Trained midwife Krist’l D’haene offers holistic pregnancy support to expats and locals alike. Writer Joanna Mayhew discovers her views on birth and beyond, with photography by Charles Fox.

How did your company, Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond, start?
It has come gradually. I had worked here with the Ministry of Health on midwifery education. In 2008, there were not many midwives, and there was a huge need for services towards pregnant and post-partum women. I spotted more and more pregnant women, so I thought, why not [start providing services]? My company started in 2011 as a group of women who could interact with each other. One purpose was teaching, and giving them some sense of exercise and yoga, and also spiritual awareness. Second was sisterhood, which is very important in pregnancy.

What led you to do this work?
Seventeen years ago, I came to Laos to work in a medical school. It was extremely hard but I survived. What I did was just cut off this part of my body, my brain – thinking all the time, planning and Western-style programming. People don’t do that there; they just live. I was very touched by people who live close to the earth. The places that I had worked [before] were hospitals, and birth was totally de-sacralised. And I was part of it, because I had not seen anything else. I left the hospital because I just couldn’t take this environment anymore. And then I read all the books about the spiritual side of midwifery, and that’s where I feel that I fit in actually.

Did giving birth to your son shape your approach?
I don’t have any good memories. My natural birth experience was taken away from me. The doctor just decided all at once on a caesarean birth. Something there was lacking. I didn’t have a doula – and that is what I want to offer now to women. A doula is a person who is in between you and this medical establishment. What I felt there was what most women feel here, that the doctor just decides for them. So their power has been taken away. All that I missed, I want to give to women now.

What services do you offer?
Childbirth preparation classes, pre-natal floor yoga, pre-natal water yoga, post-natal yoga with baby yoga, post-natal baby massage and baby swimming. I like this holistic approach – seeing a woman from the beginning or even before. If they go and see a doctor, it’s antenatal care. Many women these days think the pregnancy is purely medical. Although I am a midwife, I do all the non-medical things – breathing, their alignment, how they experience pregnancy.

You also offer conscious conception counselling and yoga. What does this involve?
A woman can come to see me if she wants to conceive. What I’m doing is bringing energy, which I have learned through massage and yoga, to the womb through types of breathing. As women, our creative power is in our sexually reproductive organs. The creative centre is not the head; your mind has to shift. For men, it’s the same. It’s an old concept but we are not aware about it.

What do you hope to achieve?
What I want to do when they come here is open doors for different experiences. That’s why I call it sacred and conscious pregnancy because it’s this one event in a woman’s life that can totally transform her, if she’s guided into it. It’s the same as if you would walk in the Himalayas, you know. It’s an experience, and you would go with a Sherpa. And this person will carry your bags and show you things. And pregnancy is something like that. My task here as a teacher is just to uplift my students, and give them more than I have, or that I know.

Do your services resonate in the Cambodian context?
For Cambodians, this is totally new. There is nothing like this. Khmer people have not been exposed to all of these services. Like Laos, they are very reluctant to [do] all this. Big organisations are bringing Westernised, medicalised births to this part of the world. It’s not that I’m against it; it’s just that there is not a good balance yet.

In the West, there is a huge move towards spirituality again. While here you have traditional in the countryside and totally new, Western [in Phnom Penh], but there is nothing like a balance.

What keeps you passionate?
I feel that I walk along with people through moments in their life, and it’s very enriching. I can share something from my own experience as a mother, as a midwife. I say it’s compassionate care. I love the mum, I love the baby that’s inside, and I love to see them as a whole. And I feel there is a huge lack of this.

I’m only 54. I have another 54 years to go, so I’m only halfway. I have to keep up. I was reading that the next spiritual centre is shifting to South America, so I have to go there, to dance tango when I’m 80. My mind-set has become very much like people in Laos – basic to the earth.

For more information, visit the Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond in Phnom Penh Facebook page.