned Suhaila Salimpour in her workshops. This sparked my interest and I decided to purchase more Suhaila DVDs and if she ever taught workshops in my vicinity (read: Belgium, Germany, Netherlands) I’d go. I finally got my opportunity in 2015 to take a three day intensive with her in Brussels.

suhaila and kyria 2015

[If you want to read more, I wrote an extensive blog about doing the intensive. It’s here: https://kyriascostumes.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/suhaila-salimpours-level-1-intensive/ ]

After taking workshops with Aziza in Duisburg at the annual festival organized by Leyla Jouvana, I was so impressed that I bought her practice companion DVD. The DVD is really, really good and her real-life workshops are even better. I like to take workshops with her whenever she is in the vicinity, every year or so. She keeps on adjusting and creating new material and ways to explain things that can keep me occupied for years.

Staying in shape

The last couple of years I have been noticing that I like to revisit DVDs that I worked with in the past. My vast collection now spans over three hundred DVDs and serves as a library that I can go to when I am looking for inspiration or have a theme I want to work with. To stay in shape I regularly use exercise DVDs like Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred, power yoga, Yoga Booty Ballet (it’s wrong on so many levels yet very entertaining) and the New York City Ballet Workout.

Now that I am pregnant I finally have an excuse to buy prenatal bellydance DVDs and try those as I am going through the different phases of pregnancy. I am eager to see where my journey in dance will take me next but instructional DVDs will be part of it. Currently I am reorganizing the filing system for my DVDs and creating a schedule to stay in shape during my pregnancy and after the delivery. I work full-time and have little time left to attend classes, so DVDs are the perfect solution for me. I am exploring options like streaming classes but so far, I prefer DVDs or digital downloads as they are always available and are not dependent on a fast and smooth connection.

Kyria dancing pregnant on beach

Six and a half months pregnant and still dancing

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Bellydance and Pregnancy – An Interview with Sera Solstice

I’m very excited to introduce a new feature on this blog: interviews with video artists and producers. Kicking us off is Sera Solstice, a pioneer of the East Coast Tribal style of bellydance. Besides founding Solstice Studio in New York City, she has produced five DVDs with World Dance New York, among them Foundations of Bellydance: East Coast Tribal, Lunar Bellydance, and Solar Bellydance. I previously reviewed Bellydance: East Coast Tribal, but for our first interview I wanted to ask Sera about a subject near and dear to my heart, the relationship between bellydance and pregnancy. Before continuing, you can read my review of her video Goddess Dance – Prenatal Bellydance & Meditation.

Why did you decide to put together a prenatal bellydance video?

I wanted to document/record my pregnancy and be able to share it with others. It was my second pregnancy, and I felt that it was a very special and sacred time. My first pregnancy was filled with fear and anxiety of all the unknowns. During the second go-around, I had more confidence. The meditations and presentation are what I wish I could have had during my first pregnancy. Perhaps there are a few Moms-to-be out there that could benefit from it.

How did bellydance help you during your own pregnancy?

There were many days when I didn’t feel like doing ANYTHING. But I still had to show up to teach class because I had committed to doing it. As soon as I would drag myself out of the house and to the studio, I realized how good it was for me. Suddenly I was surrounded by loving community who could share in my experiences, and I got great exercise. Getting your blood moving is so very important. Bellydance expands your body awareness, especially in the hips and abdomen. So it really helps a woman to connect to her body when she is pregnant, and be able to connect to the changes, and celebrate that through movement. It helps to connect to the baby too, as you feel your whole womb moving, its as if you are dancing with the baby. I think it makes women feel like a Goddess.

What are some of the greatest myths or misconceptions about prenatal exercise, or about dance more specifically? 

I think there is definitely an overload of precautions, and this is so no one is held responsible in case someone gets hurt. But the problem with all the warnings, is that it opens up the psyche and the consciousness to imagine these possible injuries, and then, I believe, it can make a person afraid, and therefore less trusting of their body, and therefore, more prone to the exact thing they are afraid of. What is most important is for a dancer to listen to her body.

Is bellydancing during pregnancy helpful to women even if they wind up having – or plan to have – a caesarean?

