Yoga Bends Back the Years

Mary Stewart would not have believed that hips that wouldn’t move at 49 would suddenly change their minds at 50.

“My hips were completely stuck”, says the co-author of Stretch and Relax, a book of yoga exercises. “Then suddenly I could get the soles of my feet together, my knees on the floor and my head on the ground beyond my feet. The last six inches of getting my head on the floor happened from one day to the next. Then I found I could do the lotus position flat on my back – impossible six months earlier.”

The book covers beginners’ exercises, advanced exercises, exercising in pairs, exercises for stiffness and for stress, and even exercises for pregnancy. Except in the latter section, most of the photographs are of Mary Stewart’s co-author, Maxine Tobias (40, thin, wiry and athletic) going through her paces.

But there are a few of Mary, too, and the wonderfully encouraging thing about Mary is that she is not thin, wiry and athletic – and, at 52, in spite of her energy and youthful charm, not so very young either.

Mary did not take up yoga until she was 35, when her three children, now grown up, were at school. In those days very few people were doing it. Joan Price of the Face Place, one of the few, took her off to weekly classes with Stella Cherfas: “very relaxing, doing deep breathing, I felt marvelous, and lost weight. I even got to be able to stand on my head for the first time in my life.”

Then she went to classes with BKS Iyengar, Yehudi Menuhin’s teacher, “and he could get you to move your body in a way you never thought possible. He was a tremendous old bully. I was both terrified and exhilarated.”

Then, around 1970, the Inner London Education Authority started evening classes in yoga and needed teachers. So, barely two years after starting to learn, Mary found herself teaching. “I may say, for a lot of us, but fortunately they didn’t expect us to teach meditation!”

She and Maxine met them, and they now both give several classes a week, each with 12 or 15 people. “I prefer groups”, says Mary. “The one-to-one relationship is very claustrophobic. I like beginners. I also train people to teach. I myself now go to another ex-pupil of Iyengar’s and she didn’t start yoga until she was 55. She’s now 78.”

She is still amazed by how yoga exercises can change people’s lives. “Most people look on their bodies as so much luggage. But you can change what’s in your head by working through your body – a great deal easier than doing it through your mind. To work from the known to the unknown is much less difficult. I feel I’m more alive than I ever was before. Among pupils of mine I’ve seen so many lives transformed.”

She does half an hour’s deep breathing, relaxation and concentration after getting breakfast for her husband Keith at home in Chiswick, London, and an hour and a half’s exercise practice every morning. “As I teach it, I must at least attempt it; and anyway I find it fun and fascinating.”

She does head and shoulder stands between 4.30 and 5.30 every evening (though never when she has a period) to unwind after the day.

“I’m still very stiff compared with other people, but you learn a lot if you’re stiff: I’ve seen dancers who are so supple that they’re too floppy to learn. Anyway, yoga is not geared to performance but to being whole. Unlike ordinary exercise it’s slow and safe.

“It’s basically about unity – health is a by-product. All the same, one of the first things yoga cured was my cystitis. I had it chronically and it went, slowly, over the first 18 months. A couple of years later when I hurt my back the cystitis came back, and I discovered I could cure it by relaxing in a certain way. I could switch it off in 20 minutes.

“I used to suffer from general backaches, endless stomach trouble and the occasional migraine, but I can’t remember when I last took an aspirin. I was very overweight, too and now I’ve lost quite a bit of weight.

“My formerly flat feet are now a work of art. Believe me, a great deal of work has gone into them. It’s not a painless path. But you find that it is possible to be comfortable with your body.”