WORTH KNOWING: We couldn’t pack everything Emily does into just one interview, so there will be a part II coming up in a few weeks! In Part I, we mainly cover Emily’s work around the perinatal period, from before conception through to the early postnatal period. This amazing woman wears many, MANY hats!

Hi Emily, welcome to the village! Finally!! You’ve been a constant presence on the Brussels pregnancy and birth scene for many years – tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.

Thank you so much for having me! I’m originally from New York and am also Canadian by marriage. My husband and I have two kids, both born in Belgium – a 6-year-old and a 17-month-old. We’re also puppy parents to our 13-year-old former Ethiopian street dog, Puddles! 

We’ve been in Belgium for 7 and a half years. Like so many people I know, we were only supposed to be here for a few years, but we think it’s such a great place to raise a family, we never seem to want to leave. 

I wear many hats. My main one these days is that of yoga therapist. I’m also a doula and doula trainer, though I currently limit the number and type of clients I work with. I have a background in public health and draw on that in consulting work as well as the yoga therapy and coaching work I do. I’m also finishing up a second Masters of Education in Mind Body Spirituality Psychology. 

Reading this, I think I need to stop putting ALL the blame for how tired I am on my kids!

Your passion for supporting new parents dates back to before you were even a parent yourself – when we first met in 2016, you were already a doula. Where did that passion come from? And what in particular drew you to train as a doula?

I’ve just always loved learning about and working with pregnancy. My undergraduate independent study looked at traditional birth attendants in the global south. My public health Masters focused on reproductive and maternal health. The interest and knowledge was always there.

“Each time someone welcomes you into their birth experience, it is truly an honour.” 

While we were living in Ottawa, I started learning more about birth there and discovered an amazing program that trained people to be birth companions for individuals that would otherwise be giving birth without any other support (like a partner, family member or private doula). I remember I signed up for the next training that evening! From my first birth (which was a successful ‘vaginal birth after c-section’ IN the operating room) I was hooked!

Getting to spend time in the liminal space that is birth is a magical experience and each time someone welcomes you into their birth experience, it is truly an honour – it’s something I talk about in the first ever episode of my podcast, Evidence Based Crunch.

I took a break from birth doula work for many years, mostly due to how unpredictable scheduling can be with two small kids. I have recently started welcoming new birth doula clients, specifically people who have had previous pregnancy loss or stillbirths, traumatic birth or have conceived following a challenging fertility journey. There isn’t much support for such individuals and their unique and important needs.

Many people reading this will know you best as a yoga teacher. Yoga has been part of your life for a long time, and you’ve benefited from its healing power yourself. Can you tell us more about that? 

Sure! I actually first came to yoga when I was dealing with an eating disorder in high school. Amongst other things, I had been compulsively exercising, and while my parents were limiting my access to the gym they did allow me to attend yoga classes. At first, I thought I had just discovered a loophole, but I quickly realised that I loved the quiet energy of the yoga classes. I wouldn’t say yoga ‘healed’ me, but it was part of the process for sure. 

I relied on yoga again when, at age 23, I was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour. I actually had my first grand mal seizure at a yoga studio! I had months of MRIs, neurological testing, and anti-epileptic drugs, all leading up to brain surgery. Yoga and meditation were one of the only places I could turn. I needed to turn in to my mind to get out of worrying about my brain! Weird, I know. 

Since then, yoga and meditation have been a part of my life in some capacity.  

Was it a natural leap then to explore how this ancient practice could enhance well-being during the perinatal period? What would you say are the main physical and emotional benefits of practicing yoga during the prenatal and postnatal periods?

As I’ve always been into pregnancy, I started training to be a prenatal yoga teacher as soon as I completed my initial teacher training.

I always loved how yoga encourages both strength and softness, both of which are important during pregnancy, yet we usually get contradictory messages. We’re supposed to be just like we were before getting pregnant (gaining minimal weight, keeping up activities) but at the same time treated like delicate flowers, often rather like children. The same for postnatal the postnatal period. 

I think yoga gives us the opportunity to embrace our changing bodies, even, or especially, the parts that don’t feel good or look like we want them to. When it comes to postnatal yoga it is an opportunity to find some stillness and quiet (even just a few seconds) during what can often be a hectic time – and I say that as someone who really struggled with post-partum anxiety, especially with my first child.  

I notice that you talk about yoga therapy, rather than just yoga – I’m not so familiar with the distinction. Can you explain?

Happy to! Yoga therapy is using yoga as a complementary medicine. Essentially, instead of just doing yoga to get stronger, or more flexible or because your back hurts (which are all great reasons to do yoga), it’s using it for specific healing or well-being intentions. So actually managing chronic pain. Or anxiety and depression.

