Veteran yogi Mary Louise Stefanic shares tips for living a healthy and fulfilling life at any age.
As I unfurl my yoga mat and gather my hair into a ponytail, a group of three Spandex-clad women nearby stretch and gossip. A fourth, wearing leggings and a hoodie, joins them. “Hey, Lori!” chirps one of the group. “Did you just get your eyes done?”
Lori bats her lashes and nods, and the rest smile approvingly, as the recent patient reveals, “I am so happy I had the cataract surgery rather than messing around with my bifocals.”
Pre-workout convos lean more towards colonoscopies than Colin Firth when you’re warming up for Gentle Yoga at the Loyola Center for Fitness in Maywood, Ill. Instructor Mary Louise Stefanic, 80, has amassed legions of groupies in her 42 years of teaching, who flock to her class to ease the kinks from their neck, hips and lower back while finding some calm in their day. Stefanic first tried yoga in 1966, responding to a local YMCA ad. (Back then, an eight-week session cost $16; compare that with $32 for a single Soul Cycle session today.) The mind-body workout sounded completely foreign, but it helped her shed 20 pounds and regain a sense of peace and tranquility – qualities sorely missing from her life as a harried mother of six.
Today, her twice-weekly class – an hour of gentle yoga and therapeutic stretching – regularly attracts 30+ women and men at a time, typically age 60 and over. “I know the people in my classes,” Stefanic explains. “I know their fears, their handicaps, even their quirks. My class is about relaxation and stretching your body, not about pain. I want to help them to listen to what their body needs and get there.”
I showed up for Stefanic’s class eager to see an octogenarian rock Crow Pose. In that sense, I was disappointed. The class never demanded anything more trying than a single Downward Dog; there was a lot of lying on backs and stretching of the legs. I couldn’t help but worry: “Is this what I have to look forward to, exercise-wise?”
But I soon realized the gift of attending a class with 30 women old enough to be my grandmother: Unlike so many yoga studios, there is no ego here. People tumble out of Cat-Cow. Joints pop and sighs run deep. There are more than a few farts. People move at their own pace, rather than force themselves to contort into a certain pose simply because the woman next to them can do it (a problem that once landed me in yearlong neck pain hell after I attempted to hold Plow position - even though it hurt - because everyone else in class had their head between their legs, too.)
I had a chance to sit down with Stefanic after class. Here’s what the veteran yogi had to say:
Do you meditate?
“Every day – even if it’s just a moment for a deep breath to shed whatever is making me anxious. For me, meditation is finding that still point in a turning world. I have a room that faces the East, which signifies the rising of the sun, a sense of beginning. I’ll start every day with at least five minutes of gentle twists and end my meditation with, ‘This day, my intention is to become more loving, more forgiving, more compassionate.’”
How’s your diet?
“In the late 70's one of our sons was diagnosed with hypoglycemia. We got rid of soda, stopped buying white bread, began reading labels more carefully and became more aware of additives and preservatives.
[Today,] we eschew white flour, rice, sugar. I buy half-gallon jugs of raw honey from the source and cook with butter and olive oil. We prefer grass-fed meat and chicken – gone are the days when there were eight of us at home and we split a cow and a pig from the nearby farm – and buy organic fruits and vegetables, washing them in water with a few drops of ShakleeH2.
That’s pretty impressive! Any weaknesses?
“My weakness is chocolate..."good" chocolate, that is, excepting Peanut Butter and Mallo Cups. I have wine with lunch or dinner four or five times a week with the approval of my cardiologist and avoid carbonated beverages. Popcorn and pizza, however, require a beer."
Any secrets to staying young inside and out?
“Smile. Smiling relaxes 17 muscles in each cheek, relaxes your neck and eases jaw tension. It reduces the appearance of wrinkles. Feel-good endorphins kick in, and it puts those around you at ease.
Surround yourself with people. Offer a hug. Find something that brings you peace – I sing in a choir, but you can join a reading group or take an art class. And get outside. Throw open your curtains and invite nature into your home. Let the sun warm you and heal you.”
I might never again find myself a fitness class where I am the lone pregnant soul while everyone else is well past menopause. But I’ll always remember the words I overheard one silver-haired yogi whisper just before beginning: “You know what’s great about Mary Louise? She’s proof that if we pay attention and we stick with it, our bodies will stay with us.”
A few other “older” ladies who inspire us to keep getting our sweat on:
Angie Orellano-Fisher: This 60-year-old ultramarathonner didn’t run her first race until she was 40, when her brother challenged her to a 10K. Over the past 20 years, she’s completed 12 100-mile races and 51 marathons; last year, she biked from California to Maryland to raise awareness for Juvenile Diabetes.
Ernestine Shepherd: This grandma has traded in cookies and milk for a six-pack. The 74-year-old personal trainer runs 80 miles per week and curls 20-pound dumbbells.
Jane Fonda: The original leg warmer queen turns 74 this December. She blew us away at SHAPE’s recent 30th birthday celebration with her lithe shape and blockbuster confidence.