The Great Experiment: Caring for ourselves and each other, in Spanish

  • In this screenshot, UMass Spanish professor Danielle Thomas is demonstrating a “cangrejo” (crab) yoga position for a yoga class she teaches as part of Salud y Bienestar, a collective of faculty, students and community members who come together to honor the Spanish language and culture. DANIELLE THOMAS

  • In this screenshot, UMass Spanish professor Danielle Thomas is demonstrating a “Ciclo de la vida” (cycle of life, seed to flower to seed) during a yoga class she teaches as part of Salud y Bienestar, a collective of faculty, students and community members who come together to honor and bond over Spanish language and culture. CONTRIBUTED/DANIELLE THOMAS

Ellie Horn, a UMass senior double majoring in psychology and Spanish, logs into Zoom every Monday at 4:30 p.m. to greet her virtual yoga class. “¡Hola a todos y bienvenidos! Gracias por venir a esta clase,” she says.

Ellie, a yoga instructor at Salud y Bienestar, a Spanish-speaking wellness organization, sits on her yoga mat and leads the class in deep breathing exercises.

Despite her seemingly effortless Spanish, Ellie, a non-native speaker, wasn’t always this comfortable teaching yoga in Spanish.

“When I first started, I was like terrified every time,” said Ellie. “And every week, I wanted to quit because I was so nervous, because I wanted to remember all the words and not mess up.”

Ellie promised herself to keep showing up until she wasn’t nervous anymore, and she now looks forward to teaching every week.

Ellie’s routine represents just one of the many ways people have adjusted their lives since the pandemic started. The switch to a virtual world came with new obstacles, altering the ways we socialize, and as a result, impacting mental health. A study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that 71% of college students report increased levels of stress and anxiety since the start of the pandemic, and 86% report increased levels of social isolation.

Feelings of isolation inspired Danielle Thomas, a Spanish professor at UMass, to create a new social environment serving the local Spanish-speaking community. The result was Salud y Bienestar, a collective of faculty, students and community members who come together to honor the Spanish language and culture, while fulfilling social needs and focusing on improving their well-being.

“We’re social beings that need the three dimensionality of each other and life to feel grounded, and it’s a very two-dimensional sort of life we have right now,” Danielle says.

Danielle was interested in teaching yoga classes in Spanish long before the pandemic, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2020 that she executed her vision with the help of her colleagues. “This was really for survival in some ways,” she said. “And we thought, well, if it’s just us even, we’re going to keep each other going.”

At first Salud y Bienestar only offered virtual yoga classes. Now it offers a wide range of classes including creative writing, martial arts and meditation on a schedule convenient for community members whose lives may not follow typical academic schedules, Danielle explained.

Salud y Bienestar makes resources accessible by prioritizing the Spanish language. “You get a lot of bilingual resources but not specifically Spanish resources on health and wellness,” Danielle said.

Western Massachusetts needs spaces that are safe and accessible for Spanish speakers where they feel free to be themselves and to speak without language discrimination. “We don’t take turns when we talk, we interrupt each other a lot, we get excited, our tone goes up. And it sounds aggressive. But it’s not,” said Danielle.

Salud y Bienestar has gained members both nationally and globally. People can participate when it’s convenient through recorded sessions stored on the organization’s website and Facebook page, where classes are also livestreamed.

When the pandemic caused life to transition online, Ellie said many people lost “the ability to be passively social,” meaning they had to work to find ways to be social. Salud y Bienestar mimics how public activities used to run before the pandemic, Ellie said: “You can just kind of show up and be there.” 


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