There is so much amazing evidence-based research on how effective yoga can be as part of treatment for a host of chronic mental and physical health conditions. I have a background in public health, so I never advocate using yoga as a replacement for other care, but it can be a great enhancement to other health care.  

As well as the pre- and postnatal yoga classes most of us are familiar with, you also propose yoga therapy for those dealing with infertility. What do these sessions look like and what benefits can yoga bring to those struggling with fertility issues?

Fertility classes are one of my favourite thing to teach. I teach them privately and I also run a 4-week 4-week Mind-Body Fertility Workshop once a quarter. Both focus on three major tenants: enhancing the body’s relaxation systems, strengthening connected feelings towards the body (especially the womb), and practicing poses shown to enhance fertility. The course has a 4th component, which is community support. 

The course is really focused on mind-body support. We always have a discussion period, a yoga practice, a meditation/relaxation period and some time to just talk. I’ve recently added weekly community coaching sessions to this course, so we have additional time to connect. 

One thing I’ve learned is that going through any sort of fertility journey can be really lonely, even though infertility is extremely common! I want to give people an opportunity to feel less alone. 

“Honestly, while I am a huge home-birth advocate […] , what I’m an even bigger advocate for is informed and empowered birth.”

One thing I love about your offering is how you support women at every stage of their journey, even through painful experiences when they could otherwise feel very alone, like after a traumatic birth, or after a pregnancy loss or stillbirth. First, about birth trauma: why is this work so important, and how do you help someone with this?

Birth trauma is extremely common. It can be related to the baby or mother being hurt, or the baby being lost, but it can also occur when everyone is physically healthy but the woman is psychologically harmed. Maybe she felt violated, or feared for her life or the life of her baby.

Most trauma work is physical and mental, and birth trauma is a physical trauma so it often involves physical work. We hold trauma in the body and the yoga therapy I do helps clients get in touch with it and ideally feel safe to release some of it. There is a great deal of research on how effective yoga can be as part of trauma healing, and birth trauma is no exception. 

While of course there may be many reasons why a birth experience is traumatising, do you think the medicalisation of birth contributes to negative experiences? What are some ways to give yourself the best chance of a positive birth experience?

Such a good question! Honestly, while I am a huge home-birth advocate (both my children were born at home), what I’m an even bigger advocate for is informed and empowered birth. For me personally, that was a home birth with midwives and without medication; for someone else, that could be in a tub at a hospital, or with an epidural or a planned c-section.

I think so much trauma comes from people not being informed properly and often being told they are not ‘allowed’ to do something. The best way to have a positive birth experience is to be informed and know how to speak up for yourself/ensure you have a care provider who you feel hears you – this is something I cover in the ‘Birth: Who and Where’ episode of my podcast, Evidence Based Crunch.

“As a doula in Canada, [my clients and I] created ‘safe words’ they could use NOT DURING a contraction if they decided they wanted the epidural.” 

For example, I knew someone who was certain they would have an epidural; all her friends and family were telling her she just had to have it. When we were talking about my birth, she asked why I wouldn’t want one and I told her I didn’t like the idea of not being able to move around/walk and she had NO IDEA that with an epidural you usually can’t use your lower body! I wonder how many people don’t realise that. 

As a doula in Canada, I remember nurses would often offer epidurals DURING contractions. I always let my clients who felt they didn’t want epidurals know about this and we created ‘safe words’ so that they would use that word NOT DURING a contraction if they decided they wanted the epidural. 

Pregnancy loss or stillbirth are harrowing experiences, and women so often feel alone in trying to come to terms with their loss. Grief is of course very personal, so how do you adapt to the individual needs of someone who comes to you for support?

To support with healing after pregnancy loss, I draw on yoga therapy, my doula training (including specific work in pregnancy loss), my psychology degree, and my own experiences as well as the experiences of loved ones. The solitude that comes on top of the grief of pregnancy loss really upsets me. 

I always feel honour and gratitude when someone puts their trust in me. As a society, these sorts of loss are either never acknowledged (especially if they happen early in pregnancy) or seem to be treated with discomfort by others. 

My intention is to give people a space to be in touch with their grief, loss and trauma in their body. The process is different for different people – some are looking for physical healing, while others are looking for a ritual to honor the loss.

In her perinatal work, Emily currently offers pre- and postnatal yoga classes, as well as workshops on specific topics like ‘Yoga and Comfort Measures for Birth’ and ‘Mind-Body-Fertility Support’, all in the Merode/Montgomery area.

She also provides doula support to people who have undergone fertility assistance or are specifically dealing with anxiety, loss or trauma (whether birth-related or otherwise).

Follow Emily on Facebook or Instagram, or check out her website for the most up-to-date offering, and to get in touch with her.