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Meet the Mentor: Koyuki Smith

Koyuki Smith childbirth education

In our ongoing Meet the Mentor series, you’ll get a chance to meet some of our amazing Birthing From Within Childbirth Educators and Doulas. You’ll learn a little bit about their Birthing From Within work – and, just for fun, get a glimpse into their personal lives and opinions! Today, let’s meet…

Koyuki Smith

It’s time you met Koyuki Smith, Birthing From Within’s blog-goddess/guru and Facilitator! Koyuki lives in New York City, where she runs Birthing From Within New York. Before getting into birth work, she spent eight years teaching in high-needs public schools. After giving birth to her first son, she fell in love with all things birthy, and she took the DONA birth doula training in 2008 when he was only 5 months old. After that, she added babywearing education and Lamaze childbirth education to her skill set; she finally came to BFW in 2014. She earned her BFW certification in 2018, the same year that she also began her work as a Facilitator. She has mostly retired from doula work (with exceptions for very special clients every now and then!) so that she can focus her energy on teaching classes and workshops for parents and professionals.

Koyuki brings a brilliant mind and thoughtful way to everything she does. She asks profound questions and digs deep, guiding parents and other mentors to see things from a broader angle, with a new perspective.

What’s on your altar for classes and consultations?

As an altar cloth, I use a striped wrap that I used to carry both of my sons — it’s full of cheery colors, and it has real personal memories in it. On top of that, I often have one or two classic BFW items, such as Pam England‘s “Lucy” statuette, a little tiger figurine, and/or a framed illustration by Pam. I just bought a little clay labyrinth and I plan to put that into the rotation, too. I also usually have a blue stone given to me by my advisor/mentor and BFW co-owner, Erika Primozich, and sometimes a small mammalian (cat?) jawbone that my husband and kids found in the dirt when we were hiking. But I think what’s really most “me” about my altar setup is that it always includes books! I know this probably sounds weird or wrong to some BFW folks, because books might seem to represent the “information frenzy” mindset that BFW questions. For me, though, books represent not facts and data, but the accumulated deep knowledge and wisdom of the ages. I come from a somewhat rootless, stateless, family with a habit of detachment from ancestral ties, so books are, in a very real sense, the closest thing I have to cultural elders and family tradition.

To me, there’s nothing like a little pile of books to spark the imagination and awaken the desire to learn.

So my altar usually includes Ancient Map for Modern Birth, to remind myself and my mentees of the foundational source of BFW, Pam England. There might also be books that pertain directly to what we are doing in that class – Pam’s Labyrinth of Birth for when we make labyrinths, or Penny Simkin’s The Birth Partner for coping and support, or Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer’s translation of Inanna material for the telling of Inanna. I also often add the books from which I might read excerpts during class — like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, or a volume of poetry. I sometimes add a book or two that I’ve just been thinking a lot about lately, or that has enriched my thought about birth mentorship. For example, last weekend I taught a workshop on the Birth Story Gates with my friend Lisa Jarnot, who is a poet, and I had Moby Dick on the altar. I just finished it two weeks ago, and it has provided me with an immense amount of food for thought in terms of archetypes, trauma, healing, being hooked on or caught in a story, human control over natural events, metaphorical versus literal understandings, and so on. Having that book on the altar reminded me of the depth of inquiry that I myself have devoted to these matters, and how I stand in a long line of artists and thinkers who have investigated the same things. (Also, Moby Dick is a longtime favorite of Lisa’s — she knows the text far better than I — so it was an internal reference point that we could share.)

birthing from within new york

The Birthing From Within New York teaching studio.

What are your favorite books?

Some enduring forever-favorites are Persuasion by Jane Austen, Shadow and Act by Ralph Ellison, How I Became Hettie Jones by Hettie Jones, and The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some new additions to the favorites list are Octavia Butler’s novels, Moby Dick by Herman Melville (yes, I only just read this one recently!), and Projection and Recollection by Marie-Louise von Franz. I also adore detective/mystery/suspense novels and devour them like candy, particularly Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, Dashiell Hammett, Margaret Millar, and Raymond Chandler. (To give credit where credit is due, I came to Butler, Millar, and Projection and Recollection all through the recommendations of my friend Heather Anne Halpert, whose art explores many of the same issues of birth, life, bodies, relationships, and stories that occupy my mind most of the time.)

There’s an academic bookstore on 112th St, Book Culture, where lots of Columbia professors order course books, and my new hobby is browsing the course reading lists there. You can discover a lot that way — on my last visit, it led me to the 19th century Maine author Sarah Orne Jewett, assigned for a course on American short fiction, as well as the comic Bitch Planet by Valentine De Landro and Kelly Sue DeConnick, assigned for a course on feminist literature.

What are your interests outside of birth?

