This article recounts my experience volunteer teaching chair yoga in “Spanglish” with Hands to Heart Center.
Cierran los ojos… Los manos al junto en su pecho… Postura de la montaña… Torsión sentada… Abran los ojos… I scanned over the Spanish yoga vocabulary I had scribbled into my notebook on the T ride from Cambridge to Jamaica Plain, knowing that many of the words would fall just beyond the grasp of my reach during my yoga class.
It was only a few weeks ago that I observed my first Spanglish chair yoga class 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. The class that I observed was the same one I would be teaching today – chair yoga in “Spanglish” at 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.
I set aside the Spanish yoga words I was gnawing on as I stepped off the T at Jackson Square. The air had the same damp, early-Autumn chill as it did in Cambridge, but time seemed to feel slightly more stagnant here.
I breezed by the bright-blue murals that shouted WELCOME in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole and into the apartment complex. As I walked into the make-shift yoga room, I felt myself step into my teacher presence – a version of myself that is warmer, more present, and more willing to engage with strangers than the introvert that I most often project to the world.
“Hi, I’m Lacey. I’m the yoga teacher today,” I said to Irma* and Val, two elderly African American woman who were waiting by the door.
They greeted me warmly and asked me how I would like to position the chairs.
“How do you usually set them up?” I asked.
“Depends,” Irma said. “Sometimes one chair, sometimes two chairs. You’re the teacher. You can decide.”
“I think one chair is enough,” I said, and we began creating our studio.
“I don’t know if we’re gonna get many people today,” Val warned me, then said excitedly, “It’s coupon day!”
Secretly, I was relieved. The class was over capacity last time, and Violetta, the translator, told me that they had had as many as 29 elderly women attend their Zumba classes.
Before class began, I greeted each participant and asked if they had any injuries or “things they couldn’t do in yoga.” Although the average age must have been in the sixties, very few of the women said that they had any physical impairments. Most often when I’ve taught classes to elderly participants, few tell me about specific physical issues because they’re “not injured, just old.” However, Val volunteered her condition to me before I asked.
“I can’t get up and down,” she said as we aligned the chairs atop the mats.
“Don’t worry, you won’t have to if you don’t want to,” I reassured her.
“I don’t know why it is! My head doesn’t feel good when I stand back up,” Val continued.
“I know why I can’t get back up! It’s cause I got THAT thing,” said Ms. Jackson with an all-knowing grin as she pointed to her bedazzled walker. Then, laughing, “I can’t even get down on my knees to PRAY no more!”
Val added with a cackle, “That’s right! Can’t get down on my knees to PRAY! Can’t pray on my knees in church, but I can still pray in my bed, pray in my sleep. But I tell you what, I have this back pain, and I think the yoga’s helping it. It feels so good to stretch out my back.”
“That’s good!” I said, encouragingly. It dawned on me that although I was an unpaid volunteer, I had the responsibility of teaching a class that was effective and impactful – that’s what they deserved.
I began the class in Spanglish, saying, “Hola, soy Lacey. Hablo poquito español.” These few words were met with a round of applause by the Spanish-speakers. Then, I quickly forgot the rest of the Spanish that I had prepared.
We started with breathwork, then did several seated movements for mobility in the ankles, wrists, shoulders, and neck. Then, we did seated side bends, cats and cows, sufi circles, and twists. Next, I brought them to standing in postura de la montaña (mountain pose). From there, we did a few modified half sun salutations. I remembered that the last teacher said the class liked the “fire” of chair pose, so I threw in four of them. That’s when the class transitioned to silently engaged to expressive.
“Whew, she gets right to it!” said Dorris.
Then, we did two tree poses on each leg. This seemed to tire some of the participants.
“I should have brought my water!” Dorris interjected before we shape shifted into our final tree.
Finally, I brought the class back to their chairs for a few seated warriors and finished the active portion of class with a guided self-massage.
“Qué bueno, este olor,” said Hortencia as I applied a smudge of diluted essential oil onto her palms for the self-massage.
“Smells like tea!” said Ms. Jackson.
“I better not take it, I’m allergic to everything,” Irma announced cautiously to the offering of oil.
Finally, it was time for savasana. I gave the participants the option to stay seated or lie on their mats for our relaxation. The majority chose to stay seated, but Violetta and I assisted the few who decided to lie down.
“Careful, Louisa, I need you for Zumba tomorrow!” Violetta warned Louisa as she plopped down onto the floor.
“This is my favorite part!” said Dorris before we took our final audible breath together before rest.
Suddenly, the chatter hushed to silence, and I thought, mine too…
… Like last time, I wondered how many were sleeping…
... I saw Ms. Jackson's chin rest down to her chest, and I thought, at least one...
… I didn’t want to wake them from the hushed peaceful moment….
… But then I remembered how many chairs and mats there were to put away. “Start to deepen your breath,” I instructed in a whisper.
“Whew, I was sleeping!” Val said blissfully.
With as little commotion as possible, I brought us all back to a seat. We placed our hands to our hearts and bowed together in gratitude for our collective presence. I remembered my intention to speak Spanish and added, " ¡Muchas gracias a todas por venir!" The room erupted in more applause from the participants who spoke Spanish as their native language. I made another intention to remember more Spanish words next time.
*All names have been changed.