When my husband and I were planning for the birth of our first child, my prenatal yoga instructor recommended we take a local class in Hypnobirthing, an alternative technique for medication-free labor and childbirth. I loved the philosophy of reducing birthing anxiety and preparing to focus on positive, calming thoughts rather than fear of the unknown during birth. After experiencing pregnancy for the first time, I found that my favorite part of each day of my pregnancy was laying on my left side, clasping a pillow between my knees, and listening to the mind-clearing prompts on a CD our instructor gave me. It was a meditation guide intended for pregnancy and birthing, but it was also useful for the rest of life.
Somewhere along the way while preparing for labor through meditation, I realized that I had felt a similar kind of peace before, a long time ago. It had happened by accident when I was 8 years old and bored, flipping through the channels of my family’s television after school one day. When I hit PBS, I stumbled upon Bob Ross, the host of the instructional painting show The Joy of Painting.
Before his death in 1995, Bob Ross gave step-by-step painting tutorials in a studio against a black drop cloth, somewhere in the land of public television. He was known for painting sweeping landscapes of "happy little trees" and for his soothing voice and demeanor. But back then, for hours, I'd lay on the couch, dunking a handful of sandwich crème cookies in milk, entranced by the different tools Ross used to scrape paint. I was mesmerized by his descriptions of various brushes, his firm swallow between sentences, and by the sound of his mouth rolling out words gently, like a thumb circling a rosary bead. I felt completely entranced and somewhat sluggish, as if I'd taken a sleeping pill.
Every afternoon, I would flip through the channels, searching for Bob, hoping he’d be working on that old winter mountain scene again. In particular, I liked the way he said the word “white,” enunciating the “H” as though a broom were sweeping the word off his lips and onto my living room carpet.
I learned that what I had experienced on the couch while watching Bob Ross was likely an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), a reaction that some people have when exposed to a range of sensory triggers, such as watching a paintbrush on a canvas or hearing a soft, soothing voice. Those who claim to have ASMR report experiencing "scalp tingles," as well as waves of pleasure down their spines.
Later in life, I learned that what I had experienced on the couch while watching Bob Ross was likely an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), a reaction that some people, like me, have when exposed to a range of sensory triggers, such as watching a paintbrush on a canvas or hearing a soft, soothing voice. Those who claim to have ASMR report experiencing "scalp tingles," as well as waves of pleasure down their spines. Although ASMR is not scientifically proven as yet and is largely an internet-driven phenomenon, it's garnered quite a following, with more than 120,000 people subscribed to the ASMR subreddit.
I also learned that I was not alone in finding Bob Ross so soothing. Ross has become something of an icon for the ASMR community, with many posting videos from The Joy of Painting on the ASMR subreddit. Even today, whenever I hear his gentle and soothing voice, within seconds I feel like I've been put under hypnosis, or covered in fairy dust. I don't know why, but it eases tension and anxiety like nothing else.
So when I was pregnant and practicing meditation to relieve my anxiety and prepare for labor, I went on the hunt for Bob Ross again. After all, what better way was there to kick off the uncertainty of labor and delivery than by watching his videos?
I was pleased to discover that although Bob Ross had been dead for a decade at that point, he still had an active website. I went to Ross' website and selected a how-to-paint DVD, which was delivered to my door when I was eight months pregnant. I watched it again and again before I went into labor as part of my meditation practice, giddy that I could now experience the same blissed-out, euphoric feeling without searching far and wide for The Joy of Painting on reruns.
A few days before my due date, I was standing around my kitchen making cookies when I started cramping. It had begun to snow that morning, lightly at first, shifting by evening into a blustering snowstorm. I hunkered down at home with two kinds of soup, a hot bath, and Bob Ross at the ready. By the early morning hours of the next day, it was clear that I had started going into labor.
I would watch part of a video, sit in a warm bath, and return to watch the last half. I even took a nap in the middle of my labor.
Before I left the house to meet my midwife, I rolled around on a birthing ball in front of the computer and slipped the Bob Ross DVD into the hard drive. Between contractions, I watched Bob Ross paint tiny little trees on a mountain snowscape and immediately felt that familiar, soothing sensation, which helped me relax quite a bit. I would watch part of a video, sit in a warm bath, and return to watch the last half. I even took a nap in the middle of my labor.
My labor was still incredibly intense, and not the totally pain-free experience I had hoped for. But Bob had started me off relaxed and happy, in the right frame of mind to be able to roll with the whole birthing process.
I know some women who heard my story and tried to watch Bob Ross videos during labor themselves. It didn't quite work for them the way it did for me; they ended up turning off the videos before he'd filled his palette with ochre and cadmium red.
Watching Bob Ross during my labor was just the thing I needed to relax before one of the most intense experiences of my life. Coincidentally, my daughter loves watching him too, especially if she’s been feeling anxious or stressed out.
I understand why Bob Ross didn't quite have the same effect on them as it did for me. Not everyone reacts to ASMR triggers, and those who don't often assume that those who do are total quacks. How you respond to such soothing cues during labor also depends on how responsive you are to hypnosis in general. While some studies have pointed out the benefits of hypnobirthing in reducing pain during labor, not every mom has a positive experience.
But for me, watching Bob Ross during my labor was just the thing I needed to relax before one of the most intense experiences of my life. Coincidentally, my daughter loves watching him too, especially if she’s been feeling anxious or stressed out. To me, Bob Ross was the old-school original, and my daughter and I agree that nothing beats kicking back to the sound of the pointy end of a sable brush scratching out happy little trees on canvas.