When I first started teaching prenatal yoga, my classes were targeted to a typical happy picture pregnancy -- people who were married and planned to have a baby. I had a very enthusiastic student attend classes regularly and would always comment about how much she loved her sessions, and then one day, she stopped coming; with no explanation.
Hong Kong is a small place, so I ran into her some time afterwards and asked her how she was doing and how the rest of her pregnancy went. With tears in her eyes, she told me that she had lost the baby, which is why she stopped coming and couldn't bear to let me know because it was too painful.
Frozen and distraught at the news, I gave her a hug and told her she always had a support system with me and I invited her to my regular yoga classes. I knew it would be too painful for her to come, but I wanted to let her know she didn't have to suffer alone.
Prenatal yoga teachers often do not get to see this side of their students. When a person loses a baby, they simply stop attending the classes. The more I taught yoga, the more I learned about the personal stories of my students and it wasn't always a happy picture or a happy result.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one out of three women are subjected to physical, emotional or sexual abuse, usually by her own partner or boyfriend, or someone she knows. This is a startling and tragic statistic. Potentially one-third of the women in my class has a negative experience which is potentially traumatic. Pregnancy could perhaps be unexpected, unwanted or the result of a violation. This changed the way I teach prenatal yoga for good.
Today, pregnancy is not limited to a husband marries a wife and they have a family. It never was limited to that, but with our world opening up, we can now become more aware of the different types of pregnancies that exist:
- Pregnancies through IVF
- Teen pregnancies
- Pregnancies as a result of sexual abuse
- Same sex families
- Women with chronic health conditions getting pregnant
- Unplanned or unwanted babies
- Forced family planning (with very traditional cultures)
The way we teach yoga to pregnant women must shift from being more inclusive, trauma sensitive and foster a sense of community for women. If we look to our traditional child-rearing roots, women were always supported by other women, helping her through her pregnancy, delivery and postpartum period. Today, women are often isolated and unable to express their negative emotions, shame, grief. They suffer in silence and solitude.
What is the scope of practice for a prenatal yoga teacher? She may not have any counselling skills or midwifery skills, so is she stepping over her boundary? Absolutely not. A yoga teacher's duty is to establish a community, a sangha. She simply has to be a friendly, warm and safe presence for her students both in and out of class. Keeping students connected is an important way to let someone know that you care, that you acknowledge the suffering and that the sangha is always there for them no matter what.