Samadhi can sometimes be quite difficult to understand. According to Patanjali, samadhi is contemplation, the final culmination of your work in concentration and meditation. Other sources describe samadhi as an understanding of a person’s union with the self and the Highest Self, or union with God. Samadhi is not something that can be taught; it’s only something that one can experience and work toward on their own. Swami Satchidananda says,
Meditation culminates in the state of samadhi. It’s not that you practice samadhi. Nobody can consciously practice samadhi. Our effort is there only up to meditation. You put all your effort in dharana. It becomes effortless in dhyana, and you are just there, knowing that you are in meditation. But in samadhi, you don’t even know that. You are not there to know it because you are that.
So, how does one achieve samadhi in motherhood? I believe that there are some women who are able to reach that peak during childbirth. Through undisturbed birth (i.e., no medical intervention, with a supportive and empowering birth team), a mother can awaken the kundalini, sitting dormant in the muladhara chakra (around the perineum), leading to an ecstatic birth experience, or samadhi. This mother surely has prepared well for this experience, being of good health, mentally and physically, and working past the fear and anxiety of the childbirth experience. I also believe that a conscious and observant woman can have an ecstatic birth experience in a hospital-like setting if she is at peace with the situation.
I think sometimes we, as Westerners, forget that life is full of pain. We will often go to great lengths to avoid painful experiences. When we do that, we miss out on amazing opportunities for personal growth, learning experiences and illumination. Childbirth is one of those experiences, and this particular event is very temporary. Pam England, the author of Birthing From Within, has written extensively about dealing with inner feelings and preparing yourself emotionally for childbirth, regardless of whether you are expecting an unmedicated birth. In one passage, she wrote, “There are lots of options available [i.e. interventions and/or drugs], but if you are to give birth instinctively, spontaneously and drug-free, there is virtually nowhere to go but through your pain.”
Many pregnant women experience what’s called “nesting,” which usually results in major housecleaning and organizing to prepare for baby’s arrival. Nesting can also apply to internal, psychological cleansing, dealing with inner demons and fears regarding the birth experience, especially if it is the woman’s first birth. This psychological preparation is no different in yoga practices. Satchidanada, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali about samadhi, says, “It is all well and good to learn the different methods of meditation and the experiences that could come to you. But if you are really serious about this business and really want to go deep into meditation, take care to have a clean mind. Otherwise, you are not going to get it.” This purification, whether self-guided or by the caregiver, removes obstacles that may lay waiting during the labor experience. A woman’s mind naturally wants to return to its natural state of tranquility and allow the body to do work it already knows how to do.
An ecstatic birth experience can also be described as an orgasmic experience. We tend to relate orgasms to the sexual contact of lovers and the ultimate culmination of pleasure from it. Whereas sexual orgasm can be thought of as the union of two people becoming one, childbirth is the disunion of the mother and child, first with the baby being born and ending with the cutting of the umbilical cord (or just the removal of the placenta in a lotus birth). One becoming two (childbirth) echoes ancient yoga philosophy, of Purusha (the observer, or nothingness and everything) giving rise to or birthing Prakriti (observable matter, or Mother Nature). From Prakriti, the world as we know it forms, first with the gunas (the qualities of Mother Nature), then mind and ego and finally ether, air, fire, water and earth.
Oxytocin plays a key role in enabling samadhi during childbirth. Elizabeth Davis and Debra Pascali-Bonaro, authors of Orgasmic Birth, describe in detail the effects of oxytocin:
Oxytocin – otherwise known as the love hormone – is also released during foreplay, with orgasm, and interestingly enough, at the mere thought of a lover, accounting for our ability to become physically aroused without actual contact. Similarly, a mother may experience letdown of her milk (also prompted by oxytocin) simply upon hearing her baby cry or even just by thinking of the baby if she is away. Oxytocin levels are extraordinarily high during labor but never higher than the moment of birth and immediately after. This is to facilitate complete contraction of the uterus to prevent excess blood loss but also to prompt bonding. It has been clearly demonstrated that oxytocin causes us to form a deep attachment to whoever is present at the times of significant release.
So, along with oxytocin, naturally produced endorphins come to our rescue during an unmedicated birth. England, in her book, says, “As dilation progresses, the sensation of pain will increase. The more pain you have, the more endorphins are released to help you cope. The rising level of endorphins contribute to the shift from a thinking, rational mindset to a more primitive and instinctive one. Endorphins take you to the dream-like state of Laborland, which meshes well with the tasks of birthing.”
The dream-like state that England refers to can be attributed to a difference in brain waves produced from mothers going through natural labor. These brain waves, specifically theta, can also be found in deep meditation according to scientific studies.
Davis and Pascali-Bonaro:
[T]here is a critical link between oxytocin and brain waves that are deeper and more synchronous than alpha. When not altered by Pitocin [synthetic oxytocin] or other interventions, the brain waves of laboring women are in theta frequency. This is the deepest level we can experience in the waking state. (We move into delta with sleep.) Theta is associated with extrasensory perception, creative inspiration and spontaneous problem solving. In theta, time becomes relative and elastic. Anyone who has given birth (or attended a birth) can attest to points in the process when minutes seemed like hours and vice versa. Notice the correlation to the way our perception of time shifts with passionate lovemaking.
