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Taxi Yoga: Road rage to road sage

Last updated on: April 13, 2011 00:31 IST

Taxi Yoga: Road rage to road sage

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Arthur J Pais in New York

Arthur J Pais talks to Andrew Vollo, who has been training New York taxi drivers in yoga and T'ai Chi for over eight years.

Andrew Vollo, who has spent over 16 years driving a cab full time in New York, heads the NYC Taxi and FHV Driver Institute at the La Guardia Community College in Queens. Better known as the charm school for cabbies, it prepares hundreds for the road tests and work as a cabbie.

It also offers lessons to drivers who have experience, but who need classes to improve their customer relations and run a smooth operation. For over eight years, Vollo has trained taxi drivers in yoga and T'ai Chi at the La Guardia Community College.

First Published In India Abroad A Rediff Publication

Some Mondays, his weekly classes have five students; some days, that number goes up to eight. "The maximum number I have had is 15," says Vollo, who is in his fifties. "The minimum? Two. I surely don't do this as a business. I am passionate about it."

As the director of the LaGuardia Community College's educational program for taxi drivers, he thought he could offer lessons in yoga. So over six years ago he began giving fliers to dispatchers, taxi brokers and at driving schools.

"I was ridiculed by many," he says. "But my faith was strong, and my classes showed how the drivers could improve their body and minds." Yet, the message ought to be louder and reach further, he says.

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Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com
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'Something happened when I was about to give up'

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"There are about 45,000 cab drivers in New York, and many suffer serious health problems including hypertension and heart diseases because of their lifestyle, and aggravating circumstances in their jobs," he explains. "From my own experiences, I know how yoga can help."

An overwhelming number of these cabbies are from the Indian subcontinent.

Vello points out to a study of New York cabdrivers conducted three years ago by the National Institute of Occupational Health and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance that revealed that three-quarters of drivers suffered back pain, more than half had neck pain, and many had sore heels, knees and feet. First Published In India Abroad A Rediff Publication

Being overweight was yet another big problem. Vello has been featured in publications ranging from The New York Times to the Daily News. "But I need to see more people in the classes," he says, adding that each class costs just about $8. "I have even offered three classes for $20."

Many times, he thought of discontinuing Taxi Yoga because of the lack of students. "I would love to see at least 10 in each class," he says.

"But when I was just about to give up, something happens. There is an article in The New York Times, and I start hoping somehow the word will spread, and people will tell the cab drivers they know to take these classes."

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Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com
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'There are some who think yoga is for women'

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Vollo has distributed pamphlets on his Taxi Yoga classes at temples, gurdwaras and mosques in New York. They promise to help in areas including fighting road rage. He has mass-mailed hundreds of pamphlets, too. One of his fliers says: 'No more Road Rage. Become a Road Sage!'

"I think there is a certain amount of fear about yoga," says Vollo, whose grandfather migrated to the United States from Naples, Italy. "A large number of cab drivers in New York are Muslim, and they are wary of doing anything connected with Hinduism. And then there are some who believe yoga is for women." First Published In India Abroad A Rediff Publication

He has had a few Muslim students, but he wants many more. "I am working on reaching out to the taxi unions," he says. "I wish (the influential union leader) Bhairavi Desai could appreciate what we are doing and recommend these classes." He has sought a meeting with her.

Vollo says he knows and fully appreciates yoga's spiritual dimension. "But here, we do not emphasise anything of that sort," he says. "We don't chant 'Om' This is not about religion and spiritualism. It is about survival in our tough jobs."

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Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com
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'I tell them how to handle nasty customers'

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Many cab drivers spend over 50 hours a week at the wheel. He would like to see them do some stretching and breathing exercises in between the rides yoga at the wheels.

It also helps not to bring in the religious aspects of yoga at a city-run college. 'While a public college such as LaGuardia can hardly offer a class that compels worship of a deity,' wrote The New York Times recently, 'Taxi Yoga fits into a more contemporary and amorphous realm of mind-body harmony and meditative practice.

First Published In India Abroad A Rediff Publication

Vollo says Buddhism has a big influence on him, but he is still a Catholic, and attends church services with his wife and son. Yoga classes, he asserts, will not only help the physical health of the drivers, but also their minds.

"I also tell them how to eat better," says Vollo, who loves Indian vegetarian food. "I give them breathing exercises. I tell them how to handle tough and nasty customers. If they can't take care of their emotions, they become nasty cabbies, and I tell them all the time how yoga can help them to achieve the good things."

Vollo gets help from Klee Walsh, a certified yoga instructor and recent graduate from the Sonic Yoga school in New York. "He told me Sonic Yoga encourages students in its teacher training program to donate their yoga to someone who can benefit from it," Vollo says. "Klee decided that his karma yoga project would be to help bring yoga to his fellow cabdrivers."


Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com
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