This article recounts my experience teaching yoga with the Philippine Medical Association for individuals experiencing homelessness in Boston.
Last weekend, I had another opportunity to volunteer teach a chair yoga class to individuals experiencing homelessness in Boston. This class was part of the wellness program organized by the Philippine Medical Association of New England (PMA). Once a month, this group organizes a session at Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street to act as a bridge to accessing health and wellness services for those who are experiencing homelessness, who are uninsured or underinsured, or who are otherwise vulnerable in Boston. This month, the theme was prevention, and the agenda included a physician-led discussion on flu prevention and my chair yoga class sandwiched between breakfast and a hot homemade lunch.
The program took place on a chilly October morning. As I walked out of the Arlington T stop, I paused to take a photo of the sunny yellow leaves that encircled the doorway of Emmanuel Church. I squeezed behind Cristyna*, a blond-bobbed African American woman, and an African American man who appeared to be having a heated discussion on the rampway. As I approached the doorway, I recognized Al, an African American man who had pointed out that I took his seat at my last yoga session. He held the door open for me and said, “Come inside.”
“Thank you,” I replied, smiling.
I immediately recognized Josephine, the volunteer director, as I walked into the common room. As she brought me into a back room to set down my laptop bag and coat, she said, “The physician isn’t here yet to lead the flu prevention talk. Would you mind going first? We can only hold their attention for so long before they become agitated waiting for lunch.”
Then, Josephine directed her attention to another volunteer to check in on progress on lunch. The volunteer explained, “We had ten volunteers in the kitchen, and most of them were just standing around talking. Next time we shouldn’t have so many cooks in the kitchen. They should have been talking with the participants instead.”
Josephine and I journeyed back to the common room to find out who wanted to join the class. Typically, the yoga session is held in the common room, but it seemed to be too noisy today with the unexpectedly high turnout.
“Hi, beautiful,” Jeff, an African American man in his sixties addressed me. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
I smiled and confirmed that I did. This time I didn’t mention his race.
“Now what you need ain’t a boyfriend. You need a man, honey,” Jeff replied, laughing.
“Anyone who is interested in doing yoga and meditation, we’ll be moving to the back room,” Josephine announced to the crowd.
“Yoga? Meditation? I could use some of that,” Jeff said to me, grinning.
Four of the session’s participants and four volunteers walked with me to the back room, where we created a circle of chairs. “Have you done yoga before?” I asked the group.
“Yes, my dear friend owns Karma Yoga,” said Shanice, an African American woman with greying dreadlocks.
“Oh yes, I know that studio,” I replied.
I led us through a 30-minute chair yoga sequence that began with watching our breath and progressed into gentle mobility of the ankles, wrists, shoulders, and neck. As we stretched our wrists, Joe, an African American participant exclaimed, “We do this move in Aikido! Do this to the person you’re fighting and they go, ‘Ow, ow, ow!’”
I laughed and said, “Sounds like these yoga moves can work on other people, too.”
As I brought the group up to standing for mountain pose and tree, Joe said to the group, “Okay, I’m gonna have to bow out now. That’s enough for today for me. Thank you everyone! Namaste!”
I thanked Joe for coming and reminded everyone that they are more than welcome to leave when they need to. I spent the last ten minutes of class instructing self-massage of the neck, shoulders, and arms with diluted orange essential oil and left a final minute for us to watch our breath. The commotion from outdoors continued to steam underneath the doors and into the room, but our circle was – for a few moments – still and...
After our minute of breath had passed, I thanked everyone for joining the short but sweet class, and we bowed out with a “Namaste.”
The participants smiled as they walked out. Some said they had rarely focused that much attention on their hands. Xing, short Asian woman said, “That was great!” When I asked her what her favorite part was, she said, “Everything!”
When we re-entered the common room, Jim, a physician, was just beginning to lead his flu prevention talk. I saw an open seat near Al. Remembering that I had “stolen” his seat last time, I asked, “Can I sit here?”
Al waved his open palm toward the seat, motioning me to sit down. Jim started to speak as the volunteer passed out flu prevention flyers. “So what is the difference between the flu and the common cold? You may have the flu if you wake up and think, ‘I really don’t want to get out of bed.’”
I thought, how strange, do most of the audience members even have beds to get out of?
Jim continued, “So what can you do to prevent the flu? Well, there are many important steps you can take. Number one: wash your hands. Number two: nutrition. Eat foods rich in antioxidants. Research shows that foods high in zinc can be especially important for shortening duration of illness.”
The feeling of hanger in the room began to intensify as the participants awaited their free lunch, and I thought, how many of the audience members can truly choose what they eat? Many had their heads down on their tables by now. A few looked like they had fallen asleep on the stage. Across from me, Al shuffled through his flyers and handed the stack back to me.