Of course! Bellydance is not just meant for preparation for birth. It is an active meditation of connecting with your body. I would assume it would help a woman heal faster from Caesarean, as she would have a stronger body, and a stronger desire to get back to that physical place of enjoyment of her body. As well as having stronger muscles in the abdomen. Plus a stronger back to help her to NOT use her abdominals as she is healing.

Is there a difference between the benefits an amateur can gain from prenatal bellydance and an advanced student or pro? 

Yes. A dancer who is already familiar with Bellydance will be able to achieve more benefits since she has already built the strength and flexibility BEFORE her body begins to change during the pregnancy. I would recommend that someone who has not studied any bellydance, try to get in as many classes as possible before your body starts the massive physical changes during pregnancy. I don’t think it is good for a 3rd trimester pregnant dancer to pick up Bellydance for the first time. I think it is best to go easy as possible and do movements that your body is already familiar with. Bellydance is a very internal dance. Many dancers seek it for its external image and style, but ultimately, the dance initiates from within and is most powerful in this way. So if a new dancer can approach it this way and not worry so much about looking like her teacher, than she could begin dancing during her 9th month of pregnancy. But again, it is about perspective. I see many people overdue it in order to get the results to LOOK right. A new dancer who is more concerned about FEELING right is on the right path.

How did you learn to meditate, and what role do you think it can play in a new mom’s life?

I started meditating as a teenager and have read countless self-help books and participated in countless spiritual, new age, shaman workshops and rituals. I had to make this meditation, really for my own birth, as I recorded it 3 days before I gave birth. I knew it was pretty far out, and may be a bit too inaccessible for a first-time meditator, but it was what I was called to do. For me, this was what the DVD was all about. The meditations were the most important element. I think WDNY played it down a bit in the title, probably because it was so far out there, but I had to commit to what I felt moved to do. It helped me a lot during my birth. I hope so much that Moms-to-be can use the visualizations. It is meant to be listened to multiple times over to prepare for birth.

In your experience, how soon after birth can women start to dance again? 

A woman should wait 6 weeks minimum. Unless the baby slides out without pushing, chances are the pelvic floor muscles have undergone some damage. The womb needs time for healing and for contracting back into place. It is most important that a woman does not rush out and start trying to work off the pregnancy weight. She is doing a disservice to the beautiful home (womb) of her baby, and her own body that worked so hard to find balance during this time. It makes me sad to see so many women who spend so much of their thought-energy on how much they weigh after the baby is born. It is a beautiful gift that you have received, that you were able to birth this little being. Celebrate your body, that did this work, treat yourself like a goddess, and enjoy your baby. Listen to the subtle voices of your body. IF it hurts, AT ALL, don’t do it! I waited at least 6 weeks, because I could feel there was damage to my pelvic floor, and I wanted to recover and heal, physically and emotionally. Birth is a traumatic miracle. It takes a lot of processing and adjusting. It is a whole initiation into a new stage that you will never return from.

Did having a child change the way you approach your dance? 

Yes. Life experience is what makes good art. I have such depth of life-experience, I have endless emotions and anxieties and frustrations, and incredible joys and loves to dance about. Dance about dance itself is quite boring to me.

I’d like to thank Sera for generously answering my questions about bellydance and pregnancy! I think “birth is a traumatic miracle” is a quote to hold on to — I can’t think of a single sentence that has better summed up my experience of it. And now I’m inspired to go back to my daily meditation…

You can visit Sera’s website at www.boldbellydance.com and find out more about her videos at World Dance New York.

Putting mom’s body together again

Yesterday I swam for the first time since last October. Having finally received the go-ahead for exercise at my six-week check-up on Monday, I spent what free time I could carve out during the week doing a series of activities I hadn’t been able to for ages:

1. Tuesday: I took a hot bath.
2. Wednesday: I got a massage.
3. Thursday: I went swimming.

I’ve come to see these as necessary activities not just for me, but also for everyone around me. On the especially exhausted days recently, not only have I been miserable, but I’ve managed to make everyone around me miserable too. The destructive power of an unhappy mom is considerable! So my husband knows to send me out of the house when things are getting bad. On one particularly exhausted day, he said to me, “Why don’t I watch the baby and you go to Half Price Books and buy some books?” Now, I need more books like I need a tornado to go through my living room (oh, wait…), but I dutifully went and did what I needed to do for the sake of my soul. I don’t think what he did is pictured in Porn for New Moms, but it should be.

