Francoise Freedman director of Birthlight International and medical anthropologist based at Cambridge University, author of many books, doula, teacher, mother of four and now a grandmother has inspired and trained literally thousands of teachers worldwide – including me. Her wisdom, her passion, her dedication, and her originality floor me. She is truly an innovator and her contribution to pregnancy yoga, postnatal yoga, baby yoga and aqua yoga is unequivocal. I am truly honoured to call her my teacher.
In this interview she talks about her experience being pregnant in the amazon rainforest, her brutal first birth story, her healing second birth experience and her fascinating journey from being an Iyengar yoga student to the matriarch of an international perinatal wellbeing organisation today.
Francoise, you have been teaching yoga for more than thirty years. Thousands of women have moved through your classes. And today, you are still here, deeply involved. How has your experience changed over the years?
It’s a very special time now for me as I’ve been attending births of women who I helped deliver when they came into the world as babies. I find that I can link the two births quite well. What I learned in South America with the shaman midwife made me able to replay things in a strange way that I can’t really explain. But it is as if suddenly there is a window and I am back at this woman’s birth and I remember the smells and the sights and everything.
Now I am with the daughter. And the mother was maybe at the birth as well. I have supported both women. It’s very beautiful.
There is a strange dynamic and the mothers step back when their daughters give birth and make space. I’ve never had to say anything. It just happens spontaneously. I enter the space. The midwife, usually from the NHS is there, or sometimes an independent midwife is there. It’s like a very strange and spontaneous orchestration of space.
Let’s go right back to the beginning and your Iyengar days and talk a little bit about how you felt that traditional yoga failed you and when you first established an interest in a new kind of yoga for women?
It’s totally linked with my own life and having babies. At the time I had recently returned to Cambridge, having spent two years in the amazon rain forest doing fieldwork as an anthropologist. I decided to do a yoga teacher training with the Iyengar school here in Cambridge. I loved my Iyengar classes. I loved my Iyengar teacher. I soon became a trainee in the Cambridge Iyengar group. At the time I already had one baby who had been born the Amazonian way in 1975 and I was expecting my third. I was doing yoga so intensively I could feel that it was good, but I knew it needed to be adapted for the pregnant and postnatal body. I started having little groups of pregnant women round me and I would teach them an adapted form of Iyengar yoga.
I wanted to complete my Iyengar teacher training, but I was barred to do any yoga for one year following the birth of my daughter Mary in 1982.
I thought this was ridiculous because I knew I could adapt the yoga for postnatal purposes. I had already adapted it during my pregnancy. I felt excluded from the Iyengar school. Later I discovered other people who had felt the same rejection.
So after a really hard separation from The Iyengar School – it was like being sent away from home – I really grieved that separation. I began to develop my own style of teaching that was less physical and more focused on the breath.
I’m still loyal to the Iyengar style of practice but now I’m much more interested in pranayama and believe the breath is the key.
This is how I started… very much rooted in Iyengar. It was the time when Geeta published the book ‘Yoga a Gem for women’ in 1983. I felt there was a contradiction here, Geeta is doing yoga for pregnancy! Why can’t we do pregnancy and postnatal yoga? Fortunately, Robin Munro the founder of the Yoga Biomedical Trust welcomed my innovations and they were immediately well received by other teachers and yoga therapists.
Your first baby was born in 1975 – that was 8 years before Geeta published her book. When you go back to that time in the Amazon how did you use yoga practice to support yourself during that first pregnancy and birth?
Well, you cannot really do yoga on a mat in the Amazon – with creepy crawlies and mud everywhere. But what I did everyday was to carry jars of water on my head and bunches of plantains and climb up and down slopes through my pregnancy. I also did plenty of swimming and adapted the swimming so that I could stretch in the water. This was the origin of all my aquanatal yoga which is probably becoming now more important to me than the land yoga.
I felt grounded. I felt balanced. I felt supple. I squatted several hours a day to prepare vegetables and do various tasks with the women and to garden. I felt ideally prepared for birth.
When did you first meet Janet Balaskas?
I came across her book and I contacted her when I returned from the Amazon. She invited me to give a workshop in London and talk about my experiences in Peru and how the yoga and the rainforest lifestyle dove-tailed and we became – not exactly friends — but connected.
I think we always respected each other. Janet has spoken at Birthlight conferences. We are close colleagues.
When you become pregnant for the second time — this time in Cambridge – what was your experience?
I was at that time a full lecturer in Cambridge, and I had designed the first course in the anthropology of birth in the UK for Cambridge University. Whilst designing that course I had read all about the history of childbirth and the radical faction which goes back all the way to the to the first world war in the UK and is extremely interesting. There are these cycles of going forwards and then backwards in maternity care but it all really goes backs to the creation of the Royal College of Midwives at the beginning of the 20th century in1906 and even before that there has always been a tussle between drs and midwifes. It’s not new. History repeats itself.
