At nearly 100, world’s oldest yoga teacher reaches for positivity

Tao Porchon-Lynch, the world’s oldest yoga instructor, talks to lohud’s Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy about yoga and its connection to life on Feb. 5, 2018, at Fred Astaire Studio in Hartsdale. She turns 100 years old in a few months. Ricky Flores/lohud

HARTSDALE, N.Y. — At 8:30 a.m. on a recent Monday morning, Tao Porchon-Lynch, recognized by the Guinness World Records as the “World’s Oldest Yoga Teacher” in 2012, waltzed into the Fred Astaire Studio in Hartsdale for a yoga class wearing a fur coat and black stilettos.  A few months shy of turning 100 years old, Porchon-Lynch could easily be the most interesting woman on earth. (Sorry Dos Equis: she doesn’t do beer, only wine).

The founder of the Westchester Institute of Yoga took up ballroom dancing at age 87 and has won more than 750 first-place awards as a competitive dancer. At age 96, she appeared on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, receiving a standing ovation from the judges.  She now has a new bucket list item: to perform on the popular ABC show Dancing with the Stars.

Porchon-Lynch lives by her personal mantra: “There’s nothing that you cannot do.” In addition to teaching eight classes a week, she hosts yoga retreats and speaks at conferences at more than 20 destinations a year. Some of her planned excursions for this year include Arizona, Singapore, Dubai, Slovenia, France, China and India. In 2016, Porchon-Lynch was recognized on Women’s Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.

As impressive as her personal achievements are, her life experiences spanning continents and historical events are almost fantastical.

Raised in India

Born in 1918 to a French father and Indian mother, who died giving birth to her, Porchon-Lynch was raised by her uncle. Her light green eyes sparkle when she talks about her upbringing in Pondicherry, a coastal city in southern India which was a French colony until 1954.

It was there that she first got a glimpse of yoga. She was eight years old, and young boys, barely older than her, were creating beautiful shapes with their bodies on the beach.

She tried imitating them, but was told by her aunt that it was not a “ladylike” thing to do. “I said, ‘If boys can do it, I can do it’,” recalled Porchon-Lynch, who continued to show up at the beach and over the years learned many of the asanas or postures just by watching. “If you believe in something, go ahead and do it.”

Her uncle, Vital Porchon, who built railroad lines in Asia and Africa, knew many of the great spiritual thinkers and activists of pre-Independence India, including Mahatma Gandhi. At age 12, Porchon-Lynch accompanied her uncle to march alongside Gandhi in the Satyagraha or Salt March of 1930. (She would later take part in the 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr.).

It was from her uncle that she learned life’s important lessons, she said. “My uncle would say, never ask anyone to understand you, try and understand them,” she said. “Never look down upon anyone.”   To her, he embodied the power of positivity and mindfulness. “Every morning he’d say, ‘It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it ?'” Porchon-Lynch said. “Wake up each day thinking it’s going to be a great day, and it will be.”

France, then on to America

In 1939, she set sail for France from India to live with her aunt, and would eventually participate in the French Resistance. After the war, she worked as a model in France and England before moving to the United States in 1949. Soon she was working as a Hollywood actress under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, with credits including the films Show Boat and The Last Time I Saw Paris, and TV shows such as The Bob Hope Show and I Married Joan. She also worked as a writer, producer and international film broker, rubbing shoulders with old Hollywood and Indian cinema celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Dev Anand.

In the 1950s she trained under some of the biggest names in yoga such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Indra Devi and taught yoga to actors in Hollywood, including Clark Gable.

“To me yoga is in every animal, every blade of grass and it’s alive with the energy of life,” Porchon-Lynch said as she taught a class at the Fred Astaire Studio. “If I can feel it within me, then I’m in touch with everyone in this room.”

Worldwide fame at 93

After marrying Bill Lynch, an insurance salesman, in the 1960s, she moved to Hartsdale and together they founded the American Wine Society. (Her family in France had owned a vineyard in the Rhône Valley for many generations).

Porchon-Lynch continued her passion for yoga by certifying and training hundreds of teachers and taught at various locations including the Jewish Community Center in Yonkers and the New Age Center in Nyack.

While always well-known in certain Hollywood and yoga circles, including serving on the  Newark Peace Education Summit with the Dalai Lama in 2011, Porchon-Lynch was never a celebrity know to the masses.

That would change when she turned 93. The recognition by the Guinness World Records catapulted her to yoga rockstar fame  — the kind of fame where she’s mobbed at her local Trader Joe’s or at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. That was in no small part due to her student-turned-manager Joyce Pines.

In 2003, Pines, who had recently retired from the Mount Vernon School District, met Porchon-Lynch at a yoga class in Briarcliff Manor. “She stepped out of her Smart car wearing black leather pants and very high heels,” Pines said. “I was captivated.”  Porchon-Lynch’s positive attitude toward life had a deep impact on Pines. When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, Pines said Porchon-Lynch helped her cope and taught her how to live.

“There aren’t a lot of 90-year-olds that are fun to be around,” Pines said. “She had so much to offer that I felt more people should know her.” It was Pines’ idea to seek out the Guinness World Records recognition. In 2014, she enlisted the help of her son to create a website, and soon found people from all corners of the world seeking Porchon-Lynch. Last year, Porchon-Lynch graced the cover of a catalog for Athleta, Gap’s athletic-wear brand, for their “Power of She” campaign.

“She’s like a magnet. She just attracts people,” Pines said. “I can’t get people out after the class. They just want to stand around and talk to her.”

Still dancing, learning

Forever a student, Porchon-Lynch continues to learn from her ballroom dance teacher and partner Anton Bilozorov, who is more than 70 years her junior. She also participates in four ballroom competitions every year.

“She really blossomed in her 90s,” Pines said. Asked why she wanted to participate in Dancing with the Stars, Porchon-Lynch, who’s had two hip replacements, didn’t skip a beat: “To show people that it is possible. If you believe in it, anything is possible.”

Don’t bet against her: She claims to have climbed Machu Picchu wearing stilettos.

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy at USAToday.com

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