Anyway, to return back to swimming… During my pregnancy, I splurged on prenatal massages twice. I don’t usually go for massages, but I thought my body deserved them then. But what surprised me was how psychologically important they were too. Even during a pretty easy pregnancy, I still felt like my body wasn’t really my own anymore. People stared at my belly, and every time I went to the doctor’s I was poked and prodded in various ways. It started to feel like my abdominal area was just a totally different part of me, available for the viewing and inspection of others. When I got a prenatal massage, I nearly wanted to cry, since it was the first time I felt like a whole person, with body and mind both belonging to me.

Fast forward to labour, a c-section, breastfeeding… now my body feels even more cut up into chunks. This bit is for the baby, this bit was cut up and needs to be kept dry and not used for anything, this bit is still bleeding, this bit hurts from lifting the baby, and this other bit hurts from bending over too much. It’s a completely fragmented experience of my own body. And while massage and the bath helped a bit, it was really when I went swimming that my body didn’t feel like bits anymore.

Plunging into the water I felt shocked by its coolness, and so I focused on that. I had been a bit scared about my first bit of exercise — would my abdominal muscles hurt? Would I feel them pulling the way I did a few weeks ago when I stood up holding the baby? But they felt fine when I started swimming, my back pain went away, and suddenly I could just give in to the meditative flow of being in the water. I’ve never been a particularly strong or skilled swimmer — in fact, I really only started to like it in university, after reading a book on swimming and working on my technique (yes, I do everything via book learnin’!) — but I can now breast stroke for ages.

Even more surprising than the fact that my body felt ok, in fact just like my old, pre-baby body, was this: I found I wasn’t getting tired at all. You would think after six weeks of no exercise, lack of sleep, round-the-clock breastfeeding, and only short walks, the first bit of cardio would have me huffing and puffing at the edge of the pool. Not only did that not happen, but I only left the pool because of the cold weather, not because I was tired. I really felt I could have gone on swimming for another hour, forgetting all those worries and to-do lists that usually fill my head.

I am now really looking forward to starting some gentle postnatal workouts and bellydance…

Reader, I birthed him

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that my interest in prenatal workout videos wasn’t purely theoretical. Workout and dance videos were a way for me to keep moving — albeit gently — throughout my pregnancy. In fact, they made it a beautiful one, since I had never before paid so much attention to my body’s needs. I never pushed myself incredibly hard, since I wasn’t looking to lose weight or set any records, but I did use exercise to deal with back pain and to work on my flexibility and endurance. They say, after all, that labour is like a marathon, so I thought I would train as best I could!

Marathon, eh? Well, if the average marathon time is 4:35 hours, I could have run over seventeen marathons in the time I laboured. Because, dear reader, while my pregnancy was a dream, labouring to bring my son into the world was all kinds of funky. When I write “funky” I don’t mean “life-threatening” — both he and I were pretty resilient throughout the four days I was in labour, and I’m well aware of how important that is. But all kinds of little things made my hope of giving birth in the traditional way difficult and, eventually, impossible.

Now, beware — this is one of those revealing, personal blog posts full of Too Much Information. It’s the kind of stuff I don’t always feel comfortable talking about, much the writing about it online. But it’s my blog, after all, and a few people have asked me how things went. If you don’t want to read this — just click somewhere else.

I started to labour on a Friday morning, in the car on my way home from an appointment with my ob/gyn. By Friday evening my contractions, which were not yet very strong, were 2-3 minutes apart and lasted anywhere from 60 to 90 seconds. Our wonderful doula came over, and she judged it was time to go to the hospital. Once there, my contractions almost immediately stopped. I was kept under supervision for several hours, and since nothing was happening, they gave me an Ambien and sent me home. And that, my friends, was the last full night of sleep I had.

On Saturday, I continued labouring at home. This was the lovely part of the labour, despite the pain getting worse. I had Middle Eastern music playing on my iPod speaker, I did hip circles and chest circles and what have you, and my husband applied warm packs and gave me massages as things got progressively harder. Inspired by the outdoor bits of Maha al Musa’s Dance of the Womb, we went outside to the park behind our apartment and walked over the hills, using the inclines to get through contractions. Because of the way the baby was positioned, some basic movements like cat-cow stretch were extremely painful, but there was so much else I could do, and I still felt quite positive and hopeful about the experience.

