I’ve always loved to travel, but over the past year, I did something I’d never done before – I lived my life traveling, backpacking through South America. I stayed in countless places, trying to stay long enough to get to know people and get a taste of the culture, but usually not staying in one place for more than a week. While that rhythm allowed me to see many different places, it meant that just as I was getting settled in and feeling at home in one place, I was packing up and moving on, which meant constantly adjusting to a new place, constantly trying to feel at home in a new place.
Having to start a home from scratch over and over again, one learns to find home within, so that you always feel at home, wherever you are. (That’s a topic for a whole book, but here’s a peek into one way I carried home with me wherever I went).
Early on, I found I could feel at home wherever I was when I would do yoga. Despite having just left all stability and familiarity, when I did those familiar yoga poses,* watching the sun rise over Lake Titicaca, I felt perfectly at home, and right where I wanted to be in that moment.
From then on, I tried to do yoga in every place I visited, and it never failed to make me feel centered and right at home, even if I had recently been feeling that strange, subtle sensation of being a wanderer, far from home. It wasn’t always easy to do yoga everywhere, but I always found a way.
Sometimes it elicited strange looks, but it was always worth it. It was a great way to connect with a new place – physically and socially. I have fond memories of yoga-ing in the cold of the Bolivian Andes, in the hot, humid Peruvian and Colombian jungles, the hot, dry desert in northern Chile, and the cool autumn air in Argentina.
It was also something I could share with people who had shared something with me, like the Argentine rugby player, or the kind, Quechua-speaking woman who did some yoga poses with me in her traditional clothing trying not to be too embarrassed when her neighbors passed by.
I am now back in the US, but in a way, I am still traveling. And my journey has taken me unexpectedly back to my childhood home, visiting my parents. I haven’t lived here during my adult life, and I have only been back for short visits as an adult. It is in the same physical location where I grew up, but it has changed, the city has changed, my parents have changed, and I have changed.
And so, despite the undertones of familiarity, I feel like I have arrived to yet another new place to adapt to and to explore.
Within a few days of arriving, my mom told me that her chair yoga class was starting up again and she invited me to go with her. My first reaction was one million questions about the preventative measures being taken due to the coronavirus. (Yes it’s outdoors, yes everyone has to wear masks, yes there’s extra spacing between people, and yes, you have to bring your own chair.) We agreed that if it didn’t seem safe we’d leave. She pointed out that the instructor is an 84-year-old woman, so she probably wouldn’t have started the class back up if she didn’t think she could do it safely.
My second reaction was: “chair yoga?” Having recently hiked through the Andes and traveled around South America with a 40-lb backpack, you can imagine my expectations for a chair yoga class taught by an 84-year-old woman. First of all, I didn’t know that “chair” and “yoga” could go together to be one thing. (I typically do yoga to get out of the chair.) And even though my mom had told me it was a cool class, I admittedly imagined a few neck stretches and thought it might be kind of boring. But then I hadn’t met Gloria Simmons.
Ms. Simmons is a gem of a person. This 84-year-old woman is way more flexible than I could ever hope to be. She is one of those fierce, gentle spirits that is a natural leader, but in a subtle way that inspires you by making you feel comfortable and appreciated.
Walking into one of her classes, the atmosphere is casual, comfortable, and respectful. One of the first things one notes is the diversity of the class. There are participants of different ages, body types, flexibilities, abilities, and different races – about half black women and half white women, and sometimes a few Latinas. A woman in a wheel chair often attends and another with a walking cane.
The magic of Gloria is that she skillfully leads this diverse group of abilities so that everyone gets a good stretch and no one feels left out. And she teaches yoga with a chair! (Even though I’ve been to many classes now, I’m still impressed by the concept of chair yoga.) She didn’t invent chair yoga, but she did modify what she learned from videos and a PBS program to make it something interesting and versatile.
Surprisingly, Gloria came to yoga by accident, wandering into a class about 20 years ago when she was teaching an aerobics class at a rec center. She had never heard of yoga and expected it to be boring, but she realized that she had already been doing some of the stretches in her aerobics class, and she found that she actually liked it!
After about a month, the instructor encouraged her to become certified, so she signed up for what would become “the hardest week of her life”. She almost didn’t make it past the second day of the certification class because her body was so sore and tired. But she recounts that her daughter made her dinner, told her to rest, and encouraged her to get through the week, so she stuck with it…and the rest is history!
Now she says she does yoga when she wakes up in the middle of the night, and later is able to go back to sleep. It’s her go-to way to relax and get centered, kind of like it has been for me during my travels.
She always reminds us to do the best we can and not to force anything since our bodies are all different. And at the end, she turns up the music and gets us out on the dance floor,** leading us in an aerobics-type dance at first, and then encouraging free style, making sure each person takes a few turns in the center of the dance circle. Even the woman in the wheelchair gets out there and shakes it!
She also does mat yoga classes each week, where she really blows us away with how flexible she is! (I definitely realized how ageist I had been with my preconceived notions of what an 84-year-old instructor would be like; she showed me!)
All of this, she does as a volunteer, sharing something that has helped her, something that she enjoys, with others.
Here in Texas, we are all dealing with the stress of the uptick in COVID-19 cases, and we have leaders that openly stated their concern for the economy over people’s lives. Then the death of George Floyd. And the subsequent protests and racism – anti-racism clashes. We are all living in challenging times, and Ms. Simmons creates this safe and healthy space, where we can escape from all of that for an hour, do something good for our bodies, and feel at peace for an hour or so, two times a week.
And that safe space, where everyone is welcome and accepted – all body types, all ages, all abilities, all races – is just what we all need right now during these turbulent and strange times.
Once again, thanks to yoga, (and to Ms. Simmons) I have been able to feel a little more at home along my journey.
* Around 10 years ago I started doing yoga-like stretches every day as part of my routine to help manage back problems, and I’ve kept it up ever since. During my Peace Corps service, I held yoga classes for the over-worked elementary school teachers, and we all enjoyed a few moments of de-stressing at the end of the day. So, when I really think about it, it’s not surprising that doing something that has been part of my daily routine for 10 years would help me feel at home in a new place.
**We dance in a huge circle, all with the appropriate physical distancing, especially since most people are in a high-risk group for complications from COVID-19.
Most of the photos are credited to Majic, Gloria’s god-son.