Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bible Belt Yoga - for our physical and mental well-being

When you think of Yoga classes, you get this mental picture of a bunch of twenty-somethings contorting their bodies into pretzel shapes - or an image of someone sitting in the lotus position forming little circles with their fingers and thumbs while meditating.  Think again - and get another image in your head, because you haven't seen anything until you see the Yoga class we have each Monday night in our church's fellowship building.  It's made up of a rag-tag group of all ages doing the best we can with the abilities we have. We call it Yoga, because we do the yoga poses, but we do them without the meditation of the ancient Hindu roots.    For some, yoga is a spiritual practice, while we prefer to focus on the mental and physical challenges - in fact, some of the Hindu faith complain that yoga is not being used as it originated.  The Western World has predominantly adapted it as a form of exercise - a series of stretch and bend postures that keep our bodies fit - and breathing exercises to calm and relax our minds.  But because yoga originated in the Hindu faith, I have met opposition when I speak of it.  They just can't get past the word yoga - to them it implies a culture and religion that is far different than their own, but I don't understand why they oppose it.  Meditation is important as a spiritual journey, no matter what religion you practice.

Breathing: “Anyone can practice yoga. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how fit you are, or even how well you can move,” says Susan Bowen, co-owner of Thrive Yoga in Rockville, MD. “Yoga starts with breathing. If you can breathe, you can practice yoga.”  That's a good way to look at it. As for myself, I have found that breathing is such an important part of my routine.  You have to breathe to live and breathing the correct way is an integral part of staying healthy.   I'm sure you've heard the adage, "take a deep breath and calm down".   Breathing in and then exhaling fully clears your lungs.  Calm and gentle breathing activates a gland inside your brain that triggers a relaxation response in your body. 

Fitness:  Being fit is important at any age, but on the whole, we are living longer than we used to.  We all want good health and quality of life as we age.  We don't want the health issues that go hand in hand with a sedentary lifestyle.  As we get older, we become more susceptible to those ailments, aches and pains that are linked to the natural aging process.  Those ailments tend to slow us down and we move less - which in turn creates more ailments.  It's a vicious cycle, isn't it?  It's very tempting to just "take it easy" and "grow old gracefully"; however, it's not very graceful when an older person takes a fall.  Extended periods of inactivity lead to shortening, tightening and weakening of the muscles.  If we don't move and stretch, we lose our flexibility.  If we sit still for too long, we lose our balance - which is why you hear of so many older people falling and breaking a hip or an arm.  Research indicates that Yoga stretches and postures can slow - or even slowly reverse - the aging process.

Let me introduce you to Shirley Cauthen.  Shirley is my friend and a long-time member of our church.  I had heard shortly after we moved here that Shirley had been doing Yoga exercises for about fifty years.  I wasn't sure what age she was, but I could see a bounce in her step, a perfect posture, and how fit and trim she seemed to be.   I had also witnessed her vast knowledge of the Bible, her sweet spirit, and evidence of her Christianity.  I found out recently that Shirley is seventy-nine years old – and you would never believe it to see her in action.   She can do yoga postures that even the teens and twenty-somethings we’ve had in our class cannot do.  

Shirley says that she started dancing at about the same time she learned to walk – in other words, she has a God-given talent.  She started taking dance lessons at twelve and studied dance in New York under the tutelage of Martha Graham, the famous dance instructor who introduced modern dance to the world.  She took instruction from Martha herself - who was nearly seventy at the time. It was there that she was introduced to yoga by a fellow student.  He taught her the basics and she later took instruction from several other professional instructors – some from India. 

Shirley is a fascinating person.  During the 1950’s and into the late 1960’s, she had her own television program in the Charlotte and Columbia markets.  In Columbia, she had The Shirley Cauthen Show and in Charlotte, her show was Spanarama.  Dance was and is her passion and it shows in every graceful move she makes.
This is Shirley.  The smile on her face is the love of God shining through!  What a sweet and inspiring woman she is!

