This article recounts my second experience volunteer teaching chair yoga in “Spanglish” with Hands to Heart Center.
Autumn is in full swing, and I felt it in the crisp air as I exited the Jackson Square T stop; I saw it in the oak trees whose bright red leaves hung like candy in the breeze. Just like last week, I was greeted by the elaborate murals shouting WELCOME in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Haitian Creole. I wondered how many more of these elaborate graffiti walls I could spot if I kept my eyes open. Instead, my wide eyes found an African American man whose limped a few paces ahead of me. A catheter drained urine from the black space beneath his tattered coat. I thought, this is why I don’t open my eyes.
I averted my gaze to my path and followed it to our makeshift yoga room in Mildred Hailey, a housing complex that focuses on providing support for families affected by trauma resulting from domestic violence, homicide, or shootings that have occurred in the community. Today, I would be volunteer teaching a chair yoga class in “Spanglish” with Hands to Heart Center – Yoga to the People (HTHC), an organization that connects Boston-area yoga teachers with opportunities to volunteer teach community-based yoga and mindfulness classes in low-income neighborhoods.
“Good morning!” Irma* and Val both greeted me as they busily arranged the chairs.
“Were you our teacher last week?” Val asked, then observed me and said, “Yeah, I remember you!”
I asked them if there were any stretches or movements they’d like me to include today. Val said, “Nothing really. My back usually hurts, but it hasn’t been lately. I’ll see how I feel today. Last night, I had to take my medicine – I don’t know if you know about chemotherapy medicine?”
I nodded encouragingly, my eyes lighting up with interest.
“I don’t take it every day – I used to, but not anymore,” Val continued. “Usually, I’ll have it on Thursdays, and the next day, I can’t do much because I’m just so tired. I had to take it last night, so I’ll see how I feel today. I don’t know if you know much about Alzheimer’s?”
I nodded, my ears perking up again.
“I’d like them to provide sessions on Alzheimer’s here,” she said with conviction. “I had to spend yesterday caring for a friend with Alzheimer’s. Phew, it was hard.”
Irma nodded in agreement. “They get violent, the ones with Alzheimer’s! Didn’t you hear about the man with Alzheimer’s in that nursing home who killed his nursing aids?”
My eyes widened, and I said, “No, I hadn’t heard that.”
Irma said with passion, “Yeah, it was all over the news! He hit them with his walker!”
Val continued, somberly, “There’s no arguing with them. My friend yesterday kept asking me how my kids were doing, as if they were still young. I had to keep reminding her, ‘My kids are good, but they’re grown!’ Then, she got real scared because there was a car wreck down the street, and someone was killed. She kept asking me if it was her parents in the wreck. I know her dad – he was a bishop at my church. They’ve been dead for 40 years!”
I wanted to keep listening to Val’s stories, but the chairs were quickly filling with participants. An unfamiliar face walked up to me as Val was still divulging details of her poor friend’s condition. I thought it must have been an interesting conversation to walk in on. “Hi, I’m Melanie, the assistant,” she said to me.
It was only a few weeks ago that I had observed my first class, and now the tables were turned: I was being observed and assisted by a new HTHC teacher. I gave Melanie a quick rundown of the class, explaining that all of the participants are elderly women and about half are Spanish speakers. In our one-chair, one-mat setup, the mats would be used if participants chose to lie down for savasana – but more than half chose to stay seated when presented the option last week.
As I approached the front of the class to teach, I noted that most of the participants were in the same spot as last week. I only saw one participant, Ella, who had not been in class last week. “Were you in class last week?” I asked
“Huh?” she said, cupping her ear.
“Were you in class last week?” I asked again, moving closer.
“Were you in class last week?”
“What she say?”
“She asked if you were here last week,” said Irma.
“Oh. Was I?”
“You were at Zumba,” Irma confirmed.
“Yeah. I was here,” she said with authority.
“You gonna work us again today?” Dorris asked me as I took my seat again at the front, and I assured her that we would move.
As I started to instruct breathwork, several more participants filed in. Melanie and Violetta, the translator, assisted in setting up extra chairs. My sequence this week was nearly identical to the one I offered last week: alternate nostril breathing, ankle mobility, wrist mobility, neck mobility, seated side bends, seated cat/cow, seated sufi circles, seated twists, standing mountain pose, standing modified half Sun A’s, four chair poses, two tree poses on each leg, seated warrior I, seated warrior II, and self-massage with (optional) diluted orange essential oil.
Just like last week, I forgot most of my Spanish amidst my focused attention to the dynamics of teaching. I felt that the few Spanish phrases I did use were appreciated. For example, the participants who spoke Spanish as their native language looked at me with attention and and repeated my words when I said, “la postura del arbol” (tree pose).
As my lips uttered “savasana”, the room seemed to eagerly prickle with anticipation. I gave the participants the option to stay seated or make their way down to their mats. They seemed to feel adventurous this week – the majority decided to rest in “legs up the chair.”
“You gonna make me get on the ground?” Ella asked, her eyes in disbelief as she watched the other participants.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to. You can stay in your seat if you’d prefer,” I explained.
“You gonna help me up if I get down?” she asked hesitantly.
Melanie and I assured her that we would, and she made her way down to her mat.
Throughout the class and into relaxation, the participants’ attention remained laser-focused on their movement or stillness. The room was so engaged that you could hear a pin drop – or a phone ring.
As my watch hit 10:59 am, the participants were awoken from their blissful nap with a sharp shrill from Val’s phone. She rushed up from her seat to answer.
“Begin to deepen your breath,” I instructed to ease the feeling of an unwanted awakening from an alarm clock.
Melanie and I made our way around the room to assist the women back into their seats. For one final moment, I climbed into mine, and we brought our hands together in the center of our hearts. “With gratitude for all of us, we bow and say namaste. Thank you all for being here. Muchas gracias a todas.”
Shortly after bowing out, Dorris caught me. “I just wanted to say, I like your pace and your quill,” she assured me.
“My quill?” I asked, perplexed.
“The one on your arm!” she said, pointing to my tattoo. “Looks like Edgar Allen Poe drew it! I can tell you’re a writer. You’re on your way, kid.”
I thanked her, and my mind began to shape the narrative of my class. As I passed the transformation of leaves, I kept my eyes wide open to the detail of the journey home.
*All names have been changed.