While most people struggle to kick their leg in the air, Tao Porchon-Lynch can still wrap both legs around her neck, slip effortlessly into Downward-Facing Dog and glide into the Tree Pose – all at the staggering age of 94. Despite having a hip-replacement operation just eight years ago, Tao is still one of the most bendy women in the world.
And while most women her age think themselves lucky to walk without the aid of a walking frame, this plucky lady is one of the world’s oldest yoga teachers. “I teach students who are less than a quarter of my age and not as supple as me,” says Tao, a French Indian.
“For me, age is just a number, and I’m proud to say I’m not showing any signs of slowing down yet. I can still get my legs around my neck and practise the most intricate yoga poses for hours every day, and having a hip replacement did nothing to stop that. “I love it when people see me slip into these poses, including one where I lift myself with one arm, and then they find out how old I am. If I’m not an inspiration to keep fit, then I don’t know who is.’’
Tao says she feels as agile and fit as she did 70 years ago. Just two weeks after having both hips replaced – she fell outside a grocery store and broke them – she was back contorting herself into seemingly impossible poses.
Talking from her home in New York, Tao tells Friday, “When the doctor told me I had to have a hip-replacement operation, he basically told me I would have to give up yoga. And I remember just nodding and thinking to myself, ‘I’ll show you – it will take far more than the surgeon’s knife to slow me down.’
“And two weeks into my recovery, I’m proud to say I was back practising yoga, and six months later, I was able to do my favourite move again: dancing on my hands.” In fact, Tao was so delighted with her progress that she took a picture of herself in Peacock Pose – where she holds her body parallel to the ground with her hands – and sent it to her doctor.
“He loved it so much that it’s now hanging in his office,’’ says Tao, who practises yoga for 12 hours per day. She gets up at 5am to fit in all that practice, along with her teaching, which she finishes at 9pm. Yoga is her main source of income – she charges roughly $40 (Dh150) per class and her class size ranges from ten to 50 students.
“I don’t have a typical schedule, especially for someone my age. I only get three to four hours of sleep every night, as there’s so much to do in life that I don’t want to miss out,” she says. “As for my diet, I don’t eat very much, as I rarely ever think about food. But when I do, I stick to natural foods like spinach, broccoli and potatoes.
My favourite food is mango. “I don’t typically ever take days off, but when I have free time, I enjoy writing. I’ve published my first medication book, Reflections: The Yogic Journey of Life, and I’m working on my second.”
Never too old As well as yoga, Tao spends her time ballroom dancing. “I am a firm believer that if you start slowing down, your time is up, so I fill every hour of every day with yoga or dance. I will never be too old to do yoga or dance. “I still perform at Fred Astaire Dance Studios in New York, where I dance with my 24-year-old dance partner.
He swings me around, flips me upside down and picks me up as I kick my feet in the air. The dance moves are similar to poses in yoga. I feel I’m a totally different person when I’m dancing. “My dance partner, Vard Margaryan, makes me feel free, and he definitely keeps me young. He doesn’t mind my age. He twirls me around like I’m in my 20s.”
Tao was introduced to yoga in India by her aunt and uncle, who raised her. Her mother, an Indian, went into labour on a ship while travelling back to India from France, and died after giving birth to Tao. Her father, who was French, went back to live in France, leaving her with her relatives in Puducherry, India.
After watching her uncle meditate for several hours every day and seeing hundreds of men practise yoga at sunrise on the beach, Tao became intrigued and wanted to learn more. While few women practised yoga at that time, the eight-year-old positioned herself at the front of the class, surrounded by men.
“My aunt told me that yoga wasn’t ladylike, but I didn’t care,” says Tao. “I walked up to the beach every day at 5am and couldn’t wait to start. While a girl doing yoga was not considered scandalous, it was certainly unusual at the time,” she says. In 1939, Tao left India and moved to France to study dance, but shortly after the Second World War began, she was forced to escape to England until Paris was finally liberated in 1945.
With no money, no family and no friends in England, Tao turned to her talent as a dancer to make a living during the war. Travelling by foot from different nightclubs and theatres in a location where bombings often took place, Tao entertained countless soldiers, sailors, air force members and marines every night of the week.
“At night during the war, everyone in London would hide in the subways to escape the bombs, but I couldn’t stand the thought of being afraid to live,” she says. “In everything I do – yoga, dance, everything – people are always telling me to be careful, but I’m fearless. There is absolutely nothing that I can’t do.”
A high achiever There’s not much that Tao hasn’t already done in her life. In the 1940s and Fifties, she worked as a model in Paris for designers such as Marcel Rochas and Jean Patou, and as an actress in France and America with MGM Studios in the Sixties and Seventies. Now in her ‘prime’ at 94, not only is Tao the oldest yoga instructor in the world, she is also an award-winning ballroom dancer.
She began ballroom dancing in October, 2002, and has since won more than 400 first-place prizes in local dance competitions. She competes regularly at Fred Astaire’s Northeast Dance Sport Championship, and has taken first place on several occasions. “It’s hard to say if I prefer dance to yoga, as I see dancing as a continuation of yoga. Both are forms of movement that come from within, so I equate them to be very similar.
“I practise yoga and dance every day, and I can still do all of the advanced poses I could when I was younger. I can hold poses for hours, as I never get tired,” says Tao, who stands at 167-centimetre and weights 46 kilos. Tao puts her US size two frame and energy down to her vegetarian diet, which mainly consists of mango and grapefruit. She only has a proper meal of mixed vegetables and potatoes once or twice a week when she’s with friends.
Her late husband, Bill, who she was married to for 20 years without ever having children, was a member of the Hartsdale Rotary club in New York. He suggested to Tao that she and her ways of the world were “rather strange”. He died of natural causes nearly 30 years ago. A true inspiration to anyone who uses the word ‘impossible’ or wishes there was a fast-forward button in life, Tao’s trick for staying young is to do everything you’ve ever dreamt of without entering age in the equation.
“I haven’t grown up enough to really give any good advice, but I can tell you that when you smile at the world, you absorb energy,” she says. “Age is just a number, and I’ll never be too old to practise yoga or dance. I still have my whole life ahead of me. “Believe me, if I’m still alive in ten years, I know I will still be able to stand on my head and bend into the same positions I can today. “Inside my head I’m still in my 20s, and I have no intention of ever growing up.”