Compare this theta experience to when women do have interventions or synthetic oxytocin. The introduction of these methods interfere with the feel-good hormones, making women more aware of their surroundings, increasing mental activity and inhibiting the more primal, bodily urges. In these situations, women are more likely to experience beta (heightened alert) brain waves. Such circumstances will activate adrenaline, which slows, stalls or even reverses dilation when the setting doesn’t feel right for the mother. Michel Odent, the renowned French obstetrician and supporter of natural, unmedicated birth, has written and spoken extensively about the importance of silence, darkness and isolation of laboring women and her small support team during the duration of the birth experience. He has said that these key factors help turn off the neocortex region of the brain responsible for critical thinking, allowing the more primitive parts of our brain to function predominately during birth.
During transition – cervical dilation from 7 centimeters to 10 – and the pushing stage of labor, women sometimes report that they feel like they are on the edge of life or death or on the verge of being ripped apart. This can be related to samadhi, because it can be equated to an out-of-body experience. This is when the mental chatter is nonexistent and instinct takes over. Ultimately, a woman’s body knows exactly what it’s doing during childbirth. When the mind lets go, everything becomes effortless.
Why does this thought of dying come up in a healthy labor, often just before giving birth? The mounting intensity of labor forces complete surrender of our body and will, dissolving our ego, ideas and familiar sense of self. We’re not afraid of dying because there is no ‘self’ left to resist and fear. At that transcendent moment, we have become birth itself. This is the spiritual birth of woman into mother. In the last, most intense hours of labor, I [England] had unexpectedly become mindless, floating in boundless, empty space between contractions, unoccupied by any thoughts whatsoever. This timeless bliss was regularly pierced by sharp pain reminding me that my head was still attached to a body! But in between contractions, my mind would simply float away. Near the end of my labor, my ego, mental chatter and birth plans all receded into the activity of birth. My thinking mind plummeted into an immense silence in which I felt bathed in love and well-being. It was then, for an unforgettable moment, that I felt a oneness with all mothers who had ever given birth, and to mothers all around the world who were laboring and giving birth with me that night. For a fleeting moment, I saw all of us reaching deep inside for strength to break through the mental and physical limitations which we, as maidens, had assumed to exist.
This, too, can be related to samadhi and yoga. Satchidananda says:
When you achieve that ritambhara prajna [absolute true consciousness], you understand everything without study. When you transcend the mind through proper concentration, you feel the cosmic force or God. You can check your experience with the scriptures or through the word of sages and saints, but it is known by you through your own experience. Until then, all you have heard and read and visualized will be by your own mind. Experiencing God [or, in this case, ecstatic birth] is something that is genuine and comes only when you transcend the mind. God cannot be understood by the mind, because mind is matter; and matter cannot possibly understand something more subtle than matter…In not only the physical silence, but in the real mental silence, the wisdom dawns.
Although it is not guaranteed that every woman will experience samadhi during childbirth, every child conceived has been immersed in it while inside the womb. According to ancient yoga philosophy and ayurveda, which is an ancient system of healing, a fetus is in a state of ecstasy, or samadhi, during its time in the womb due to the location of kundalini. Dr. Vasant Lad, in his Textbook of Ayurveda, says that consciousness enters the growing fetus through the anterior fontanel, concentrating the kundalini, or electromagnetic energy, in the sahasrara chakra, which is located in the brain. This mirrors normal fetal development, with the brain and spinal cord being the first to form after conception.
“The womb is a most blissful state of unconsciousness. Modern psychologists say that every person is seeking the womb of bliss. The child cries because it has lost the song of bliss. You know pain because you have already experienced bliss. Without the experience of bliss, there is no experience of pain. Bliss is not the mere absence of pain, but is a most positive state of existence. This state of bliss is present in the mother’s womb. The child in the mother’s womb is in a passive, blissful state…At that moment, the anterior fontanel is open. There is subtle communication between the mother’s heart and the baby’s heart. The baby expresses its feelings and emotions through the mother’s emotions. A woman has two hearts during pregnancy – her own heart and the baby’s.
Swami Sivananda, in his Kundalini Yoga textbook, describes this blissful state as nirvikalpa samadhi, saying that there is no distinction between subject and object because the experiencer (in this case, the baby) is “one” with existence. “He becomes one with the non-dual Brahman. All sense of separateness dissolves. This is the highest plane of consciousness or supreme asamprajnata samadhi,” he says.
Ultimately, though, this wonderful experience usually ends with childbirth. Lad’s textbook states that the uterine contractions cause the baby stress, sending the kundalini down the sushumna, or the subtle spinal cord, and the child comes out of its nine months of bliss.
When kundalini moves from the crown chakra along the spinal cord and hits the solar plexus and the celiac ganglion, then the diaphragm works, the lungs open, the first breath enters and the child cries. At that first breath, the baby’s kundalini is pushed down into the pelvic cavity. So downward movement of kundalini separates the individual consciousness (jiva) from higher consciousness. The moment the child cries, at that moment, the blissful state of subjective awareness is gone and the physical state of awareness is born. We forget the blissful state in the mother’s womb.
After birth, the blissful experience the baby had in the womb sometimes stays for months or years, with some very young children reporting wonderful memories of life inside that dark, cozy place. But the kundalini, which has now begun its rest at the root chakra, may lay dormant until the child’s consciousness begins to rise years later. Through the eight limbs of yoga, the child, or adult, can once again attain samadhi.
See the next chapter: “Eight Limbs of Postpartum Yoga: Conclusion”
Series sources can be found here.