At 95, Westchester woman holds title of world’s oldest yoga instructor
Joanna Rajendran, a yoga instructor in Westchester County, was busy entertaining her 15-month old daughter at a party otherwise comprised of adults. Rajendran held her toddler to her chest so she could mingle with friends. When asked what her daugher’s name was, Rajendran proudly proclaimed, “Natasha Tao.”
Rajendran was just one of approximately 85 guests at The Taj Palace restaurant on August 11 in White Plains, New York. She explained that her daughter’s middle name was given in honor of her mentor and friend, Tao Porchon-Lynch. A group had gathered on this Sunday evening, from all over the country (and Canada), to celebrate Porchon-Lynch’s 95th birthday. Tao, as her students simply and affectionately call her, is the oldest active yoga teacher in the world and a 2012 Guinness World Record winner for that honor.
Porchon-Lynch’s popularity and the prevalence of practicing yoga have grown over the years. According to a study published in 2012 in Yoga Journal entitled “Yoga in America,” it appeared that 20.4 million Americans practiced yoga (or 6.5 percent of the population) compared to an estimated 15.8 million in 2008 (or 5.2 percent). That is a 25 percent increase in four years. The industry as a whole has seen an increase in revenue as well; an estimated $10.3 billion was spent on yoga classes, equipment, and clothing in 2012, compared to $5.7 billion in 2008.
According to Porchon-Lynch, after the 1950s, yoga began to spread across the globe and gained popularity for its many health benefits. “It wasn’t just physical, but learning the essence of the breath.” She continued, “Yoga gives us the answer and power to do all things. I think yoga changes a person’s fear, both mentally as well as physically.”
Shreya Mehta, a Porchon-Lynch devotee and artist, believes Porchon-Lynch has understood yoga’s benefits for years. “People are very stressed, they’re trying to find an escape route. She’s always known [the secret], that’s why she’s 95 and so healthy.”
Porchon-Lynch was born on August 13, 1918 in Pondicherry, India, on the southeastern coast of the country. After her mother died during childbirth, her aunt and uncle raised her in both India and France. She lived and worked in Europe for many years as a model, actress and dancer, even during World War II. She later continued her successful career in the United States under an MGM contract. In her younger years, she walked with Gandhi (twice) and remembered him fondly: “It was so extraordinary. He said women should have the same freedom as men. Men often have good ideas, but it was always the woman that managed to put them into practice.” She encountered Ernest Hemingway, marched with General Charles de Gaulle and Martin Luther King, Jr., and met the Dalai Lama whose smile she called “genuine.”
At the age of 84, Porchon-Lynch became a competitive ballroom dancer, a hobby she continues today. In between her yoga classes, she attends practice sessions with her dance partner, who is 70 years her junior. As a wine enthusiast, she has continued to travel to France each year with a group of yogi friends.
Yet Porchon-Lynch’s true passion is yoga. “I love yoga because no matter how old you are, let nature be your encyclopedia,’’ she said. “Watch as trees get older, they become stronger and more beautiful as the energy rises. The same thing will happen to us as we breathe in the breath of life.” She has been practicing yoga since the age of eight (when it was considered “not lady-like” for girls) and has been teaching for nearly five decades. She continues to preach her trademarked mantra which was instilled in her by her uncle: “Nothing is impossible.”
With no signs of slowing down, each week she leads numerous yoga classes at two local studios. She maintains her independence, continuing to drive herself in a blue Smart car, which is adorned with a French flag on the console. She also periodically conducts yoga workshops throughout the country. Porchon-Lynch has led outdoor yoga sessions, including one in Times Square that was attended by an estimated 15,000 people.
A typical Monday morning yoga class at the studio can last up to an hour and forty-five minutes, at which point students must remind Tao that class had been scheduled to conclude at least fifteen minutes earlier. Prior to starting, she greeted each student by her first name and offered embraces.
Throughout the session, Porchon-Lynch demonstrated some of the more complicated poses with ease and perfection. Despite hip surgery last December, she exhibited flexibility and strength in postures that the much younger students struggled to achieve. One of her favorite poses is the peacock, a raised plank position requiring balance and concentration.
“I love the peacock because it moves into the extremities of the body and touches the creative energy power within us,’’ she said. “When correctly performed, the beauty of the outer posture reveals itself, the inner power glowing from within us.”
It was clear Porchon-Lynch’s mind is sharp; she demonstrated strong command of a series of complex poses. She concluded the session with students sitting in a circle holding hands, a distinctive feature to her yoga class. In her soft and soothing tone, she offered inspirational words of encouragement for the day.
As friends gathered at the Taj Palace on Sunday evening, the birthday girl left her simple white top and white leggings (her usual yoga class attire) at home. She wore an antique peacock blue Indian sari, which she had remade into a ball gown. The gown, bejeweled with gold embellishments, was paired with matching metallic high heels (another trademark of hers) and intricate costume jewelry. Porchon-Lynch greeted each guest with her crystal-blue sparkling eyes, her infectious smile, and again, a warm embrace.
Many of the attendees were Porchon-Lynch’s students, whom she affectionately referred to as her children. Throughout the evening, Porchon-Lynch’s “children” praised her as a master teacher, a motivator and an inspiration. Rajendran and her mother Ilene Rothschild were attending their fifth consecutive birthday celebration honoring Porchon-Lynch. They began taking yoga classes with Tao eighteen years ago. “Every aspect of my life has been affected by her,” Rajendran said. “Our eyes met and I fell in love with her.”
When the guest of honor had the opportunity to address the crowd, she explained, “I don’t want to know what I can’t do, I’m just interested in the present.” She continued, “You have no idea. You think I give you something, you’ve given me a million times more than that.”
One longtime yoga student, a geriatric social worker, summed up her feelings with a simple statement: “Tao, I want to be you when I grow up.”