Feature writing


The oldest yoga teacher in the world

The Times

June 12, 2012


You find world record-holders in the oddest places. Here in Hartsdale, Westchester County, 45 minutes by train from New York, the recently titled “world’s oldest yoga teacher” is leading her 8am Monday class at the unprepossessing breeze-block Fred Astaire Dance Studio, with satin bells and curled ribbons hanging limply from the ceiling. And I, a yoga first-timer, am suffering.

“No,” says Tao Porchon-Lynch, softly but firmly. “Put your weight on that leg.” Oww. “Stretch the other.” Oww. “Rotate your shoulders. Arch your back.” Oww. “Stretch your arm . . .” Oww, oww, oww.

For an hour and a half I am benevolently tortured through a battery of balancing moves, downward dogs and sun salutations by Porchon-Lynch who is 93 years old, 5ft 5in, 98 pounds and so gracious and flexible she makes me, 54 years her junior, look like a frozen strip of cardboard. We pirouette on one leg, lunge forward into warrior poses, stand, fling legs from out beneath us: I break a sweat; Tao and her regulars do not.

Dressed in skin-tight, all-white exercise garb, she has a windswept whirl of dark hair and is bird-like, beady but warm. Her pièce de résistance? A perfect lotus, balancing on her wrists, even though she broke one a few years ago. “People worry about me but I do what I want,” she says of ageing. “My encyclopedia is nature. Winter comes. Trees look dead. They’re not. Spring blossoms.” Of her mortality, she says merrily: “I’m going to dance my way to the next planet. You have to stop saying ‘I cannot do’. ”

The all-female class say they “adore” Porchon-Lynch. The class is “more spiritual than physical”, Baiju Mehta, 60 (and looks 40) says; it felt pretty bloody physical to me. “She has changed my life. I had terrible allergies, but yoga has somehow helped me get over them,” Mehta says. Yoga taps into the “primal spark of energy all of us receive from the Universe”, Porchon-Lynch believes. Angela LaManna, who has been coming for a decade, says: “She has a wonderful openness and optimism about life.”

“I don’t like being told what to do,” Porchon-Lynch says of the doctor who told her to slow down after one accident (he now displays her picture inscribed with the sobriquet, “Miracle Woman”). She had a hip replacement (at 86) and a pin in her right leg after a fall when she was 78. “My right leg gets a bit tight,” she confesses, “I’ve fallen on it three times.” She only ever wears three-inch heels, or goes barefoot: “I have a high instep”.

So how can we all look and feel as good as Porchon-Lynch at 93? Certainly yoga is central to her life: she practises and teaches it every day.

Her diet is strict. She is a vegetarian who has only a grapefruit for breakfast and no lunch and is vague about supper; wine and chocolate are saved for occasions with friends who tell her she “eats like a bird”. Her highest weight has been 104 pounds.

She believes in the philosophy of yoga, of “harnessing power”, the “power’’ of breath; she is astonishingly supple. We stand and breathe (“no, not from your shoulders”) and she shows how her ribs move her resting hands.

She is also, simply, a determined trouper: her dramatic, globetrotting life has taken in the French Resistance, friendships with Noël Coward and Marlene Dietrich, success early as a model and later as a champion ballroom dancer: “Yoga centres you within, dancing gives flow to your outer life force.”

Porchon-Lynch has sat on a panel with the Dalai Lama, advocating yoga’s place in securing world peace. She has recently published her first meditation book, is writing her autobiography, teaches sometimes three classes a day and takes yoga groups to India and Morocco, with upcoming trips to Montana, Vietnam, Russia and the UK. Though not a “guzzler”, she’s a wine expert and judge.

Born in Pondicherry, a French territory in colonial India, her mother died giving birth to her and her heartbroken father emigrated to Canada. “He couldn’t take care of me. I’m told my mother had lovely, long legs.” She looks down at her own, which won an award for the world’s best in the 1940s.

“I don’t feel I missed anything. I was brought up so well by my aunt and uncle. He told me, ‘Don’t ask somebody to understand you, try and understand them. Don’t be afraid of anything’.”

At 19 Porchon-Lynch’s uncle introduced her to Gandhi, “a smiling man with round glasses who believed women should be equal”.

During the war she helped smuggle Jewish refugees out of France, first hiding them in her father’s family’s vineyards. She dressed one Orthodox Jew as a Catholic priest and his wife as a nun. There was a journey down the Seine with refugees hidden under potato sacks.

Once the Germans discovered her identity Porchon-Lynch stayed in London where Coward, introduced by a friend, gave her elocution lessons.

Coward and Dietrich threw a party for her and though Porchon-Lynch has never smoked she thought Dietrich “was so glamorous I had to match her, so I bought a cigarette in a holder, but trying to pose I fell down the stairs. Dietrich said, ‘Oh darrlinkk, what an entrée, I must put that in my next film’.”

Porchon-Lynch first started yoga aged 8, fascinated by the moves she saw boys her age doing in India. She studied yoga with Indra Devi, Aurobindo and BKS Iyengar.

In Hollywood in the 1950s, where she was a contract actress with MGM and later a screenwriter, she joined Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley at the Vedanta Cultural Foundation to discuss its principles with its founding guru Swami Parthasarathy. In 1962, by then living in Westchester, she started teaching yoga: her second husband Bill said her physical dexterity made her “like a spider with a head on top”. In 1976 she founded the Yoga Teachers Alliance and in 1982 the Westchester Institute of Yoga.

Porchon-Lynch was married twice but there have been no partners since Bill’s death: “All my boyfriends are the men I dance with,” Porchon-Lynch laughs, referring to her other passion — ballroom dancing.

Since 2005 she has won 434 ballroom dance trophies and her two dance partners are 24- and 25-years-old. “I was hospitalised with pneumonia earlier this year,” she says, “and I said, ‘You have to let me go, I have championships to go to’. I asked if I could do 50 leg lifts over my head would they let me go.” She got out and came first in all her dances.

Porchon-Lynch may no longer be able to walk on her hands, legs around her neck “like a crab”, but she still walked Machu Picchu in her heels five years ago.

“I’ve never wanted to give up, there’s always something to look forward to. I’m not waiting to die.”

As she drives me to the station, she only wishes she could “find a way for my tummy not to stick out”, although she seems more focused on more trophies at the world ballroom dancing championships in Puerto Rico in July. There is a mini-Ganesh and French flag on her dashboard. “My life,” she says with a beatific smile.