The Joys and Woes of Community College Yoga

Orrin Onken
Jan 27 · 7 min read

I took up yoga as part of a plan to lose weight. It was one of the exercises I adopted as part of the fat-reduction strategy known as “diet and exercise.”

A woman I worked with had listened to my woes about getting fat and suggested I try yoga. She went to a yoga class nearly every day and told me that yoga could cure anything from indigestion to male-pattern baldness, both of which I had suffered from for years. She was thirty years younger than I, weighed fourteen pounds, and didn’t appear to have actual bones. Despite our size, gender and age differences I thought yoga might work for me. I waited long enough to make a credible claim that going to yoga was my own idea and then took the plunge.

My first attempt at yoga was the “Introduction to Yoga” class at the local yoga studio. This studio had Sanskrit on the walls and sitar music playing through hidden speakers. My instructor at the introduction to yoga was a twenty-five-year-old woman with a nose ring who had vacuum-packed herself into something stretchy and black. In her class, we did our yoga together on hardwood floors in a medium-sized room with a mirror for one of the walls. She taught us basic yoga poses, explained how yoga could cure everything from indigestion to male pattern baldness and sprinkled her presentation with ancient new-age life-affirming nuggets of wisdom. The next day my muscles were sore.

After my muscles healed from Introduction to Yoga, I decided that yoga was something I could do. However, the yoga studio would have to go. I am a college guy, and when I need to learn something new, college is where I go. In this case, community college.

The community college near me is for newbies and oldbies. The newbies either learn a trade — the one near me specializes in mortuary science — or pick up core college classes on the cheap with the hope the credits will transfer to a university. The oldbies, of which I am one, are long past needing a trade or college credit and sign up for fitness, recreation, and remedial computer classes.

I browsed the oldbie part of the community college catalog, passing by fundamentals of quilting and photography for bird watchers until I found yoga. The entry was as follows:

Yoga for Health

Balance your mind and body and reduce your stress. Learn proper body alignment and breath awareness through yoga poses to release tension, tone and strengthen muscles, bones and organs. Improve your ability to concentrate. Calm the mind and emotions and get a good night’s sleep. For every level of condition. Wear loose clothing; bring a sticky mat, blanket, and pillow. Ages 18 and up.

The yoga class met twice a week for twelve weeks, and after my senior discount, cost eighty dollars. Like many of the oldbie classes, it was not held on campus. My yoga journey started in the community center of a long term care facility a few blocks from the college. When it wasn’t being used for yoga it was used for meetings, pot lucks, and birthday parties for the elderly residents. No hardwood floors or mirror walls here. Instead, we had commercial carpet and an attached kitchen.

I showed up for my first class with my sticky matt, my blanket, and my pillow. There were ten of us, and at the age of sixty-five I wasn’t the youngest, but I was far from the oldest. No spandex. No tattoos. No facial jewelry. This was yoga for mature audiences.

Our teacher, Janice, carried a small boom box for the sitar music and handed out a sheaf of yoga information to those in the room who had not taken the class from her before. That was other person and me. The rest were regulars who took the class every term and knew Janice well.

Janice told us in her introductory talk that she was seventy-five years old and had been teaching yoga at the community college for thirty years. The class didn’t use a book, but she recommended we all read Richard Hittleman’s Yoga 28 Day Fitness Plan. The book, she informed us, was no longer in print but could be found in used book stores. A couple of careers prior to all this I had been in the book business and had sold Richard Hittleman’s yoga book. Although people have been doing yoga since shortly after the dinosaurs died, I worried there could have been some important updates or improvements since Hittleman was popular. Despite my concern that Janice might be teaching out-of-date yoga, I carried on.

Yoga classes consist of the teacher telling you what do do with your legs and arms. The instructor uses a calm rhythmic voice that encourages one to breathe in coordination with movement. Sometimes the poses are repeated. Thus, the student is required to know right from left and to be able to count to three, skills I soon learned I had never completely mastered. After twenty minutes of Janice’s soothing direction, I was panting like a dog after chasing a squirrel and my muscles were screaming. It came clear to me how out of shape I was, and the following morning was sore again.

Not only was I fat — the problem I wanted yoga to solve — I was weak and inflexible. Janice wanted me to stand on one foot, something many people can do with ease. I couldn’t stand on both tiptoes for more than four seconds without endangering myself. Things my yoga classmates could do without strain were impossible for me. Ordinarily, this was the point at which I would find a project philosophically or aesthetically objectionable and abandon it in disgust. Uncharacteristically, with yoga, I did not.

I read somewhere on the internet that the best exercise regimen is the one you will actually do. For me this turned out to be yoga. I have a membership in a gym close to my house that I never use. I take long walks around a lake in my neighborhood — but only if the weather is good. The weather issue means I haven’t walked the lakes in three months. But I don’t skip yoga.

And by yoga, I mean community college yoga. I continue to go on some Saturdays to the yoga studio with the young tattooed teachers, still convinced that only there will I learn of any new breakthroughs in yoga, but the heart of my yoga practice happens in the community center of the local assisted living facility. It has now been over three years since I first met Janice. I am forty pounds lighter. I can stand on one foot. I can tie my shoes without having to sit down.

My journey to weight loss and fitness via community college yoga has not been without its hardships. Yoga teachers, like teachers generally, as well as the muscle-bound trainers at my local gym, become intoxicated with the fact that people are listening to what they say and they wander off into subjects other than the one the student has agreed to learn. Janice veers off the path of telling me where to put my right foot to enlighten me about medicine, diet, and philosophy. My sister is a doctor. I have a fair grounding in philosophy, and diet is a complex and controversial field. I am not averse to learning more about any of those subjects, but not from the same person who corrects flaws in my reverse warrior pose. I had to apply the principles of mindfulness to filter out these pedagogical detours and just wait patiently for the yoga to return. It bothered me terribly in the early days. Now I hardly notice.

Another burden has been that I cannot do yoga alone. I can lift dumbells alone. I can walk the lake alone — in fact, I prefer it alone — and I can row the rowing machine at the gym in the solitude of earphones and my favorite playlist. But I am incapable of doing yoga alone. I have tried, and after twenty-six minutes, I quit. I cannot tell you why. When I travel, I can get on the treadmill at the hotel and jog, but I can’t spread out my matt and do yoga. It is some sort of block. On the other hand, once I developed some familiarity with the basic poses, I can drop in at yoga studios anywhere. There are apps for that, and yoga classes are legion. I have come to like getting to a new town and using my phone to find a yoga class that will work with my location and schedule.

So on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I go to community college yoga. On Saturday morning I attend “Hatha Yoga — All Levels” at the local studio. Janice is three years older and so am I. She can still do things I will never be able to do, but when she addresses the “intermediate” students in her class — there are no advanced students — I am one of them. My coworker who introduced me to yoga now does power yoga, hot yoga, ariel yoga, and will probably live to be a hundred and twenty. I don’t do any of those and still suffer from both indigestion and male pattern baldness. She, however, has never braved community college yoga. I have, and it is the exercise that I will actually do. I feel blessed to have found it.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable…

Orrin Onken

Written by

I am an elder law attorney in Portland, Oregon who is trying to retire. In my spare time, I write for Salish Ponds Press.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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