Lithe and loose: Turning 80 wasn't a stretch for yoga instructor Mary Louise Stefanic.Photos by Andrew Campbell

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.

Trying it out

I’m 53 and don’t see very well, so as I rolled out the purple mat to take my first-ever yoga class, I was thankful it was with Oak Park’s Mary Louise Stefanic, the 80-year-old “Gentle Yoga” teacher at the Loyola Center for Fitness in Maywood.

Two days earlier, I yanked a muscle in my back while walking my elderly, 85-pound dog Mowgli. He stopped. I didn’t. Tug. Ugh. Ouch.

A good, long stretch would do it good, I hoped.

So on a Thursday morning in late November, I sat wondering if I would find some peace, tranquility and healing through yoga, as Stefanic did in her first class 45 years ago.

Since my eyes prevented me from seeing Stefanic’s moves, and to do what I came here for today, I needed to chuck my banal excuses and ask a stranger to be my human mirror, which, until recently, had been beyond my comfort zone.

Serendipitously, Adrienne, a 72-year-old former Oak Parker, was on the mat next to me. She’s been coming here weekly for the last four years.

Adrienne explained how it was Stefanic’s way to check in with students ahead of time to determine what their bodies needed that day, and accommodate that.

Soon about 30 butts, including mine, were in the air doing the “downward facing dog” position. Then, we arched our backs like angry cats. “Breath … exhale … breath … and smile,” Stefanic was saying.

Up front, she was cooing about how natural it is to relax our bodies down, and rest our heads between our knees, like babies.

The balancing (or in my case wobbling) on one foot thingy wasn’t easy at all, so to get through it, I looked for my inner balance, then surrendered to the joviality of this clumsy moment.

Note to self: Leave mastering “dog peeing on a hydrant” (or as one classmate quipped, “extremely tired dog peeing on a hydrant”) to my next yoga lifetime. That pose is not for poseurs.

Midway through class, Stefanic started wending her way through the rows of students to assist those who needed it. I sensed this is how she has been connecting with and building her close-knit community in this workout space for the last decade.

So, my friends, “gentle” doesn’t mean “easy” in Stefanic’s class. It’s more about paced stretching and twisting, and of course, breathing in and out. I was relaxed, tingly (endorphin rush?) and my back felt better than when I began. During the meditative cool-down, as we murmured the traditional “Namaste” (I bow to you), I realized what a fitting homage this was to our skilled yoga instructor, the octogenarian who still moves her body on land as if it were in water.

Twenty-seven years from now, that’s my goal.

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....