Letter from Puerto Rico

by | Feb 11, 2021

I have been working with the Latinx and Latin American LGBT community for more than 20 years, and teaching yoga and mindfulness to LGBT and Gender Queer Older Adults in Puerto Rico since 2018.

Older adults make up the majority of the Puerto Rican population on the island in the 21st , since many younger people have moved to the mainland. Despite having contributed much to today’s Puerto Rican society, they are among those hit hardest by the Covid-19 crisis, and yet quite underserved by the recovery efforts.

If such elders happen to belong to the LGBT community, outside of traditional heteronormative family structures, they are practically on their own,  disproportionally affected by the pandemic and by the overall impact of stress, anxiety, uncertainty and social isolation.  I have dedicated most of my life to working with the LGBT community. Two years ago the universe granted me the most precious blessing to serve our community’s older adults, the pioneers that have gone before us, paving the way.

I have a rich background in documentary filmmaking, but was drawn to facilitate Yoga, Ai-Chi, Meditation and Mindfulness sessions to LGBT Older Adults through Waves Ahead, Puerto Rico’s chapter of SAGE:Advocacy and Services for LGBT Elders. Waves Ahead focuses on mental health wellbeing, making yoga and mindfulness a central part of the Center’s services.

Most participants in my classes live alone, all by themselves. For many, my classes are their very first experiences in the world of yoga and mindfulness, Our weekly yoga and mindfulness sessions have provided a safe space to breathe, move and cultivate equanimity, a pause from the ever present worries of this frantic pandemic world.  Every week we greet each other endearingly, knowing we are not alone. Through the practice of yoga and mindfulness we have formed a closely knit community of support.

Yoga and mindfulness have been invaluable tools to build resilience with Older Adults who self-identify as Lesbian Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer individuals. The inner gaze (inward drishti), self awareness, self acceptance, patience and endurance required to reach or sustain difficult asanas (even if modified) have proven to be treasured skills to navigate life itself. Using yoga as a source of support and grounding, breathwork and Pranayamas have also been key to take it all in, and then, healingly, let it all out.

The Covid-19 pandemic made me realize I needed to modify my teaching to integrate into each yoga session trauma-sensitive mindfulness and grounding exercises for panic attacks and general anxiety. Having lived through the traumas of Hurricane María and its inhumane aftermath, followed by months of unsettling earthquakes, by the time the Covid-19 pandemic made landfall in Puerto Rico, many participants were seriously wounded emotionally. I had to prepare sessions much more thoroughly because I did not know just how traumatized participants would show up to session each time, or how each participant’s trauma would relate to another participant’s wounds.  Thus, I developed several lesson plans for each session and facilitated it according to the participants’ specific needs that day.

On top of that, because the differently-abled population we serve are among the most at risk (because of age, comorbidities, cognitive impairment, economic marginalization, etc), we had to migrate early in the pandemic to a HIPAA recognized online platform, something difficult for older generations that tend to have a different relationship to technology. Between technological challenges and internet connectivity issues, it was a very bumpy ride when we first migrated to online teaching. There was quite a bit of frustration, for sure. Through a grant, the Center was able to get used computers or other devices for participants. After a long learning curve, we now hold successful online sessions. Together we have been healing. Seeds of connection and care have been planted in our souls and hearts.

Carmen Oquendo-Villar, Harvard Ph.D. ’08, was a 2018-19 Santo Domingo Visiting Scholar at  DRCLAS. Having a rich background as a documentary filmmaker engaging with Latinx and Latin American transgender and sex worker communities, Oquendo continues to work with LGBT communities through yoga and mindfulness. Currently she’s offering yoga and mindfulness sessions in Puerto Rico to Covid-19 first responders, medical students, residents and trainees, via the University of Puerto Rico Medical School’s Wellness Center at the Recinto de Ciencias Médicas. 

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