Yoga, Masks, and Food Drives: The Hindu Community’s COVID-19 Relief Efforts in Contra Costa County

JULY 26, 2020
Written By: Rakshaa Venkatraman (Grade 11) and Shruti Pathak (Grade 12)

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unpredictable times of hardship and change. To meet the needs of people affected by the pandemic, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) volunteers in the Contra Costa County area started a variety of community service projects. HSS is a non-profit Hindu faith-based organization that aims to organize the Hindu community to preserve, practice, and promote Hindu ideals and values, such as Sewa, or selfless service. 

HSS Contra Costa’s goal was to initiate projects that addressed the public’s physical, mental, and emotional health during the pandemic and lockdown period. Their projects included free virtual yoga classes, donations of masks and personal protective equipment, volunteering with senior centers, and organizing food drives for homeless shelters.  

‘Yoga for Positive Health’ – Contra Costa Volunteers in Unison with HSS US 

Mental health is a significant concern during this pandemic. As people stay at home for extended periods, anxiety and stress levels have been increasing. Many students face the stress of studying virtually at home, college admissions, and uncertainty. For adults, job loss, their families’ health, and financial anxieties have occupied their minds. Everyone has been affected in one way or another, and intense emotions of fear and anxiety have overwhelmed the public. Social distancing and other public health actions can make people feel isolated and lonely, and now, there is a greater need for strategies to cope with stress in a holistic, healthy way. 

Contra Costa HSS volunteers decided to offer a series of free virtual yoga classes to help address eroding mental health during the pandemic. Countless studies have demonstrated yoga’s efficacy in reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, including a recent study by Harvard Medical School. 

HSS organized two free yoga sessions targeting the Contra Costa community: a weekly yogasana class with two certified yoga instructors, Smita Kinhikar and Latha Prabhakar, and a daily meditation session (with some yoga postures built-in) conducted by another accredited yoga instructor, Digant Dash. Each class was well-attended by at least twenty students. 

Volunteers from the Contra Costa branch of HSS also took part in HSS’s nationwide Yoga for Positive Health initiative. HSS conducted this 12-week program in association with Yoga Bharati, an affiliate of SVYASA (Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana) – a premier yoga research university headquartered in Bangalore, India. These three-hour sessions, which happened every Saturday from May 2nd to July 25th, intended to improve participants’ physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. Around 700 people attended these online classes every week.

The first half of each session consisted of physical yoga practices, including breathing exercises, warmups, Surya Namaskar, yoga asanas, mudras, pranayama, relaxation, and meditation. All of the teachers were certified yoga instructors, and some held masters degrees in yoga philosophy and yoga therapy. The second half consisted of a talk on yoga’s philosophy by experts from around the world. Topics included the application of yoga in everyday life, the science of yoga, and human anatomy and physiology. Several eminent speakers spoke as part of this series, such as the international coordinator of SVYASA, doctors, nurse practitioners, scholars with PhDs in Sanskrit, and life and corporate coaches.

Dash said that the sessions were very refreshing and provided a healthy and energizing start to the day. 

“We received feedback from dozens of people saying that they observed a positive change in themselves after participating in the Yoga for Positive Health classes, from physical and mental to emotional and spiritual benefits,” Dash said.  

Cards and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – Engaging Student Volunteers 

In addition to yoga sessions, HSS Contra Costa volunteers engaged elementary, middle, and high school students in a card making project. In this project, the children made cards thanking first responders such as firefighters and police officers. The children from San Ramon and Pleasanton, a total of 50 students, made cards to give first responders in these areas, along with food. In times of high stress, these kind acts helped raise spirits.

Additionally, the volunteers started a mask drive since the lack of personal protective equipment was one of the most significant issues throughout this pandemic. This mask drive was done in unison with the ‘Mission Mask’ project led by Sewa International, a non-profit organization with a mission to serve humanity in distress. Over thirty volunteers and their families made around 900 cloth masks and distributed them to hospitals, police stations, schools, senior centers, and homeless shelters. The lack of supplies was one of the biggest challenges, but members of the community supplied cloth and other materials whenever possible, which the volunteers used to make the masks. 

Serving Seniors

HSS Contra Costa volunteers noted that the pandemic hit the elderly particularly hard. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults are at higher risk of COVID-19, with eight out of every ten COVID-19 deaths being adults 65 years and older. As a result, officials encouraged older people, especially those living in senior homes, to strictly follow social isolation guidelines and reduce their number of visitors.

HSS volunteers did not want any seniors to feel lonely or isolated during these times. To address this issue, they set up a phone call system and organized teams of 4-5 volunteers to spend some time talking over the phone and Zoom with seniors at a senior center in Fremont, CA. They found that the seniors often needed to know that they were not alone, which is precisely what this project accomplished. Volunteers met virtually with seniors twice a week; they spoke about life, exchanged jokes, and even sang hymns. Additionally, they conducted online games and yoga sessions with the seniors every Tuesday. Overall, the volunteers created a lively atmosphere for the seniors to prevent them from feeling left out or lonely during the pandemic.

Food Drives

Around 60 families in Contra Costa county participated in a food drive for the Contra Costa Food Bank in Concord, CA. Volunteers collected various non-perishables, such as rice, cereal, pasta, canned food, and more. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, HSS volunteers often delivered homemade meals to local homeless shelters. However, the fear of COVID thwarted some of these efforts. Many people were scared to leave their houses and travel to food banks, fearing the risk of exposure to the virus. Others were more comfortable with the idea of directly donating money.

Nevertheless, the volunteers were able to successfully work around these fears by creating contactless food drop off stations. Families made and packaged the meals, and one volunteer collected the food from the families’ driveways and delivered all the meals to the shelter. Even while observing physical distancing guidelines, they donated 3,000 pounds of food to the Concord food bank and $2900 to the Alameda food bank. 

The Future of Sewa Efforts in Contra Cost County

The work of sewa is far from over. As the pandemic continues to ravage communities, we must continue to address the public’s needs. The efforts within the Contra Costa community are monumental to the COVID-19 relief effort. The projects led by HSS Contra Cost supported a wide range of people, including the elderly, the low-income, and those struggling with stress and anxiety from social isolation. The dedication and compassion expressed by these volunteers must be a norm, not only within our communities but also within ourselves. The true future of sewa is deep within each one of us, and we must foster it, aiming to help the people around us as best we can. 

References:

“Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 July 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html

Publishing, Harvard Health. “Yoga for Anxiety and Depression.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/yoga-for-anxiety-and-depression

“Yoga: Fight Stress and Find Serenity.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 19 Sept. 2019, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/yoga/art-20044733

“Meditation: In Depth.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-in-depth

“Older Adults.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 June 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/older-adults.html

Social Media Post

The Contra Costa chapter of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh’s multi-prong approach to COVID relief: free online yoga classes, handmade mask donations, food drives, and virtual hangout sessions with senior home. 

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