I spoke with Catherine Middlebrooks, founder of BRB Yoga, For Busy and New Moms. See our conversation below!
B: So Catherine, tell me your story. How did you come to mindfulness and to yoga?
C: Thanks so much for having me, Becca. I’m so excited to chat with you. It really started with yoga. Yoga was kind of my gateway drug into mindfulness. I started that seriously when I was in college. I had hit a point where I was in my senior year doing a stressful senior thesis, living the college life, and just was feeling kind of unfettered, you know?
I started going to yoga and rally just felt I was able to connect back to my body. I’ve always been very emotional and yoga was really key for me to be able to create a little more evenness in my emotion. So I started it and I just felt so good emotionally and physically that I’ve been doing yoga basically every day since then.
I became an instructor in 2007 so it’s been about ten years now that I’ve been teaching and when my daughter was born in 2012 I was also working full time and was trying to balance it all. You know, the job, the newborn life, and just was not doing a good job, basically. Just feeling like all of that balance that yoga had brought to my life, I wasn’t able to make time for yoga in that phase of my life. So I started implementing really short yoga practices into my day and it made a huge difference.
B: As someone who’s done one of your courses it has changed the way I’ve done yoga as a mom and I’ve actually been able to integrate it into my life. It’s so great. You’ve done such a good job with that. I really appreciate it.
C: I love that! I love to hear that.
B: So how do you use mindfulness and yoga specifically as a parent?
C: Right. So this is something I’m better at some days than I am other days. But I think that for me, when I think about mindfulness, I really think about allowing yourself kind of a space…a pause between the stimulus, like the environment that you’re in, and your reaction to it. Specifically, when I’m with my children, I’m really conscious of allowing myself to pause before reacting to them in scenarios like the moment when they spill 18 things on the floor or they are having a tantrum because they have to get dressed.
When I’m not being mindful, I know. I just kind of react. You yell and you do all those things. I know when I’m able to pause, usually take a deep breath—breath for me is a really good way to come into the present moment and allow myself to separate a little bit from my childrens’ emotions—so pause, take a breath, and then I can then choose how to react. I may still decide to yell at them (laughs), because sometimes that needs to happen, but at least then I’m making the choice and it’s not like my reactions are always dictated simply by their emotions.
B: I’m thinking about the correlation with GentleBirth, this program that I’m teaching. We talk about leaving everything in your labor toolkit and how that includes things like an epidural or a c-section, it’s just about being really informed and making that choice consciously.
C: Yep. I love that. Absolutely. As long as you know that that’s the choice you want to make, then you’re in control still.
B: Right. It gives you that pause so you can not make that split second decision or feel like it’s being imposed upon you.
What’s your biggest obstacle to practicing?
C: I’m successful when I allow myself to practice my own mindfulness practice before my children wake up. So I try, most days, to get up in the morning before they wake up and either do some deep breathing, maybe just some simple stretches. Whatever I need to be with myself. Those days go so much better because I’ve already set the foundation of that mindfulness.
The days that maybe somebody’s having a bad night’s sleep and we kind of all are tired and I wake up to my children in the morning, I have a much harder time. It can be an obstacle—I just get caught in all of the tasks of the day. So for me it’s very important to prioritize that time in the morning.
B: Tell me about your births and whether you incorporated these practices into them.
C: Yes! So I had natural unmedicated vaginal births. It’s funny. So I apparently am a very fast dilator. (Laughs)
B: (Laughs) Good job! Do you feel really proud?
C: Yeah, it’s actually kind of terrifying. With my daughter, it was kind of funny. We went to the hospital and they sent us home—I was like a centimeter dilated. We ended up back at the hospital and I had gone from one to ten in an hour and thought I was dying. (Laughs) I asked for the medication because I was transitioning. I was like, “I need something. I’m not gonna make it,” because I thought I had hours ahead of me. So that part was a little intense and it was very hard to be mindful in that scenario because it just went so quickly. But I really found in the labor part of it that the yoga and particularly the breathing from yoga that I knew, it was a really good way to help me move into contractions instead of try and resist them and really let them pass over me without being tense.