“I’m done. I read all of it.” I eyed him curiously, confused about why I was receiving his papers. “I did!” He said defiantly.
I shrugged and collaged his papers alongside mine to photograph them with my iPhone. Al shot me back a genuine look of confusion.
“Next, get fit! Go to the gym, work out, walk instead of driving – even on the days that are cold!” Jim continued.
I thought, how many of the audience members have gym passes and cars?
Al darted an angry glance at me and motioned to the chair on his left. “I want to take this damn chair and whack him across the head,” he said in a shrill whisper.
Jim continued, “Next, get your flu shot! If you really can’t afford one, you can call this number, and you will receive a voucher in the mail.”
I thought, how many of the audience members have cell phones and home addresses?
Behind me, Cristyna seemed to be becoming visibly agitated. Al pointed his darts of anger in her direction.
“Okay, any questions?” Jim asked as he brought his presentation to a tidy close.
After a few moments, an African American man shot up his hand. “Can you die from the flu?”
Jim replied animatedly, “That is a big YES.” And went on to explain the progression of the flu into pneumonia.
Cristyna and Al seemed to be arguing with their eyes. Al asked with aggravation, “You gonna do that in a church?” I didn’t see what she had been doing.
Cristyna bolted out of her seat and shrilled, “You just wait until I get out of this church, I’ll punch you!” She flailed her arms around, looking for something to grasp onto. She found a paper plate, and launched it at Al. It floated silently like an Autumn leaf down to the wood flood. She looked as if she was going to reach for one of the folding chairs next. I involuntarily bolted out of my seat.
A few moments of chaos ensued. Al didn’t seem to want to fight. He brushed Christyna off, and Josephine burst out of the kitchen to calm her down. Once their fire had simmered, I sheepishly returned to my seat. Jeff appeared next to me, and Frank, a white man with ear-length hair an alligator skin, had taken a seat next to Al.
“You still got a boyfriend?” Jeff asked me.
“Yes,” I replied.
“You need a MAN!” Jeff cackled a second time at his joke, then added, “You married?”
“She been doin’ that all night, keepin’ people awake,” Al complained, looking over at Christyna.
“That’s why I don’t sleep near here,” said Frank, shaking his head. “People make too much noise. Can’t sleep! I sleep under the bridge at Kenmore aaaaaaall alone. Been there for 21 years! Get a good night’s sleep every night!”
Jeff looked at me and whispered, “It’s the liquor. She a good girl until she start drinking. Same with this guy,” he said, pointing at Al as if he couldn’t hear the accusation. “He a good guy until he start drinking. When there’s liquor, you don’t want to be around him! That liquor is bad news. I’m telling you 'cause I seen what it does.”
“Now where’s this damn food?” Frank asked to the open air.
“I think it’s coming soon,” I said with genuine hope.
“It’s coming at two?!” Jeff asked, angrily.
“No, no, soon,” I said apologetically.
“Look, they’re bringin' out the chicken!” Frank said with widening eyes.
The tables began to empty as the room began to file into a line for food that seemed to stretch out the doors of the church. Jeff waved his hand at the line. “It ain’t worth it to fight. I’ll wait,” he said. “So where you from?”
“I’m from Southern Illinois,” I replied.
“Illinois?! Isn’t that just a bunch of farms?”
“Yes, there are farms, but I lived in a town with a university,” I said.
“So why would you move here?!”
“For school,” I replied, smiling.
“Don’t they have schools where you from?! Ahh, I see you as the little girl you were, thinkin’, ‘one day I’m gonna go to Boston for school!’” He laughed loudly at me.
“Yeah, to Harvard,” I said defensively, surprised at my own tone of defeat.
Jeff continued laughing. “You messed up! Shoulda stayed home with your family. You coulda moved anywhere else. Hell, you coulda moved to New York! Much easier to make it there. Don’t have to deal with this damn green line. I can’t believe it stops running at 12:30 every night!”
“I don’t know, I’d like to move to Paris,” I said.
“Anywhere but Boston!” Jeff laughed. I nodded in agreement. “Shoot, why don’t you move to Canada? Montreal? They speak French there. One time I snuck on a Peter Pan, crossed the border to Canada. I was walking around Montreal, and these people stopped me. They said, ‘Do you need somewhere to stay tonight?’ You know what? They let me stay in a warm bed in their church. Fed me. Brought me to pray every morning. I stayed there for 4 weeks – might have been the best 4 weeks of my life! Shoot, we should all just move to Canada.”
I nodded again in agreement. Jeff glanced at Al as he reclaimed his seat and silently prayed before diffing into his hot plate of food. “Looks like the line died down,” I said. Jeff and I both stood up from our table. I said goodbye to our companions, but they barely lifted their gaze from their food.
As Jeff jumped in line, he said, brought his hands together at his heart, and said, “See you next time for yoga!”
*All names have been changed.