Ida-lizing old age

More than a dozen women fall in behind Ida Herbert, a diminutive, white-haired dynamo dressed in a leotard and tights. In time to music she’s taped, she strides around the carpeted perimeter of a converted hayloft in Bayshore Village, a community favoured by older adults on the shore of Lake Simcoe, near Orillia, Ont. “Arms up… forward… sideways,” she instructs, to prime muscles and joints for the start of her yoga-like stretch class.

For the next 45 minutes or more, she will take the women through a series of exercises designed to loosen, limber and strengthen, eventually ending with a relaxing 10-minute meditation period. Several of the women wearing white “Ida’s Girls” T-shirts follow Herbert’s lead with familiar ease. Others are novices, a bit tentative, concentrating on each move.

A while ago, some of Ida’s Girls had reached a stage where they complained they were getting old. “You’re getting older, but you’re not getting old,” Herbert corrected them. “You’ve just got to move your body.” Her remedy was gentle exercises.

Sitting on her pink yoga mat in the centre of the floor, Herbert at 89 has no difficulty with the pretzel-like spinal twist posion – one leg bent flat on the floor in front, the other vertical, hugged by one arm, her head accentuating the stretch by looking over her shoulder. She serenely manages to make the strenuous pose look both graceful and easy.

Herbert should be adept. She’s been practising for close to 40 years. Her firm arms, upright posture, shapely legs and high energy level attest to her dedication to exercise. But one of the reasons she’s revered by this group of women is that she didn’t really start moving her body until her 50s. She’s undeniable proof there’s a big quality-of-life payoff from making an effort to become fit.

“I don’t feel much different from when I was in my 40s or 50s,” she says. “There are a few things: my balance isn’t as good; my eyesight isn’t as good. That’s aging, telling me I am getting older. But generally speaking, I feel very young.”

Herbert certainly didn’t plan to become a role model or local fitness guru. In fact, she reckons she was about 10 or 12 pounds overweight in the beginning and felt no need for exercise. Her husband, Michael, who died four years ago, was an avid tennis and squash player, playing three or four days a week. “I got a bit snarky about it,” she admits with a laugh. But rather than cut back on his court time, Michael suggested she become a club member, too. He started picking her up after work at the North York Board of Education, where she was an administrative assistant, and she began to enjoy working out in the club gym. The pounds melted off. One day, however, she was on the stationary bike when a young woman performed a series of yoga exercises called a sun salutation. Herbert was captivated. After strengthening her muscles a bit more, she began to practise yoga positions a new club instructor would occasionally show her. “I was caught,” she says. “I found I could do it.”

She loves yoga and the relaxation it produces. “You lose yourself,” she says. “You really do. Everything comes inside and the outside world doesn’t exist.” She smiles. It’s her most characteristic expression, one that radiates health and a deep enjoyment of life and those around her. “I’m finding out now what it’s doing for my older years,” Herbert muses. “When I see some of the people that are 10 or 15 years younger than I am and they can’t move or find it difficult to move, I know I must not let it go.” There’s no doubting her sincerity when she says, “I’m proud when I say I’m 89 and in a year I’ll be 90.”

She took on the community’s exercise class about 17 years ago, when the gym teacher who had been leading it moved. Under Herbert’s influence, it became less aerobic and more focused on stretching and relaxation. Its size fluctuates, with a maximum of about 20. Regulars who head for Florida during the winter usually take along tapes she’s made, but before they leave, the class participants hold a luncheon in Herbert’s honour. It’s the only payment she accepts for her leadership.

A volunteer at the YMCA in Orillia, she drives into town in her Mustang every Tuesday morning to lead a stretch-and-relax class. “I asked the Y not to call it yoga because yoga is literally a four-letter word and people are frightened of it,” she explains. “So I called it stretch and relax. It’s gentle yoga.”

Gail Carter joined the Bayshore weekly yoga group when she moved to the village four years ago and quickly became a fan of its leader. Ida’s Girls, she says, “would sure love to be like Ida when we’re 89. In fact, I wouldn’t mind being like Ida right now – and I’m 62!”

Like the others, she admires Herbert’s liveliness as well as her limberness. “She just seems marvellously healthy,” Carter says. “She can do things with her body that many people can’t, even when they are 30. And her spirit is wonderful, always optimistic and quite independent, too.”

Herbert agrees on the benefits of a positive attitude. “I try not to be negative because it lowers your spirit,” she says.

Each year, villagers take part in a fund-raiser for the Heart and Stroke Foundation called the Big Bike Ride, and Carter says, “Ida is our star.” The bike is a Rube Goldberg affair, powered by a motor and 27 riders. Before they mount, Herbert clambers onto a picnic table to lead participants in a hilarious warm-up. One year, she even fell off but scrambled back up, unhurt. This year, the village raised just over $12,000 for the foundation.

A resident of Bayshore Village since 1981, Herbert is a familiar sight cycling energetically to the swimming pool in the community centre or the marina garden she helps maintain. Each spring, she plants her own 11- by 20-foot garden, turning it over by fork since a Rototiller is too big for her to handle. It’s crammed with herbs, garlic and vegetables. “I give most of it away,” she smiles.

Since Michael’s death, she eats more fruits and vegetables, less meat. “I’m careful about my food, but I’m not a fanatic about it. If anybody offered me a donut, I would take it,” she grins, adding that she enjoys a martini every evening.

But when she speaks of Michael, her smile fades and her voice drops to a near whisper, his loss a dark shadow on her existence. “I miss him terribly,” she says sadly. The English-born pair had married during the Second World War and immigrated to Canada in 1948 where her mother and sister had already moved. “England wasn’t an easy place to live,” she recalls. “Two or three years after the war, I was still lining up to get half a pound of sausage for supper. I said to myself, ‘We’ve won the war, and I’m lining up for sausages. I’m getting out of here as fast as I can.'” Fortunately, Michael agreed. They were married 61 years.

Depressed after his death, Herbert consulted her doctor. “I didn’t know anything about finances. I never handled money. I had to learn all that. It was quite a shock.” But she told her doctor, “I like where I live and I can manage it financially.” The doctor sagely advised, “Don’t leave. And whatever you do, don’t give up the Y.”

Back at the community centre loft, the class is half an hour into the routine. “Here comes the hardest one, girls,” she warns. They stretch flat, face down, then try to grasp their ankles so they can rock forward and back. It’s deceptively hard to do, requiring both strength and flexibility. Herbert bobs like a little boat on gentle waves. Many of the others struggle. Throughout the session, she has been encouraging, reminding them to breathe into the stretch, to relax into it. But she doesn’t want them to push so hard that they hurt themselves and become discouraged, one reason she saves the more advanced positions such as shoulder stands, for the workouts she does alone once or twice a week at home.

When the class ends the women roll up their mats, most looking slightly flushed with exertion. One, perhaps in her mid-50s, stops to comment. “Ida is incredible,” she says. “Because of her, we’re not afraid to grow old.”