This article recounts my experience volunteer teaching yoga to individuals experiencing homelessness in Boston with the Philippine Medical Association.
A few weeks ago, I had another opportunity to volunteer teach yoga to individuals experiencing homelessness in Boston. It had been nearly a year since my first time volunteering with the Philippine Medical Association of New England (PMA) and several months since I last volunteer taught yoga to low-income elderly individuals with Action Based Community Development. In the meantime, I had been sitting on a growing itch to integrate social justice into my work.
All summer, I had been gnawing on ideas as to how I could best contribute to the world. Social justice, global health, and mindfulness are the three spheres in which my heart resides. So how could I connect the dots in a way that feels both meaningful and is economically viable? My logical mind knows that volunteer teaching yoga is not in the least bit a financially sustainable avenue to pursue, but my heart continues to scavenge for opportunities to do so. And so, I found myself at Saint Emmanuel’s church on a cool late-summer Saturday at noon, truly excited to teach.
As I bounced through Saint Emmanuel’s open doors, a couple exited. I heard one of the two loudly scoff, “I didn’t know I had to be taught to breathe.” Evidently, PMA’s monthly wellness program had already begun.
Another volunteer yoga teacher had just finished teaching alternate nostril breathing as I sat down to join her. This time, rather than being in a cozy circle of chairs with a few willing participants, our chairs were facing the entire group of 15 or so individuals experiencing homelessness who watched us as they waited for their hot meals to be served. As I began to teach, some actively participated, others stared at me as if I were crazy, and a few slept with their heads lying face down on the lunch tables.
Mid-sentence, I was stopped by Al*, a bearded African American man, “Excuse me. You took my seat.”
“Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t know you were sitting here. Would you like some essential oil?” I asked, waving a bottle of Passion towards his hands.
Al replied in a stony tone, “No. I don’t need any more oil. Look at the grease on my skin.”
As I continued to teach, my elbow brushed against Al’s table. “Excuse me. You knocked my table,” he said. This was nowhere close to the to the most critical audience that I’ve taught to, but it was perhaps the most honest.
Al’s statement prompted a question from Joe, another African American man who had been closely following the chair yoga and self-massage movements that I demonstrated. He asked,
“How does breathing help with skin?”
Later, Joe proposed that we help him to gain mobility in his shoulder that had been protruding since his stroke. He explained, “I’m 48 now, and I was 39 when I had the stroke. I used to be able to run 6 miles every day! Now, I can’t run, but I can walk without being all lopsided. I’m just glad I had the experience.”
“The experience of the stroke?” I asked.
“Nah. The experience of running! But that too. The doctor said that if I had been much older when I had the stroke, I would have died.”
“Wow, you’re lucky.”
“Nah. I’m blessed,” he corrected me.
Next up was a Tai Chi session. The instructor seemed to hold the group’s attention well, apart from the few who remained asleep on the tables. Mid-way through the session, the instructor suggested the benefit of learning from cultures around the world. He explained, “Yoga is from India, and Tai Chi is from China. Both places have an incredibly rich history that dates back much farther than ours in the United States. We think that our country is so prosperous with all of our technology – our toilets that flush. We have flushing toilets, but we haven’t figured out what to do with the waste, and it’s ruining the environment. We can learn so much from other cultures – ”
“America’s history dates back just as far as China’s,” said a white bearded man named Manfred with a scowl. “Our culture comes from European culture and from the culture of the Americas – the Incas, the Mayans, the Aztec.”
“Maybe what I meant was modern U.S. culture,” the Tai Chi instructor replied.
Manfred rolled his eyes and turned his lips into a snarl.
“But what do I know? I should just stop talking because I’m just here to teach you Tai Chi.”
The Tai Chi instructor’s session ended with a demonstration, during which he explained how some of the movements originated from self-defense. “So, you mean we should use Tai Chi if we need it on the streets?” Joe asked with curiosity. This caused Roco, one of the sleeping bodies, to perk his head up.
“No… If you get into that kind of situation, please call 911,” the Tai Chi instructor replied.
