If you are not keeping up on the arts and successes of hypnobirthing, it's time to check in with Lakshmi Landa. For the past 12 years, she has been a leading practitioner of counseling pregnant women and their partners as they go through the rituals of birthing, either the way nature designed, which can lead to enduring moments of joy, or the conventional medical establishment way, which can be fearful, hurtful and expensive -- obstetrical violence, in other words.
Landa, a member since 1996 of the Shanti Yoga Ashram, a community of seven in Bethesda, Md., has taught more than 350 couples -- usually in five two- to three-hour sessions that include learning the techniques of breathing, relaxation and respectful consciousness to help reduce fear, tension and pain.
Certified and experienced, Landa and teachers in more than 45 countries embrace the proven argument of Marie Mongan, founder and president of the HypnoBirthing Institute, based in Pembroke, N.H. In a 2002 video, Mongan noted how "even today, women are being convinced that birth is a medical incident and that their bodies are somehow flawed and destined to malfunction."
"Even women who are considered no risk are being convinced their births need to be chemically manipulated and chronologically managed," Mongan said. "So they surrender themselves, their babies and their birthing energy to someone else -- often a stranger -- without realizing that these kinds of births influence their baby's development and have an indelible imprint that is going to last the rest of the child's life."
Before joining the ashram, of which she is the co-director with her husband, Victor, Landa graduated from Canisius College in 1981 as an accounting major and served in the Peace Corps in the Solomon Islands, where she helped restructure a large village-based business.
In addition to teaching hypnobirthing and prenatal yoga, she keeps the books at the self-supporting ashram, which runs yoga classes, food programs for Washington's homeless, and a distribution center for biodynamic and organic food.
Landa believes that "many, many births, up to 95 percent, could be straightforward and simple. Yet the experience is rife with interventions and is often traumatic for women and their babies. Our culture teaches women to fear birth, while we learn in hypnobirthing that one of the essentials in the birthing environment is peace. Is the mother calm and relaxed or fearful? Is the father or another companion present and supportive? Do the professional caregivers honor the family's wishes? Is there an absence of machines, people and procedures that might interrupt the critical bonding that nature offers for the healthy emotional growth in the infant and mother? Is the sacredness honored? We know from studies in the field of prenatal psychology and health that this can have long-term consequences."
Whether in the teachings of Mongan, Frederick Leboyer's Birth Without Violence, or the sterling 2008 documentary "The Business of Being Born," such advocacy goes up against the American birthing industry, the costliest in the world.
Couples are routinely blindsided by the sticker shock of bills from hospitals and obstetricians. The International Federation of Health Plans reports that a conventional vaginal delivery in the U.S. runs to $9,775. In Britain, it's $2,641. A cesarean section in the U.S. is $15,041. It is $1,541 in Spain.
While hospitals and obstetricians enrich themselves, medical care worsens. The World Health Organization reports that the pregnancy and childbirth death rate in the United States is far higher than in most wealthy nations. It is twice as high as Canada's, and four times higher than the rate in Greece, Poland or Iceland.
One solution to the formulaic thievery and the degrading system is the use of nurse midwives. With well over 90 percent of vaginal deliveries being routinely low-risk and predictably uncomplicated, midwifery care -- thorough, humane, nature-respectful and inexpensive -- is the rational alternative to the high- and low-tech interventionist, drugging and gold-digging liturgies in too many hospital delivery rooms.
Happily, demand is growing for midwife-assisted home births, despite the alarmist "something-is-sure-to go-wrong" frets of the obstetrical lobby. The media regularly report stories of women delivering in stuck traffic, airplanes or cab rides to the hospital, with the rote outcome that mother and baby are healthy and stable -- and no overpriced obstetrician needed.
Landa's birthing ministry continues to grow, as well it should.
"Helping to give knowledge, tools and support at this crucial stage of life is deeply satisfying," she says, "because people care and because it matters to the baby, mother, family, community, indeed to all humanity."
[Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. His recent book is Teaching Peace: Students Exchange Letters With Their Teacher.]