"Lynette, tell them about your yoga class. LYNETTE'S GOING TO TELL YOU ABOUT YOGA!"
Yehudit is gathering people around one of the giant round tables in the cavernous community dining room. Some people aren't moving, so I won't get their attention. Most are already walking out the door. There's at least two generations of a Chinese family with a translator in front of me. Someone asks if I can speak Spanish.
"Sufficiente para sobrevivir," I answer.
I start to describe some simple movements and talk about Ujayi or "Darth Vadar" breathing.
"Slower," says Yehudit as we raise our arms above our heads.
I announce that we will be doing standing yoga in my class. I catch a glimpse of a Chinese gentleman in a wheelchair just as Yehudit says, "what about people who can't stand?"
"We'll be doing sitting postures as well," I say.
Thus began my induction to volunteering yoga at the Hudson Guild Senior Community Center.
For the past couple of years I've often walked past a recessed doorway with letters, darkened with street grit, saying COMMUNITY CENTER. The entrance is set back beneath a large, public housing block called the Fulton Houses, named after the artist and steamboat engineer Robert Fulton, and colloquially known as "The Projects".
Above: Lunchtime at the Hudson Guild Senior Center - a much needed meal for some residents who come from as far as Queens.
Enroute to Chelsea Market I never thought to investigate until I googled the development online. I was looking for ways to put my Yoga certification into practise, and would often look up at these buildings, wondering if I could offer a class to the residents within. Yoga is an expensive activity in NYC - at $15-$18 a class, and with donation-only classes few and far between it's probably low on the list or priorities for even middle income people. This is where I felt I could be of service.
Venturing past those doors I discovered a fully functioning activity center run by the non-profit Hudson Guild, a 100-year old organization part funded by the city's program for the Aging, part by donations. The Guild serves over 100 free lunches to age 55+ seniors every day, and meals on wheels to a hundred more.
"Some come from as far as Queens", said Larry, a former travel trade publications writer who volunteers his time as a creative writing teacher. He contributes to a slate of activities offered each day - computers, crafts, tai chi, short trips and $2 theater tickets.
"The idea is to keep people engaged," says Group Services Manager Yehudit Moch, in an environment, as the literature says, of "dignity and respect".
Centers like this came about when, a few years ago, a survey revealed many seniors were starving, "eating dog food," said Larry. As a result, funding was set aside to create centers where seniors could at least get one square meal a day.
Left: Yehudit takes to the floor during lunch, dressed in her Chinese New Year outfit, serenaded by the Guild's singing group.
The menu itself is quite eclectic - a blue photocopied sheet lays out the month's offerings, ranging from Cajun fish to Asian stir fry, "each served with fresh fruit, juice and whole wheat bread."
"I'm the only volunteer that eats here every day," says Yehudit, tucking into the special Chinese New Year dish she organized especially for the occasion - complete with red envelopes containing a coupon for a free additional meal.
"I believe it's important to be seen to eat the food, so people know it's worthy of consumption."
Apparently the execution is not consistent, but it's balanced, solid and most of all, available. Citizens over 60 get the meal for free, 55+ are asked to donate a nominal $1 or so. She then took to the floor to tango with Robert, an actor, to the Casiotone vibes of the Singing Group.
"Not everyone likes our singing group," she whispered. But there they were, belting it out and refreshingly, not caring who didn't care for it.
The center is unquestionably modest. Reminiscent of a school, it has fluorescent cinderblock hallways and chipped painted doors with missing hooks and handles - a parallel universe to the luxe condos like the Caledonia around the corner, boasting a runway-sized lobby with sweeping sofas illuminated by groovy olde worlde Edison lightbulbs.
As I fumbled for the non-existent lock on the restroom door, I found myself wishing that the community would come in and sheetrock, paint, carpet, tile to make it the kind of place we'd all like to think was our reward for paying our taxes and making it this far in life.
While this is designated a "low income" center, other centers in the city are "middle income" or NORC, "Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities". That is, a specific apartment building, or a street of old single family homes, where residents have stayed and simply aged. The needs at these centers are different, says Yehudit. Low income seniors need food, middle income seniors may need services and meals on wheels. But everyone needs engagement, and to feel they belong.
I have no idea how successful I will be with my seniors yoga class, but I will start teaching at 1pm on Wednesday. It's not an ideal slot, being right after lunch, but Yehudit tells me new ideas must be introduced in the moment, when people are standing in front of you. They must be constantly reminded and encouraged, in a world where we worship a youth we all lose. For the past 10 years, my inspiration has been these people - Bike Friday Super Seniors - I want to bring a little of that energy to these people.
I am thrilled that Laughing Lotus (where, as a low-income resident by New York standards I've been taking community yoga classes), has jumped at my solicitation for used yoga mats - the senior center has none. Lotus' daily community class, where donations are given to a worthy cause, has been my inspiration.
I will now try to raise some funds to get blocks and blankets - if it's uncomfortable for young, able bodied people to touch the floor and pad their sit bones, you can imagine what it's like for seniors. Should you wish to donate, you can use PayPal to send it to galfromdownunder at gmail dot com. I will acknowledge your contribution here, and display a running total.
Thank you Laughing Lotus, and thank you Joschi Body Bodega for my Yoga teacher training - for the first time in a long time, I feel I have a way to be of service.
I'M BLOWN AWAY! This just in from Laughing Lotus Yoga Center, Chelsea, NYC:
Morning Lynette! We'd love to donate 12 mats for your group. How kind of you to donate your time and energy for them. I usually bundle 10 mats with a strap and suggest a car to pick them. Do you have a car? If not, I can bundle 6 together that can be carried ... Best, Joy
Should you wish to donate to help me buy blankets and yoga blocks for the senior center, you can use PayPal to send it to galfromdownunder at gmail dot com. I'll gratefully acknowledge your contribution here, and keep a running total to keep everyone informed. I'm purposely keeping this request low key - I know that should you wish to donate, you will have read and appreciated this story.
Feb 18, 2010: Thank you Glenn Martin who donated $100. I'm on the phone to YogaDirect.com for 8 blocks and 2 blankets.
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