Closing the bones
“Ritual bathing, washing of hair, massage, binding of the abdomen, and other types of personal care are prominent in the postpartum rituals of rural Guatemala, Mayan women in the Yucatan, and Latina women both in the United States and Mexico” (Kendall-Tackett)
I was taught about the ‘Closing the bones’ ceremony by Stacia Smales Hill, Hilary Lewin and Rocio Alarcon, an ethno botanist from Ecuador, at the Doula UK yearly retreat (which I facilitate and the 2015 one starts tomorrow!). I was the most recent postpartum woman there so I was chosen to experience a closing with rebozo with a large group of women and whilst I began as an interested observer of the experience, I soon found myself moved to unexpected tears.
In the western world, the focus is on pregnancy and birth, not after baby arrives, this can leave women shocked and vulnerable, especially after a difficult or traumatic birth experience and unprepared for the physically and emotionally challenging task of caring for a newborn, usually without the help and support of other women in the community. In 2009 I co-wrote a chapter in the book ‘Essential Midwifery practice: postnatal care’ where we discussed ways to improve postnatal care:
“In many cultures the isolation and lack of support experienced by some mothers in the UK is simply eliminated through communal approaches to post natal care in which there is a tradition of caring for new mothers for forty days, with ceremonies to welcome the woman and her newborn back into the community.. Pillsbury (1978) found that the physical and emotional stresses following childbirth are well identified and managed by ritual in an indigenous community, so that the experience and likelihood of depression is minimized” (Nylander, S 2009)
When Rocio described how women in her community would visit women after they had their baby for forty days and bath and massage the new mother daily, I think many of us present felt envious of this sort of nurturing care which gives recognition to the profound opening that giving birth leaves us with, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
‘Closing the bones’ is a term used to describe a number of techniques used by many indigenous cultures including Mexican, South and Central American peoples and Asian societies like the Malay peoples in Malaysia who practice ‘Mother roasting’
“The use of heat –related practices marks as culturally and psychologically significant a biological-medical event” (Manderson, L. chapter in Van Hoover 2004)
Many practices involve heat, massage to ‘bring up the womb’ (possibly to help the uterus contract and prevent postnatal haemorrhage), application of heated stones or herbs, smoking and confinement to the home for usually approximately forty days. The stomach is bound with cloth (or a Rebozo). The herbs used often have anti-microbial and analgesic properties (de Boer 2011)
I have been taught a few of these techniques, although traditionally these are used by women’s families or local traditional birth attendants, every day or every few days post birth, Rocio Alarcon taught us that, if the ‘Closing the bones’ is never performed, that women are left open and vulnerable after childbirth, that their energy will continue to be lost, and this is why western women tend to have less energy than South American women!
She approaches women she meets in England and offers to close their bones, even elderly women can benefit from these techniques.
In my own practice I incorporate aspects of ceremony (setting intentions, releasing fears) with closing the bones massage and Rebozo techniques and sacred bathing as a way to support women to honour the journey they have made to motherhood, to think deeply about the paths they have trod.
“Ceremonial work helps us to create a bridge between our mind and soul, between the sacred and the mundane. Once we enter a ceremonial space we are reminded that the line between our everyday world and the world of our soul, or even the divine is fine and easily crossed. Ceremony provides experiences that our brain interprets as meaningful and can therefore be transformative” (Mackinnon, C 2012)
The experience can help women to process difficult and traumatic birth experiences and enable them to re-honour their bodies as healing, to bring back together parts of themselves that may feel fractured or absent, the part of themselves that existed before they became a mother, the part that went through the transformative experience of birth (and it is this that can literally or figuratively ‘shatter’ us, breaking us open to bring through the new soul) and the new part which is mother.
“Ritual and ceremony are highly efficient vehicles for accessing and containing intense emotions evoked by traumatic experience” (Johnson 1995)
“I found the ceremony very healing and calming, as well as emotional. It helped me to release some feelings and thoughts that I had been having since the traumatic birth of my daughter and allowed me some space in which to try and reconcile these feelings in some way. It also helped me to feel a sense of acceptance for what had happened and I felt it facilitated the process of me experiencing a feeling of closure that I had not had since the day she was born. Physically, the ceremony was beautiful, I felt very comfortable and safe with Selina and this helped me to relax and enjoy being ‘mothered’. I would not hesitate to recommend this ceremony to any new mother as beneficial to both their mental and physical wellbeing, especially if their labour was traumatic or did not go as they had hoped.” (Sam)
This postpartum practice can be used soon after birth up to many years afterwards and is deeply nurturing and extremely moving to facilitate, much like working as a birth doula were we strive to serve women and provide care as a (archetypal) mother would, so does the work of Closing the bones’ require a profound acceptance of what was, what is and a deep love for the individual who has allowed you to walk this path back towards wholeness with them.
“The day after I was exhausted and slept a lot. The day after that and continuing I’ve been buzzing! I feel sparkling, almost 100% back to being myself! Feeling very energised and can feel a big wave of creativity and enthusiasm building.
THANK YOU so much! Having you open and close the door to motherhood for me was perfect and I’m deeply grateful “ (Deborah)
“Selina facilitated my closing of the bones ritual with tenderness, wisdom and grace. I found the experience to be very therapeutic, with an empowering effect that has grow by the day since” (Rebecca)
- Kendall-Tackett K, How Other Cultures Prevent Postpartum Depression- Social Structures that Protect New Mothers’ Mental Health
- Nylander, S, Shea, C. (2009) Working with partners :Forming the Future, book chapter in ‘Partnership working’ in: Essential Midwifery Practice: Postnatal Care (Editors: Sheena Byrom , Grace Edwards and Debra Bick) Published October 2009
- Van Hoover, C. and Hunter, L. P. (2004), The Manner Born: Birth Rites in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 49: 270–271. doi: 10.1016/S1526-9523(04)00096-0
- de Boer, H. J., Lamxay, V., & Björk, L. (2011). Steam sauna and mother roasting in Lao PDR: practices and chemical constituents of essential oils of plant species used in postpartum recovery. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 11(1), 128.
- Mackinnon, C. (2012). Shamanism and Spirituality in Therapeutic Practice: Soul and Spirit Matter. Singing Dragon.
- Johnson, D. R., Feldman, S. C., Lubin, H., & Southwick, S. M. (1995). The therapeutic use of ritual and ceremony in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8(2), 283-298.