This article recounts my first experience volunteering for Hands to Heart Center for a Spanglish chair yoga class.
When I started looking for opportunities to volunteer teach around Boston, I quickly realized the logistical nightmare it would present. Where should I volunteer? How long would it take to find an organization whose primary population served would benefit from yoga, contact the correct point person, and determine where to teach a class in their facility? Where would I find enough mats and blocks for everyone? How many consent forms would I need to create and bring with me? I thought, maybe I should just create an organization with these resources so that this process is streamlined for the next yoga teacher who hopes to volunteer teach.
To my delight, this organization already exists! Upon Googling “volunteer yoga teaching organization Boston”, Hands to Heart Center – Yoga to the People (HTHC) was the first result to pop up. HTHC is a nonprofit organization that merges yoga with social justice. The organization was founded based on knowledge of the following:
“Yoga is a powerful and effective way to increase health and wellness and to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The majority of yoga studio classes are unaffordable for those living in poverty.
There is a lack of yoga studios in low-income communities.”
And HTHC is run on the following principles:
“Yoga classes should be accessible, culturally competent, welcoming and enjoyable for ALL bodies, ALL levels of fitness and ALL styles of learning.”
With accessibility at the heart of its work, HTHC seeks to bring yoga to individuals in Boston who have been affected by poverty, addiction, and trauma. HTHC does so by connecting yoga teachers in Boston with opportunities to volunteer teach community-based yoga and mindfulness classes in low-income neighborhoods. When I found out that the organization was looking for yoga teachers who would like to practice their Spanish while teaching yoga to underserved women, of course I jumped at the offer.
The HTHC class advertised was at Mildred Hailey apartments in Jamaica Plain. This housing complex focuses on providing support for families affected by trauma resulting from domestic violence, homicide, or shootings that have occurred in the community. Several of the families in the program also currently experience poverty or are recovering from addiction or homelessness. The apartment complex was only a few blocks away from where I lived for a few months after returning from Austria before relocating across the river. The neighborhood has a sizeable Spanish-speaking population and possibly the best grocery stores around Boston for Mexican cooking (although I have yet to explore the grocery stores in East Boston).
And so, on a Tuesday morning in September, I found myself making the trek to Jamaica Plain to observe my first HTHC class. I arrived to the apartment complex twenty minutes early, knowing that the T could have easily been running late. I walked into a waiting area, where several seniors sat patiently.
“Hi, I’m looking for the yoga class,” I said to Doris*, an African American woman in her early sixties.
“We’re all waiting for it here. Have a seat,” she said, motioning toward a plush armchair to her left. Then, “Are you the teacher? First they send us a new teacher, then a different one the next week, now another one.”
“No, I’m just assisting the class today,” I replied as I took a seat on the armchair.
“Not there, that’s Ms. Jackson’s seat!” she said, pointing toward an elderly African American woman with freshly-styled hair who was pushing a walker. “I meant you could sit on the table.”
“Oh, I’m sorry!” I replied and took my designated space.
I gazed curiously at the senior women to my right. They were speaking quickly in Spanish. I understood about every fourth word – something about la frontera – the border. The one who spoke engaged me in eye contact, as if to include me in the conversation, although I assumed the thought that I didn’t understand.
“She said be here early, we get here early, and she’s not here,” Doris said, gazing up at the clock.
Then, with a gust of energy, Violeta burst into the room. “¡Hola, chicas! ¿Cómo están?”
“There she is!” Doris exclaimed as Violeta kissed the Spanish-speaking women on their cheeks. To me, she asked, thinking I was the teacher, “Hi, are you going to do the yoga today?”
Thinking Violeta was the teacher, I replied, “Oh no – I mean yes, I’m assisting. I’m Lacey.” She looked confused and smiled.
After a few minutes of greeting the room, Violeta directed everyone into a large, cafeteria-style room. It seemed that setting up for yoga was a usual drill. Everyone began deconstructing the tables and configuring the chairs into a specific pattern that I didn’t yet understand. I tried to follow the Spanglish directions of the other women, and patiently waited for our yoga setup to unfold. Chairs were being aligned with one facing another. Were we doing partner’s yoga?
