“Oh, No, Don’t Work Us Too Hard Now!” Words in Motion: On Teaching Creative Writing and Yoga to Senior Citizens by Melanie Pappadis Faranello
When I arrived at Federation Square, an independent living facility for senior citizens, I went to the dining hall and began arranging the chairs in a circle for our first class. The Connecticut Humanities Council’s Center for the Book approved my proposal for a course combining creative writing with yoga and I was excited to see how it would go.
When the seniors arrived and took their seats, I explained that our regular chair yoga that I had previously taught to many of them would be a little different this time around, that we would also be doing some creative writing together. I was met with blank stares and concerned looks. “Writing?!” one woman exclaimed, “Oh, no, don’t work us too hard now!”
We began with our usual mediation and then I explained we were going to begin warming up our minds with our first creative writing exercise. In the spirit of Yoga, meaning union, we were going to be exercising our bodies and our minds.
After transcribing their first group poem, to which everyone added a line of their own, I read it back to the group and they were surprised and excited by what they heard. The same woman who initially expressed concern exclaimed “Hey, we’re pretty good!”
Over the course of six weeks, the seniors developed a nice compilation of their poetry and also began forming a community, getting to know one another in new ways, and many expressed feelings of improvement in their physical well beings. It seemed during our classes that they began to open up parts of themselves both physically as well as mentally and emotionally. Often tears as well as laughter would be shared as they accessed memories and shared long forgotten stories from their pasts. They were flowing well with the yoga routine, remembering to breathe and be present, and at the same time expressing their creative voices.
Maybe what was happening was a sort of poetry in itself—taking a break from the physical to recall a moment in childhood; or listening to an unexpected line of poetry read back from what someone had just said; or hearing how ordinary speech can be beautiful in itself; or realizing how vivid our details can be when we stop to visualize something; all this while moving through a physical flow of breath and movement, This was a kind of poetry in yoga that we experienced together as a group.
Being initially unsure how yoga and creative writing would flow together in one class, I discovered that while it might not be completely seamless, they did seem to be complimentary art forms, both working to bring a full expression of spirit. As one of the seniors told me afterwards, she felt the effect of the class expand within her throughout the weeks; she said she felt the yoga and the poetry stretching her both inside and out.
Here are two poems we wrote together. The first poem was written during the yoga practice on our very last session (prompt idea from Kenneth Koch’s, I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry Writing to Old People. 1977). The second poem was prompted by fall and the changing seasons. These are the pure original words of the students. I will leave you with their voices on the page:
Secrets of My Life
I never told anybody that I didn’t like riding on the skidoo. I was afraid.
I never told my husband that I hit the car going out of the garage.
I never told anybody that I didn’t like roller coaster rides. But I went on them anyway and I pretended.
I never told anybody that I didn’t like cucumbers.
I never told anybody that I didn’t like iced tea. And somebody offered it to me one time, and I drank it to be polite.
I never told anyone that I didn’t like them.
I never told anybody that when I was in school, I didn’t like to ride my bicycle down the hills.
Fall: Inspiration from Barbara’s Photograph
Let’s go hiking!
It’s awesome what Mother Nature is able to do with all the leaves changing
It’s football season, let’s watch TV outside by a fire
For me, it’s beautiful—the colors, the leaves…
Nice pumpkins, bad weather
Picnicking by a very pretty brook and the Mohawk trail
And the leaves reflected in the pond
Winder will come soon
Enjoy it while we have it
I like this weather.
I like the pumpkins and the Halloween and the children dressed up and all the vibrant colors
I don’t like school starting or leaves falling, it’s sad, the end of a season, but then Christmas is coming!
But the end of fall means the beginning of winter which is beautiful in its own way.
Melanie Faranello is a fiction writer from Chicago currently living in West Hartford, Connecticut. She holds her MFA in creative writing and an introductory yoga teaching certificate. She has taught writing for many years and is now excited about combining it with yoga. She recently created a course called “Words in Motion” which combines creative writing with yoga, which this essay is about.