And then with my son, again, once we got to the hospital, a few contractions and we were ready to go. I had fantastic nurses and nurse midwives that were really encouraging me to relax the muscles of my hands and my jaw, and I think had I not already been really experienced in connecting to those cues, it would have been a lot harder in that scenario to find it. So I was thankful that I had that connection to my body already.
B: So it sounds like that might be some of your advice for somebody who wants to incorporate it into their birth—to practice ahead of time? Is there anything else you’d recommend?
C: I think so, yeah. I think that the more you can practice it ahead of time is good, and I think just really connecting to your breath. If you’re not someone that wants to be doing yoga, that’s fine. I think yoga is great postnatally but some people just aren’t into it. But a deep breathing practice is something that I think anyone can benefit from.
Physiologically, deep breathing lowers that stress response in your body, it decreases your blood pressure. It turns off that whole fight or flight response. You need that. You need to have your body feel calm in order for it to dilate and allow this baby to come. So even just practicing a deep breathing practice while you are pregnant in preparation for using it as a tool to relax would be really helpful.
B: So ironically, my questions about being a parent and using technology and finding balance are not coming up on my phone right now. My phone just decided not to show me my questions anymore (laughs), but I know that’s something I wanted to talk to you about. Something with GentleBirth is we try to be really realistic about how people are accessing their information and practicing and so we have a really great app to lead people in their breathing exercises and hypnosis exercises and meditation trainings, and I know that that’s something that you’ve really incorporated into your work as well, is making it accessible via technology, the channels that people are using. So I was wondering if you could tell me about how you have found balance using technology and using it to be more mindful without losing that presence.
C: Right. So yeah, this is a tough one. It’s really easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole of social media especially since my business depends on being on social media. The key for me is the same sort of thing that you would do with yoga. You have to make it a regular practice. So I try to set boundaries and timers. So I say, “I will go on Facebook three times a day and I will respond to people in the group for twenty minutes and then I have to be done. And you have to just be able to move on. I think that it’s easier said than done obviously.
For me, I’m really not good at it when it’s my program—the Heal Your Core program. If people have questions, I’m going to answer their questions in more detail than they ever actually would want me to (laughs), so that’s hard. But when it’s things like—there are lots of other Facebook groups that I’m a part of and going into my newsfeed, it’s really easy to get sucked into it forever and so I find that setting a timer and then I have to get off is very important. I don’t always do that great at it. But that’s what I really try to do.
I’ll also say that there are—the beauty of technology too is that there are fantastic mindfulness apps out there and that is a great way to use your phone for good instead of evil. (laughs)
B: With GentleBirth we have the free seven day trial and it has a whole parenting side of it. So “Being with Baby,” “Mindful Breastfeeding.” I’ve also found audiobooks and podcasts are a nice way to keep myself occupied but still be in the space with my kids.
C: Yes. It is very challenging. I also set timers in the other direction—where it’s like “I’m going to set this 15 mnute timer to be with my children and not let any other distraction take me away—not do the laundry, so that they know that they get as much of my undivided attention as my phone gets. (laughs)
B: Definitely. So, using technology for good but also setting limits.
B: So is there anything else you’d like to share about your program or your website?
C: Yeah! So the program that Becca was a part of is the Heal Your Core with Yoga program and that one is specifically for diastasis recti—abdominal separation that happens as a function of pregnancy and the postpartum period. I think that this is something that it’s really important for me to get the word out into the world because there’s a lot of misinformation out there about that postpartum period and jumping back into yoga. I’ve had people say to me, “Isn’t all yoga just good?”
And yoga is very good, but especially if you have just had a baby, there are certain yoga poses that you really don’t want to be doing because they just strain your abdominal area that is in the process of healing. You want to create the foundation, create the conditions, for your core to heal.