Amidst the commotion, I caught another word with Violeta, “So, what should I be doing to assist for yoga?”
She replied, “I don’t know, I just teach Zumba.”
When she said this, I was at first a bit disappointed because I thought I would be learning to teach yoga to this community. Then, I envisioned myself and the senior women doing a Latin-style square dance around the chairs. At once, I became excited. I took my place at the sign-in sheet to greet the other women as they came in to set up. I helped one African American woman to sign a consent form written that was written in Spanish and a Latina woman to sign a consent form that was written in English.
Then, Violeta approached me, saying she could translate for me if there are Spanish words I don’t know if I wanted to start teaching while we waited for the other instructor? Wait – was I supposed to be teaching Zumba? In Spanish? I hadn’t felt this lost in translation in months.
Just then, the Hanna, the HTHC yoga teacher hurried in. Without wasting any time, the yoga class began. Okay, so I was in the right building.
I was relieved to see that Hanna didn’t speak much more Spanish than me. She spoke loudly, slowly, and clearly, peppering in her English instructions with a few “izquierda’s” and “derecha’s”, and looking to Violeta when she needed her to interject more detailed Spanish phrases. The second chair, I quickly learned, was not for partner’s yoga, but for extra support in this chair yoga sequence.
I was truly impressed with the sixteen senior women who participated in the class. In general, they seemed to understand how to approach the basic postures and how to modify, as if they had practiced regularly before. Although there was limited translation, I saw the Spanish-speakers whisper to one another a few times. Aside from these hushed voices, the room was silent, and the women followed along with intent focus.
After breathwork, warming up the joints, heavily modified Sun A’s and Sun B’s, most of the women made their way onto their mats for legs up the chair and then savasana. There were a few moments of chaos as Hanna, Violeta, and I assisted them into position. When I tried to arrange Ms. Jackson’s seat, Doris quickly interjected, “Uh uh, honey, Ms. Jackson can’t go on her back!”
I apologized and helped her back into her chair. After a moment, Doris looked around and said, “Who took my mat?”
I apologized again, telling her I might have used it to set up Mildred, an elderly African American woman who arrived late. Doris and I deconstructed Mildred’s setup to find that Mildred didn’t have Doris’ mat, then reconstructed her setup. Finally, the commotion ended, at there was blissful silence.
Savasana lasted a generous 10 minutes. As I watched the women who lay or sat in eyes-closed bliss, I wondered how many were asleep. I looked at Ms. Jackson, whose chin was down to her leather jacket, and thought she must definitely be asleep.
Finally, rest ended, and there was more commotion. Hanna, Violeta, and I made our rounds through the room to assist the women off of their mats. The group busily chattered, until Hanna announced, “Wait, wait, it’s not over yet!” She directed the women back into their seats for one final moment of centering before bowing them out with a “Namaste.”
After class, I caught Hanna to ask her for tips for teaching this crowd. She said that many of them had a good idea of what they were doing because they had been practicing chair yoga with another teacher for a few years before she suddenly passed away. She said this group loved yoga, almost as much as they loved Zumba. At 16 participants, they were one person over capacity, and she was worried that they would have to cap the classes. Violeta agreed, and said that recently, one of the Zumba classes had 29 participants, including seniors from all around the neighborhood.
Hanna then told me a bit about her method for sequencing, and asked me if I had taken a chair yoga class before. I scanned my memories, and realized that this may have been my first time observing one, although I had taught them a few times before. We agreed that there really aren’t enough resources for teachers to learn to make yoga accessible – and enjoyable for beginners (but there are plenty of advanced arm balancing and handstanding workshops). I thought, maybe I could help with this.
As I walked out of Mildred Hailey, my brain was buzzing with inspiration, as if I had just practiced yoga for the first time. I eagerly opened my notebook on the T ride home, hoping to write down my recollection of the entire event. Yet the only words I could sketch out were, “izquierda… derecha.” Evidently, I’d have to continue practicing my Spanish.
*All names have been changed.