Exploring the High Plains Between the Genders
I was teaching yoga in the midlands in Ireland, in a fairly rural area. One of the last bastions in the known world of: very little yoga. Before I started teaching I had gone to a series of classes given by a woman who had charm, but promoted a quite esoteric and quirky training (I’ll never forget, however, how she enchantingly called Uttanasana “sack of potatoes”). In any case, I was without doubt the most traditionally educated teacher in the environs, even as a relative novice.
So when I was approached individually by several women for prenatal classes, I thought, huh. Huh, there’s an idea, me teaching pregnant ladies. Well, I was already working with mental patients and folks in wheelchairs, so what the heck.
The funniest bit for me was the prep work. Sure I researched as much as I could, I obtained books and despite the rural location we had this Internet thing goin’ on. But I knew that, besides acquiring the knowledge (why you need to know about the vagus nerve and what happens in the second trimester, etc. etc.), one has to process the student experience.
In modern yoga terminology this is called svadyaya , or self-study (bastardized from the original meaning of the Sanskrit word, which had to do with study of the Vedic scriptures). So for the several weeks leading up to my first class my preparation consisted partly of me walking around the house and yard pretending I was carrying a baby. And of course doing yoga pretending I was with child.
What would Natarajasana feel like if I had a big “sack of potatoes” around my waist? I had the thought of parading myself in front of my wife with a pillow strap-on, but thought better of it. She already believes I’m a lunatic. And I might add that the look (and the feel) was a bit of a far cry from my post-punk rocker days.
On the other hand, I’ve never felt like I need to adhere to any clichés about what manhood consists of. I know I’m a guy, and what I do is what a real guy does, by definition. And in this contact, well damn, I may as well think of myself as the Clint Eastwood of prenatal yoga teachers.
Of course I can have no idea if my imposturings (as it were) were in fact at all accurate. But how much verisimilitude do we need? One has to learn to figure out strategies for people with quite various body types than one’s own. Effective teaching is usually just a matter of empathy mixed with knowledge and personality. In the end my job as yoga teacher was to get the yoga down right for these women.
I had my first classes at a hall in the middle of town, but there weren’t that many qualified students. With only a couple students in a big hall it just wasn’t worth it. I encouraged my regular students to get busy so they could meet the steep pre-req (in a word, pregnancy).
In the meantime I moved the next series of classes to my home. I had three students by then: Penny, Andrea and Anna. A bit later my neighbo(u)r Helen became qualified and we exchanged private lessons, prenat yoga for guitar. She was the more accomplished student, I’d have to say.
Recently when I asked a few of the women what they recalled about that time their answers cracked me up. Penny wrote, “My favorite memory of the pre natal was the SEA of cushions you had for each of us. It was a mummy to be plinth of cushiness…. You were lucky we ever left your house after the session and didn’t just lie there for the remainder of the pregnancy!”
I did indeed secret the just about any pillows we had in the house off to the yoga room. Well, I didn’t always get them back in place before the wife got home, so the secret was eventually out. But they were great pillows, and the unusual shapes sometimes actually made them more efficient than, say, bolsters.
Andrea wrote, “I had a really stressful 9 to 5:30 job Mon to Fri and I would look forward every week to the Friday yoga. It was the highlight of my week and nearly always fell asleep during the final meditation. I always felt like I was floating on air after it.”
What struck me was how much I enjoyed teaching this genre. It was a feeling that the work was so darned relevant, that we were working on something important together, that there were other presences in the room with us, the babies, their souls. And perforce yoga has a calming effect on both practitioner and teacher, so there sometimes seemed to be even more calm in these sessions, that one was able to reach a deeper place. Maybe it was also that Relaxin (the amusingly straightforward name of the hormone which loosens musculature in the expectant mom) kicking in for them, and affecting the ambiance.
The fact that it worked so well was underscored in that the participants all became friends, and their kids will grow up together. And then of course after the births we did a fun Mommy and Me session before I left Ireland. Andrea had such an awful experience birthing that she’s actually bringing a case against the hospital, which is rare in Ireland, but really it was disastrous, and so those events were discussed over tea, of course. All said they used the yoga when the chips were down, and it made them feel more prepared.
Recently I was asked to take over a pre-natal class at the studio where I teach these days, in Queens, NY. My supervisor said, “We think they trust you even if you’re a man.” I said there wasn’t much I could do about the last part of that statement so I’m happy about the first, let’s give it go.
I guess not many met the pre-req in the clientele of this small studio, in fact only one woman showed up on the day. Laura was a nurse herself, and completely committed to the process. I worked with her for about three classes then she had an unrelated problem and was ordered to take it easy. Laura’s husband came to a class and told me this, reporting that she was sad she couldn’t continue.
We closed the class, but again it had allowed me to experience teaching in this special way, and I will likely seek it out sometime again in future. Because although becoming Prenatal Guy isn’t really like being a dad (which I am) or an uncle or anything, you do feel like you had some part in the life cycle, and that’s a neat thing. Yoga has taken me so many (strange!) places and this is certainly one of my favorite.
Maybe it can take you there as well, if you feel like entering that shadowy realm in between genders. So if you’re a kind of regular Clint Eastwood high plains driftin’ yoga teacher guy looking for a way to tap that life vibe, maybe it’s time to saddle yourself up some pillows and get busy with that svadyaya. Best of luck!
Ivan Nahem has been publishing stories, essays and poems for decades. He began teachingyoga when he lived in Ireland for a few years in the middle of the last decade, and now teaches six classes a week at Zen & Yoga in Forest Hills, NY. His yoga blog is at ivanteach.com and his writing website is ivannahem.weebly.com.
Editor: Carolyn Gilligan