Along with my regular fitness regimen of walking, swimming, hiking, dancing or whatever other exercise I could coax my pregnant, ballooning body to do in recent months, I have been coming once a week to a Tuesday night yoga class that attracts hundreds of women weekly from all over the city.
This night, in a lily-scented room decorated with portraits of yogis, there are 20 of us in various stages of pregnancy, from the flat-bellied, newly pregnant to women so big with child they look like they might give birth before class ends.
Yoga can be a purely physical pursuit, but we come to this class for reasons as varied as our body shapes: for exercise, for camaraderie and for spiritual support. Most of all we come to be around other pregnant women. Here, parked on our yoga mats, we can bare our bellies for 90 glorious minutes and feel like goddesses.
My instructor is Seva Simran Siri Kaur Khalsa, a certified prenatal yoga instructor at Golden Bridge Yoga. She is dressed in flowing white cotton, a turban and a scarf. She sits on a raised wooden platform covered with a woven rug and emanates nurturing, maternal energy.
Khalsa says the goal of her class is to keep women's spines flexible, strengthen their immune systems and keep their auras (by her definition, the energy field that surrounds people) strong. She also wants to help women keep their minds calm and conscious. She recommends any pregnant woman walk four to five miles a day, in addition to prenatal yoga classes.
The class begins with chanting, meditating and deep breathing.
Then we begin to do slow and gentle stretches. These stretches are designed to open up our shoulders, our lower backs, our chests. We sit with the soles of our feet pressed together and raise our arms slowly over our heads. We remain in this modified Indian-style position and begin to circle, slowly, loosening our lower backs. We stretch down to the left, to the right.
"Feel yourself opening up space for the baby to grow in," Khalsa says, as we lift one arm, then the other. "You become very vulnerable as your third chakra opens up," she says. "That's what makes you want to cry at the drop of a hat."
After stretching, we begin strengthening exercises. We get on all fours and do Jane Fonda-like leg lifts until our bodies burn. We do sets of squats, strengthening our thighs. We join with partners and rise up on our toes, then roll back down on our heels, working our calves until they ache. (This is supposed to help alleviate leg cramps, which many women get during pregnancy.)
Golden Bridge Yoga offers numerous classes in Kundalini yoga. But its founder and guru, Gurmukh, sees teaching yoga to mothers-to-be as a calling. "Women think they should know everything about pregnancy, but they have never been pregnant before, so why would they know?" she says.
"In the old days they had a mother, a nurse, a midwife. Today so many women are isolated from families, from their community, from knowing. This is to teach a woman to stand up for herself. To have strength, a backbone, a support system. It is to give them education so they can make intelligent choices."
Interspersed through our stretching and strengthening on this night are what our instructors call "keep-up exercises." They look simple but must be done continuously for periods of three to five minutes. Sometimes we make circles with our arms extended to the side. Sometimes we move our hands over our heads. This time we throw our arms back behind us, forward across our chests, then raise them up over our heads, and repeat. These small, simple movements become excruciating when carried out over an extended period of time. They will not make your muscles big, or your physique powerful. They are designed to help your mind triumph over your body.
"Anytime you are doing difficult things, remember, this is all preparation for labor," says Khalsa. She encourages us to breathe through our pain, to chant Sanskrit mantras. I sneak a peek around the room. Some women have dropped their arms. Some are resting. Some have a sheen of sweat on their upper lips. It's hard. But we are still on the clock.
"Think ... 'I am good. I am beautiful. I am a powerful woman,' " says Khalsa. "I can do this thing called labor."
After our keep-up exercises, Khalsa puts on ethnic-sounding music with a primal drum beat, meant to help us get in touch with our less intellectual, more primitive selves -- and we dance. Sometimes there are cymbals and sitars that make you want to belly dance. Other times there is soulful drumming that makes you want to get down in the streets of Rio at Carnevale. We move our hips and rock our wombs. It feels so good.
We end the class with chanting, singing and a prayer for the baby growing within us. Then we lie on our backs in the darkness in silence. We finish class with a song about sunshine and love.
After class the women chat over cardamom tea and graham crackers.