Saturday night we did not sleep.

Sunday morning, thinking my waters had broken, we went to the hospital and called our doula again. They hadn’t broken, but this time they kept me in. Now, I had worried about the hospital’s openness to natural childbirth. Everyone I knew who had given birth there had had a c-section, a prospect I found terrifying. And, in fact, the hospital staff were so unaccustomed to any woman actually being mobile enough to walk through the halls, as I was, that some of them didn’t think I was in labour yet. Everyone else there was hooked up to an epidural as soon as they got in! However, to my surprise, both nurses and doctors were incredibly supportive. They took our birth plan seriously, I was allowed broth and water (against the usual hospital policy), no one rushed me or came to bother me, and aside from the bare minimum of precautions and checks, things were allowed to progress naturally.

Moreover, I had brought my iPod player with me, so to the surprise of the nurses, we had Middle Eastern music playing in our room and I often danced through contractions, at least during the early part of the day. I found to my surprise that the most useful moves for me were undulations, which helped with the back pain, and that I would often naturally do a shimmy just as a contraction was wearing off, as a way of relaxing my body out of it.

Which was, it turns out, incredibly slowly.

At this point I also had back labour, and certain things — like going to the bathroom or being on all fours — were excruciating. I had progressed so little, and the baby seemed to be malpositioned, so we tried all the natural methods to turn him. We figured there was a chance, since my waters still hadn’t broken. I spent almost an hour on all fours moving from side to side in a haze of pain (I actually don’t recall most of it), my doula tried shifting my hips with a scarf, the whole enchilada. This did nothing. For much of Sunday evening I thought I was going through transition, as I was showing the typical signs according to my doula. I was, it turns out, not going through transition.

Sunday night we did not sleep.

At some point during the night, I did get some painkiller though, through the IV, so at least I had two hours’ break from the pain. On Monday morning I agreed to have my waters broken, at least to move things along. What followed was pain so horrible that I thought I would die pregnant and in that hospital room. All the breathing and relaxation exercises I had done until then were quickly losing their effect. Aside from having contractions that were 2-3 minutes long, with back labour, the contractions were also not the usual kind — they would generally start at the peak of pain and either wind down, or not. They were, in short, unmanageable. And the worst part was that this pain had brought us almost no closer to the end.

My doctor walked in, found me screaming on the bed with my husband on one side and the doula on the other, and said, “This woman needs an epidural and a few hours of sleep!” Seriously, I would have asked for an epidural myself if I could have remembered at this point that they exist. The pain and fatigue were so overwhelming that I truly didn’t know there were options for me. I was focused on survival. But when my doctor said those magic words, I yelled, “Yes!” and the magic happened.

Now, I have nothing against epidurals. I don’t think women should have to suffer. But I had wanted to avoid the epidural because it so often leads to stalled labours and c-sections. In my case, the epidural helped me get a few hours of sleep and relax to 10 centimetres. The doctor gave me a few extra hours to bear down, and I was ready to push. All was going well again, and the finish line was in sight. Or so it seemed. My nurse came and taught me how to push, and I started doing so, with various nurses and my doula giving me advice. At this point the epidural was wearing off on one side, so I could partially feel my contractions (and back labour, my old friend), and was basically mobile. I pushed and pushed and pushed. I pushed on my back. I pushed on my side. I asked to push on all fours, which the nurses didn’t want to allow because they thought I couldn’t move my legs. But my epidural was weak enough that I was still mobile, so I pushed on all fours. Again, I lost track of time. I remember the period as very short, but my husband tells me I pushed for two hours.

And then my doctor came in, gave me the kind of examination that belongs on a specialty video of dubious respectability, and informed me that the baby had not progressed one bit.

This was, after four days of labour, and moreover, after four days of constantly thinking we were almost there, that the baby was going to come, extremely dispiriting. I asked what the options were, and she said she could have me push some more, use forceps to try and turn him, and then have me push, but that it might not work. In that moment I knew it wouldn’t. I barely had any more strength. I hadn’t slept in three days, hadn’t eaten in two, the epidural was no longer masking the pain — and I could no longer handle the pain. And although I know forceps can be fine and so on, I just didn’t want to subject my baby to the risk. He had been so strong over four days of labour, and I just didn’t think it fair to put him in danger because of my desire for a vaginal birth. I looked at my husband, said something like, “I don’t want to do this, I want the c-section,” and we agreed on the decision in a moment.

