Wanda and Mildred
Wanda and her mother, Mildred, first came to my yoga studio in downtown Riverside in 2003, perhaps 2002.
The sprawling space sat downstairs in what had been the Aurea Vista Hotel and then a furniture store. We had 1,800 square feet of antique wooden floor, no heating, no air conditioning and west-facing windows that showed the parking lot across the street, pedestrians and the occasional homeless wanderer. In the afternoons and evenings, the space resounded with the sounds of young would-be ballerinas thudding onto the ballet studio floor, which comprised the same boards as my ceiling.
Wanda brought her mother to the slow-paced class, so named to encourage seniors and those with physical problems.
Wanda did tai chi, got acupuncture for neck problems and sought whole health. She had other physical issues she didn’t talk about much. I learned about these when she reassured other students struggling with similar problems, telling them how much yoga had helped her.
Mildred had stiff hips, hamstrings and tight ankles. Mostly, though, she dealt with asthma in class. Any pose that involved lying on the floor left her gasping.
They both stood about 5 feet tall and had boxy builds. They loved great jewelry and getting bargains on stylish eyeglass frames in LA. Wanda had short, dark hair. Mildred had soft, white hair. They loved their family and they constantly extended that family as a way of helping others. When they met someone in need, they literally opened their doors, whether a car door to help someone get around town or, in Wanda’s case, opening her home to a teenager who needed a place where he could just let down his guard.
The first time they came to class, Wanda brought her mother, and yet smiled and detached herself from the outcome. Everyone who brings a friend or loved one to yoga knows that’s all you can do. After that, either the yoga works for someone or it doesn’t. Wanda knew that no amount of pushing would work. She loved yoga and hoped her mother would, too.
Mildred gave me looks I came to know well, a kind of “we’ll see”, her eyebrows flicking upward, accompanied with a shrug of her shoulders and a smile so slight I almost missed it. The poses I teach don’t look particularly hard, but I ask students to question their own inner workings, and that’s where the challenge comes. For someone like Mildred, I hoped to improve her posture enough that her breath might come more easily. It’s no simple thing to change a lifetime of habits. If you’ve spent six or more decades letting your shoulders weigh heavily on you, when a teacher asks you to do something that might release your shoulder blades back on the rib cage, “we’ll see” is normal response.
I thought in those first few classes Mildred had been pretty much dragged there by Wanda. Over time I learned that Mildred couldn’t be dragged anywhere, but she was willing to try, often repeatedly, something that might help make life better. A few weeks after she started, she showed up with her own tiger-stripe patterned mat. Several weeks later, pneumonia kept Wanda from class for several sessions, but Mildred came on her own.
She tried every thing I could think of to get her into some kind of inversion that might help her asthma. I tried many versions of a supported bridge pose. In one, she would come lying flat, knees bent, and lift her hips so I could slide a block under her pelvis. In another approach, she sat on a narrow stack of blankets, folded about 6 inches wide and two feet long. She lay back with the support under her spine and then let her shoulders slide off the blankets until they touched the floor. Every attempt ended with her struggling for breath.
Even the most restful position I knew, what some of my students called “day-at-the-spa” pose, left Mildred breathless unless I built up the support. Called supine bound angle pose, it involves sitting on the floor and then lying back on a narrow stack of two blankets, with the head supported. The knees are folded outward and the soles of the feet rest against each other, with the outer thighs supported. Most students find the gentle chest opening and the hip opening deeply relaxing. She could manage it, but not enjoy it, once she was sitting up at almost 60 degrees instead of the usual 30.
One day Mildred complained about how difficult her outing had been at an outlet mall. Her feet and ankles had hurt so much that she couldn’t walk much. I showed her how to do virasana, hero pose, while sitting in a chair. One leg at a time, she folded first one knee and then the other behind, stretching out the front of the ankle, then the back of the heel. About a month later, she reported that she was back in full shopping form, able to traverse the length of the Cabazon outlet stores.
For some years, we stopped having her try supine poses. Then about 10 years later, she just got herself down on the floor, and lying on her back, lifted her hips up into bridge pose. She would do corpse pose lying flat, although sometimes she spent more time lying on her side.
She had tight hamstrings and getting up and down off the floor was tough. Still, she did it, most days. Some days she didn’t, and I knew that if she could, she would. I would ask her, is this day for getting down on the floor? If not, I would set her up in the resting pose reclined in a chair. One other determining factor was the one-inch long rotator cuff tear that made it hard for her to push up off a chair. Doctors had wanted to repair it surgically. She refused and went to physical therapy. She continued with her yoga. Eventually, she dropped the physical therapy because, she said, she hurt worse afterward.
I watched over the years as she kept trying the poses that challenged her asthma, her hamstrings, her shoulder.