So, if anyone is struggling with that—if anyone is interested in learning more about what sort of things to do and not do, you can head over to BrbYoga.com. There’s a blog there with information about the program. I would never want anyone to have to give up their yoga practice—I’m meeting so many women who think they can’t do it anymore, they can’t do yoga. I just want everyone to know you can do yoga and you not have to give it up once you’ve had a baby, but you want to do it mindfully, just like everything else!
B: Thank you so much for speaking with me!
C: Thank you for having me! It was so fun!
I stare at my baby’s face, trying desperately to be REALLY PRESENT with her, to drink her all in. It goes so fast, after all– everyone tells me so, and I want to remember these sweet baby moments– to hold on to them for when she’s bigger and isn’t as excited about cuddling with me.
It’s hard, though. It’s hard to find a moment to catch. I try to take a mental picture of her to keep with me, but she never stops wiggling, cooing. Her temperament changes as soon as I land in a good moment to bask in and suddenly she’s hungry or reaching for the kitty or squealing at her brother.
I focus harder– I will want to have been present now when she’s grown. I’ll regret each moment I spent on my phone or spent thinking about the dishes or spent doing anything other than staring at her sweet face, I tell myself. BE HERE WITH HER. YOU WILL WISH YOU HAD BEEN PRESENT WITH HER MORE.
And in some ways, this works. I look at my phone less. I look at her more. I try to notice my breathing and think less about the dishes. But I’m still missing the point of mindfulness. I’m paying attention more to each moment but I’m not doing it for the moment. I’m doing it for some distant unknown future moment when I’m afraid I will regret not having done it.
That isn’t truly being in the moment. That’s thinking about the future, albeit in a tricky roundabout way. Oh, that monkey mind.
I thought I had figured it out– I don’t usually wish for my days to fly by or constantly look forward to the next milestone. I don’t always try to escape to other thoughts when things are tough– when my toddler screams or my baby cries. Mindfulness has helped me “stop wishing for things to be different.”
It was a game changer for me when I realized that mindfulness isn’t about some magical way of soaking up all of your experiences to enjoy at a later date. It’s about enjoying them NOW. And still, often, I find myself trying to use mindfulness as a way to cling to things I love– which is ironically one of the things mindfulness is supposed to help us stop doing!
Here are a few tips I use when I catch myself!
When my son was a baby I had this same internal struggle (another tenet of mindfulness is non-striving. That I’ve had this revelation before and am back in this place is a good reminder that mindfulness isn’t supposed to GET me anywhere. There isn’t something we’re supposed to achieve– we just keep doing it.). My sister-in-law told me that when my oldest niece was a baby, she would just stare at her while she nursed and think about how thankful she was for her. She still remembers everything about those times, she said.
Gratitude has a double benefit, then– we often DO remember the things we are grateful for, when we think about them consciously. Also, though, it is hard to be caught up in the future or past when you are viewing the present through a lens of gratitude. Instead of looking at my daughter’s perfect features and thinking, “REMEMBER THIS TINY FACE” I try instead to just soak in my awe and thankfulness for each perfect part of her and for getting to be her mom.
Catch yourself. When you’re practicing presence with your children, are you thinking, “I want to be present with them. I would regret not being present with them. It goes so fast. This is the only day they’ll be this little” and on and on? My mind can reel with these thoughts and suddenly I’ll notice my son has asked me a question and I didn’t hear it.
This is normal– minds wander! But if you catch yourself getting caught up in these thoughts, congratulate yourself– you noticed, and that is a mindful moment– and then go back to what is actually happening in the moment. Not “my kids are growing up” happening, but “My son is laughing” or “my baby’s arm feels soft on my skin” happening. Note it– if it helps, you can actually say what’s happening to yourself (or not to yourself! Saying things like, “I hear you laughing!” or “Oh, your arm is so soft on my arm” are actually great ways to let kids know you are present with them and to help babies develop language skills.)
And then when your mind wanders again, come back again.
