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A Good Age for Yoga
A Master Student, Pushing 90, Takes Lifelong Discipline to a New Level

By Rita Zeidner
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The first sign of trouble came when Tao Porchon-Lynch, the 87-year-old yoga teacher whom Results the Gym on Capitol Hill flew in last week from Manhattan, showed up for class wearing stretch slacks, a slinky top and strappy three-inch heels.

Porchon-Lynch then kicked off her shoes and -- after surveying class members for injuries (more than a few had shoulder, foot, wrist and back issues) -- guided them through a few gentle warm-up stretches and standing postures such as Warrior, Down Dog and Half Moon.

Once most students were weary and damp, Porchon-Lynch gave them what they came for: a demonstration of what a lifelong student of yoga pushing 90 can do.

Catlike, she crouched and without a quaver balanced her body's weight on her hands while suspending her torso and legs above the ground in Mayurasana (peacock pose), one of yoga's gravity-defying power moves. Then, in one flowing motion, she swung her legs around in front and took a seat on the mat.

She finished her show with a graceful twist, bracing her left elbow over her right knee, looking over her right shoulder and rotating her torso nearly 180 degrees.

"How do you think I got to be 87?" she asked. "By doing twists."

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that.

While Porchon-Lynch has the lithe physique you'd expect from someone who's been practicing yoga since childhood, her flexibility and strength -- greater than most people will ever achieve -- speak to a more than casual apprenticeship.

She was one of the first women to study under Indian master B.K.S. Iyengar, credited with popularizing yoga in the West. Results yoga director Rozann Stayden, a former gymnast who has studied yoga for 20 years here and abroad, said she invited Porchon-Lynch so her own students could appreciate the agelessness of mastery.

"People are very intrigued by the idea that yoga can be done at any age," said Stayden. "The fact that Tao is 87 and is a yoga master, people were just really interested in seeing her."

As a discipline, yoga is thousands of years old. But recent market research suggests the Eastern practice of controlled breathing, stretching and meditation is coming of age in the United States. A 2004 Harris poll commissioned by Yoga Journal estimated that 7.5 percent of U.S. adults -- some 16.5 million people -- practice yoga, up 43 percent from 2002. An even larger group was seen as intending to try yoga within the next 12 months. Last year Americans spent $3 billion on yoga classes and related products such as clothing, books, DVDs and yoga-centric vacations, the poll found.

In the Washington area, storefront yoga studios have proliferated while virtually all local gym chains offer yoga classes. Tickets to an Oct. 18 Iyengar lecture in Washington sold out months in advance at nearly $50 a pop.

Does yoga offer hope to aging boomers seeking not just to boost strength and flexibility but stem the effects of aging? Scientists are investigating. The National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is funding several studies to see if yoga helps in the management of lung disease and chronic low back pain. Another study is exploring whether yoga can increase attention span and focus in healthy elders.

Breathe Deeply

As befits a student of Iyengar, Porchon-Lynch pays mind not just to her students' poses but to their breathing technique. While she circled the room, tweaking students' posture here and there, she gently urged them to be mindful of their breath.

"Think of a water lily moving up through the muddy surface," she coaxed, in a voice so tiny the students had to strain to hear. "Let the breath do the work and you relax, okay? Feel as though all the tension of life is flowing out of the body."

Porchon-Lynch, who began practicing yoga as an 8-year-old in India, says she gave informal yoga classes to friends and associates for free throughout the 1950s and early '60s. (This was after a storied career that had her dancing in British nightclubs, being cast in shows by Noel Coward, modeling haute couture in postwar France and appearing in several Hollywood B movies.) But she didn't get a paying gig teaching yoga until 1968, when Jack LaLanne hired her as a teacher for a nominal fee. She still maintains a busy teaching schedule, leading classes most days at several studios around New York.

While it may be difficult to see Porchon-Lynch as an octogenarian, she's hardly immune from the effects of age. She had one hip replaced two years ago and has had a pin in the other since the late 1980s.

"I'm like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces fitting together," she said.

Thirty years after spending a month at Iyengar's institute in Pune, India, she still praises her former mentor, who's also 87, and -- just as he does -- recommends that people having difficulty with a pose use props like bricks and ropes to help ease a stretch.

"I think no one is more pure in the alignment of the postures than Iyengar," said Porchon-Lynch. "It's the good alignment that prevents injuries."

Before rushing back to New York, Porchon-Lynch chatted briefly with us. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Do you do anything besides yoga to stay in shape?

No. I've never been very athletic. I've never been one to go running -- I was interested in seeing what my body could do from within. . . . Recently I've taken up ballroom dancing. I've been competing. I have two lovely dance partners, one a 28-year-old from Ukraine.

You seem so peaceful and serene. Is it the yoga?

I do believe that you can if you work with the breath, you can relax and feel that power within you. I work with my breath. People have problems when they keep their noisy thoughts in their throats. When you learn to breathe properly, you can get rid of those noisy thoughts and relax. If I can bring people into a quiet place and get rid of their noisy thoughts, you'd be surprised how they calm down. But I don't disagree with having a good cry. I do enjoy that.

Are there any yoga styles you don't like?

I don't believe in the hot [Bikram's] yoga. People do yoga in India where it's very hot, but they do it in the morning. You can't turn off the air [conditioning] and expect people to do yoga. It's going to cause problems. It's just a showcase to do bravado with actors and actresses.

Some people are saying they get hurt during yoga.

People should watch very carefully how they do moves. If it's not feeling right, then you probably aren't doing it the right way. But I don't believe in holding postures for a long time. And I don't believe a yoga teacher should be tough. The purpose of yoga is to join the body, mind and spirit. If you're being rude and horrible, that's not yoga.

You don't look like you eat much. Do you ever sit down to a big juicy steak?

I'm a lifelong vegetarian, so no. I did, however, start eating a little bit of fish. And I love spinach. I'd say spinach is my favorite food. I also like fruit. . . . I also love chocolate. Sometimes I'll eat a whole bar of chocolate and then I won't have any for another year.

What's with those three-inch stiletto heels you're wearing?

All my shoes have three- to five-inch heels. I have a very high instep. I don't believe there's any one style for everyone. ยท

Rita Zeidner last wrote for the Health section about surgery for excessive sweating. To make comments, e-mail health@washpost.com.

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