Finally, she could keep her breathing soft and easy while taking part in supine big toe pose, a full series done lying on her back with different positioning of the legs. Her hamstrings never became what anyone else would call flexible, but the standing forward bend that had felt like torture to her hamstrings evolved until she could rest her head on the back of a chair and find some mental quiet. The rotator cuff tear ceased to be an issue as she became able to raise both her arms skyward, where once the injured shoulder prevented her from even raising that arm parallel to the floor. In a version of down dog done seated, with the arms above her head, supported by the wall, she could reach evenly through both arms.
In the last few years, she could do it all.
Throughout the process, Wanda stayed close, protective in the way a mother might be toward an adult child who might not welcome the help. She had the same quiet smile as her mother. When they started attending class, to Mildred’s soft white hair, Wanda’s was a deep brown.
Wanda showed up in class one day with a gray buzz cut. She had gone gray when she was 18 and had decided: Enough hours had been spent dying her hair brown. She looked beautiful with half-inch long hair. She had as many or more health issues as her mother, but I didn’t hear about any except when she needed help modifying a pose, primarily to deal with neck pain.
More often I heard from her when something was going right: “Thanks to you. Thanks to yoga” she would tell me. I always contradicted her: “No. Thanks to you and yoga.”
After a while, Mildred was the one bringing people to my class, some with minimal problems such as a dowager’s hump and tight shoulders, another one with Parkinson’s. She would make sure to tell me when the woman with Parkinson’s was having a particularly bad balance day or if she had fallen and been injured. Mildred would help out with bringing chairs, bolsters or wooden blocks to her friend. Usually, these things were ready to hand because Wanda had brought them over, making it easier for her mother to help her friend.
Once after I had been gone for a couple of weeks, I started a class by saying “next we’ll do” and Mildred filled in the pause with an answer: “jumping jacks!” I learned how she had faced down a substitute teacher when he was teaching the class to jump their feet apart for wide-leg standing poses. After asking his age, she told me, she had said, “Well, you’re 28 and I’m 83, and I’m not jumping.”
I burst out laughing and said, “Good. If you don’t take care of yourself, who will?” And I turned it into a lesson for the day: that yoga is done by cultivating discriminative intelligence, according to the Yoga Sutras, the earliest writings on the subject.
Mildred was what I want from all my students: to be a discriminating student of yoga. She questioned, prodded, experimented. She never gave up. She was attending class until just a few months before she died of cancer. She was 86.
At the Riverside National Cemetery, dozens of family, friends and her fellow church members gathered on a day swept clear by Santa Ana winds, mallard ducks and black coots floating on a nearby pond. The minister talked about Mildred’s family and the things she loved to do. I was surprised to learn she had been a teacher. I had known only that she had been knowledgeable about gems. She had left her native Puerto Rico to go to college in the Midwest and there she had met her husband, who was in the Air Force. Given how acutely Mildred tested me, maybe I should have known she had been a teacher herself.
The minister said Mildred loved good cooking, particularly when someone else was doing it. We laughed. Then he said she loved yoga and dancing. My guard dropped, and I cried.
It was a few months after that before Wanda came back to class. She had stopped coming before her mother died, she told me, because she couldn’t stop crying at the end of class when she was in corpse pose.
When Wanda did return, it was to encourage another friend to come to yoga. This woman arrives in a Dial-a-Ride bus. The driver gets out and opens the back door and lowers the wheelchair platform so Lesley can roll up the wheelchair ramp . The bus is usually late, so Wanda leaps up and goes to open the door and to greet her friend, who suffered brain damage in a terrible car accident years earlier. Lesley rolls in with a sad smile, but always sharply dressed, sometimes with a sparkly hat and silver arm band. She was struggling with depression and Wanda thought yoga might help. Lesley says it has, she told me, partly because she feels she belongs.
Wanda still sits at the back of the class, along the wall where students go who are not so strong or who have balance problems. Now someone else sits next to her in Mildred’s spot. Wanda finds new students to help, most recently assisting a gentle woman with Alzheimer’s who became easily confused and needed constant small reminders on what was happening.
At first, Wanda would do an alternate pose at the end of class, but now she can do corpse pose again without crying.
The slow-paced class has a wide range of ages and abilities. Some people sit on chairs instead of the floor for the beginning seated pose; some use a cane to negotiate the studio; some people grab straps and blocks for others.
The slow-paced class is always packed, but even so, there’s an empty place there along the back wall near Wanda.
Christie Hall finally found herself rooted to the Inland area by her years of teaching yoga, first at a gym in Lake Arrowhead, then at her own studio in Riverside, at Riverside City College and Moreno Valley College and lately for another studio in Riverside. It’s an unlikely profession for someone who dreamed of being a foreign correspondent while attending Chaffey High School in Ontario and Pomona College in Claremont (where she earned a bachelor’s in international relations). Her journalism career had nothing at all foreign about it: She spent more than 20 years as an editor for the newspapers in Riverside and San Bernardino.