Since opening Asheville's first yoga studio in 1981, Lillah Schwartz has practiced and taught yoga to hundreds of Asheville locals, many of whom have gone on to become yoga teachers themselves. Schwartz specializes in an alignment-based yoga tradition called Iyengar yoga, which focuses on the precise positioning of the body, as well as breath control.
Schwartz says that yoga is particularly helpful for older people because of their increased risk for ailments such as hypertension, diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. Yoga has been shown to both alleviate and prevent these diseases. Schwartz currently teaches a regularly scheduled Yoga Basics After 50 class, which is specially designed for yoga students working with age-related ailments and challenges.
Schwartz teaches this class and more at One Center Yoga at 120 Coxe Ave., which has merged with Lighten Up Yoga, which Schwartz founded in the ‘80s.
Mountain Xpress: I talked with Jim Cahill, [a 67-year-old yoga student at Schwartz’s studio] who said that there are no “elderly” people in yoga. He says that when you practice yoga, it prevents you from becoming elderly.
Lillah Schwartz: That’s the idea. That’s why we have classes for people over 50 or 60. Jim is 67 and was fairly active all his life, and he has improved that greatly. Susan Minkler, who was with him, has had some real big turnarounds since she started [practicing yoga]. They both come three times a week to practice. Practice makes the difference — three times a week — and Jim practices at home. Because he had some special needs, he saw me privately. I gave him some things to work on at home and as he learned more in class so [he was able to] change his home practice.
Do you have yoga students who are over 70?
We do have a couple [students] who are private clients; they are too old for the usual classes here.
Oh, so you can be too old to do the regular classes, meaning, you can’t do the work that the other students are doing?
Right. I’ll try to give a couple of concrete examples. My Monday class, Intro to Yoga after 50, they could be 60 or 70, but they have to have a fairly healthy life. They need to be fairly active to come to that class and benefit. Say they are fairly sedentary for a couple of years and they know they need something because their circulation is off or they are starting to have some health problems they want to avoid. I just started a one-hour therapeutic yoga class for that type of person. To get that type [of student] to get up and down off the floor, they are going to have to start doing yoga from a chair.
When you call a class therapeutic, does that mean that it is designed to help with a specific type of injury or illness?
Therapeutic yoga has to be understood in two different ways. One way is for general applications. All yoga is therapeutic. All yoga helps people to be healthier, function better physically and mentally, gain a greater peace of mind [and] greater self-confidence. All yoga does that. Then there are people who practice yoga enough, at a pace appropriate for them, who will have other things happen. Blood pressure goes down, T-cell count goes up [and] immune system goes up. They feel better generally. Maybe some numbness goes away, some back pain goes away.
We don’t expect yoga to go in and heal somebody. But we do think that yoga can be adapted for different conditions to help support that person in living a better life. That’s what’s therapeutic about it.
Take blood pressure, for example. My doctors have been treating me for that, with medicine, for 20 years. But you’re saying maybe I wouldn’t need medicine if I did yoga?
I’m saying it’s possible, if you did yoga consistently enough, that your numbers might start to change, and you wouldn’t need as much medicine.
Do you have doctors who work with you?
We don’t have any specific ones. Most students have their own doctors. When people come to a private studio like this, they are motivated. They are active, they are healthy, and they have heard that yoga can help.
I saw your rate card out front, and it’s not exorbitant, but it’s a significant amount for an older person.
That’s right. That’s why we have Silver Sneakers for yoga. It’s called, “Silver Sneakers Stretch,” and it’s chair yoga. They have specific guidelines so that people like you wouldn’t pay those rates for classes.
To the best of your knowledge, who is the oldest of your students?
We have one student who is 96 and I have two students who are in their 80s, who come every Monday at 10 a.m. That’s my really basic class. Everybody has something wrong with them in that class. They either have a shoulder injury, or a back injury, or some of them have had bypass surgery, back surgery. Let’s see, what else have I got? Well, one with high blood pressure.
Are there some students that you wouldn’t accept because their condition is beyond the boundaries of yoga?
Well, because I’m a member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, I would probably say that no condition is beyond the boundary of yoga. It is just a matter of which type of yoga can be applied to their condition.
Is [the International Association of Yoga Therapeutics] recognized by medical professionals?
It’s an evolving organization, and it’s beginning to be recognized. At our latest convention it was announced that several hospitals were presenting yoga very successfully because yoga also helps people manage their stress. When you look at how many diseases are created or aggravated by stress, it’s a lot.
My goal is to make the yoga simple enough, for their condition whatever it may be, that they will practice it at home. Because if you practice, it works.
The Silver Sneakers yoga program is offered through the YWCA of Asheville, and class schedules can be found online at ywcaofasheville.org. For more information on One Center Yoga’s class offerings, visit onecenteryoga.com.
— Dewitt Robbeloth is a retiree and Asheville-based freelance writer.