Getting fit

Life would be meaningless without it.” says Phyllis Higgins. Now in her late 60s, Higgins started in her mid 50s.“We feel so good being there; it’s a life line, a little heaven,” says Rita McDonnell, speaking for herself as well as her husband and daughter. In her early 70s, McDonnell says it helps her arthritis and keeps her flexible.

What is it that generates such enthusiasm? A new cure for aches and ills? Yes — and no. The “it” in question is Yoga, a form of exercise over 4,000 years old, that’s continually being discovered and re-discovered. A totally natural way to keep your body healthy and flexible, your mind calm and focussed and your spirit renewed, the postures and breathing techniques of Yoga have been proven to help whatever your age.

“I can sit up straighter, my body bends forward easier and I can walk all round the shopping centre,” says Dorothy Smith. “After just eight weeks, I know I’m doing something helpful for my body.” Admitting to being in her 70s, Dorothy Smith says Yoga has changed her life.

Like Smith, Phyllis Higgins and Rita McDonnell are full of praise for Niagara Falls Yoga teachers Ola Manuel and Rege Woodward — both inheir 70s — whose classes they attend weekly. Manuel has been teaching Yoga for more than 30 years though, she says, “I was unconsciously doing Yoga all my life before that.”

Woodward joined her in the early 1970s and together they formed a partnership unique in Yoga. At first, in larger classes, Woodward would check and correct students while Manuel taught. Soon they were sharing the teaching. Instructing Yoga is demanding — every person, every body has individual needs and abilities, and sharing duties enabled the pair to offer more personal attention to their students.

Perhaps the success of Manuel and Woodward as teachers — not to mention the happiness and hope they have brought to many hundreds over the years — is due in large part to their own personal struggles and victories. Both have triumphed over breakdowns and physical injuries. “It’s a calling,” says Manuel. She cautions their teachers-in-training that as Yoga instructors they’ll not so much make a living as gain the satisfaction that comes from seeing their students’ expressions of joy — often even astonishment — as they achieve a suppleness they often haven’t experienced since their youth.

That, and the fact Yoga has helped many of them stave off the aches and pains associated with aging and a loss of flexibility, has brought the pair a dedicated following. Located for the past 13 years in the tranquil Loretto Convent overlooking Niagara Falls, their classes boast students who have been attending for upwards of 20 to 25 years. Approximately 300 people currently attend, about two-thirds of them aged 50 or older. As Woodward says: “Age doesn’t matter in the least. It’s a state of mind and the way you feel about yourself.”

And why the popularity of Yoga?

“Yoga is so gentle and simple, it’s good for everyone,” she says. “The philosophy of Yoga is not religious — it encompasses and enfolds all beliefs. And it’s a discipline that tries to encourage students to live a good, moral life. I believe it’s what God intended for us.” A trained ballet teacher, Manuel was in her early 20s with three young children when she suffered a nervous breakdown. “In the 1940s there was little help for people like me — you were institutionalized. I determined to get better on my own.”

Drawing on her dance background, she began to work through the routines she’d learned in her youth. Slowly, this new exercise regimen and her strong, unwavering faith pulled her through. “I made a bargain with God. I said `help me and when I can I’ll help others.'”

Keeping her end of the bargain, Manuel got herself a job teaching fitness at the YMCA in Niagara Falls, beginning as a volunteer for a mother and child class, gradually working her way up to fitness director. It was during an improvement course that Manuel first encountered Yoga. While Manuel was teaching Yoga at the YWCA, Rege Woodward was deeply depressed and undergoing shock treatment in a psychiatric hospital. “A nurse gave up her breaks to teach a few of us Yoga,” he recalls. “The breathing alone helped me concentrate, and she recommended I continue once discharged.”

Woodward wasted no time. Having spoken to Manuel previously, he walked to the Y the very same cold, snowy night he left the hospital. “I was still very withdrawn, very tight,” he remembers. After the first class Woodward knew he was going to pull through. “By the end of the first year I was eating nutritiously, had lost 30 pounds, my ulcer and back problems had gone and I could cope with the stress of my job as a customs officer. I felt I’d been pulled out of hell, and arrived safely back on earth.”

Today, the two use their experiences to help others likely to benefit from Yoga. Together they direct three classes a week for those with special needs, including the physically challenged, people with brainstem damage and patients recovering from strokes.

Pat Stewart, who has chronic MS, says her Yoga classes with Manuel and Woodward help relieve the stiffness and spasms associated with the disease. “It helps maintain my range of motion, and the breathing and deep relaxation help me manage the pain. And there’s a lot of love in that room. We draw strength from each other. It boosts our self esteem, we feel we have a place in the community.” Manuel and Woodward were among the original founding members of the Fellowship of Ontario Yoga Teachers. They’re now honourary members and hold positions on the advisory board. Potential Yoga teachers are chosen with care, undergoing a year of rigorous training. As if to emphasize just how exacting this training is, Woodward says in the past four years only six students have graduated. Some of them now teach with Manuel and Woodward, while others teach throughout the region, carrying on the beliefs of their teachers and widening the circle of helping and sharing.