By Gayle Sato The words easy labor may seem like an oxymoron, but there are steps you can take, both throughout pregnancy and during labor, to make your experience less stressful and more comfortable, less clinical and more joyful. And although the following tips won't guarantee you'll have a sweat-free, pang-free birth, they can help make your labor and delivery more manageable.1. Start preparing now. When you're in the grip of labor, it's too late to crack open that self-hypnosis book or locate a birthing ball. Preparation counts. Case in point: Squatting increases the size of the pelvic opening by about 28 percent. But if you wait until you're in labor to try it for the first time, your squatting stamina won't add up to & well, squat.2. Seek higher education. Take a childbirth class, and enroll as early as possible: Not only do classes fill up fast, but some run 12 weeks, which means you need to start them in your second trimester. Learn about the different stages of labor so you know what to expect. Ask tough questions and stupid ones, too. Find out your doctor's philosophy on epidurals vs. nondrug ways of managing pain, as well as on Cesarean sections. The better prepared you are, the more choices you have during labor, says nurse practitioner Lynette Miya, M.N., R.N.P., co-owner of Bright Beginnings & Beyond, a childbirth and family resourcecenter in Redondo Beach, Calif. You don't want to arrive at the hospital without any idea of what's going to happen. Once labor starts, no surprise is a good surprise.3. Take a prenatal yoga class. The most important thing women learn through yoga is how to focus, says Carmela Cattuti, L.P.N., founder of Yoga for Pregnancy & Fitness in Boston. Yoga also strengthens the entire body, increases flexibility and gives you stamina. But maybe more importantly, it helps your mind relax. This, in turn, leaves your body free to go about the business of birthing.4. Hire a certified doula. Doulas are nonmedical professionals trained to provide emotional and physical support as well as information to women during pregnancy and labor. Studies have found that with a trained doula's continuous support, epidural use decreased by 60 percent; C-sections, 50 percent; oxytocin use for induction, 40 percent; forceps use, 40 percent; and average length of labor, 25 percent. To locate a certified doula in your area, visit dona.org.5. Give yourself options. During my first labor, breathing exercises gave me a massive sinus attack. Worse, I was out of tricks no alternative pain-coping techniques, no weapon handy to beat my husband for getting me pregnant. Don't let this happen to you. Learn several techniques to manage pain, such as self-hypnosis, position changes, heat packs and different breathing methods; bring music to play for relaxation. If you don't know what your options are, you don't have any, says Tracy Hartley, a certified doula and owner of BEST Doula Service in Southern California.6. See no evil, hear no evil. Some childbirth educators believe graphic images, catastrophic tales and words of discouragement (You'll never be able to get that monster out without a C-section!) can affect your subconscious andcreate a mental block during labor. At best, negative thoughts make labor stressful; at worst, they'll actually intensify pain. Change the channel, cover your eyes, tune out or walk away when the subject matter makes you uncomfortable. Bonus: Being able to do this will help you ignore all the unwanted advice you'll get after the baby is born.7. Set the mood. For most women, a dark, quiet environment is ideal during labor, so ask your nurse or partner to dim the lights and minimize noise. Little touches make a difference: a favorite pillow, pair of socks or soothing scent. Aromatherapy, especially the scent of lavender, is very calming in labor, says nurse practitioner Miya.8. Don't take labor lying down. Upright positions, such as standing, walking, kneeling, slow dancing, sitting and squatting, allow gravity to help move the baby down and out. Sometimes, getting the baby into the pelvis is like fitting a key into a lock, Hartley says. You need to do a little jiggling. Rocking back and forth on your hands and knees may get the baby into position.9. Get wet. Early in labor, a warm bath is a blessing. Later, the sustained warmth and weightlessness that water provides can feel more like a miracle. If you have access to a warm tub during labor, run OK, roll, if you have to and take the plunge. (Be sure to get your doctor or midwife's green light before doing so; there's a risk of infection if your water has broken.) If a soak isn't possible, take a shower.10. Stand your ground. Labor transforms you, but it won't make you suddenly love lime Jell-O, New Age music or the sight of your in-laws as you breathe through a contraction. People may press all kinds of suggestions on you during labor; listen but don't feel you have to go along with them. It's your body, your baby and your labor, so stick to your guns. Consider it practice for when your baby is a teenager.