Tao Porchon-Lynch has the demanding schedule you would expect of a world-class yoga teacher. In between teaching her regular classes in Westchester, she jets off to a retreat in Dubai, appears before 11,000 people at International Day of Yoga in Bangalore, India, and pops into the three-day World Yoga Festival in Reading, United Kingdom, as one of its featured yoga masters. “I start early in the morning and finish late at night,” she says of her non-stop pace. “Usually everyone on the plane is tired except for me — I feel refreshed.”
Tao did make sure she was in town August 13, joining her devoted students and friends at Mansion on Broadway in North White Plains to celebrate her 99th birthday.
Yes, Tao just turned 99, and was named the Oldest Yoga Teacher in the world in 2012 — and she has the certificate from Guinness World Records to prove it. What’s her secret? “I don’t believe in age,” Tao says. “I believe in energy. Don’t let age dictate what you can and cannot do.”
Tao is talking about the body’s inner vitality, and teaches people how to access this energy by combining the breath with positive thoughts — a path available to all of us, at any time. “The breath is the life force. When you get in touch with that, you don’t get tired,” she explains. “You are that breath, you are that renewal process.”
If that sounds a bit vague, you can find out what Tao means by attending her regular classes in Hartsdale or Scarsdale, four days a week. It may be your best opportunity to work with someone who has studied directly with great Indian masters of the past such as B.K.S. Iyengar (she was one of his first female students) and Ashtanga yoga founder K. Pattabhi Jois. Her main teacher was Swami Prabhavananda, who founded the Vedanta Society of Southern California Los Angeles in 1930.
Tao had a strong spiritual bent from a young age, and an unusual life from the start. Tao’s mother, a native of Bihar, India, died in giving birth to her while crossing the English Channel. Her father, a colonial from Pondicherry (then part of French India), had already purchased a horse ranch in Saskatchewan, so he asked his married brother, Vital Porchon, to raise the little newborn in Pondicherry.
Tao’s introduction to yoga came at the age of 8, when she saw a group of boys taking a yoga class on the beach. She started to follow along with their movements, thinking it was some kind of game (and that she was rather good at it). But when she raced home to tell her aunt and uncle, their reactions were predictable. “Yoga is for boys!” said her shocked aunt. “Let her enjoy it,” said her uncle, and so she did, joining the daily “game” and gradually learning the asanas.
Vital Porchon was a follower of Swami Vivekananda, who helped bring yoga to the West, and close friends with Sri Aurobindo, a yogi who headed an ashram in Pondicherry. The two men loved to walk along the beach and discuss the Vedas, ancient Sanskrit scriptures, and Tao soaked up the ancient wisdom as she tagged along.
Vital even took Tao with him on Mahatma Gandhi’s march against the British Salt Tax, a historic act of civil disobedience that was violently opposed by the British but successfully propelled India’s independence. Vital was an important influence on his niece.
Tao grew into a young woman with knockout good looks. At the start of World War II, she went to France in search of her father and subsequently became a model, winning the honor of the “Best Legs in Europe.” When the Nazis invaded, she was a member of the French Resistance. She escaped to London and came into a career as a cabaret performer, then on to Hollywood, appearing in The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) and Show Boat (1951).
Tao informally offered yoga instruction to fellow actors, including Leslie Caron. Eventually, she married Bill Lynch. They moved to Westchester in 1964 and she began teaching classes that have continued to this day. Her approach is founded in yoga’s classical roots rather than in the faddish American spinoffs like Power Yoga or Hot Yoga. Vinyasa is not just linking together physical movements, she says, it’s accessing our inner life force through the breath.
Tao believes that yoga can help people in profound mental and physical pain. One woman came to her in desperation because her father had been killed in a car accident, and her mother wanted to commit suicide. Instead, both mother and daughter became students, accompanied Tao on a trip to India, and found their way back to life. “I teach my students not to give up on life, not to give up on themselves. They can join their body, their life, and their mind together.”
Tao has had setbacks of her own, including three hip replacement surgeries. “The doctors told me what I wouldn’t be able to do anymore, but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what I can do. Whatever you think, materializes.” She was back to doing her advanced yoga moves within months, defying the doctor’s predictions.
With so much energy, Tao has no plans to retire — ever. “Don’t waste your time thinking about something that is impossible,” she advises. “Just breathe in. It will open up doors to life. Something good will happen.”