Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to volunteer as a substitute senior yoga teacher at India Community Center in Cupertino. The site is in the heart of Silicon Valley, just a few miles from Apple. One of the yoga teachers was getting some remodeling done in her house, and Dr. Sachin Deshmukh, who runs the yoga program, asked me to be the substitute. The informal nature of the yoga teaching was evident in the rather ad-hoc manner in which I found myself in the role of a teacher, facing about 40 expectant seniors. My yoga training at Yoga Bharati had prepared me for this moment, I hoped. A lapel mike was fastened to my shirt, and just like that, we were off.
A common complaint was that I could not be heard. I tried to project my voice. The man who had affixed my lapel mike, and who was referred to as Dr. Krishna, came by again, his forehead creased with concentration as he fiddled with the sound system. I shot him a grateful look. In a room full of octogenarians and nonagenarians, my grey hair notwithstanding, I felt like a young upstart.
There were several levels of fitness in the room, and I tried hard to modify poses so that the wheelchair-bound could benefit from the gentle movements of yoga. I looked up videos of chair yoga on YouTube. The adage that yoga meets you at whatever level you are is relevant here. Those who were on a mat went through rounds of sun salutations with practiced ease. A lady with a large bindi on her forehead began chanting in Sanskrit: sahanau vavatu, sahanau bhunaktu, saha veeryam karvavahai, a vedic hymn that is traditionally an invocation for harmony between the teacher and the students.
The weeks flew by. As I got to know the yoga students, I learned their names and joined them for lunch. Ramesh Mathur, wearing a Gandhi cap, coordinated the program, keeping things moving smoothly. I learned that a bright-eyed lady, who always sat with her friend at lunch, was a rishtedaar, a relative. “This yoga teacher is my granddaughter’s sister-in-law,” she proclaimed proudly at the lunch table, as I smiled and nodded to my senior students.
The center was well attended. Several seniors carpooled, their children taking turns on different days to drive a small group to the center. Friends would bring small Tupperware containers to share food with each other, eating together and mischievously spurning the communal meal that was deemed too healthy or too unhealthy or too bland.
The aging parents of tech workers in Silicon Valley proved to be a varied bunch. Many were polyglots, fluent in several of the languages that are spoken in India. Many had a deep knowledge of yogic traditions and practices. A retired University professor offered to help me with my Sanskrit pronunciation, her eyes kind. There were retired government bureaucrats and scientists, retired school teachers, poets and artists as well as housewives. Most had children and grandchildren who were fueling the tech boom in California.
There were comings and goings. During holidays, attendance went down sharply as a result of family outings with children and grandchildren. Some returned to India to tend to ancestral homes or visit family.
One of the ladies was new to the program. I told her she looked like my grandmother. She seemed to be settling in well, making new friends. She impressed me by telling me a multilingual joke, switching from Hindi to Bengali to Marwari as I clapped with delight. But one day, she was in tears. She was missing her husband, who had passed away a few weeks ago. Dr. Sachin spoke to her gently, helping her with her grief. Her new friends spoke consoling words. Everywhere, there was community and connections. I thought frequently of my own aging parents and in-laws in India, too far to benefit from these senior yoga classes.
I see now that this was a rare opportunity to observe an aspect of the immigrant experience which lies ahead. The yoga, I saw, can be particularly helpful to create community and healing around this ancient tradition, and ease the pain of being in a new land. But I also learned something about my own place in this adopted homeland and had a glimpse of my own life down the road.
The substitute stint ended quite suddenly. As I hurried into the large, somewhat musty room, an attractive lady was already issuing instructions. The home remodel had ended, and the regular yoga teacher was back.
And just like that, my gig as a senior yoga sub was over.
Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. She is touched by the selflessness of volunteers. For more information about the ICC Senior program, go to http://www.indiacc.org/programs/seniors/