For my entire life, I have had two main areas of interest. One is reading and writing, as is probably obvious from the rest of this interview and from my work on this blog in general. The other might be a little more surprising: fashion. I have been fascinated with clothing and style since I was a very little girl, and I often think that, truthfully, there is nothing that I care about more! Personal style is a very special kind of intelligence that relatively few people truly cultivate or study deeply. I love examining people with unique, desirable personal style — that certain weird glamour, that subtle tossed-off grace — in order to understand their vision and the exact components of how they bring it to life. The Instagram account Outfit Dissecting is about aspects of this phenomenon, and so are my friend Andrea Linett’s awesome books I Want to Be Her and The Lucky Guide to Mastering Any Style — Andrea, incidentally, is no slouch in the je ne sais quoi personal style department herself. A couple of my current favorite designers, Karin Bereson of No. 6 Store and Giuliana Raggiani of Giu Giu, are also lovely examples of really idiosyncratic, evocative style perspectives — both in their designs and in themselves. I never pursued a career in fashion or styling because so much of the work is necessarily intimately related to business and profit, which just bore me to tears. So this has always been a private rather than professional pursuit for me — but maybe one day that will change, who knows?!

Do you have a favorite item of clothing?

I have been…I don’t want to say obsessed…let’s say very taken with clogs since the 90s, and I have a pretty big collection, including a couple pairs from back then! (Fellow fashion nerdies, you’ll be thrilled to know that I still have my 1995 Fluevog clogs, the ones with the flared heel that Sofia Coppola wore.) I even devoted an issue of my zine to clogs. The unfortunate thing is that a recent New York Times piece called out this preference as being a super-basic-NYC-mommy thing, which was kind of shaming, especially because I own the exact pairs of clogs illustrated in the photo accompanying the article (yes, all three pairs). I keep telling myself that I’m totally different from the moms in that article, because I live in Harlem and not Park Slope, because I don’t carry that purse, because clogs are a longtime love rather than a recent discovery…but… Well, I guess we are all products of our time and place. Sigh.

Any interesting hobbies?

A little over a year ago, I joined my husband and sons in practicing kung fu. We practice at Bo Law Kung Fu in Chinatown, which is a pretty serious place, led by an extremely skilled master and populated by a very motley crew of New Yorkers, many of whom could break you in half, including the kids, so watch out. I’ve been trying to go four times a week, teaching schedule and babysitters permitting. It certainly builds strength and stamina, but even more interestingly, the training process has a lot to say about the processes of initiation that occupy so much of our attention at BFW – the call to change, the disorientingly curved path of learning, the often-uncomfortable stripping away of previously-held understandings, the half-blind journey towards the new self, and so on. Also, roughly 99.5% of the other students are meaningfully more skilled than I am, so it always provides a salutary knock to the ego.

What are your favorite foods?

Seafood, Mexican, and Japanese. My husband and I love eating out, and a significant amount of our family budget goes in that direction — it’s a known hazard of NYC living. On weekends, after the whole family practices kung fu, we often go to a seafood restaurant like Greenpoint Fish and Lobster Co. or Mermaid Inn for a family meal. (Our older son joins us in this particular love, and is a fan of raw oysters and lobster rolls. Not so much our younger son, who mostly eats fries.) Also, my mother is Japanese and my husband is Mexican, so our joint family heritage includes two delicious national cuisines! There’s plenty of yummy Japanese food here in NYC — a couple favorite places are Momo Sushi Shack and ROKC. But there’s not a lot of great Mexican food, so I really try to pack it in on our semiannual visits to Phoenix to see my husband’s family. I plan to share his aunt’s recipe for Mexican fish soup in a future Nourishing the Life Within post, so stay tuned for that!

Koyuki Smith family

Koyuki’s husband and sons at a favorite restaurant.

What drew you to Birthing From Within, and what keeps you there?

It’s funny, because I know BFW has this reputation of being hippy-crunchy-granola-woowoo, but what I personally love about it is its intellectual rigor. To be brutally honest – and I’ll probably get flak from all sides on this – once I began studying BFW, many other “methods” of childbirth preparation started to seem laughably simplistic, with the basic approaches usually boiling down to making lists of what parents should know and do. BFW is so much more rigorous in that it asks the crucial underlying questions:

What really happens to people’s bodies and minds when they give birth? What tools will realistically prepare people to navigate the infinite possibilities of the birthing experience? How can we understand, use, and heal from our own conditioning, past trauma, and natural fears/anxieties? How can we influence or expand both the conscious and the subconscious mind to build introspection, confidence, coping skills, and resilience?

BFW training invites practitioners to examine these questions closely, and that is how we are able to create such deep, effective mentorship for people undergoing the transformations of the childbearing year. Somewhat paradoxically, it’s this underlying intellectual work that allows us to work with our clients at a heart-level instead of trying to stuff essentially random things into their brains and steering them towards wanting specific outcomes. And that’s what keeps me with BFW — the unique combination of deep study and emotional impact that continuously leads me to new understandings while also allowing me to reach every single parent with whom I work, regardless of their goals and experiences.

About the Birthing from Within Team

Birthing From Within is blessed to have a team of bloggers that includes childbirth educators, doulas, and birth story listeners who, in addition to being deep thinkers and skilled writers, are dedicated to the amplification of the BFW mission and philosophy. Birthing From Within is a collective creation, always evolving to reflect the new layers of understanding and unique approaches to the childbirth experience. Our goal is to change the conversation about birth in our culture, and to uphold the possibility of growth and transformation for birth professionals and birthing people.

1 Comment

  1. Ralph Lee Smith on January 30, 2019 at 3:28 pm

    I enjoyedi this so much, Koyuki! You are both a top birthing professional and a fine writer.

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