April 2, 2012

When a Yoga Teacher Would Just Rather Not Call the Ambulance. ~ Ivan Nahem


When we first came back to New York I couldn’t find any yoga teaching positions. I only had a 200 hour certificate, and the studios have loads of applicants.

On a lead from a friend I secured an offer from the New York Irish Center to teach the seniors who came on Tuesdays for donated lunch. I gave a few impassioned pleas to the assembled, which resulted in about three customers for the 11:00 class before lunch. These were three lovely ladies of various ages, who were quite enthusiastic about the yoga. I was making a huge salary from them at five bucks apiece.

One of them was a heavy-set, always cheerful woman named Jayne. She was a hoot, commenting on the poses, cracking her dry, slightly off-color remarks. She usually carried a cane for a bad hip, which apparently wasn’t in such terrible shape once we really got into it, and she was quite sprightly all in all.

We usually practiced some chair yoga and then some standing poses near the wall. But this one day I had a certain mission. There was only one other woman in this class—the tall, smart, gallant Pat.

My mission was to get Jayne onto a yoga mat. I’d brought a couple of mats to the library room where we worked. I’d recently read an article about yoga for the elderly, which had talked about how important it is to push the students beyond their perceived limits, and specifically addressed those who were afraid of going down to the floor and coming back up. There was a special value, the author insisted, in going down to the floor and finding the confidence to rise back up. So this was my mission.

Jayne had insisted over the months I’d known her that going down onto a mat was not a possibility. “I’ll never get back up!” she claimed. I didn’t believe her, and I told her I’m getting her down on the mat. “Oh you watch yourself now!” she jested. I assured her that we’d have chairs next to her and she’d be able to get back up with no problem.

Looking back, I think I probably should have started with some breathing, to help her relax.

Pat was already on her mat, doing cat/cow as I instructed. Arranging the chairs, I helped Jayne lower between them, onto her knees. However, I hadn’t seen the hip collapse looming, and suddenly Jayne was tilting and then rolling to the side, and crashing down against the chair. This was not an auspicious beginning. In fact it looked like we might not get any further than the beginning.

“I have to get up!” Jayne cried.

“Okay, okay, dear, just hold on a minute and breathe. Are you injured?”

She hadn’t hurt herself in the fall, but now she was panicking. “I have to get up! Call an ambulance!”

I was trying to breathe normally myself, to not give way to the panic.

“Call an ambulance! I need an ambulance!”

“All right, maybe we’ll do that, but do me a favor and let’s just see if we can figure this out.”

Pat was with me, and made reassuring sounds to Jayne. I suggested that she stretch her legs out and see if she could roll onto her “good” side. She did this. I guided her through trying to re-find her breath.

She was gradually calming. For my part, I really didn’t want to have to call an ambulance. It wasn’t ’til later that I was able to laugh at that scenario, and the consequences for my yoga business. In any case, I really wanted to extract Jayne from this predicament without extraneous help.

“Okay now, so here’s my strategy,” I began—and suddenly, Jayne laughed.

“Now he’s a general,” she quipped. Pat and I both laughed.

And in the end, my strategy worked. I asked Pat to kneel on one side of Jayne, me on the other, with two solid wooden chairs on either side of Jayne, and then we assisted her up. I instructed her hands onto the chairs, and then using all our various strengths for the home stretch we got her to her knees, and from there it was a short haul onto one of the chairs.

I’m proud to relate that this particular disaster wasn’t Jayne’s last yoga class. I think she felt cared for enough, even in the moment of losing it, and she came away with some trust restored.

However, I never did coax her back down onto a yoga mat. There are some limitations that have to be respected in this world, and not all boundaries are there to be pushed beyond.


Read Ivan’s other adventures teaching yoga:

When a Yoga Teacher Needs to Release…All the Way

When a Yoga Teacher Puts the Class in Horror


Ivan Nahem has been publishing stories, essays and poems for decades. He began teaching yoga when he lived in Ireland for a few years in the middle of the last decade, and now teaches six classes a week at Zen & Yoga in Forest Hills, NY. His yoga blog is at ivanteach.com and his writing website is ivannahem.weebly.com.



Editor: Brianna Bemel

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yogaboca Apr 3, 2012 6:34am

Ivan, I loved this -thanks for sharing. I recently went from owning a yoga studio 3/4 of a mile from Harvard Square — to freelancing in S. Florida. Most of the yoga studios down here want hot yoga teachers, so I ended up teaching mainly retirees in a library setting. (and I've been teaching for 9 years!). But I totally get what you are saying.

Kudos to you for not panicking and not calling an ambulance!

Fear often overshadows what these seniors can do and when their muscles tense it encourages injury.

On the other hand – – when someone is finally able to get down and up off the floor with confidence it feels like such a huge victory both for the student and the yoga teacher!

Great article -thanks for sharing!

Tanya Lee Markul Apr 3, 2012 12:28am

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Vision_Quest2 Apr 2, 2012 10:17am

Not 100% in the senior citizen category yet, myself; but as someone just-that-little-bit physically challenged (if only by my rangy body build) such that I can't work too well with green but overambitious teachers, this is MUST reading.

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