I was very aware of this during my second pregnancy, and I was very fortunate to have a very progressive obstetrician who actually introduced the first water birth pool at Hinchinbrook Hospital near Cambridge. I had wanted to go and give birth with Michel Odent near Pithiviers in France but John Hare, my obstetrician said: ‘Look, I’m creating a new model and it’s a different kind of medical model at Hinchinbrook with just consultants and midwifes. No junior drs, no senior drs, no registrars. Just the midwives in charge and a couple of consultants to come to the rescue if needed.
So I decided to stay and do my social duty in England and see what is possible for childbirth in England.
They had created a birth room in which there was only a large futon bed and a little basket in the corner for the baby and that was all. Unfortunately, the birthing pool was not ready because they had problems with the ceiling. (She starts laughing). They thought the ceiling might collapse so they had to reinforce it so I missed out on the waterbirth but I did have this nice experience of birthing there.
I remember at one moment opening my eyes and seeing about eight people just standing as I was squatting to give birth so I quickly closed them again. They said later: ‘well we wanted to see this. We hope you did not mind.’ There was no consent at that time.
Luckily you must have been deeply in your zone? So that was a positive first hospital experience?
It was not my first hospital experience. My first hospital experience had been my first child because I came back to give birth. I returned from the Amazon three weeks before she was due which again broke the rules but I was quite slim and nobody questioned me. I had to come back for diplomatic reasons, but I also came back to give birth. I gave birth in the Old Victorian hospital in Cambridge behind a curtain. I stood and laboured between the bed and the window. I was really not there. I was back in the Amazon.
Actually, I had a terrible experience because as I felt the baby was coming this midwife came in — she was matron of the ward — and she could see I was a little bit different to the other women. So she told me:
Get on the bed !
So I said… oh … yes … ok then.’ I didn’t want to get on the bed …but I obeyed her so I got on the bed.
And then the next thing was that I saw some scissors coming out of her pocket. This was the time when it was nearly 100 percent episiotomy rate in the UK. I saw the scissors and I put two and two even though I had never heard of episiotomy. I sort of wriggled to the side, to avoid them and I ended up being cut all the way. This is why I care a lot about postnatal recovery. All the yoga breathing exercises and the micro movements I designed were to heal myself first. They were rooted in my own experience.
When I returned to the Amazon, I used lots of resins and plant remedies to heal my scar tissue. Indigenous midwives are now using these resins to save women after their terrible hospital experiences when they are cut or have cruel caesareans carried out on hard beds — sometimes even without sheets.
Without these resins women would be in a terrible plight but fortunately the herbal remedies are still known enough for women to recover well.
What a traumatic contrast to the experience you were having in the Amazon? How did you digest this contrast between your pregnancy and birth experience especially given that you were studying the anthropology of birth? This must have really mobilised you to dovetail the new emerging yoga with the rising radicalism on childbirth.
For me yoga is a good way to promote a good birth rather than the medical model which is based on the premise that no birth is normal except in retrospect. I start from the premise that every birth can be normal and if problems happen you deal with them as they happen. I’ve stayed completely true to that.
Usually there are always solutions. Fortunately, today we have even more solutions. ‘Spinning Babies’ are doing wonders to bring this knowledge out. Evidence Based Births is as well. These organisations that have moved the birth knowledge forward. If only this was integrated into the midwifery curriculum, we’d have completely different maternity outcomes worldwide.
How mechanistic do you think the birth model still is today? I mean we have spinning bases and mechanics for birth who are spearheading a new type of understanding of childbirth but what type of model are the student midwives and drs being taught? Is that changing?
No. Unfortunately I don’t see this changing. This is why Yoga has had to evolve and needs to evolve from a biomechanical type of yoga to a much more mentally and emotional nurturing kind of yoga because this is what women need. Yoga has always been responding to need. What people needed in the 60s was an alternative to gymnastics and Callanetics but now people are turning to yoga for mental wellbeing and relaxation. Being present in your body is a mental process.
What other inspiring people have affected you and your vision of yoga for the perinatal period over the years?
I think Frederick Leboyer and Michel Odent have been more influential on me than anybody else. Michel Odent’s work on Primal Health is fundamental and cannot be ignored. And Leboyer… If we speak about innovation, he was the arch innovator. He put babies in warm baths. He understood the neuroscience of it before it came out. He understood that yoga doesn’t start and finish with birth. He didn’t go very far back in the pregnancy, but he did continue the yoga with the babies and introduced the massage for babies. We have The Loving Hands which is a wonderful contribution to the world from him.
