A New Community Learns Yoga
On a recent weekday morning, I walked into the Fort Greene Remsen Senior Center expecting to see a group of straight-faced seniors struggling through warrior one.
Instead I find the meeting room of the Deliverance Tabernacle Church graced with the reverence of what felt like a religious service. Thirty chairs are laid out in neat rows across the center of a banquet room, occupied by people aged 60-80 waiting patiently for class to start, hands rested neatly on their legs, palms facing up.
The teacher, Julia Haramis, walks in and starts the centering routine; a detailed breathing exercise that calls for focusing on the breath's route through alternate nostrils. One excited elderly woman follows along like an eagle soaring through her grounds, while another seems like she is in a restful sleep, while her fingers lightly move.
Seated at the front, Julia mirrors all the movements for her students, and guides them in isolating each body part. The rise and fall of the seniors' arms and legs, some rickety and slow, some twitchy and some smooth, seem to give off a sea of undulating grace as they move together. Not a glance has strayed from Julia -- a commitment to follow her every move. Then smiles begin to drench the room. By now all eyes are open and body parts are flowing. The vintage yogis are in their yoga-zone.
According to Julia, an ISHTA trained teacher, this is a valuable community effort. "It's as important as teaching yoga to at-risk youth, or yoga for the incarcerated." New York City's Department for the Aging, and Not-For-Profit agencies like the Akasha Project, which funds the Common Ground Residence Center, a housing center for New York's aging homeless and low-income individuals, would agree.
Yoga is beneficial for the aging because it relieves symptoms of arthritis, increases blood circulation and warms the extremities. Balancing poses stabilize muscles and can prevent falling. Breathing exercises facilitate mental clarity and increase lung capacity. That is why seniors yoga has started to show up in publicly funded programs like the Remsen Center.
At the Fort Green Center, yoga is fairly new, but onlookers are milling around to sneak at peek at the class while new participants show up weekly.
Despite an early reluctance to join in, both Julia and the coordinators have seen a big shift in the way the class has been received. Carol Brown, Remsen's Senior Center Supervisor says, "There are approximately 120 members that come to the Remsen Center and nearly one-third take yoga.
Class is given in the same public space where Center members eat and socialize. There are no mats, no props, no special clothes and participants wear their shoes. This is not the kind of serious silent class that you might find around Union Square. "Dominoes were clicking in the background, people were greeting one another in conversational voices in the middle of my classes," says Julia.
"I can't ask names because the attendance can be so sporadic and I certainly can't ask for injuries or physical challenges because the list will go on forever." Forget Utanasana. "Forward bending can be life-changing for those with high blood pressure, or a heart condition." So, what does work? Classes like Julia's, are similar to Chair yoga, but even then modified.
There's also a lot of repetition. "It's not only good for building/working on body parts but it's also important that the asanas feel somewhat familiar and do-able. This is not a group of adults that need to be challenged with the new and exciting thing each week."
The most common asanas are eagle arms, a modified seated, pigeon pose, (ankle to knee), padadirsasana (pranayama technique of alternative nostril breathing without holding the nostrils) and meditation.
"We spend a lot of time warming up body parts in isolation with a focus on the extremities where circulation can be challenging and arthritis can be a common - neck, shoulders, hands, feet and legs," says Julia.
Yoga definitely seems to be working on this group. Sarita Jean, 73, says that her heart and her mood have lifted in the last 2 years of doing yoga. She spent 49 years working as an accountant. "Yoga remains with me for the rest of the day and I look forward to sitting down and moving away from all the stresses, getting to a different level." She admits, however, that if yoga had not been introduced to her at the Remsen Center she would never have gone out to seek it, even though she well versed on the benefits. "We are a group. If I had to do it alone, I wouldn't have done it."
Seniors yoga reaches out to the heart as well and the topic of community keeps coming up. "This is a finicky population. A little of everything effects their mood. Temperature and the weather, food, noises and the like", says Julia.
As the class draws to an end, dozens more seniors at card tables have begun gaping at their fellow senior yogis. And when "lions breath," is announced, a roar of exhales chimes in from around the room.
When the guided Yoga Nidra comes about, I notice eyes from every corner of the room closing. Finally, the room sounds off a big chorus of "Namaste." It's beautiful.
Afterwards, when their eyes open, the yogis greet one another with big smiles, and go back to their regular tables to remain engaged and in tune with one another." says Brown, the Center's Supervisor.
Olga Love, 74, agrees. "I love this community." We come here to meet with our friends, share stories. Yoga gives us a sense of joy and appreciation." It's a special kula feeling.
-- Miriam Butterman