The sight I remember, the sight that stays with me, is seeing my husband and doula crying at this point. I thought they were crying because they were upset, but he later told me they were both relieved for it all to be over.

Once I made the decision, I became calmer, although I was still terrified of the surgery. I started chatting to everyone, fiercely trying to keep my mind off of it. My nurse later told me that on the way to the operating room I commented loudly that I was afraid my husband would never look at me sexually again. In the room, I remarked that it looked like a public bathroom, and then asked my anesthesiologist if he played the guitar and if not, why not. And after they got the curtain up between me and my about-to-be-sliced-open belly, one of the doctors on the other side sweetly asked, “What are you going to say to your baby when you see him?”

“FUCK YOU!” I replied.

A clip of time later, they held a monstrous-looking, squawling, bloody baby above the curtain and then whisked him away to suck a bit of meconium out of his lungs. I somehow remember him being purple and green at the same time, though I know this can’t be true. I was already shivering uncontrollably, and now I started weeping uncontrollably. When they brought him to me, I started crying even harder, and I said what I’d said I would say — but lovingly, softly, and in my native language. He was 8 lbs 7 oz, and he was finally out, thank goodness.

So that, dear readers, is my birth story. To be honest, it was quite traumatic. And yet everything was the opposite of what I expected. I was worried about the medical establishment, and in point of fact they made me feel totally empowered and respected my wishes. I tried so hard to avoid the epidural and the c-section, but by the end of the marathon, both of them were massive sources of relief. I was traumatized and detached from the baby for quite a while, but it wasn’t because of the medical aspects of my birth — it was because for me and my body and the position of my baby, natural childbirth just sucked big time. (My mom had a similar experience, so I guess it may be partly genetic.) The two good things were that I had a healthy, sturdy boy, and that I don’t feel guilty about the operation — I really know I did everything in my power to give birth vaginally. Any more would have been, in my case, stupid.

So to return to the topic of this blog… did all that exercise, the yoga and the pilates and the dancing help? For a while I thought they didn’t, that they were a bit of a big joke. They certainly helped me a great deal to enjoy my pregnancy, but I felt that they didn’t bring much to my labour. (All of those exercises you’re supposed to do to put your baby in the right position? I had been doing them for months. Much good it did me.) If I had given birth on Sunday evening I still would have had a long, three-day labour, but it would have been a dream birth experience in many ways — time spent at home, music, free movement, no meds, deep breathing, and a rather satisfying series of foot rubs from my husband. But the intensity, fatigue, and frustration of Monday were what made the experience hellish.

And yet, as time has passed in the intervening month, I’ve realised the exercise did help. On the one hand, the videos made me feel I could have a natural, vaginal birth, and for me the fact that I couldn’t wound up being sad and almost a bit angry-making. Why couldn’t I, after practicing all those squats? Still, most of my labour was manageable and under my control, and movement — especially bellydance — was a big part of that. Moreover, someone pointed out to me that I had the bodily strength to get through four days of labour, three of them without any pain killers. Since I’m not usually the fittest person, this had to have been due to all the workout videos I did. The fact is, try as we might to do everything right, some of us will not have the dream birth experience. But even though my birth didn’t go the way I pictured it, most of it did, and those parts really are beautiful.

And, in the end, what can I say? The kid is damned cute.

Moves and positions for an active labour

A few of the DVDs I’ve worked with have small bonus sections describing how to adapt the main program to labour itself. Since I’m unlikely to be able to find just the right section in each while in labour, I decided to make a little picture review of the available options. The videos themselves have detailed instructions I will not reproduce here, but I offer this post as an inspiration and guide.

From Yoga for Your Pregnancy:

Seated pelvic circles in both directions:

Cat-cow pose:

Wide hip circles while on all fours, with knees far apart:

Supported downward facing dog:

Same thing, but on knees, really relaxing upper body:

Supported squat:

From FitMama Prenatal Workout:

Rocking motion to help baby work his way down:

Cat stretch, in different positions, for contractions:

Deep squat, rounding back during contraction:

And, of course, there are all the bellydance moves: circles, hip sways, undulations, figure eights…

What moves helped you during your labour?

