Somali Pregnant Women Practice Yoga Before Prayer

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Some pregnant women wear leggings, sports bras and cotton T-shirts for maximum comfort. Others wear full-body black hijabs with rhinestones along the cuffs and colored scarves over their hair. But once they dig their heels into their yoga mats, these pregnant women cast a unified silhouette: bulging bellies.

A trained doula and yoga instructor, Lana Anderson-Kuchynski, leads expectant mothers in pre-natal yoga at Everyday Miracles, a nonprofit breastfeeding advocacy organization in Minneapolis. She gets them stretching, rocking, balancing and squatting to better prepare them for childbirth.

For her Muslim students, this meditative practice fulfills a need for exercise that is both culturally appropriate and comfortable. Just a few steps away in the same room, they can transition into evening prayer, embracing some of the same fluid motions and meditative state.

“Wash peace all over your body,” Anderson-Kuchynski instructed during a Tuesday evening class. She walked her students through a standing meditation pose meant to simulate the sense of calm they’ll soon experience between contractions.

While the transition from prayer to a yoga may appear seamless, Somali women pay strict attention to the differences between these two disciplines. During yoga class, they feel free to talk and expand their range of motion. However, as the sun sets toward the end of yoga class, some women leave to perform “wudhu,” Muslim ritual washing to pray in the direction of Mecca. During prayer, they are silent and their movement is more restricted.

“The difference is, during prayer time, you’re not shaking your bottom,” said Shamsa Idle, a trained Somali doula at Everyday Miracles.

The fact that these two practices – prayer and yoga – can coexist in the same space bodes well for the ability of Somali women to assimilate without losing their religious identity.

When asked about her own yoga experience at Everyday Miracles, Amina Aluhamad, 26, said, “I like to socialize with other women. I like to learn from other cultures too.”

Class sizes fluctuate, depending on due dates. One constant, however, is the strong representation of the Somali community.

The non-denominational nature of Anderson-Kuchynski’s yoga class allows these women to participate without compromising their own faith. It also helps fulfill their need for a peaceful immersion outlet.

Shamsa Idle is a trained doula at Everyday Miracles. She is able to draw up on her years of experience as a registered nurse and midwife in Somalia, before the civil war began.These yoga movements are “good for their bodies, their minds and their unborn babies, she explains. Somalia has been embroiled in violent unrest since 1991, when clan warlords began vying for power. Since then, the nation has made headlines for its humanitarian crisis, piracy, and Al-Shabab militant activity. One of the most recent headlines concerns the attack on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

According to 2011 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Minnesota is home to more than 32,000 people of Somali ancestry. This makes Minnesota the Somali population capital of the U.S., with Ohio, Washington and California trailing as other hubs.

“We came because our country is not safe,” said Fartun Abdulla, 28, reflecting over a cup of sugary Somali tea after yoga class.

Abdulla’s mother and grandmother are still living in Somalia, but she came to Minnesota with her aunt and is now pregnant with her first child. To reconcile familial disruption Abdulla identified Idle as a surrogate mother and took her advice on attending pre-natal yoga classes.

“Yoga, we don’t have in Somalia – the specific type like this,” said Idle, adding that you’d be hard pressed to find a gym at all.

Minnesota is full of indoor exercise facilities, but not all Somali immigrants can afford to pay membership fees. Fortunately, pre-natal yoga classes at Everyday Miracles are free, offering expectant Somali women a comfortable way to practice self-care.

While some types of yoga are geared toward spiritual nourishment, Anderson-Kuchynski’s teaches asana yoga in her pre-natal classes, focusing purely on the physical benefits of yoga. Her classes are ethnically diverse and she doesn’t want to dissuade anyone from participating.

“I don’t think these classes are the space to bring in religion,” she said.

Strictly speaking, these yoga classes do not have a religious component. But there’s a certain element of peacefulness that emanates from a circle of pregnant women leaning into warrior pose and cupping one hand under their bellies while stretching into tree pose.

Most of these women have embraced yoga because they can feel the physical benefits of attending class. Idle explained that women got plenty of daily exercise back in Somali simply from walking to the market, chasing after children and visiting relatives who live miles away by foot. But here, in Minnesota, many replaced walking with commuting, especially during cold winter months.

Anderson-Kuchynski coaches them through labor positions and teaches them how to reposition their babies through various yoga poses. She asks the mothers to modify each position to their own comfort level, reassuring them that these simple movements are preparing their babies to exit the birth canal safely.

“Giving these women the tools with the yoga class, I think they feel more empowered,” she said.

Aluhamad agrees. Before coming to Minnesota, she lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for 10 years. She now works as a translator for Somali immigrants and recently gave birth to a baby girl. In addition to praying five times a day, she does her best to continue practicing the yoga techniques she learned from Anderson-Kuchynski.

Sharing her discovery of inner peace through yoga, she said: “It reduces my stress level.”