Roco exclaimed with laughter in his eyes, “Man, I don’t need to listen to you. I’m a brown belt in martial arts from Holyoke. That’s why I just lay my head down ‘cause I know all the things you’re teaching. I could fight all of y’all.”
“Maybe you should teach instead of me next month,” the Tai Chi instructor replied.
“Nah, nah. I’m 59. I don’t fight anymore unless I need it on the streets.” He continued, with bright eyes, “And you need to shut your ass up and bring us our food!”
In a quick commotion, the homemade hot lunch of blackened chicken, seasoned vegetables, rice, salad, and fruit was set out, and the tables reorganized as everyone scurried to be served.
“This is good!” Roco exclaimed. “Isn’t it, Reesha?”
“Mmmmhm,” Reesha, another one of the heads that had been sleeping, replied with glistening eyes.
“Much better than the junk they serve us at Saint Francis. You know, that church has so much money, and all they serve us is garbage there! Tastes like sh-” Roco stopped himself mid-sentence, looking at me. “Oh, pardon my language, babydoll. I don’t like to curse around women or children. Isn’t that right, Reesha?”
“Mmmmhm,” Reesha confirmed.
“Where did you learn to fight, Roco?” The other yoga teacher asked.
“New York, that’s where I grew up. I got my brown belt at Holyoke, and my family lives in Springfield now. I gotta go see them soon. You know what’s sad? They just told me that my momma died in the hospital two years ago. They been trying to track me down to tell me, but they ain’t been trying too hard. Ask anyone on the street, ‘Where’s Roco?’ they could tell you right away. Man, that’s sad. My momma was the one who raised me – forget about my idiot dad! My momma spent nine months carrying me, she gave me life, she’s my momma! I’m gonna start tearing up,” he said with glistening eyes. “But it’s life. Every one of us dies. Even last week, we found out George died. Everyone knew George.”
“Mmmmhm,” said Reesha.
“Yeah, he was always asking us, every day, ‘How do you do?’ He really cared,” Al agreed.
“Everyone dies. But right now, we’re alive,” Roco continued, brightening his tone, “Babydoll, you have so much life in front of you. You’re young.”
“I’m not that young. How old do you think I am?” I asked.
“You’re 26,” he said with certainty.
“How did you know?” I asked, stupified.
“Because you’re 26. You gotta trust me because I’m old and wise. Enjoy your life! Get married – to a man with a job. Don’t never trust a man if he doesn’t have a job! If he don’t have a job, he ain’t worth nothing. Get married – “
“Have babies,” Reesha interjected.
“Babies?! Maybe one. Two at the most. Kids are expensive,” Roco continued. “Trust me, I got two daughters in Springfield. The youngest is 16, but they never stop costing money. Mmm, this food is good!”
“Mmmmhm,” Reesha replied.
“Ain’t like nothing like that garbage they serve us at Saint Francis. The only thing I like there is their boiled eggs,” Roco said, scrunching his nose in disgust. “Everything else tastes like sh- Oh, pardon my language.”
“What’s your favorite food?” I asked Roco.
“I’m Puerto Rican. I love rice, beans, and pork cooked with Goya! You know Goya? The brand? You gotta start using it to cook beans. You just put it in the pot as you’re cooking the beans. You make that for a man, he will be licking his fingers!”
I explained that my boyfriend is Mexican, and that he had told me to step up my beans game.
“Mexican?! How did you end up with a Mexican, babydoll? You’re Caucasian!” He reminded me. “Your boyfriend’s Mexican and he didn’t tell you to buy Goya?! I’ll shove that Goya up his ass! – Oh, sorry, sorry.”
As Roco finished his meal, he said, “Okay, babydoll, you promise me you’ll enjoy your life and that you’ll use Goya. Promise! Thank y’all for coming and for this delicious food.”
I confirmed that I would. As he and Reesha left the table, Roco exclaimed, “I can’t believe she’s with a Mexican! Should have been with a Puerto Rican instead!”
In summary, I still don't know exactly to make yoga and mindfulness globally accessible, affordable, and acceptable; but I am learning how to approach the world with curiosity, humility, and humanity.
*All names have been changed.