THE LATE, great Bette Davis once said that old age ain’t no place for sissies, but I’m still hoping to end up there anyway, if middle age doesn’t kill me first.
This week’s exciting mid-fortyish adventures have included sweating out a broken AC unit, discovering the extra zero on my bank statement was actually a dead gnat and giving a seventh grader “13 Reasons Why” the show she’s been sneakwatching on Netflix is inappropriate.
(Number 11 being that she couldn’t even make it through the harrowing first episode of the “Handmaid’s Tale” without holding my hand, so the whole teenage suicide thing ought to warrant parental supervision.)
Odds are I’m probably past my life’s mid-point anyway, yet I still feel like I’m clumping up a hill, my pack stuffed with the delusion I’m going to eventually reach a relaxed zenith where the financial obligations and personal neuroses even out, at which point, God willing, I shall coast into a glorious sunset of comfy pants and medical marijuana.
Those older and wiser than I know serenity isn’t a destination (or available by prescription, though we should all be down with what harmlessly helps with the aches and pains.)
That didn’t stop me from going to look for it at Butler Presbyterian Church last Wednesday, where yoga teacher Betsy Strong leads a group dedicated to cultivating peace of mind in aging bodies. The Saints & Sages of West Victory Drive have been meeting for six years and boast an average age of about 80—bolstered by Elder Leona Williams, who’s 93 and still has her own parking space out front.
A former ballet dancer and a septuagenarian herself, Betsy exudes a beatific grace as she meets me at the door wearing an “Om Shakti” tank top and a purple flower in her hair.
“We’re just getting started,” she says as I follow her bare feet through the richly-hued sanctuary to the church activity room, a cozy, wood-paneled space decorated with Easter lilies still holding onto their blooms.
A circle of wizened smiles greets me. I had intended to merely observe the class, ask a few questions and snap a few pics, but I’m suddenly very conscious of the stinky stress cloud that’s trying to follow me in the door. Betsy nods towards a folding chair and a yoga mat, and without a word, I set down my giant purse, kick off my clogs and surrender my tush.
“Come on and get the kinks out,” cheers Georgette Battle, 73, as her friend, Linda Ostrow, 68, warms up her knees with a few kicks. Ms. Leona’s parking spot was empty due to another appointment, so 87 year-old Jessie Collier DeLoach is the reigning eldest of the day. Next to me are Alan Boulton, 77, and his wife, Phyllis, 72, who is recovering from hip replacement surgery, her cane tucked behind her chair.
We begin with several deep breaths followed by the sacred Sanskrit syllable Om, the sound bouncing from my chest to my toes as it calms my chattery monkey mind.
“Everyone is at different levels,” reminds Betsy, leaning her chin and shoulders forward from the sitting position for a modified Cobra pose.
“Use the chair for balance if you need to.”
I know she’s not talking to me. I mean, I’m practically a spring chicken compared to these folks, plus I’ve been doing yoga like, forevs, though not too regularly as of late and never all that gracefully.
Then she and Alan get down on the mat for Crow pose, which involves balancing on the hands with one’s elbows on the knees, a contortion that I always skip because I’m too scared of falling forward and breaking my front teeth. I fiddle with my phone and pretend to take pictures. Everyone else beams from their seats, fingers and thumbs touching in a meditative mudra.
Minutes later, I feel my thigh wobbling dangerously as I pull my foot up for Tree pose. I creep my hand to the back of the metal chair for support.
I console myself with the ancient teaching that yoga isn’t really about the physical accomplishment, or even any accomplishments at all. These serene seniors already know that—no one is trying to out pose each other or develop six-pack abs. They’re here for the fellowship, and for the expansive peace the practice brings.
“I’m a Christian, and this has deepened the spirituality I already have. It has broadened my circle and made me more accepting,” muses Jessie, a Savannah native who began her career as a math teacher during segregation and spent 50 years working for the public school system.
Others say it helps them stay grounded.
“People are way more self-absorbed these days, but they’re not particularly self-aware,” observes Alan of today’s face-to-phone culture. “This is what helps you become more aware of what’s going on within and without.”
Betsy says that awareness is key to developing compassion for the self and others.
“This is what we can do to be more human in the world,” she explains as we salute the sun, arms outstretched, jiggles ignored.
“We care for each other. This is a beloved community.”
Speaking of the Beloved Community—the state of social grace named by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that includes all of humanity—the Citizens Advocacy Covered Dish Supper will flood Savannah Station with love this Tuesday, May 9. Betsy and her husband, Will, will be there, along with hundreds of fine folks who care about widening Savannah’s circle to support all those challenged by ability, poverty and injustice.
If you’ve never been, you’re invited; Tom Kohler says so and he’s the boss. Just bring some food to share or five bucks and find a spot at a table. And don’t be shy about lending your voice to the group sing-a-longs—they’re a lot more raucous than chanting “Om Shanti,” but your heart will warm all the same.
Me, I’m never quite able to make it through “Lean on Me” every year without choking up. I’ve been so blessed in this life, and it’s embarrassing sometimes to still need so much help. For real, I could not handle it all without my dear friends and their wise advice about not duct-taping my teenagers to the wall and my parents helping foot the bill for the kids’ summer camp and new acquaintances offering salve for an overwhelmed sissy soul.
By the time Betsy gently calls for the concluding shavasana, I feel like I might make it through this week, and maybe even have some strength left over to pass around.
“Let go of everything but the present moment, and after a while, even that,” intones the saintly sage with the Southern accent.
“The world can be a frightening place, especially now, but focusing on inner peace helps us,” she continues. “And it helps the world to remember always that there is hope, there’s faith, and there’s love.”
Abiding wisdom to keep in one’s mental pocket, along with the age-old lesson that when it comes to finding balance, it’s OK to use a chair. cs