Review of Maha Al Musa’s Dance of the Womb

As I near my due date, my thoughts turn more and more towards preparing for birth and labour, rather than just keeping fit and dealing with the aches and pains of pregnancy. For a while now I’ve been watching and working with sections of the Maha Al Musa’s 2-DVD set, Dance of the Womb: A Gentle Guide to Belly Dance for Pregnancy and Birth (which I received as a review copy), and I’m happy that I’ve played with all of it just at the right time in my pregnancy.

In what sense? Dance of the Womb is much less a workout, and much more a guide to and meditation on connecting with your body to have the best pregnancy and birthing experience possible. To be frank, I don’t think I would have appreciated it very much in my second trimester — I did take some peeks into the program, but was not moved to work with it just yet. And I was lucky to have a pretty active third trimester, for the most part, which enabled me to take on more challenging prenatal programs and even normal dance DVDs. (Though I wasn’t jogging or weight lifting or anything I probably wouldn’t do anyway!) But working with Dance of the Womb as everything in my body is starting to get heavy and painful, and as labour itself approaches, has been just right.

Dance of the Womb has two very different components. One DVD contains a short film of Maha’s home birth of her third child. Between beautifully-shot landscape scenes, photographs, and videos of the birth itself are interspersed interviews with Maha’s midwives. This is an intensely personal film, and really, for lack of a better word, quite amazing. Again, I think this isn’t something I appreciated so much earlier on in my pregnancy, but as I’ve come to see how many of the women I know wound up with cesarean sections recently (the vast majority), I’ve wound up more passionate about being able to labour naturally and with a minimum of interference. I would be too nervous to have a home birth, at least right now, but seeing that it’s possible, and seeing Maha do it, is truly inspiring at this point in my pregnancy.

It’s also inspiring in a practical way. Labour is a long process in many cases, and very different from what they show in the movies. Actually, it’s also quite different from the movies I saw in the Lamaze class on dealing with pain naturally and in the hospital’s prepared childbirth class. Those tend to be shorter and to focus on the last, most painful part of the first phase of labour (transition) and the birth itself. As astounding as all of those births are (both my husband and I are in tears when the lights go up), the videos themselves make the process look rather horrifying and unmanageable. The documentary in Dance of the Womb has a lot of shots of Maha walking and moving around, and as boring as this probably is to someone not currently with child, it’s great to see how she manages most of labour, and that she can manage it. The video also inspired me in nitty gritty ways. While I don’t live in the paradise of nature Maha inhabits, I do have a little bit of a park just outside my apartment, and only when I watched her video did it occur to me that I could spend some of my time outside instead of cooped up, communing with the carefully landscaped nature available to me!

Astoundingly beautiful

The first DVD contains the dance program itself. This is broken down into the following chapters:

Warm Ups (45 min)
The Circle (26 min)
The Spiral (9 min)
The Figure 8 (12 min)
The Cervix (4 min)
The Hands & Arms (13 min)
The Chest (7 min)

This is, as should be obvious, an enormous amount of instruction and practice time. What this means, practically, is that it was a little tricky for me to get started with it. I really had consciously to set aside a good chunk of time for it, and even then had to break it apart into two sessions. Again, this makes sense at the end of pregnancy, as I wind down from the usual pace of my work and more carefully take time to take care of myself.

 
The Warm Up is a program all on its own, comprised of a variety of yoga-based stretches and movements for improving bodily mobility. The instruction is incredibly precise, and the pace is slow. There is much focus on concentration and breath. Despite the fact that I’ve done what feels like a million prenatal workouts by now, I was still surprised by how many movements in this section were new to me. They effectively stretch every part of the body (every part), and are quite satisfying. I’ll add that I was working with this during a pretty high anxiety week, and it really helped to calm me down.

The subsequent chapters are all dance based, but also all subtly different from each other. Each takes as its focus either a part of the body or a basic shape associated with bellydance, and each teaches bellydance movements. However, some chapters are structured like more typical dance instruction, and teach you movements and variations on them (like the figure 8), while others introduce a basic shape or idea and then have you move and improv freely (hands & arms). Instruction is detailed and from the ground up — while I picked up some new things, a woman who had never bellydanced before in her life could learn to do these movements comfortably and safely. Moreover, Maha often gives tips on using the particular movement in childbirth, especially when the form would be different for labour than it would be in “proper” bellydance.

