Hovering above the bustle of 125th Street, Harlem Yoga Studio offers a special sort of uptown oasis - a respite from the busy city life below. As a community studio proudly open to all - their mission reads, “accessible, affordable yoga for every body” - you get the sense walking into HYS that everyone truly is welcome. This, of course, also applies greatly to the prenatal crowd.
Since the benefits of yoga for pregnancy have been widely noted, many women will try yoga for the first time when they become pregnant. Luckily, no previous yoga experience is necessary to attend HYS prenatal yoga classes, and the open/all levels approach works well for women during any point in their pregnancy.
After signing into class - which is indeed super affordable at just $14 - I made my way into the practice room and grabbed my arsenal of props - two blankets, two blocks, one bolster, and one strap. Our instructor, and studio co-owner, Laurel Katz-Bohen, was just finishing up signing in her last student and detaching her newborn baby from her Ergo carrier as the rest of us settled in. Not only is Laurel a prenatal yoga teacher, she’s also a doula and just had her own baby (her second) just few weeks earlier. The new babe would be his mom’s sleeping assistant during class - an adorable and peaceful reminder of what some of us had to look forward to in just a few weeks or months ahead.
Laurel began class with a brief hello and introduction, her kind and enthusiastic demeanor setting the tone for a very warm and easeful practice. As we came to a comfortable seat, Laurel asked us to close our eyes and tap into our breath. Leading us through a few rounds of three-part breathing, with a soft and relaxing voice, she helped us all dial down the noise that might still be humming about in our brains.
We all joined her in chanting three oms and then followed along in call and response of what she referred to as the Mother Mantra.
Soon we were shaking out our limbs, circling our ankles, scrunching and relaxing our toes, rolling our shoulders and stretching out the sides of our necks to release tension and wake up the joints. We came to Child’s Pose where Laurel advised us to use any props, like a block under foreheads or a bolster under our chest to create even more comfort and support in the relaxing posture.
We took several long and luxurious breaths in Child’s Pose before taking our hips up and back into Downward Facing Dog, then back to Child’s Pose, and back again to Down Dog a few more times in a very slow mini vinyasa.
With the prana now flowing, Laurel took the opportunity to connect us all in brief conversation. As we sat in our comfortable seat once again, she went around the room and asked us all to share a bit about ourselves - how far long we are, any aches and pains going on in the body, and pretty much anything else we wanted to bring up to the group.
Not a normal thing to do in a regular yoga class, this pause to converse, to talk and to listen, gave us all a very precious chance to speak in a safe and open environment, and be heard. Being pregnant out in the world can often feel isolating, and so this prenatal yogi community circle is a special thing, and a prime example of the welcoming atmosphere that Harlem Yoga Studio provides.
After a few minutes, we continued with our physical practice by taking some lunges to stretch the hamstrings and some standing poses to build strength, including Triangle and Goddess Pose.
Laurel gave us all ample opportunity throughout class to talk long, stress-relieving breaths, sighing out of our mouths, making “Ohhh” sounds on our exhale, fluttering our lips, and sticking our tongues out with a big “Ahhh.”
The outside world had all but disappeared and for this hour and a half it was almost as if we had all found a cozy womb-like hideaway to chill out in a for a while.
Having birthed two of her own babies, Laurel offered great advice and anecdotes from her own experience of being pregnant. Knowing that the lower back is typically a vulnerable and sore spot for pregnant moms, she incorporated helpful poses and stretches that she knew would feel good and relieve tension in those key areas.
Moving on to partner work, we teamed up to do some seated twists, with our backs to one another. We also did a fun partner massage where one person sits with their back against the wall and legs outstretched while the second person sits right up against their feet. Person one then gets to do a little kneading into lucky person two’s lower back. “Try this one at home!” Laurel suggested cheerfully.
Balance poses came next, with a Tree into Dancer’s Pose sequence standing close to the wall for support if we needed it. In Dancer’s Pose, there was no need to push into a backbend, Laurel reminded us. But we could use our foot pushing into our hand to find a nice opening and stretch in the front of our chest, a place that often gets tight and will likely get even tighter after baby is born and breastfeeding and toting baby around kicks into high gear.
Finding our way back to the floor, we took a moment to reconnect with our breath and our babies before lying down for our final relaxation pose - a gloriously lengthy side-lying Savasana. Laurel guided us through a full body relaxation yoga nidra practice as the spring sunshine tried hard to peak through the windows.
Our practice ended with a little bit more chanting and a final bow to our teacher, to ourselves, to our babies and to our community, all conspiring to support us along our journey.
-Holly C. Sparrow for Yoga Sleuth
Drop-in classes are $14. New student special: 3 classes for $25. Mat rentals available for $1.