As yoga instructors, the words we use matter.
Whether speaking to a group of beginners or seasoned practitioners, it’s important to teach with directness, clarity, care, and an understanding of where our students are coming from in terms of their various backgrounds.
It’s our responsibility to create the most welcoming classroom we can for each student, one in which they can grow and expand in their practice. With so much division and anxiety in the world right now, our classes—whether in person or online—should provide safe spaces for all, and an opportunity for community. In my 15 years as a yoga teacher, I’ve seen how essential fostering this kind of atmosphere is, especially for students who are moving into and through pregnancy.
If you teach prenatal yoga, you already know that each of your student’s bodies are unique and continually changing up until and after birth. But we also have to take into account that each person’s background—socioeconomic, religious, cultural, etc.—and life experiences are different.
When I created the Maha Mama teacher training in 2015, there were three other prenatal trainings in the New York area registered with Yoga Alliance. Today there are over 15, evidence that pre- and postnatal yoga have become increasingly popular. As a teaching community, we should be responsive to the ever-growing demand for using yoga to welcome new life by creating more nurturing pre- and postnatal classes and workshops, staying abreast of the latest studies, and adapting to the greater degree of transparency and awareness regarding pregnancy today.
Below are some tactics, teaching methods, and language tools that can impact your classroom in positive—and often messy—ways. Messy because we will make mistakes, but remaining curious and open will allow for growth and possibility.
Pregnancy can be wrought with lots of fear and incomplete information. Throughout the years, I’ve heard students say:
“I don’t want my body to change.”
“What if I lose my baby?” Or worse, “What if I lost my baby.”
“I'm afraid to go to prenatal yoga classes because I worry there will be a lot of talk about femininity and goddesses and I won't feel welcome.”
“I hate the way my changing body feels. What if I never feel like ‘me’ again?”
“What if I am in labor for days and it’s really painful?”
Here are some ideas for guiding your students as they navigate these fears:
Offer meditation and breathing practices to help them feel grounded.
If you can relate to any of these fears, consider sharing your experience. The words “I’ve been there” and “I understand” can bring a great deal of relief.
Pregnancy loss can happen in a variety of ways, and each person will experience this loss in their own way. It might be through miscarriage (which occurs in 10 to 20 percent of pregnancies), delivering a baby stillborn, or abortion.
Along with the psychological effects that can accompany a pregnancy loss, there may also be physical effects. And because it’s often taboo to speak about pregnancies in our first trimester, when a loss happens at this stage, we may feel alone with our thoughts and experience, and deeply isolated through grief. The weight of the loss needs to be held.
Regardless of the details, there is no set way that anyone should or will process the experience of pregnancy loss, as there is no rule book about how or what to feel. A yoga practice during this time might look like a walk with conscious breaths, a single restorative posture, or even singing for emotional release. Guiding students to embrace what is through practices like writing or painting can also be helpful, and can also be yoga.
While many people are happy when they become pregnant, many others are not. This unhappiness may last a short while or for the duration of their pregnancy. As teachers, we can’t just assume everyone is thrilled with their new situation.
I’ve worked with students who felt all kinds of things about being pregnant. I remember one student mentioning that they were having a child with someone they no longer loved. Many are scared of the sacrifices they will have to make when their baby arrives. Some have confided that their pregnancies were the result of rape and/or violent relationships.
As instructors, we have to let go not only of our preconceived notions, but also of any judgment. Our job is to help these students move toward compassion by teaching them the power of self-love and self-acceptance. Ask them how they feel about their pregnancy before offering congratulations. If they aren’t happy, thank them for their honesty and acknowledge the gravity of bringing a human being into this world. It might empower them or at least help them to feel seen and heard.
Our prenatal students, just like anyone else, can arrive at their practice with past trauma, and even a yoga class (which we often see as inherently healing or nurturing) can be triggering.
