Mary Louise Stefanic (nee “McKeone”) is an 80-years-young yogi who attributes her health, rigor and long life to the practice of yoga.
Born in Muscatine, Iowa in 1931, Stefanic and husband Joe moved to Oak Park in 1964 after purchasing one of the historic Gunderson homes on the south side of town. They raised their family, and still live there.
At age 35, Stefanic, a harried stay-at-home mom with six youngsters, three of them still in cloth diapers, received a flier from the Oak Park YMCA, promising peace and tranquility from yoga.
Although she didn’t know what yoga was at the time, Stefanic knew she needed peace and tranquility.
The cost was $16 for an 8-week session, so she told herself that if she had $16 in her wallet after the next grocery shopping trip, she’d sign up.
In three months time, Stefanic lost 20 pounds, was calmer, and had a new lease on life.
Her friends noticed, too, and now they wanted in.
Those inaugural yoga classes quickly outgrew her living room, so she stretched into larger workout venues, including the Euclid Avenue Methodist Church, Rosary College (now Dominican University) and Ascension Parish.
At age 69, she began teaching “Gentle Yoga” classes at the Loyola Fitness Center in Maywood, twice a week.
Eleven years later, she has gained her certification in yoga therapy and given lectures to medical students and residents on the benefits of yoga in medicine, as well as teaching yoga classes for patients at Loyola’s Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center.
Here’s her pitch for a healthier, happier life — with yoga in it, of course.
What was your first Gentle Yoga class like?
As I walked up those stairs, I didn’t know what to expect. The class surrounded me like a posse, telling me about their ailments and that they didn’t think yoga was for them. When they found out I was 69, a lot of the barricades started to fall away.
Is yoga for everybody?
Of course it’s for everybody. That’s my prejudice. As long you can use the elevator to crawl into my class, I know we can work together. The hardest part about yoga for people is being still, but that is so important. I love being able to help people let go of the rest of the world and for just a few minutes look deep into themselves and become aware. It’s so beautiful.
How has it changed your life?
Years after I had been teaching, I found the book, Yoga, Youth and Reincarnation [by Jess Stearn]. Three years after reading it, I realized I had been testing my belief system against the idea of reincarnation, and it was as though I turned a corner, and a door opened. It made sense to me. So, in spite of my upbringing, including my religion, which is Catholic, I learned that you couldn’t really separate the two worlds (mainstream and alternative). What I’ve learned through yoga helps me be patient with other people, helps me understand why people do harm to other people, or perhaps themselves, and it is my prayer every morning when I finish my yoga that I become more loving, more forgiving, more compassionate. That’s it. Doing yoga for me is a spiritual experience.
It has also taught me to be conscious of what I eat. In the ’60s, we began to notice the affect of food, and that is what led us to eliminate white flour, white sugar and white rice. It tasted good, but the other tastes just as good and is more nutritious. Yoga helps me stop, think and take a deep breath. All of that is contributing to a healthy and long life. The movement helps my body from stiffening up. When I see people my own age, I see the struggles they have sometimes just to walk or get up off a chair or the floor. I don’t bounce up anymore, either, but these are the muscles that are going to get me up out of my chair without struggling, without pushing up, so I work on those muscles, and do the same with my students.
What advice would you give people about staying healthy?
Move it, girls. Move it, guys. Keep stretching and moving, even if you are confined to a chair or a bed. The first thing I would hope is that each day people take a deep breath then let it go, and know that on some level, they are not alone. If we can just begin to trust ourselves and trust others, then we will be able to trust the guidance we are given in this life and understand why we are here in this place now.
Are you talking about meditation?
Bingo. It’s not so scary in there. It’s quiet. There is peace — a still point in the turning world.