Between the sea of yoga pants-sporting 20-somethings strolling down city sidewalks and the expanding roster of pro athletes who claim posing as part of their training, it can certainly seem like yoga belongs exclusively to the young and the fit. But of all the misconceptions about yoga, this is possibly the easiest to disprove. Regarding the universality of the practice, grande dame of yoga Tao Porchon-Lynch says, “It’s in all of us.” And as the world’s oldest yoga teacher at the age of 98, she would know.
Porchon-Lynch exudes the type of vitality most would be amazed to see from anyone in their upper “senior” years, much less someone in their late 90s. Her voice is steady and clear, and she’s exuberant and animated, often gesturing with her hands as she peppers conversations with relevant anecdotes. It’s no surprise she chooses not to subscribe to the standard notion of aging. “There is too much publicity in the world on people getting old,” she says regarding the expectation that old age comes with leading a limited life. “To me, it’s exactly the contrary. I look for the next adventure and truly believe there is nothing you cannot do.”
For just shy of a century now, this belief has carried Porchon-Lynch to the incredible accomplishments for which she’s now known. Raised in Pondicherry, India, Tao began absorbing the teachings of yoga at a very young age. Her uncle, a follower of revolutionary Indian Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda, provided lessons that would prove to be the spark for her undying devotion to the practice. “My uncle instilled in me a sense of freedom and curiosity to explore the energy in all things and in myself,” Porchon-Lynch says. “Every single day, he gave me something to think about, which now I see was yoga philosophy and Vedanta that Swami Vivekananda taught.”
But while her uncle encouraged the curiosity that led her to yoga, others tried to extinguish it. When she was 8 years old, Porchon-Lynch approached her aunt about doing yoga after she saw boys performing poses on the beach. Her aunt scoffed at the idea, claiming the practice was “unladylike” and “only for boys.” To that, Porchon- Lynch responded, “If boys can do it, I can do it.”
This audacious nature would influence not just her burgeoning relationship with yoga, but all other aspects of her life. In 1930, Porchon- Lynch walked with Gandhi as part of the historic Salt March protesting British rule in India. During World War II, she worked with the French Resistance to help Jews escape the Nazis. “My spirit is defiant,” she says.
At age 87, Porchon-Lynch took her defiance to another level when she decided to take on a new endeavor—competitive ballroom dancing. “People were surprised,” she smiles. More than a decade later, she continues to compete, and even appeared on a 2015 episode of America’s Got Talent.
Inevitably, Porchon-Lynch is often asked about her vitality, usually with the assumption that she must hold some undiscovered yoga secret. But when it comes to what she considers most vital in her personal practice, her views are not unlike most mindful yoga practitioners. “It all starts with breath, the energy within us and the power behind all things. Using the breath makes it yoga versus gymnastics,” Porchon-Lynch says, crediting this wisdom to K. Pattabhi Jois, who developed the style of yoga known as Ashtanga.
And the use of her lungs, nose and mouth has allowed the rest of her body to overcome incredible odds, even defying modern medicine in some cases. After suffering a broken wrist and undergoing three hip replacements, Porchon-Lynch’s doctor told her she would never practice yoga the same way again. But after completing physical therapy, she proved her defiance yet again by mailing the doctor a photo of herself, fully recovered in a raised Lotus pose. “What you put in your mind materializes,” she says. “I don’t believe in fear and don’t allow my mind to dwell on the negative.”
Still, Porchon-Lynch encounters those who are plagued by fear and negativity all the time—many of whom are fellow seniors. She recalls an experience she had about 10 years ago when a room full of seniors met the thought of attempting yoga with defeatist attitudes. “I went once to a place to do a yoga program for seniors, and they were all sitting around hunched over actually waiting to die. That’s exactly what it looked like,” Porchon-Lynch says. “I came in with my high heels and said, ‘Are you going to join me?’ One woman replied, ‘Oh no, at our age?’ I said, ‘How old are you?’ One said, ‘I’m 68.’ Another said, ‘I’m 75.’ The oldest was 79. I said, ‘Oh, that’s it? You’re all my children!’ ”
Rejecting the notion that anyone would ever be too old to start practicing yoga, Porchon-Lynch says, “Don’t give up and think, ‘I’ve done it. Now I can sit back.’ You haven’t seen enough of this earth and there is a lot more to see that is beautiful.”