The practice of yoga is an inward journey. A journey to the self. The first limb on the eight-limbed path of raja yoga is ahimsa, which means non-harming, or kindness in thought, word, and deed. This is a practice that ideally affects the whole of our lives and how we treat everyone we meet or work with, especially our students.
In that light, here are a few trauma-aware best practices you can use in your classes that align with the practice of ahimsa:
• In a future in which it’s safe to do so, be mindful of touching, as it could be a trigger. Ask for consent first. This New York Times article breaks down the need for understanding what it means to ask for consent.
• Trauma-informed classes require intense and specific training—asking for consent is just a beginning. Find trainings in your community to educate yourself.
• Understand that the brain recognizes trauma as trauma, period, regardless of how seemingly small or big. So the states of fight, flight, or freeze can be triggered fairly easily. Yoga nidra can be an excellent way to calm the central nervous system.
Many yoga classes can be a valuable opportunity for those embarking on the fertility journey, even prenatal yoga. As instructors, we must be fully aware of the numerous possibilities with regard to fertility and find ways to expand our language so everyone feels welcome. Our assumptions, while well intentioned, might cause harm. Here are some assumptions I have made over the years while getting to know students that may have detracted from my ability to fully serve:
• That they are married, and to a man
• That they have a partner
• That this is their first attempt at trying to conceive/or that they have never lost a pregnancy
• That they are carrying a baby they plan to raise themself rather than making adoption plans or serving as a surrogate for another parent-to-be
• That they are a certain age, which we should never ask; the pressure to get pregnant, if a person feels pressure, is often compounded when someone is slightly older.
As for the practices themselves, guide your students to a gentle class. Restorative or yin classes can offer benefits for someone trying to conceive. Simple breathing exercises and visualizations can also help. Remember, the physical body is either going through or about to go through massive shifts, while the mind will benefit from remaining steady. This is the practice. Given the physiological and emotional changes going on in this particular time, it’s often not an easy experience for people, so invite your students to lean into the grounding effects of mindfulness and meditation.
There is a misconception (one that I had myself) that all pregnant people are women. They may, for example, be nonbinary or agender, and that may not be obvious or visible. Sex and gender expression and presentation mean different things for different people, though the media and our limited thinking may lead us to make generalizations. Society needs boxes to check and ways to categorize, but gender, as I am learning, is just not that simple.
When opening up to a class, workshop, or training, especially where people have the time to really get to know one another, offer your students the option to share their pronouns and lead by sharing yours. Set an example as you create neutral space for all to be who they are. If this is new territory, then it’s imperative for us to learn, ask questions mindfully, and know that mistakes can (and surely will) happen. This practice of leaning into something new requires resilience and kindness, including for ourselves.
When we see photo after photo of able-bodied, fit (and usually white) yoga teachers in postures that may not be available to many, we can recognize that there is an all-too-often unacknowledged issue that needs to be addressed. Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or who are perceived to have disabilities. All yoga spaces, including prenatal yoga spaces, should be inclusive and accessible as evidenced through their advertising and classroom setup and presentation.
Our goals as teachers should be to find ways to serve and educate. All studios and yoga rooms should be fully equipped with chairs, blocks, blankets, and bolsters. An entire hour-long class can be done on a chair or at the wall. Many practices—such as gentle stretches, chanting, breathing techniques, and meditation—can be done while lying in bed. Since bed rest can be prescribed during pregnancy, these gentle practices can become especially important.
In order to include and welcome all in our prenatal classes, we have to evolve our offerings from simply catering specifically to the birthing body to include the parenting body/parenting heart. People may be parents to adopted kids or foster kids; families may include same-sex couples embarking upon parenthood and those who are unable to conceive but want to. Our industry can hold space for the many pathways to parenting—including forms of parenting that didn’t physically change our bodies but changed our lives, psyches, and souls. It is on us, as teachers, to embody those changes and support all people through the birthing experience.
We can create space for all through the ways we set up our classes, what and how we offer practices, and what we say. After all, words (and actions) do matter.