In the loneliness-inducing pandemic, how yoga fostered a sense of community in Thavanampalle’s senior citizens

For the elderly villagers of Thavanampalle, yoga became more than a way to control lifestyle diseases – it lifted their spirits and improved their mental health during the pandemic

It’s nearing 10 am in Mittapalle, Andhra Pradesh. Under the shade of a tree, two women, P Rajeshwaramma and B Lakshmi Devi, along with other residents from their community are catching up on their plans for the day – questions tend to focus on what’s for lunch and dinner. Soon enough, M Irfan, a yoga teacher with the Apollo Foundation’s Total Health in Aragonda will join them, quieten the buzz and start the daily class.

“I joined Total Health’s yoga classes over a year ago. That was around the time that my husband passed away. Things were not great at home, but in the course of this one year, I feel like I have become calmer,” says the 67-year-old Rajeshwaramma. “Manasu nemmadiga undi (My mind is at ease).”

When Total Health took its yoga initiative to villages across Thavanampalle mandal in 2014, its focus was to keep lifestyle diseases in check. From its survey of the mandal in 2013, the staff realized that conditions such as diabetes and hypertension were most prominent, and the practice of daily yoga could help alleviate them.

However, eight years into the programme, the senior citizens of the region have found another reason to be regular to these yoga classes – one that is not as easy to quantify perhaps, but noticeable nonetheless: a remarkable improvement in their mental health.

The main reason B Lakshmi Devi joined yoga classes six months ago was to help with postoperative back pain. However, she notes that her overall stress too, has reduced. It helps that in these yoga classes, she has also found a community and friendship, especially with Rajeshwaramma. “We have known each other from before too,” says Rajeshwaramma, “But we would not get to meet or talk as much. Now every morning, I have someone to share my day with.”

Now every morning, I have someone to share my day with.

P Rajeshwaramma

This realization, of the feeling of community that Total Health’s yoga classes provide, became sharper during the pandemic, when lockdowns impacted senior citizens’ social lives. When yoga classes were briefly suspended during each new lockdown, 63-year-old Annapoorna Reddy recalls, “We would get very dull without it. That’s when we realized that the best part of yoga is that it raises our spirits in the morning. Then I feel more free to do other work.”

In fact, M Vedamba, also a yoga teacher with Total Health, says that during these lockdowns, some of her students would insist that she teach them a couple of asanas so that they could practise at home with their families. “Some of them still ask me whenever they can’t come to my class because of weddings or other celebrations. They are that invested in yoga,” says Vedamba.

At Govindareddypalle village, where she is taking evening classes, her student Rama Devi says that for her, the best part about taking up yoga has been an improved sleep cycle. “Three years ago, I used to get barely 4 to 5 hours of sleep. I think it might have been the meditation that reduced my stress levels and led to better sleep,” says the 55-year-old.

M Vedamba (standing in the background) oversees a yoga class with her father in attendance

In Aragonda and the surrounding villages, yoga has helped foster a community not just among the students but the teachers too. For Vedamba, it has also served as a special bond with her daughter who studies engineering in Tirupati. Before she begins her yoga class, her daughter Direesha video calls her, and Vedamba props her phone up against a few rocks. Eighty kilometres away from each other, mother and daughter do yoga at the same time, together.

“Every parent wants their children around. If she had been home, I could have pampered her, especially with her favourite chicken biryani. But given that she has to live so far away from me so that she can pursue a higher education, at least we have yoga that connects us,” says Vedamba.

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