One mustn’t forget that Leboyer went to India and studied yoga with Iyengar himself and then moved away and embraced Tai Chi. But Leboyer also introduced Nada yoga – the yoga of sounds and the breath.
Because of my interest in the mind and all the new developments in foetal medicine and what we know in embryology about foetal development, I became very interested in the research that was done on the importance of the first trimester for the long-term cortisol thresholds of babies studied up to year 12. I think this motivated me to take yoga further and develop a yoga for the first trimester which I’m still pushing for today. Currently, at least from the perspective of foetal development, women come to yoga too late because we have this silly rule about 16 weeks. Unfortunately I was part of setting up this rule back in the early days because we didn’t want to be associated with the risk of miscarriage. But actually, the truth is women need yoga more than any other time in their first trimester.
Other Influential figures include Vivette Glover from Imperial College who has supported what I was doing from very early on because she could see that it fed into her research on maternal depression and anxiety. Sadly, the WHO predicted some time ago that anxiety and depression would be the main syndrome of the 21st century. As we are already near the end of the first quarter, I can see that galloping ahead at a very frightening pace and this Covid 19 period has maybe worsened it even more — aggravated it.
It’s even more important to breathe right; to relax. We have hypnobirthing; we have mindfulness, yet I remain faithful to what Yoga brings as a holistic practice. And of course, we have Yoga Nidra which is a very exciting field right now. Learning breathing patterns early on is probably the best gift any pregnant women can give to her baby; her whole family and herself.
You came to yoga through Iyengar; a hatha yoga tradition with an almost exclusively male lineage. Do you agree that women have to find their feminine spiritual ancestry from a different place?
I don’t have to agree or disagree with that because I have always walked my talk from the start. I was doing Iyengar of course. I was influenced because my father was a hatha yogi in the Krishnamacharya tradition, but my connection has always been with the earth and the water and the elements.
I was apprenticed to a shaman midwife after I returned to the amazon with my baby; who then taught me duing my next pregnancy. I mean how would I not promote this sort of elemental female way of connecting to the universe.
Of course there is an inherent maleness even in childbirth. Yes, Frederik Leboyer was in his own way quite a male chauvinist person. Michel not. Yes, we have to retrieve the feminine roots and Yoni Shakti is there in the yoga tradition when you go looking. Shiva and Shakti have always been there. The union of opposites have always been there; the yin and the yang; the wheel of the universe involves the make and the female. Yes, we have to be rooted in the feminine. Yes, Birth is fundamentally a female act.
Now even that is changing as childbirth becomes an event which the father is present for. This new cultural norm came about in the later 20th century – and is globally now accepted. Michel Odent questions the foundations of this practice. I think in some respects he is right. But our culture has changed. I think we need to let women find their way.
I attended the birth of my daughter who was with her partner and she could not have been without her partner there. It was so important to her. I think the circles of women are so primordial for birth preparation. But for the birth scenario we have now a new cultural norm about partners being present but who knows — this may change again. In the same way that before we had many people attending births and we even had woman birthing alone in some cultures. In some parts of Africa, it is still the rule.
How did women in the amazon birth?
I have seen the transition from home birthing, because there was no hospital at that time, to the imposition of being forced to give birth in these small so-called hospitals. If women don’t go there to give birth their children don’t get their identity card, and they too are at risk, so it’s a very punishing rule. Everywhere in Latin America is the same. But now, sadly, it’s so ingrained that many indigenous women do not want to give birth at home anymore because they have internalised the modernity of hospitals — even with their horror. Even if they know that it’s not right for themselves. They want to be there.
And yet there are some ritual practices that remain very strong. In the Amazon the intimacy comes from the groups of women in the river washing clothes; or doing work in the gardens. These rituals are very much either feminine or masculine.
Let’s talk a little about Patanajali. Most yoga teachers have come across Patanjali’s Sutras as the key Hatha Yoga text of their Teacher Training Course. I am intrigued to hear what you think abut this whole eight step path for yoga and if there’s a parallel pathway a pregnant woman must follow towards a yogic birth?
I will start by challenging the idea of a linear progression to enlightenment and instead propose the idea that we are all already enlightened. It’s just we need to access the state but is there if we embrace it fully. Pratyahara can be achieved in easy ways. It does not need to be this enigmatic state. What I retain from Patanjali that I place first and foremost in all my teachings is Sukha; the fact that we need to be comfortable and at ease. There has to be ease. What is often missing from our western yoga practice is that ease. We force ourselves; we push ourselves; we over do everything. Sukha is the key. Sukha is the essence of yoga. When we have ease even Pratyahara can be achieved easily by practising Bhramari without blocking off the eyes and ears; just humming. Pregnant women can hum and feel the sensation and vibration of the humming with their babies inside. And the babies learn to recognise the humming and respond with all sorts of emotional molecules and endorphins which then feed back to the mother. The mudras too can be wonderfully effective in helping women to connect; to centre and create their own affirmations for birth. From affirmation to action; if it’s done with ease you can get into the zone. I also notice that Pregnant women are adept at Yamas and Niyamas They are all non-violent people.
