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Yoga for the homeless of Boston: Part II

What’s it like to teach yoga to homeless individuals? This blog post recounts my second experience doing so in Boston.

Living in Boston is stressful enough for those of us lucky enough to have a stable roof over our heads. The cars that fly through crosswalks at the speed of light can be enough to stress even the most mentally stable of individuals. Yet for the elderly homeless of Boston, egregious traffic may be the smallest of their concerns. Loss of possession, absence of security, deprivation from community, food insecurity, chronic pain, mental health conditions, drug addiction, and overcrowding in shelters may be far greater concerns that plague their lives. And these hundredfold stressors may be just the tip of the iceberg on a bitterly cold New England winter’s day.

The Philippine Medical Association is one organization that has started reaching out to elderly homeless of Boston to serve them with the gift of wellness. The directors believe that even those who are homeless deserve to feel at home in their bodies. Thus, they provide a space for community, quiet reflection, and warmth each Saturday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church of Boston. Volunteers for the organization meet all who arrive to the door with a hot meal and conversation. From these conversations arose an awareness that many who live on the streets suffer with chronic pain, yet they are unable to afford treatment. This has led the volunteers to recruit members of the community to donate their time and expertise by providing yoga classes, tai chi, and meditation.

Last Saturday, I made my second appearance at the event by providing a gentle chair yoga class. The first time I taught, the intended audience had an obvious aversion to having anything to do with yoga. The volunteers explained that their attendees thought yoga – even in a chair – was a game of headstands that would be inaccessible. Instead, I was joined only by a handful of volunteers. This time, the organizers promised that interest among the attendees picked up. And she was right!

A moment after I seated myself in the center of a small semi-circle of chairs, a tall African American man with a long, grey beard, a cross pendant, and a booming voice approached me and asked with curiosity, “What’s your name, miss?”

“Lacey,” I replied. “What’s yours?”

“Ghana*! Like the country!” He said, boisterously. “What are we doing here?”

“I’m teaching yoga. Would you like to join?”

Suddenly, his eyes grew wide. “Oh no, that’s not for me.”

“Are you sure?” I asked. “We’ll just be breathing and doing a few movements to loosen our joints. No standing on our heads, nothing crazy.”

“No, no, noooo,” he assured me.

Next, two men from an adjacent table walked over to my cluster of chairs. Jim sat down at the end of the circle and welcomed me. He explained that he worked for another church and was volunteering today. Marty (or Mah-ty as he said in his Boston accent), a middle-aged man with smile lines and a wedding band on the ring finger of his left hand, sat down right next to me.

“So you’re teaching us yoga? I won’t pass out, will I? I can’t pass out if I’m sitting upright in a chair, can I? You know, the other day, I was gettin’ my vitals checked, and the doc told me my BP was through the roof. He said this, ‘Sit still and breathe for a minute.’ Well I did, and ya know what? My numbers dropped by 19 points! You know what that tells me? Stress is a kill-ah!” he said intently with wide eyes. “It we had more stress in the world, the grave yah-rds would be half the size! But ya know what the problem is?”

“What?” I asked him, curiously.

“It’s really hah-rd to relax in this city!”

“Marty, you know there’s meditation for free every Thursday,” Jim reminded him.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, but ya know what the problem with that is? Ya can’t schedule relaxation. Ya can’t just plug meditation in ya calen-dah once a week and think ya gonna be relaxed. No, ya gotta decide it and commit to it!”

“But by going to meditation classes, you can learn techniques to help you relax outside of the class,” I suggested.

“Oh puh-lease, I already have a technique. Ya know what I do? I think about my breath, and I watch it move in and out my body like it’s a wave in the ocean. On my inhales, the tide comes in, on my exhales, the tide goes out. It’s soothing, ya know? So what do you do?”

“Well, there are lots of different things we can do with the breath to relax. We can play with counting the breath –”

“Like counting sheep?! Ha! Whatev-ah, okay, so what are you gonna show me today, Miss Yoga Teach-ah” Marty said skeptically with a grin.

And with Marty’s introduction, class was officially in session. I guided my two participants from the feet to the crown of our heads in light stretches, joint mobility work, and self-massage. Marty shot me a look of skepticism as I announced each new movement we would take before reluctantly mirroring me. He double-timed his stretches of each finger, and as I cued him to flick his fingers quickly as if he were flicking off water, he announced, “It’s not that easy, ya know?”

As I led the movements, I explained the purpose of yoga: by concentrating on our bodies, we get out of the noise in our heads. And when we return to our heads after class, we may be more clear-headed and less stressed. Marty seemed to shrug approvingly at this explanation.

Finally, after leading us through a few rounds of alternate nostril breathing, I told Jim and Marty to close their eyes. “Take a few normal breaths in and out through your nose. Trace your breath as if it were waves in the ocean, just like those that Marty painted for us. Take 10 deep breaths like this.”

At the end of his 6th breath, Marty peeked out of his left eye. I realized that was as long as I could keep him for today. As we ended the class with a “Namaste”, Marty said, “What’s that, Buddhist?” Jim seemed to shudder in his seat.

“Hindu,” I replied. “It means ‘I bow to you’. We use it as a respectful way of saying hello or goodbye to one another in yoga classes.”

“Ya know, that was good, but I feel like I wanna take a nap. I though yoga was supposed to be rejuvenating!” Marty announced. “Hey Jim, ya got any sleeping bags in this place?”

We closed our session, and Jim told Marty that he’d see him tomorrow for church. Jim explained to me that they held their sermons outdoors every Sunday, rain or shine, blizzard or not. Marty reminded Jim that there was in fact a blizzard coming tomorrow, and Jim reminded him again that he would in fact be coming.

“Ya always drag me to these things, Jim. I know it’s your job and all…”

Jim retorted defensively, “It’s not my job. If it were my job, I would get paid. It’s my calling!”

10 minutes later, as I walked out of the church looking toward the oncoming blizzard in the sky, Marty called to me from his spot on a bench outdoors, “Hey, ya done already? Don’t ya have more work to do in there?”

I smiled and waved my mitted hand as I declared, “Until next time!”

*Note: All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals in this story.

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