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: