Teaching yoga at the geriatric psych ward, part 1
Last Saturday I taught yoga at the geriatric psych ward (in-patient) at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. Part of my teacher training requires I do 10 hours of karma yoga, or donated instruction. Surprisingly, it has not been the easiest thing to set up. You say to an organization, “I would like to donate some yoga instruction” and they say “Great!,” and to paraphrase the first verse of the Yoga Sutras, “and now, the Red Tape.”
Anyway, I managed to schedule this appointment, which was to be an introduction to the ward, a meeting with the recreational therapist there, and a meeting with the volunteer coordinator, and “maybe,” some yoga instruction. Things did not proceed in this manner at all, but that’s ok, because if there is one lesson yoga teaches to its disciples, it’s to not be attached to any expectation or outcome, to be in the present moment.
First of all, the volunteer coordinator wasn’t there. He had the wrong Saturday in his calendar for me, but I found out where the geriatric psych ward was, and I went upstairs, on the off chance he was there waiting for me. The recreational therapist was surprised to see me, said she was expecting me next Saturday. I told her I think there’s been a mix-up. She said yah, I think so. She already had someone lined up for the day, a pet therapist.
I was ready to leave, as she seemed a bit stressed out. When I noted that, and said it was fine if she wasn’t ready for me, she said “oh no, I’m not stressed out!” There was a lot of tension in the way she told me she wasn’t stressed out. Her eyes were rung with blue-grey circles, puffy, darting. She fingered the corner of the paper she’d been writing on, twirled the pen in her fingers, her breath was short. I felt bad. It must be very difficult working in such a setting. How do you not absorb the energy of what’s around you? Not everyone is a sponge like me. Maybe she’s a little less porous and was stressed about something else. She didn’t want the visit to be a waste, so she asked me if I’d want to walk around the ward with the pet therapist, and maybe teach, if things worked out.
The pet therapist arrived with her lovely Shepard-mix Kola, a sweet dog who lets anyone touch her. Therapy dogs have to have a very particular temperament. They can’t be skittish or aggressive, biters or lickers, distractable or aloof. They have to be friendly and approachable. Kola was all of these, the type of dog that lets anyone pet her. As such, she’s a perfect therapy dog. Her big soulful eyes help a lot too.
Not everyone wanted to pet Kola though. Some people seemed afraid, hesitant. Some were asleep. Some were so drugged out that they didn’t even notice. A man sat at a table with his head in his hands. Kola approached and he looked at her warily. Her owner said “it’s ok, she’s friendly.” The man asked “will she bite me?” and the owner shook her head no. The dog slumped at the man’s feet, put her head on his ankle. He slowly, with hesitation, bent down to pet her.
Throughout the ward I could see the tattered remains of life. Some people were afraid to pet a friendly dog, others were afraid to smile. Some were afraid of whatever they saw in their imaginations, screaming out or babbling. I looked a man in his eyes and smiled; he looked away. My heart ached to see how for some people, smiling is an impossible task. I could see the pain in his eyes, the hesitation in his movements.
In this setting, yoga is not what you’d imagine in one of the gorgeous, light-drenched studios that dot New York City. It’s not an air of incense or sandalwood, Oms resonating through the rooms, lithe and glowing yogis prancing through the halls. Yoga in the geriatric psych ward is a smile if you’re lucky.
After I’d been there about 90 minutes, the recreational therapist, the pet therapist and I went back to the therapist’s office. She had only observed my class, which I’ll write about in another post, but her breathing was different. She said “we could all learn to breathe better, no one seems to know how to breathe correctly.” I know she knows she’s not breathing deeply enough. It must bother her, and at some level, she wants to change it, but she’s not sure how yet, it seems a huge task. But her face was different, more relaxed, a bit more alive. She asked if I wanted to come back again, and I said of course. We scheduled a date in July.
Yoga is so much more than asana on a mat in a studio. Yoga is seeing the pain in others, in yourself, and healing it, breath by breath. Yoga is seeing the beauty and divinity in every living thing, in the broken, ghostly inhabitants of a geriatric psych ward, in the tension of an overworked therapist, in the sweetness of a gentle dog.