Frazzled Cabbies Hail Taxi Yoga

July 11, 2011 | CUNY Matters, The University

It’s 7 p.m. on a recent Monday. Purple mats on the floor are reflected in the mirrored walls of the Movement Studio at LaGuardia Community College.

Five men are in the room. Two are yellow cab drivers, one is a certified yoga instructor, one is a reporter for a Japanese TV station. And there is Andrew Vollo.

“Sit cross-legged,” Vollo calls out. “You’ve heard already about the breathing. I can’t overemphasize the breathing, and of course we know we don’t sit on our wallets.”

The weekly Taxi Yoga class is under way.

Limbering up, from left, are cabbies Tuhin Khan and Thomas Lowery, Driver Institute director Andrew Vollo, cabbie Dwight Traker, instructor Klee Walsh and cabbies Chemi Dorge and Balram Shiv.

Seven years ago, with his body “in bad shape” from driving a cab, Vollo studied hatha yoga, a system of postures and exercises used to strengthen and tone the body. “By doing the exercises, I felt so much better I thought I could pass this on to other drivers,” he said.

Vollo, 56, drove a yellow cab part-time for 16 years to pay for fine arts studies at Queens College. He also worked as a dispatcher. Since 2003 he has been director of the New York City Taxi and FHV (For Hire Vehicle) Driver Institute at LaGuardia, which trains and certifies cab drivers to operate on city streets.

In 2004, Vollo introduced Taxi Yoga, an eight-week program to teach a “gentle” form of yoga specifically for professional taxi drivers but open to anyone who sits for long hours driving or working at a computer terminal. Each one-hour Monday class costs $8; a package of three, $20.

Vollo’s objective is to help cab drivers ease muscle tension, reduce stress and improve strength and flexibility through simple breathing exercises, relaxation techniques and basic yoga postures, each with specific physical benefits, “so they’ll be able to function better.”

There are about 49,000 cab drivers in New York City, he said. “Many have ulcers, high blood pressure, diabetes, bad circulation in their legs. They are always on the run. Many have been on the job for 30 to 40 years, working 12-hour days.”

Vollo said he noticed “how stiff they are, how they can’t sit down, they can’t bend.”

He posted flyers in garages where taxi drivers congregate, seeking students. The response wasn’t encouraging. Undaunted, Vollo held his first class. Two cabbies, a copy machine serviceman doing work at LaGuardia and his friend attended.

“These four loved the class so much they were my mainstay,” Vollo said. “They came for about five months, and they came all the time. I would run the classes with the few guys that would come. Sometimes one person came. Sometimes nobody came and I had my secretaries take the class.”

“I invited officials of the Taxi and Limousine Commission to come. I figured, let me plant a seed, maybe they’ll make it mandatory. They never came.”

Allan Fromberg, a spokesman, said it’s not the TLC’s role “to endorse what he’s doing,” but that the program “is getting some very positive feedback from drivers. The fact that Andrew is so dedicated to bringing his knowledge and expertise to help people in this unique way is a very positive thing.”

A certified yoga instructor and cab driver, Klee Walsh, volunteered to assist him and the intrepid Vollo persisted.

“The image that stood in my mind was the condition of so many drivers,” Vollo said. “I noticed how difficult it was for drivers to stretch, bend over forward and touch the floor. I knew it doesn’t have to be that way.

It doesn’t take much to help folks feel better and be healthier. I was a prime example. I had headaches, backaches, sciatica.”

But after three years of uncertain attendance Vollo was “just about to give up when a story in The Daily News in April 2008, gave it more life.” Participation rose to a high of 15, but the fluctuation continued. “An article in The New York Times last January boosted attendance again. That kept us going.”

Vollo did research and found that “a lot of taxi drivers think yoga is a woman’s thing.” Time was also a factor. “If a guy rents a car for 12 hours he doesn’t want to waste an hour when he could be making money,” Vollo said.

Longtime yellow cab drivers Alex Rabello and Gregory Duffy are among his regulars. Their yoga session that recent Monday night included poses known as pelvic tilt and downward facing dog.

“It’s very commonplace for people to have back issues, kidney issues,” said Duffy, who had problems looking over his shoulder. “I’ve attempted to make most every session. You come away feeling better, more physically loose … and the cost is reasonable. It’s a great idea.”

Said Rabello, “When you breathe the way they teach you, you can’t help but relax. It’s so light you don’t think you’re doing anything, but you feel the difference. It makes the day a little easier. I intend to come as long as he’s around because it’s helping me.”

Vollo is committed, so he’s stepping up his outreach to the industry to bring in students.

“These days,” he said, “we have five, six people coming steadily. A lot more people know us. … I’m not giving up.”