The key sections are the circle and the spiral, probably because those are the most elemental movements both for bellydance and for birthing. The focus here is really not on dancing in a performance sense, but on using the movements to enter a meditative, trance-like state. And it works, at least for me. Again, this is a quality of the video that I think makes it less suitable for an energetic early pregnancy, but fabulous for the end stretch. If I go into labour tomorrow (and this is not unlikely), I will probably play the circle and spiral chapters and move along with them.

You have to be creative to figure out how to suit the program to your needs. The 45-minute warmup would be enough for any day, and does incorporate some of the bellydance moves too. You could do the warmup and then a variety of chapters, or just some of the chapters on their own. The pace is slow and careful enough that I don’t think a lengthy warmup is really necessary.

Dance of the Womb: A Gentle Guide to Belly Dance for Pregnancy and Birth is a valuable compendium of preparation, information, and inspiration for birth.

Review of Tracey Mallett’s 3 in 1 Pregnancy System

There are a couple of things that are confusing about Tracey Mallett’s pregnancy videos. The first is that she’s done two, 3 in 1 Pregnancy System and Fit For Pregnancy. I have both, and if you read their covers they seem pretty similar. Both make a big deal about being 3-in-1 in multiple ways — three stages of pregnancy, three disciplines (yoga, pilates, and sculpting), and three body sections. This makes it seem as though you’re going to get some kind of complicated modular system with an elaborate DVD menu. This is not the case.

Look! Normal sofa cushions! I have those too.

At least as far as 3 in 1 Pregnancy System, which I did this morning, is concerned, what you get is a simple, hour-long workout that does indeed balance all the body parts and draw from different movement practices, and that has modifications for the third trimester. And you know what? That’s just fine. The video really hit the spot for me, and if anything, I’m rather relieved that I could just do it without making too many decisions.

The workout is divided into four sections (four? four? what happened to three?!):

Warm Up & Core Conditioning
Lower Body
Upper Body
Partnered Flexibility

Tracey has you mainly warm up using yoga moves, but most of the video seems pilates-based. I’m near my due date and not feeling that strong right now, despite maintaining a movement program, and I was able to do all but one position in the entire video — the plank. There is a modified hundred, which I haven’t seen on other prenatal videos, more abdominal work that is challenging but just barely doable for me right now, and some nice leg strengthening exercises. The toning moves are mixed in with some very satisfying stretches, which I really like. And the upper body section uses light weights to give you a little bit of muscular work.

So far so good. Sounds pretty basic, right? It is pretty basic. But I liked it. Tracey herself is adorable — she has an English accent, is pregnant in the video, and often jokes about not being able to perform certain movements anymore. She somehow makes the video really cheery and lighthearted. The attention to making moves comfortable for pregnant women is constant — I never felt rushed when moving from one position to another, always had time to get a sip of water, and even difficult moves felt controlled and well cued.

That’s it. I’m never going back to cushion-less pilates.

There is minimal prop use, but it’s also thoughtful. For example, Tracey has you use a folded towel under your palms to reduce the strain on the wrists in push ups (and it does!). She also has you use three cushions under your body while doing pilates leg exercises, and it makes the whole thing sooo much more comfortable! And guess what — these are not specialized yoga pillows or anything, but just regular sofa cushions. For once I didn’t have to adjust for the fact that I don’t have a yoga bolster in some kind of very specific shape.

What ruins the numerology of the program is the “partnered flexibility” section — but while it spoils the numbers, it really makes the video. Tracey has her husband come in and help with some gentle stretches, most of them focused on the upper back and neck. Now, I did not get help with these, but Tracey’s husband often provides tips on how to do them alone. And still, they were so, so good. It’s easy to forget that pregnancy will take a toll on the upper back and neck too, and I suffer from tightness in that region anyway. (Who doesn’t?) The super-precise instructions given for these stretches gave me much deeper, more satisfying stretches than I usually get, and I expect to turn to them again and again just to deal with computer-related stiffness.

Husbands make great props, it turns out

So there you have it. Tracey Mallett’s 3 in 1 Pregnancy System is not nearly as complex as the cover would make it seem, but it challenged and stretched me in just the right ways for the third trimester. I can imagine doing it as a postnatal exercise too, as a way of gently building up strength again.