I approached Shirley one day almost four years ago, and asked her if she would be interested in giving some Yoga classes at our Community Center.  After several re-occurring bouts of bursitis in my hips, my doctor had recommended doing some stretch exercises.  I started thinking that all of us could do with stretching exercise, and Shirley was a wonderful role model to some of us who were approaching our senior years with trepidation.  Shirley seemed to be really excited about it and I talked it up and got a group together for every Monday night.   There were seventeen of us there on that first night.  None of us realized how out of shape we were - even the simplest of yoga positions were putting us to the test.  I hate to admit it but the simple feat of getting up and down off the floor in a somewhat graceful manner was a challenge for most of us.  We needed this! 

The next week a few had found it either too embarrassing or too strenuous and didn't come back.  Over the next few weeks we lost a few and gained a few, but most of us stuck with it.  I was surprised at how quickly we were advancing from a few basic postures to more difficult ones as the weeks progressed.  Shirley was patient with us, but she didn't cut us any slack - and she encouraged young and old alike to at least try each posture.  She stressed though, that we should never do an exercise that caused us pain - although early on, almost all of them caused me pain - but don't tell Shirley.

From the original group, there are only a handful of us sticking with it.  There have been some new additions - some younger ones have joined the class now and it's nice to see that they are taking care of their bodies before they start falling apart instead of trying to do damage control like some of us older ones.

Shirley is our hero - she's an inspiration to us all.  It's a wonderful feeling being able to have a spring in your step and a better attitude on life.  I haven't had a bout with bursitis since the day I started Yoga and I feel wonderful.  Shirley won't even take any payment for her instruction - she's volunteering her services for the health of our community - another way of showing her willingness to serve others.  We only pay a nominal fee for the use of the building - $1 per night per person.  It's the best buck I have ever spent! This is a tribute to Shirley, a friend and fellow Christian who is the dog-goned best yoga instructor you could ever wish to have.
Shirley - in one of the poses of salutation to the sun - this is the downward dog pose.
Christine - this is a pose of balance - the beginning of a handstand.
Here Shirley is literally "floating" in the air.  Her entire body is supported only by her hands.  Even the young women in our class can't do this pose. This posture is called the Peacock.
Genie, a grandmother of three with a fourth on the way, in a headstand - a challenging pose indeed!
Part of our group.  Ages range from early twenties to mid- seventies when everyone is present.  If you're looking for me, I'm taking the picture!


  1. I love the line about 'damage control'! That would be me then!! Shirley really does sound like a wonderful lady and so good of her to give of her time like that for the good of the community. It's lovely to see how you can feel how you have improved from when you first started. Shirley certainly doesn't look her age. I have a good friend who is 76 - she does yoga, and she is very supple. She keeps telling me that I should have a go! We all owe it to ourselves to keep as healthy and fit as we can, especially if we have young grandchildren. Good post today!

  2. Wow, Shirley sounds like a firecracker! What a fun class!

  3. Hello Glenda
    Now thats what I like to hear - (taken out of context I know) but Age will Not Weary Them!
    You are so lucky to have someone willing to give to her community. I remember when I first tried yoga - back in the 1970's - they were fun classes too - like Shirley I know the person who took those classes is still as fit and agile as she was all those years ago.
    Reading about your classes has made me wonder about seeing if there are any (for Seniors )close to home
    Take care
    Still Waters

  4. Thisisme, thanks for your comment. It seems that just about everything I do is about damage control these days - and yes, we need to stay on our toes for those grandchildren.

    Maggi, We do have fun - hope you're having fun with the new little one.

    Cathy, looking at your blogpost today, my yoga seems tame to your Body Pump exercises! I'm impressed!

  5. Cathy, I wasn't sure what your comment "age will not weary them" meant but I see it's a poem from your native Australia - and a beautiful one it is:
    They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them.

  6. People of all ages, that's good to hear. Thanks for stopping by Glenda. I've enjoyed reading your post and visiting very much.

  7. For a few weeks I took Yoga, Pilates, Water Aerobics. In doing so much I upset my sciatica. PAIN ws bad. I now am heaing so will rturn to only one class, Yoga. I love the peace and quiet of Yoga.

  8. That does sound like you were taking on a little too much at one time. Hope the healing goes quickly so you can get back into yoga.


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