By KATHERINE ROSMAN
November 26, 2016
On a recent Monday, Täo Porchon-Lynch was teaching her 90-minute yoga class in Hartsdale, N.Y., combining elements of Iyengar, meditation and vinyasa for a dozen or so regular students.
Ms. Porchon-Lynch’s soft voice was soothing as she called out poses — tree, dancer — and corrected alignment. She demonstrated some floor stretches, though she herself could not do them with perfect alignment on the right. “That’s my side with the hip replacement,” she said, fiddling with a large clip-on earring that had popped off.
Actually, it is the side of her most recent hip replacement. She has had three. Ms. Porchon-Lynch is 98, but a poster child for the active life.
She is also a dynamic dresser and confident driver. When the class ended, she hurried out of the studio in her bright yoga pants and peep-toe high heels into her new ride, a gray Smart Car.
She revved the engine a few times before peeling out of the parking lot, en route to teach a private lesson. Then she hurried to the Fred Astaire Dance Studio for her own waltzing lesson; she is a competitive ballroom dancer as well as a yoga teacher.
“I’m 50 years younger than her, and her schedule exhausts me,” said Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy who (along with Janie Sykes Kennedy) was an author with Ms. Porchon-Lynch of the memoir “Dancing Light: The Spiritual Side of Being Through the Eyes of a Modern Yoga Master.”
The night before, Ms. Porchon-Lynch and Ms. Kay-Aba Kennedy had returned from California, where Ms. Porchon-Lynch headlined an event for Athleta, an athleisure brand owned by Gap Inc., at its store at the Grove in Los Angeles. She also did a photo shoot for the label.
Perhaps more than any other physical regimen, yoga has gotten tremendous public-relations benefit from social media. The images of women and men wrapped into graceful, gravity-defying poses are arresting and highly shareable in the visual worlds of Facebook and Instagram.
The result is a new subset of professional instructors: the yogalebrity who makes much of her living on the road, not unlike a small-time rock star, appearing at retreats and conferences, posting inspirational quotes fashioned in flowery Pinterest-friendly fonts, and pictures of inner peace found through arm balances or legs over one’s head.
As a very rare elderly star on this circuit, Ms. Porchon-Lynch has the kind of exceptional marketing potential also glimpsed in the nonagenarians Iris Apfel and Betty White.
Athleta will feature Ms. Porchon-Lynch in its January catalog and in its new “Power of She” campaign. “Täo aligns perfectly with our mission,” said Nancy Green, the Athleta president. “We are working hard to break stereotypes of what youth and wellness means.”
Meeting Gandhi and Noël Coward
Ms. Porchon-Lynch is an avid traveler, who in a few weeks will head to the Berkshires to lead a workshop at Kripalu, and then to Hawaii for another in Maui.
And she frequently enters ballroom dance competitions. In 2015, Ms. Porchon-Lynch appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” dancing a samba/cha-cha/salsa combination with Vard Margaryan, then 26. Howard Stern, a judge on the show, called the performance “too mind-blowing for words.” A video clip of the performance has been viewed several hundred thousand times.
“My partner was 70 years younger than me, and he was throwing me around his neck!” she remembered fondly. Her current teacher and competitive dance partner is even younger: Anton Bilozorov, 25. “I teach her about dance,” he said, “and she teaches me about life.”
Ms. Porchon-Lynch was born in 1918. Her mother died in childbirth, and she was raised in Pondicherry, in India, by an uncle who was a railroad entrepreneur and who brought his niece along with him on his Asian travels.
When she was 8, she walked to the beach and spotted young boys making silly shapes with their bodies. “I thought it was a new game,” Ms. Porchon-Lynch said. “I went to my aunt and said, ‘Can they let me be part of it?’ And she said: ‘That isn’t a game, it is yoga and it’s not for girls. It’s not ladylike.’ So I started doing it.”
The far-flung stories of her life that Ms. Porchon-Lynch tells render her as something of a Zelig figure, from India to Britain to Hollywood. She supplies details and dates with a young person’s mental clarity, and loaded her memoir with photographic evidence.
When she was 12, she said, she came home to find “a little man sitting on the floor” and saw visitors bowing to him. Then, she said, her uncle told her to pack a suitcase and they spent a few weeks traveling and marching with Mahatma Gandhi.
In the World War II years, she landed in London, having fled India after her family came under Nazi suspicion for hiding British and French expatriates. There, she said, she met Noël Coward when she was working as a dancer in nightclubs.
“I didn’t speak English that well and he taught me to say, ‘I presume that your presumptions are precisely incorrectly, your sarcastic insinuations too obnoxious to be appreciated,’” Ms. Porchon-Lynch said, sitting on a bench in the yoga room at the Fred Astaire studio. She then repeated the line, verbatim. “That was in 1940,” she said.
