Before her feet even touch the floor each morning, Bernice Bates is practicing yoga.
While still in bed, she does her vinyasa, a series of seven or eight postures that gets her blood flowing. She puts her arms above her head for a stretch and a yawn, pulls her knees to her chest, “walks” the ceiling with her feet and stretches her shoulders and hands.
“By the time you’re through — it takes about eight minutes — you’re ready to walk, instead of slopping around,” Bates said. “You can walk to the kitchen, to the bathroom, whatever your procedure is and not sort of drag yourself and say, ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do that.’ You’re ready to go.”
Yoga has been a way of life for Bates, 91, for more than half her life: She began practicing and teaching hatha yoga in about 1960. In a fitting tribute to her decades of helping others learn her passion, she recently won the distinction of the Guinness World Record holder of oldest yoga instructor. Guinness says she is the oldest yoga instructor to complete the complex verification process.
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It’s an honor, the humble yogi feels, that isn’t hers alone.
“I don’t have this reward by myself,” she said. “I share it with all the students I’ve taught through the years.”
Bates credits yoga with keeping her flexible, fit and healthy.
“I think yoga is the best exercise there is,” says Bates, who has always been active and still swims laps.
“I’ve never had anything I had to go to the doctor for, except checkups,” says Bates, who tips the scale at 105 pounds and is about 5 foot, 2 inches tall. “That should say something.”
Yoga involves the whole body — muscles, ligaments, organs, she says, and gives you energy without exhausting your body.
“You’re not just standing on a treadmill and going, going, going and you get off and can hardly walk,” she says. “Yoga itself means yoke, that’s to join. We join our mind, our body and our spirit in everything we do.
“Yoga gives you flexibility like you’ve never had before, and it makes you healthy because you’re working on the whole body, inside and out,” she said.
Bates, who has instructed children and adults, now leads a weekly one-hour class nine months a year at the Mainlands Retirement Community Center in Pinellas Park, Fla., where she lives. Most students are in their 60s and 70s, though she has two fellow nonagenarians and several students in their 80s.
She leads her students through 10 to 12 poses and ends with relaxation. “We go over our whole body and tense each part, then we relax,” she said.
Bernie, as her students call her, provides handouts so they can practice at home. And when they can finally do something they once couldn’t, like touch their toes, “it makes me feel like it’s worthwhile,” she says.
Some students have been with her for the 15 years she’s taught at Mainlands, and they all adapt to the class as they grow on in years. Some participate while sitting on chairs.
“It’s for everybody,” she says enthusiastically about yoga. “There’s thousands of postures. You can pick and choose. You do what you can.
“It’s non-competitive, which is the best thing about it,” she said.
Bates is a widow of eight years and a mother of three, grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of three. Yoga has enhanced her full life.
“It just encouraged me to keep going and it made my life better,” Bates said. “You’re active, so you don’t gain 100 pounds.”
She lives alone and tends to her flower garden, does the housework and likes to rearrange her furniture, so she’s always moving it around.
“If I didn’t keep myself in shape, I wouldn’t be able to do it at 91,” she says.
Her decades of physical activity have only added to her strong Methodist faith. “Anything you do for your body that’s good is going to enhance improvement in your religion too,” she said. “You get more faith that way.”
With students seeking her guidance each week, the world’s oldest yoga teacher is going to keep on teaching.
“Why should I quit? she asks. “As long as I can do it and be a help to someone else, I’ll just stay as long as I can. I get a joy out of seeing someone learning.”
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