Expand Your Awareness
I sometimes feel guilty for paying attention to anything other than my children. I have learned, though, that mindfulness involves acknowledgement of all of my experience. I try to pay attention to lots of things that are happening in the present moment. Noticing, “I am thirsty. I am tired. The water feels cool. I have the urge to look at my phone. I’m looking at my phone and making a mindful connection with my friend,” are still about being in the moment.
When you are doing activities with your child, being aware of things around you– the yellow flowers on a bush, the smell of wild sage, the feeling of the wind on a walk, for example, will all help you be more present– more WITH your child, than staring at his or her face and obsessing over how fast he or she is growing up.
You can’t be fully present with your kids unless you are fully present with yourself.
This is a hard one for parents, I know! Especially with very young kids. I’m a big proponent of working mindfulness into every day activities. BUT finding a time to practice formally– for me after both kids are asleep, for 10-20 minutes every day, has made me a more patient parent and has also helped me be more mindful throughout my day. Even a five minute daily practice can be wonderful.
Remember, though, we’re not trying to get anywhere– even to some perfect state of non-clinging. We can just breathe and do our best to be in the moment FOR the benefit of that very moment we’re in.
Hunter Clarke-Fields of the Mindful Mama Podcast spent years as a stressed out mom. She says she “muscled through” her first natural birth. She spoke with me about discovering a better way.
Hunter shared tips for birth and parenting, overcoming fear, finding time for self-care, and for practicing self-compassion when parenting squeezes you.
When I asked about her birth experiences, Hunter told me:
“I have a tendency toward anxiety and I have a tendency toward being sensitive so the first birth was really intense. I just remember hanging on to my husband and being like, ‘Get this out of me. I’m done!’ and using my muscles to push through. My second birth I thought, ‘Ok. I can do this. I can learn from it. I can make it better. I had a whole different attitude, like, ‘I can practice.’ It was a whole different experience. It was pretty awesome. Very gentle.”
As a mom of two, Hunter knows how challenging it can be to find time to practice. She suggests:
“Create a habit even if it’s super small like a three minute sitting meditation practice and a two minute yoga practice. Something that’s your own, where you’re staking a claim in the ground to your self care. It’s so essential. You’re saying, ‘This is my time. I’m going to cultivate this time. I’m going to create a habit where I deliberately care for myself. Where I’m very deliberate about nurturing my good seeds and about sending myself love and compassion.
If you can build something that’s really small but consistent, as your child grows and you can shave more time, that will feed you even more enormously. As they get to be two years old..you have your practice where you can come and you can start to reduce that stress response. You can reduce that reactivity.”
I asked Hunter to say more about self-compassion for parents. She said,
“We are so hard on ourselves as moms. We are a continuation of our parents and of our grandparents and of our culture. We are an amalgamation of all these things we’ve absorbed throughout our life.
We may decide, ‘Ok, I want to parent in this certain way and yet because we are a continuation our parent’s voice may come out of our mouth. We don’t realize when that happens– it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault that you were conditioned and you have suffering and you may have said something unskillful. You can choose to be a peaceful parent and then you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to mess up. You’re going to yell. And being hard on yourself and being blameful and shameful upon yourself is not the way to start to shift towards more compassionate parenting.
The way to shift towards more compassionate parenting is to actually use those moments where you’re inevitably going to make those mistakes and offer yourself compassion. You’re not going to be in the habit of offering it to your child if you can’t even be in the habit of offering it to yourself.
When you have an orange and you squeeze it, what comes out? Orange juice. Not pineapple juice, not cranberry juice or apple juice. When we’re in those moments when we are squeezed as parents, and you’re going to have so many of them… When you have those moments when you’re squeezed, what’s inside is what comes out. We have to practice that compassion inwardly.”
You can listen to the whole interview here.
You can find Hunter, the Mindful Mama Podcast, free resources, and more at HunterYoga.com.
What is a ZenBand? Blooming Wellness explains that it is “A trendy boho-styled headband made with cool, lightweight cotton that comes with removable, flat speakers on the inside.” You can also get some of the company’s ZenTones to help with stress, anxiety, sleep, and more.