She joined a dance troupe that entertained soldiers in Europe, and from there made her way to Hollywood. She worked as a contract actress for M.G.M., teaching yoga to other actresses and traveling back to India when she could to study with yogis including B. K. S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois.
Wine and High Heels
While traveling in New York, she was introduced to an insurance salesman, Bill Lynch. They married in 1963 and eventually settled in Hartsdale, N.Y., a suburb in Westchester County. They had no children, focusing on civic involvement and drinking wine. (Together they founded the American Wine Society. To this day, Ms. Porchon-Lynch drinks only two beverages: tea and wine. She does not drink water.)
Mr. Lynch died after a motorcycle accident in 1982, and in the years that followed, Ms. Porchon-Lynch recommitted to her yoga practice. For decades, she has maintained two gigs: teaching yoga three times a week at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Hartsdale and twice weekly at the Jewish Community Center in nearby Scarsdale.
“She sees things in people they don’t see in themselves,” said Susan Douglass, 61, a trademark lawyer who began studying yoga with Ms. Porchon-Lynch in 1999. “Her students love her. She has a large band of students who would do anything for her.”
Ms. Porchon-Lynch’s career really took off thanks to the strategic thinking of a few devoted students. First, Joyce Pines, a retired schoolteacher who has become something of an attaché of Ms. Porchon-Lynch’s, applied to Guinness World Records for special designation. In 2012, Ms. Porchon-Lynch became “The Oldest Living Yoga Teacher.”
Around the same time, another student hired Robert Sturman, a photographer, to do a photo shoot of Ms. Porchon-Lynch in Central Park. Mr. Sturman’s work focuses on yogis, including many unexpected practitioners like prison inmates and wounded veterans.
Ms. Porchon-Lynch showed up for the shoot in a red ballroom dancer’s flamenco dress and high heels. He questioned her choice to wear spikes to a park, and she told him she only wears high heels. “She said they helped elevate her consciousness,” said Mr. Sturman, who ended up carrying her through the muddy park.
After the shoot, he posted images on his Facebook page. They went viral and continue to spread more than four years later. (Mr. Sturman now photographs Ms. Porchon-Lynch twice a year, and Ms. Pines maintains her accounts on Facebook and elsewhere.)
With her social media cred firmly established, Ms. Porchon-Lynch began fielding invitations to yoga festivals and retreats from Bosnia to Dubai. “I am invited all over the world!” she said.
Joann Burnham, a founder of the annual Nantucket Yoga Festival, asked Ms. Porchon-Lynch to lead workshops at the event in 2014, after she heard about her from James Miller, who had hosted her at the Iowa City Yoga Festival.
“At this point, you can’t have a yoga festival and not invite Täo,” said Ms. Burnham, who dedicates a whole weekend to “Täo workshops” at Dharma Yoga Nantucket, the studio she owns with her husband. “Being in her presence and seeing the expectations of what someone would think about someone who is 98, and seeing all those expectations squashed, is so incredible.”
Though Ms. Porchon-Lynch lives by herself, she most often travels with companions.
Ms. Douglass accompanied her on several trips to workshops in the last few years. Almost always, she said, Ms. Porchon-Lynch is recognized by strangers on the street and in airports by people who ask her to pose for cellphone snaps. “It’s like going around with a celebrity,” Ms. Douglass said.
Ms. Porchon-Lynch has been embraced by big names in the spirituality world. Deepak Chopra met Ms. Porchon-Lynch in 2011 when he took part in a panel discussion with the Dalai Lama. Ms. Porchon-Lynch, after sitting in the audience, approached the men and introduced herself. “All these gurus from India who have come and gone — Pattabhi Jois, Iyengar — she has met them all,” Dr. Chopra said. “It’s incredible. Even His Holiness was totally impressed by her.”
Dr. Chopra and Ms. Porchon-Lynch meet from time to time. He hosted her at his apartment earlier this month for a Facebook Live chat. Within a day, the video had been viewed by 115,000 users and shared more than 1,500 times.
And yet the lines of lived experience on Ms. Porchon-Lynch’s face, and the expression of peace and vivacity in her eyes, are powerful reminders that the practice is about more than clicks.
“The celebrity yoga world can be a competitive place,” said Kelly Kamm, a yoga instructor who travels around the workshop circuit and is a muse of Mr. Sturman, the photographer.
“It’s like being a rock star, it’s one in a hundred-thousand chance,” Ms. Kamm said. “I think that people were so hungry for someone to look up to who wasn’t a young, skinny, blond yogi in a bra top. There is just so much of that. Then came someone who was the opposite of that. Then came Täo.”