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For Expecting Mothers, Time For Warrior 1

August 16, 2017


Shekea Johnson didn’t know what to expect.

She was 27 weeks pregnant with twin girls. She’d never been to yoga, only heard of it. It’s too expensive where she lives.

Dr. Roschanak Mossabeb gave her a new orange yoga mat. Hard to believe classroom C in the basement of Temple University Hospital, all hard tables and plastic chairs, could be a such a peaceful place.

Yoga music streamed from an iPhone. They sat facing each other on mats. Legs crossed, lights dimmed, eyes closed.

Dr. Mossabeb’s voice was soothing, like the music.

“How is our pregnancy so far?”

“Lots of pressure. I get tired.”

“When you get pregnant your blood volume increases by 10 percent,” Dr. Mossabeb explained. “Your heart has to work much harder.”

“Any puffy feet, puffy legs?”

“Not that I noticed.”

“Breathe in the positive energy, love, go at your own pace, inhaling, exhaling. As you breathe out, bring the baby close to your spine…”


The two women sit quietly, palms open to the heavens.

“When breathing, I want you to quiet down your nervous system. All that anxiety is gone. Focus on the here and now. Think about your intentions. Is it giving yourself some time and rest?”

•   •   •

Dr. Mossabeb, a neonatologist in Temple’s neonatal intensive care unit, took yoga when pregnant and loved it. It helped her bond with her baby, shed stress and relax. She thought Yoga is something that parents in North Philadelphia could certainly use.

“I was looking and I didn’t find any yoga places here,” she said.

Dr. Mossabeb worried initially that offering yoga might give the wrong impression. “Our patient population is already struggling,” she said. “I could almost sound like Marie Antoinette. `If you don’t have bread, then go eat cake.’ ”

But she floated the idea to Temple mothers. Many said they’d love to try it. She went and got trained to be a yoga instructor, and that took a year. Then she got approval from risk management — no easy thing at a big urban hospital. But the lawyers were all on board.


She decided to start once a month, on Saturday afternoons, after a childbirth class. She began in spring. First class had a few mothers. Then a few the next time. This class with Shekea Johnson was in July. Dr. Mossabeb thought she’d get three women, but got one. That’s fine with her. She’s elated frankly to reach one mother. And she’s happy to let the class grow organically.

She comes in on her own time. Gets friends and colleagues to donate money for mats. She tries to bring in some educational piece at each class.

At an earlier class, she told the mothers-to-be: “Whatever you eat goes into the fluid around the baby and it’s going to define the baby’s taste buds. If you eat something healthy the baby’s going to get used to eating healthy vegetables.”

“You make it fun,” Dr. Mossabeb explained. “Easy to follow. You don’t want to be didactic like a doctor in the white coat.”

•   •   •

Now she was a doctor in yoga pants.

“Massage the jaw, cheekbone, back of your neck….Good.”

“I want you to think about how much time you give yourself during the day to cherish your pregnancy,” she said to Johnson. “You have to stop in your busy day and concentrate on your pregnancy.”

“What do doctors predict for you?” the doctor asked.

“I have one that’s breached. I’m not sure she’ll flip around,” the student replied.

Shekea Johnson lives in Bristol, with her 11-year-old daughter, but is moving to Philadelphia. She heard about the free yoga class from a nurse and wanted to try it.

“Come into a table top position,” the yoga teacher instructed. “Cat cow stretch.”

Johnson rounded her back like a cat, and tucked her chin and head under her body.

“Take a look and say hi to baby,” said the instructor.

Then, standing in mountain pose, the doctor said, “Bring some gratitude to your feet.”

Johnson’s eyes were closed. She was calm and serene. As she stretched, she had beautiful extension.

“You’re very flexible,” Dr. Mossabeb says. “Did you know that?”

“No I didn’t.”

“And some of that could be because of pregnancy.”

They were on their feet, arms extended, in another classic Yoga pose.

“This is called Warrior 1,” said the doctor.

“Perfect warrior. You’re warrior strong!”

The two women sat across from one another again, legs crossed, eyes closed, in meditation.

500 hospital beds were a world away.

“With every inhalation bring in light and love and compassion for yourself and your babies.”

“And every exhale, breathe out the negativity.”

Lights on. They got up to leave.

“ You are absolutely beautiful,” said the doctor.

“Thank you so much,” said Johnson. “I will come back, definitely — as long as I don’t go into labor.”


Dr. Mossabeb’s phone came alive. It was July with new doctors in the NICU and she was needed and she was gone.

Johnson rolled up her new orange mat and headed outside to wait for her ride.

“It is so awesome to learn how to clear your head,” she said. “I’m going to go home and sit in the dark. I’m going to definitely put my mat to use.”

•   •   •

Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.