Uniting mind-body-spirit in birth


Birth workers know the power of the mind-body connection. When I was in labour, I used the skills I’ve learned in years of meditation to be able to zone in, work with my breath, and let my body do its thing. But the mind-body connection is incomplete without the spiritual dimension.

Some people use prayer in labour. Some tap into a belief in something they might call “source-energy.” Some do not pray but rather mediate, listen to music that grounds them, engage in cultural practices they learned from their own families and communities. Indigenous women may use a smudge. Some African cultures have an animal slaughtered on the day of the birth to symbolize abundance for the child and help nourish the mother. Whatever your spirituality, it’s worth considering how you might use it in labour or if you are supporting someone in labour.

There are a couple of practices that I find really beautiful that come from Judaism, but could be adapted for anyone, to help connect the mind-body-spirit. One is using the tradition of a prayer for healing. In Hebrew this is called the misheberach blessing. You name a person who is in need of healing (if they are sick or suffering) and you also name their mother. So it goes: ________ son/daughter of ____________. Traditional Jews say a special prayer for them but you could pray for them in your own way, or wish them healing and wellness, or you simply hold them in your thoughts. Some Jewish people will recite the misheberach while labouring. I love this idea because at the moment of your own struggle, the intensity of the experience of birth, rather than dwell on your own pain or pressure you focus outwards. This is a reminder that we are all part of a broader family of humanity and we all share in pain and pleasure, illness and wellness. It allows the person who is in labour to feel both connection and empathy for their broader community. This is so useful because often in labour people find it useful to remember that many others have been through this experience too. I’ve said and I know others have said to a woman in labour: “Women have done this throughout the ages. You can do this too.” I had a Jewish midwife who said she was in a birthing room with five generations of Jewish women. She said to the woman in labour: “all of these women are a reminder that your family and your Jewish community would not exist without the strength of Jewish women in childbirth.” Feeling ourselves to be part of a community is so useful because we can feel the support of that community in our time of need.

Another Jewish spiritual practice that I find immensely powerful for preparing for birth is similar to a blessingway found in other cultures. “Blessingways” is a term created by Navajo (Diné) women for their own pre-birth ritual. I use it in reference to, and incorporate some practices from, the book “Blessingways: A Guide to Mother-centered Baby Showers - Celebrating Pregnancy, Birth, and Motherood” by Shari Maser. Maser notes: “To me, Blessingway most aptly expresses the essence of these ceremonies. “Blessing” connotes spirituality and community connections and “Way” reminds us that every change is a process, an ongoing journey along the path of life.... When using the term Blessingway to describe this evolving ceremonial concept, let us remember to respectfully acknowledge and appreciate its sacred Diné heritage as our source of inspiration” (2). I find this practice of creating a ceremony for the prenatal mother to be a terrific way to incorporate spirituality in the pregnancy process, as a step towards incorporating spirituality in the labour and birth as well. Of course, my spin on it is Jewish. I respectfully and with gratitude adopt the cultural and spiritual practice of Navajo women for a Jewish context. 


What is a Blessingway? Women get together and provide physical acts of care for the pregnant person, surround her with love and well wishing. Perhaps they create affirmations, or some kind of birth anchor. The women in my life each added a bead with a special intention (in Hebrew we might call it a kavanah - a powerful spiritual word). These beads were strung onto a bracelet I used as a focal point in birth.

For my clients, I have created a version of the blessingway that can happen at a mikvah, which is a ritual bath. The mikvah is to be used for cleansing, sometimes after menstruation. I find this to be a practice that has sexist origins, but powerful possibilities. After suffering a pregnancy loss, I attended a mikvah, and created a ceremony to help me release my sadness and grief and allow me to move on. The idea of the waters being cleansing, like a baptism or other religious/cultural cleansing rituals, really helped me forge the mind-body-spirit connection. I had a water birth with my second child, and the connection to the waters was made spiritual for me because of that experience. I also have a mikvah ceremony to prepare for birth and/or for after birth to mark the transition and make it spiritually significant and recognized.


