Monday, April 9, 2012

Therapy for All Ages: Doris Clevenger, 77

"Everything about yoga was totally new – the stretching, the bending, and then quickly dropping to the mat; look up, look down, and so on; all performed with regular, even breathing."

When I met Doris Clevenger, she was 76.  Doris was not a fitness or exercise-oriented person, nor was she very kinesthetically attuned.  Doris sustained an injury causing total loss of sight in her right eye when she was 8 years old.  Fifty-seven years later, the condition was found to be surgically curable.  But the lack of sight in her right eye for nearly six decades had contributed to her being unable to spread her right hand and fingers wide and flat -- when her hand met the floor, it would be in a sort of cup formation.  

Doris wasn’t even aware of this gradually formed body-habit until she started yoga.  Now, not quite a year later, her hand spreads almost completely as it meets the yoga mat.

("Also about my hand," Doris said, in response to reading a draft of this post, "I think the problem was due to something that happened to my thumb when I was gripping a ski pole too tightly during cross-country skiing, a sport I worked at for a couple of years with my children.  But you are right, I never noticed the inability to lay my hand flat.")

In spring 2011, while standing independently, Doris couldn’t even begin to lift one foot off the ground without losing her balance; now she can stand on one foot for ten breaths while lifting the other knee almost to the height of her waist.

Initially, Doris was confused by the effort it took her to breathe with her mouth closed in a conscious, regulated manner while moving her body in synchronization with inhales and exhales.  A non-athlete, she had also never consciously practiced anything involving body-awareness.

So, during the introductory lesson, when I saw how foreign this whole effort was to Doris, and I saw how limited was her mind-body coordination – I knew Ashtanga Yoga could profoundly change her life if she would practice on her own according to my instructions.  Pattabhi Jois’s mantra that Ashtanga Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory, holds true with my students: the instruction I give them is the 1%.  It is important.  But the student practicing 5-6 days a week on her own (just ten minutes at first) is the 99%.  Self-practice is the magic ingredient.

Although Doris was somewhat clueless and uncoordinated in that first lesson, I held hope that she was at the beginning of a wonderful adventure – and what a compelling idea for a 76-year old person!  I had hope because I saw an attractive, disciplined, intelligent and considerate person who was not daunted by my insistence that it would be a waste of her money and our time were we to continue -- unless she could promise to practice every day on her own (for just 10 minutes) until the next lesson, even if she felt confused while doing so. 

It seemed to me Doris had not spent much time focusing on herself during her 76 years.  She had tended well to her children and her home and her job as a schoolteacher; she had enjoyed her primary role of being the competent, supportive wife of her successful scientist husband (now eight years deceased).  This was the perfect time for Doris to focus on herself, not with psychological or intellectual analysis, but with a time-tested and healing process – Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series -- that naturally cultivates awareness, joy, humor, elegance and patience; a process of carefully exploring one's own mind-body connection in a loving, accepting and non-judgmental manner, absent any oppressive goals

It is so important for older people to practice yoga.  

A person in their 70s or 80s who suffers a bad fall and breaks his or her hip, may never recover; the strain on the whole body can cause a chain reaction of ill effects, and sometimes, this hip fracture can lead to death. Yoga improves balance, decreasing the likelihood of falling. And if one who has a daily yoga practice does take a tumble, the likelihood of debilitating (or terminal) injury is mitigated by three things:  first, if one practices balancing and movement/coordination exercises daily, and is very accustomed to moving down to the floor and getting back up (thousands of times per year in Ashtanga Yoga), one has an improved chance of -- consciously or unconsciously -- positioning one’s body to enjoy a safer landing.  Second, daily yoga strengthens one’s muscles and bones, and makes everything a little less brittle, decreasing the likelihood of serious injury when body meets ground.  Third, if one is injured, he or she already has an established rehabilitation program in place -- the yoga practice, which he or she can now modify however needed in order patiently to promote healing.

Doris practicing Ashtanga Yoga Sun Salutation A

Doris Clevenger has such a lovely practice now, of meditative bending, breathing and balancing.  She practices Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series.  It has taken her 11 months to memorize and accrue the stamina to practice all the way through the Standing poses with awareness and equanimity – five to six days a week on her own.  And during the lessons, we now go all the way through Navasana, modifying as necessary.  Doris is developing keen awareness of how safely to explore her edges with the understanding that positive change favors the very patient, and that 77-year old bodies don’t get strong and flexible overnight.  I do not think Doris’s success in yoga would have been possible in a group setting – at least with me as the teacher.  People with seriously limiting conditions require (I entirely believe) 100% individualized attention.  Only in this way can I meet the student exactly where they are at all times; properly supervise their progress; and make sure they are not striving or hurting themselves. 

There is no medicine or external therapy or medical knowledge or technology that could have been applied to Doris to reveal the balance, strength, flexibility, patience, and (if I may say) increased laughter that she now enjoys after 11 months of yoga.  Only yoga, to my knowledge, has such dramatic effects.  And only for people who are willing to practice consistently, without struggling against nature to meet artificial milestones.  Dailiness is where all the subtle beauty of discovery happens. 

Simple common sense informs an intelligent person:  enjoying a “moving meditation” on the state of one’s mind-body from the tips of one’s toes to the top of one’s head, every day, is a wise and healthy endeavor. 

