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Learning to make yoga accessible for all ages

This article reviews my experience learning to make yoga accessible for all ages by volunteer teaching chair yoga classes for low-income seniors served by ABCD.

I firmly believe that mindfulness techniques should be available and accessible to all populations, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, age, gender, or otherwise. The ability to afford a studio membership should not be a prerequisite for the practice, nor does the practice have to occur in plush spaces with Balinese art and eucalyptus-scented towels. Believing so and even saying so is easy. Yet doing something about it is an entirely different matter.

As a yoga teacher, I understand that it can be challenging to make a living by teaching group classes in studios and gyms. On our income, it’s unreasonable to expect us to commit to volunteering to teach regularly without pay. It’s impossible to expect us to only teach in low-income settings because we also need to make a living. These thoughts ran through my head as I scanned the title of an email in my inbox, “Yoga for seniors (volunteer wanted)”. The email was not directed to me. I could have easily ignored it. Yet something inside of me screamed, “Reply! Reply! Reply!

The email requesting volunteers was sent from a case manager at the North End location of ABCD. This non-profit human services organization provides local low-income seniors with tools and resources to navigate life, including hot meals, SNAP assistance, supermarket shuttles, assistance with health insurance, assistance with finding affordable housing, social activities, and wellness classes. It may have been due to the fact that I love to overcommit myself or maybe because I have a hard time saying no, but I did in fact reply, saying I’d love to teach occasionally – perhaps I could manage to squeeze a class per month into my schedule?

The first class that I taught was on a bitterly cold Wednesday morning. I had chosen a particularly busy week to add this session to my agenda, and as I began to navigate my way to North End, I thought to myself that I really could have used the morning off. I headed out into the 12° wind with wearing my boyfriend’s Harvard sweater under my peacoat and over 5 layers of shirts because I didn’t have time to do my laundry. I stood at the bus stop for 5, then 10, then 15 minutes, gritting my teeth and shivering in my snow boots. Finally, I realized that the bus wasn’t coming. I used all the strength in my frozen fingers to dial my boyfriend, saying, “You wouldn’t happen to be driving, would you?” Thankfully, he was.

During the car ride, I thawed out my face enough to be able to plaster on a smile. When I arrived to ABCD and started teaching, the plastered smile turned to genuine joy. The group of seniors was lovely. About 10 of them and a newly-certified yoga teacher who will be volunteering regularly circled up to join in the class. In both classes that I’ve taught thus far, I’ve led the group through gentle chair yoga and self-massage, starting with our focus on the feet and working up to the scalp. Although the movements were simple, some of the seniors squinted and scrunched their noses as they reached their arms overhead. Some of them couldn’t quite hear me, and some of them didn’t speak English as their first language, but all of them stayed engaged to the point of entrancement in the movements.

Both times that I’ve taught the class have ended with beaming smiles and medical questions.

“Say, I have this pain in my hip, right in the glutes – ya know the glutes? What can I do for that?” one of the younger men of the group asked. I asked him how the chair Figure 4 stretch felt and showed him that he could also do it seated on the ground.

The woman to my right began laughing as I demoed the pose on the white tiled floor, saying, “Oh, to be young!”

Another elderly woman pointed to the left side of her neck, saying, “I had surgery here. This hurts.”

Then another Italian-speaking woman pointed to her knee, stating, “This always stiff!”

Finally, after I had fielded all the medical questions to the best of my ability (i.e. “Yoga may help, but it’s best to ask a trained medical professional”), I was approached by a woman wearing stone jewelry who had been seated opposite me. She stated, “The light radiating from your eyes is so strong and serene. I’m blessed to have crossed paths with you because your energy is so inspiring.”

Wow. If every yoga class I’ve ever taught had ended with this feedback instead of students avoiding eye contact as they scoot out the door, I wonder how inflated my ego would be.

Each time that I’ve left my “Yoga for Seniors” class, I’ve left feeling light and inspired. Yes, it would be financially unviable to commit to teaching only to low-income or marginalized populations (at least in today’s yoga industry), but when my heart pushes me toward an impulse to give, I will continue to follow it.

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