The birth statistics are as depressing today as they were 15 years ago despite all the innovations. How can all these female centred birth innovations change these depressing statistics for women in childbirth?
I see it very much as a multi-pronged approach. I see there has been much progression in different aspects of women’s lives – a consequence of the feminist movement. Sadly, our hopes have not been fulfilled in the way that seemed possible in the 90s even. Again, we can use Eastern philosophy in situations like this. You can either confront, or you can dodge, you can use guerrilla tactics, you can hide or operate underground, you can develop your strategy.
I have recently supported my daughter through a home covid water birth and I have seen her use these tactics to achieve her homebirth. I think if women are motivated there is a way. I feel sad and aggrieved that the majority of women have to go through the system and the system is not conducive to the full expression of their femininity or their empowerment during childbirth — or after for that matter. I see the postpartum period as the worst casualty of the recent historical process. It’s not just the statistics, it’s what is being done to women.
Thankfully, I have also seen some happy innovations in other countries. For example, there are some wonderful facilities that have been created in China in spite of their systematic approach to birth, there is a genuine care for babies which perhaps we can get inspiration from. And I always admire our Russian friends for their total resilience, courage, and resourcefulness in their mothering and in the way they use midwives, sometimes illegally, to dodge the system. We have a wonderful Birthlight group in Russia and I’m full of admiration and respect for the midwives and the women who birth with them.
What challenges do you think face pregnancy yoga teachers today? What can they do to be the best guides for women they can be especially in today’s high anxiety, covid 19 era? What advice would you give todays pregnancy yoga teachers?
I think they are already doing it. I’m full of admiration for them. I have read the discussions on our Facebook groups. I think they help each other to find the answers. There is so much out there. So many resources. We live in a world of information. We live in a world where there is so much potential. Each teacher can find her own holistic cocktail of practices and provided that is internalised in her; that it is real; that it is embedded in her practice and life then she will do a wonderful job with the women that she attracts to her classes.
How has your practice evolved with you? What is your practice today? In its widest possible sense?
Bliss. Because that’s the essence of the world. That’s the fabric of the whole world. Sometimes I lose it. Then I go and see a sunset and I find it again. Or I go and walk by the river and look at the swan family and I find it again. I’ve always been inspired by plants and animals. And seeing the growth and force of the cosmos. We are so little and so wilful. Just let go and be with. That is my practice.
I am doing a lot more conscious breathing recently because Ive had a need to explore and refine pranayama. I studied with Sri Krishna who is really a great teacher. And a lot of meditation but of the easy kind… just floating with it. I have been meditating since 1988 in Transcendental Meditation and became a Siddha in 1992. I also do a lot of walking and breathing meditation. That has enabled me to restore my energy in very little time.
Lastly can you talk a little bit about Birthlight and its plans moving forwards?
I think the lock-down has been a period of reckoning for Birthlight. We are a small charity and we have been subject to all the pressures a small charity faces including financial hazards. We don’t know whether we are going to remain viable. It’s still an unknown. But it has helped me reconnect to the source of Birthlight; to the early history and the early connections and moving forwards from this basis. My work has always been about the dovetailing of pregnancy, birth and yoga and also the primal continuum and primal health. My belief is now that more than ever we need this primal health. We need to make people more aware that this is the foundation for the future of society. That we absolutely need to nurture our pregnant women and our newborns. I remain committed to that vision — even if it is more difficult to achieve now than before.
There is enough of a movement out there and, of course, it’s totally linked with the ecology movement and what is happening to our earth. This growing awareness that we are one with the natural world. We need to connect pregnancy and birth with this life. It is life. We need to nurture this life very preciously every day. In our food, in our yoga, in our attitude; the Yamas and the Niyamas have never been more important than now but they are ecological Yamas and Niyamas now.
This is where I remain standing. As they say in the indigenous world. I remain standing.
Nadia Raafat feels deeply blessed to have trained with Francoise Freedman and Birthlight back in 2005 in Pregnancy Yoga and later Postnatal and Baby Yoga with Sally Lomas and specialising in Yoga for Vaginal Birth After CSection (VBAC) with Ingrid Lewis. Nadia’s Pregnancy Yoga classes remain deeply influenced by her time with Francosie and her wise and innovative approach to pregnancy.