“All parts of the body which have a function if used in moderation and exercised in labors in which each is accustomed, become thereby healthy, well-developed and age more slowly; but if unused and left idle they become liable to disease, defective in growth and age quickly.”
   ~ Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, ca. 400 B.C. 
The fact that Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series is a specific and fundamental practice brilliantly conceived to be deeply engaging, makes it become a source of joy in life rather than a boring exercise performed mainly out of a disciplined desire to stay in shape.  It took Doris several months to get comfortable with the method of practice, and the gross patterns and sequencing in the practice, and now she is beginning to realize the deeper levels of awareness the practice enables.  The paradox is that once the practice is established, it becomes natural to let go of goals and just enjoy the process; and if one practices faithfully without anticipating rewards, the benefits are extraordinary. 

I know the yoga is making a positive impact in a person’s life when I arrive to a lesson and inquire whether they’ve been able to practice consistently since our last lesson, and hear, as is usually the case with Doris, “Every day!”


In the video above, Doris is practicing Ashtanga Yoga Sun Salutation A.  When we began in May 2011, she couldn’t begin even to do Sun Salutation A.  Just to stand in Samasthitih and inhale as she raised her arms and put her hands flush together above her head while gazing up – was not initially a simple task for Doris.  She did semblances of the nine parts of sun salutation A until it came together.  A younger person might take Upward Dog for granted, but it can be a scary movement to a 76-year old who has never moved in that manner.  Just to slowly relax enough to explore the position took some weeks. 

It’s been fun teaching Doris, and always a treat for me to see little improvements in grace, strength and flexibility when I come for the lessons – improvements that have nothing to do with being instructed, and everything to do with her daily practice between lessons. 

While Doris now enjoys her lovely meditative sun salutations, still she does not do the push-up, and still she cannot step from downward dog all the way up to her hands.  She may eventually gain the strength and flexibility to do these things, but just doing them the way she is currently, and going to “plank” instead of chaturanga, is wonderful and maybe quite enough for a 77-year old.  And it is also safe for her body.

Even after practicing about 250 times over these last 11 months, Doris would likely find group led classes unsatisfactory.  She needs to move very carefully at her own pace in order to maximize safety, my highest concern.  From the outset, I have impressed upon Doris to do nothing that hurts and to tell me every time she has any pain.  I can imagine her now enjoying a Mysore class, but I don’t think she could have successfully learned the yoga Mysore-style in the beginning.  She needed exclusive attention.

Sun salutation B was so difficult for Doris that we had to skip it initially.  It is much easier to do light semblances of the Standing poses than it is to modify sun salutation B.  So every couple of weeks we would try sun salutation B, and it took about six months before she could do five sun salutation B during our lessons, and begin doing one or two in her self-practices.  Now she does all 10 sun salutations in a row daily on her own, followed by 20 minutes of Standing poses.  Instead of being out of breath and exhausted, she feels happy and energized and breathes smoothly throughout!

Doris practicing Ashtanga Yoga Sun Salutation B

Doris Clevenger was referred to me by her financial planner, Elizabeth King -- what a great example of a holistic financial planner who really cares about her clients!

I asked Doris to write something about her yoga experience.  She gave me two handwritten statements, which I have combined and transcribed below.  To see her handwritten statements, click here.


"When I went for my last physical, I told my doctor that I felt kind of stiff as I moved around.  She laughed and said, “That’s what we call the Tin-Man Syndrome,” from the Wizard of Oz, I guess.

We agreed that I needed to find an exercise program.  

I have never had the pleasure of learning a lifetime sport and have avoided exercise because it seemed so boring.  Although, previously I had taken water aerobics classes for seven years, which I quit due to boredom and lack of any progress.

After  many years of trying and giving up various exercise classes at several different fitness centers, someone suggested that I might like to take private yoga lessons.

Well, maybe.

So I began to work privately with Robbie in the spring of 2011, not knowing just how it would work out.  What a difference it has made!

Everything about yoga was totally new – the stretching, the bending, and then quickly dropping to the mat; look up, look down, and so on; all performed with regular, even breathing.

And the language!  There was no way I could explain my questions without pointing to a picture that showed the position I was questioning.

But we progressed.

I found it difficult to learn the sequence of positions, but I mastered them.  I had to apply serious mental effort.  Plus there were physical challenges of course.

About four or five months along, I had a breakthrough.  I realized that I enjoyed doing my 30-minute practice each morning.  It had become a time that I welcomed.

(That was a big change for me.  What was at first a self-imposed discipline had become a pleasurable routine.)

For these 30 minutes my mind was clear of all extraneous thoughts.  This was time of my very own, not intruded upon by anything.

Balance has been my biggest challenge, but even that has visibly improved with practice.

I have gained confidence in what my body can do as I stretched more, cleared my mind, and breathed evenly.

The pull of my muscles as I stretch tells me this is a good thing, working against stiffness and towards flexibility.

I no longer need to do exercises specifically for my neck.  And I no longer have stiffness in my upper back and shoulder which needs relief by an occasional massage.

This routine has met my needs and is just what I was looking for."


  1. Thank you, Evelyn! Doris Clevenger truly understands and values the benefits this practice offers: When I was with her last Friday, she told me she usually practices seven days a week! this is awesome, as dailiness is what really makes a yoga practice. Since Doris only does the first 40 minutes of the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga, she really doesn't need to take days off. Her days off happen when she's traveling to visit friends, when it is not socially or otherwise convenient to practice. Doris is proof that Ashtanga Yoga can be practiced safely and therapeutically by people of all ages; one learns to intelligently modify the poses to optimize their effects for the state of the body in the present moment. This practice has totally transformed Doris's state of mind and body in just a little over a year.