These are a few examples of how I bring spirituality into pregnancy and birth. I’d love to know other examples of spiritual practices that you find useful or meaningful. Feel free to leave me a comment to share yours. Whatever your experience as a person in labour or as a birth worker, I encourage you to find ways to bring the spiritual dimension of life into this very significant journey. We are whole beings and holistic birth needs to account for the mind, the body, and the spirit.


This is what a mikvah can look like. You can also use any natural freshwater source that is running, like a stream. If you are not observant and are flexible on the rules, you can use a bathtub or swimming pool.  

Culture and Spirituality in birth - meeting people where they’re at


This past week I attended an important and really excellent event focusing on postpartum depression and the Jewish community. Why the Jewish connection? Surely all communities experience postpartum depression. But this panel got into the specifics of cultural approaches to these issues and, more specifically, how in the Jewish community there are rituals and ways of dealing with postpartum depression. For example, we have rabbis as resources. We have ceremonies that help mark transitions such as the transition to parenting or after birth; these often take place in a ritual bath called a mikvah. We have certain prayers or blessings that some families find useful. And we have cultural traditions like not disclosing pregnancy until after the first trimester, which make some families feel lonely in the event of pregnancy loss etc. We also have cultural norms around stigma for such loss, and for postpartum depression, and these need to be dealt with from within. 

Many cultures share this dynamic, but it is nice to have a specific lens, to see oneself represented in these discussions, and to feel that your own community is learning, engaging with these issues, and will have your back. To truly heal from postpartum depression, infertility, pregnancy loss, difficult birth experiences, sometimes a spiritual practice can be of help. As doulas we often say we focus on the physical and emotional needs of our clients, but to ignore the spiritual is to ignore an important dimension.

The other piece I wanted to speak about here is how doulas and clients can connect around certain ritual practices, especially when these practices are unfamiliar to the doula. Recently several doulas in my (awesome, vibrant, wonderful) doula community were speaking about how they advise clients against circumcision, one of them noting that a Jewish couple they were working with was turned off by this. I understand the complexities around circumcision. I have counseled many couples in my role as a rabbi who are struggling to decide. I am an advocate neither for nor against circumcision; I think it’s complex and my role as rabbi or doula is to help families find what is right for them. The doulas who point to evidence from the scientific community that there is no health benefit to circumcision are correct. But paediatric societies and others do not recommend against circumcision either. If a client asked me whether they should circumcise for health reasons, I’d tell them that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that it is needed, but also that there is no evidence to suggest that it is harmful. But most Jewish or Muslim clients are approaching this question differently; they are wrestling with some combination of religious observance and belief, cultural norms, deep-seated affiliations and identity markers (being circumcised is a physical sign that you are of this community), family pressure, and more. For many families, this is an agonizing decision.

My second child was assigned male at birth and I struggled with this decision. I’m not going to tell you what I decided because that would be a breach of his privacy. But I will share that I had some people who are close to me tell me that if I circumcised my son then that would be tantamount to child abuse. And I had others tell me (on the day of the birth no less) that if I did not circumcise then he wouldn’t be a real Jew and would face discrimination from his own community for his whole life. Becoming a parent is hard enough without this kind of pressure from family members who often mean well but whose opinions are not helpful.

Doulas are not there to make decisions for our clients, but rather to empower clients to make decisions that work for them. My hope is that doulas would hear the concerns of their clients, try to understand their cultural or religious attachments to practices like circumcision, and approach them with non-judgemental language and empathy. Cutting someone off from something they find spiritually significant is not good for birth or for babies. 

I have worked with clients who are not of my religion. My very first birth was with a Muslim family (which I loved as the Jewish Doula!) and I regularly work with couples who are intermarried, who are secular and non-religious, who are Jewish but practice their Judaism really differently than I do. My goal is always to meet my clients where they are at, and to help them find the spiritual side to birth that will work for them. In my final blog entry in this series on culture and spirituality for birth, I will share some specific blessings and practices that I use with clients. 



Me and my Jewish Doula info table at the event

Me and my Jewish Doula info table at the event