Ninety-year-old Virginia arrives half an hour early for yoga on days when it's not too hot, so that she can sit in her car and read before class.
"It's the best time to read, because I'm not distracted by all the things at home that I should be doing," she said.
Virginia maintains her independence: She drives herself when she needs to run errands. She works in her yard and she attends yoga classes at Windhorse Yoga Studio in Tyler nearly every day.
"Except when I'm lazy," she says with a laugh. "Then I stay home."
Virginia hasn't always been a fitness enthusiast. In fact, she was in her late 50s, with four grown children, when her husband encouraged her to pursue some fitness activity to stay healthy. "I did it at first to please him," Virginia says of her decision to join an aerobics class at a local school.
Then she started walking in the evenings with two friends in her neighborhood, and the habit of fitness stuck. For the next 15 years, Virginia walked three miles each evening with those friends. "It helped to have three of us, because on the nights I would rather skip the walk, someone would always call and we'd go."
During those years, she also joined the Tyler Athletic Club when she saw an ad for "no joiner fee," and took aerobics classes there, along with swimming. "They had an outdoor, heated pool," she says, "and I swam two winters there."
Later, Virginia joined Apple Swim and Fitness for the aerobics classes. Apple's schedule for a while included yoga, which Virginia tried but didn't enjoy. "I didn't like the music or the moves," she said. "I just didn't like it at all."
A few years later, she tried another yoga class while visiting Oklahoma and says it didn't resonate with her then either. "I remember I felt really lost with the Sun Salutations."
When Apple sent one of their aerobics instructors along with Virginia's friend and fellow aerobic student, Beverly Massey, to receive training to teach yoga classes in 2002, Virginia decided to give it another shot. "I started going to yoga about twice a week then, mostly just to support the instructor and help the class attendance. And then when Beverly Massey started teaching yoga, I was hooked."
Eleven years later, Beverly is now teaching at Windhorse, and Virginia is still her student. "There are different ways to age," says Beverly, "but Virginia has chosen a great path. She is a wise woman and at the top of the list of women I admire."
Beverly recalls when one of their friends said, "Getting old stinks," and Virginia replied, "No, it doesn't. Getting sick stinks."
In December 2009, Virginia was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and had successful surgery. Weeks later, however, in early January 2010, her husband of 63 years, was diagnosed with duodenal cancer. He died two weeks after diagnosis.
"I think the relaxation part of yoga helped me deal with the stress of three years ago," Virginia reflects. "I really got through that pretty well. I think about how I've been blessed, instead of what I've lost. Having even met my husband in the first place was just a miracle."
Virginia says she became an athlete when she turned 60. Thirty years later, she continues her commitment to fitness and health. Although she finds aerobics and Zumba too intense now, in a group yoga class of mixed ages and ability levels, Virginia holds her own. With a few slight modifications to some poses, she has no trouble keeping up with the rest of the students.
"Practicing yoga with Virginia is inspiring," says Kathy Hayden, co-owner of Windhorse Yoga Studio. "Virginia embraces what she can do and doesn't allow herself to be limited by what she cannot do. How many times have we heard, ‘I can't do yoga because I'm not flexible, or I'm too old, or for any other number of reasons?'"
Virginia disproves those excuses: She started her regular yoga practice at the age of 79. Though she says yoga became a little more difficult after she gained a bit of weight due to stress the three years ago — "now my belly and my rear end get in the way some" — overall, her bones and joints are healthy, her balance is good and her muscles remain strong.
At home, Virginia stays busy with housework and yard work and finds time to do a little stretching; and, for as long as she's able, she plans to drive to practice yoga in a peaceful environment with teachers she enjoys.
"A lot of people in this area are afraid of yoga because they think it is irreligious. To me, it's just good exercise. I'm not good at meditating, but I do think the relaxation part is very helpful."
When complimented on her strong and graceful practice, she says with a spunky and self-deprecating grin, "You'd be surprised how tired I get." And Virginia's favorite pose? She laughs and doesn't hesitate: "Savasana!"
While she might prefer yoga's relaxation pose, Virginia's teachers and fellow students look to her as an inspiration and a living example of how a positive attitude and a consistent commitment to wellness can pay off. As Kathy Hayden says, "Virginia's ‘can do' spirit is evidenced by her beautifully strong yoga practice which has sustained and continues to sustain her body and her mind."
Beth Lytle is a yoga instructor in the Tyler area.