I already knew what I would be using my ZenBand for, though– to listen to meditations and hypnosis sessions from the GentleBirth App!
I was wondering how they would look in person. The models on the site definitely have the hippie chic look that I don’t quite pull off as a mom of two, tired and covered in spit up. I was pleasantly surprised to find it pretty cute, even over my 3-days-without-a-shower mom bun (and yes, that is a nursing baby. See my post on finding time for mindfulness)!
I was really impressed with the sound quality– much better than the ear buds I usually use. The band was comfortable. It didn’t get too hot or sweaty and the fabric is soft and stretchy.
The ZenBand would be perfect for preparing for birth with the GentleBirth app. A lot of parents wonder if it’s ok that they fall asleep during the hypnosis sessions and it totally is. You’ll know the information is “getting in” when you start to feel excited about labor and birth! The ZenBand made it even easier for me to relax and follow along with GentleBirth trainings because I wasn’t thinking about the headphones– I was more able to just focus on the sounds and words.
It would also be great during labor itself– It could keep your hair out of your eyes while you listen to affirmations and you wouldn’t have to deal with long annoying ear bud cords. You can even spritz some essential oils on it.
The only improvement I would suggest is to make a Bluetooth headphone option. It would be nice to not have to worry about the phone and cord while sleeping. Currently, Blooming Wellness doesn’t recommend wearing the ZenBand through the whole night, and this would solve that issue.
Side note– these would be great for doulas too since they can double as an eye mask! You could use them when listening to some relaxing music and blocking out light at 2 pm when your client is sleeping and you’re trying to get some rest too.
I would definitely recommend the ZenBand. If you’re interested, head to Blooming Wellness and use the code Zen for 15% off. Be sure to head to the GentleBirth site as well for a free seven day trial of the app!
I am officially a certified GentleBirth instructor! I am working to confirm a location, and will post upcoming workshops soon. In the meantime, I want to share one of the great parts of GentleBirth– its companion app for Android and iPhone. There are a lot of reasons to love the app (picking from a number of beautiful moving scenery backgrounds for the trainings, for example), but these are some of my favorite.
When you start using the GentleBirth app, you select one of four journeys:
Parenting, Health, and Sex, or
Special Circumstances (breech baby, c-section, etc.)
Your “journey” changes your recommended trainings, so you’ll get meditations, breathing exercises, affirmations, and hypnosis sessions that are relevant to you. I love that even though I got the app after my babies were already born, I can still use the app.
The exercises are both specific to individual journeys and incredibly generalizable. I can listen to a guided session on mindful breastfeeding while I’m nursing my baby! But the brain training you do with the app will serve you outside of those specific journeys. It teaches you basic mindfulness skills that can be applied any time. The specific trainings even cover topics that aren’t directly related to pregnancy or parenting, including ones for ending emotional eating and even a dental hypnosis!
LGBT/ IVF friendly
There are trainings specifically geared toward same sex couples and it isn’t a coincidence! In addition to a “confident new dad” hynosis training, there is one called “Female Partner Postpartum Confidence.” Sometimes it can be hard to find resources for childbirth that are conscious of LGBT families (“Husband Coached Childbirth” anyone?) so I’m glad that GentleBirth is.
When you add a training session to your Favorites, the app downloads it to your phone so you can listen when you aren’t at home without using data. This connects to what is probably my favorite thing about the app, which is that the trainings are doable!
The trainings are short and feel manageable. It can be hard to find half an hour to quietly practice mindfulness or have an undisturbed hypnosis session as a new parent, and GentleBirth realizes this. Many of the trainings are just five minutes! They are short and accessible enough that you will actually DO them, but long enough to remind you to do the really important work of incorporating the trainings into your daily life.
I’m proud to announce that I am California’s GentleBirth 50 States of Positive Birth Scholarship winner!
GentleBirth classes will be coming to Southern California soon!