Balance through yoga knows no age

Despite nearing the traditional age of retirement, Ryan is thriving in her most recent career path as a yoga instructor and has welcomed the practice as a lifestyle with open arms.

By Deborah Oomen

It’s 9:15 on a Tuesday morning as the sun filters through the windows in the basement studio of Halifax Yoga. As the rays spread their warmth to the surrounding walls of blues and greens, yoga practitioners trickle in. Regulars and newcomers greet each other and begin unraveling their mats.

Sandra Ryan, 64, bounces around calmly with a sense of excitement, hugging returning participants and introducing herself to new faces. She stops along the way to compliment a newcomer on the array of tattoos covering what could be seen of her body.

With her beaming smile, Ryan welcomes all who come in as if they are old friends, “I’ve always been a teacher, doesn’t matter what it is. I think for some reason I’ve just always really liked people and I think I always really felt that I could help by teaching.”

Age is but a number to Ryan, as her shining white hair nearly touches her knees while her body bends in half, with flexibility that even those who are years younger lack. Despite nearing the traditional age of retirement, Ryan is thriving in her most recent career path as a yoga instructor.

Even if the street outside is filled with bustling cars, the theme of the day’s class is tranquillity. With the chime of a bell the class begins. “I love having the sunshine come in,” says Ryan, who then begins to guide her class through breathing exercises to prepare their body and mind.

The group sits cross-legged on their colourful mats as Ryan guides them through stretching exercises. Among the collective waves of long inhales and exhales, Ryan’s voice travels around the room as she instructs the participants to soften their faces and to become aware of their surroundings.

Life Outside The Studio

Between teaching yoga freelance, two book clubs, travelling with her husband, keeping up with friends and spending time with her grandchildren, Ryan is often on the go. “I like to be busy. I do better when I’m busy. I do much better when I have a sense of purpose. I’m not really one to hang around the house. I’m more of a people type, so I’m out a lot.”

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Ryan’s family moved to Chicago, back to Manitoba and finally to Halifax, following where her father, head of communications with the RCMP, would be transferred. “I’m a Bluenoser now,” says Ryan, who has since had three daughters of her own and four grandchildren.

A Life Filled with Fitness

Spending most of her life sweating and jumping, Ryan has been teaching fitness classes and sharing her knowledge of the body with others. It began when she started taking aerobics and leadership classes at the YMCA. At the time, Jane Fonda was making news with her aerobics, and Ryan was asked to teach a class that was up to date with the current style. “I was a little flabbergasted,” says Ryan. The new class became exceedingly popular as the aerobics industry grew.

Ryan continued to teach for a few years until she got a call out of the blue from Dalhousie University, wishing to interview her for fitness coordinator. “Much to my amazement, they offered me the job, and I feel very lucky because most of the people interviewed had kinesiology degrees or physical education degrees,” says Ryan.

Ryan was a key player in having fitness classes included in the Dalplex memberships, making them more accessible to students. “The students were very pleased,” says Ryan. “Maybe it’s the weight room, maybe it’s swimming, maybe you love to go for long walks or runs. Whatever it is, I just feel that students need something and I know that’s discipline, but with discipline comes academic excellence.”

She continued working at Dalhousie for nine years, but after endless hours under the fluorescent lights of the gym, it was time for a change. “I kind of woke up one day and thought, I should probably move on now. This has taught me so much and I am so grateful,” says Ryan.

She went back to freelancing fitness classes at nearby universities and recreation centres into her fifties until she started having knee problems. “The worst things that happen in your life usually are the best in the long run, because they teach you.”

“We just seem to be born with knees that don’t last,” says Ryan, whose family has a long list of knee replacements in their repertoire, “About that time anyways, yoga was starting to get very popular.”

Coming Across Yoga

Much like her previous career paths, this new journey started with an unexpected phone call, this time from Jenny Kierstead, founder of the National Award winning Breathing Space Yoga Studio. At the time of the call, she was just opening her first studio and wanted Ryan to be a teacher.

“I went and I was hooked because it was a studio. I had never been in a studio … it had always been great big huge gyms,” says Ryan, who accepted the offer to teach but asked not to be paid at first, as she didn’t feel she was a true yogi. “I didn’t feel I really knew what I was doing,” says Ryan. As a solution, she taught a yogalates class – a mix between yoga and pilates – so she could feel more comfortable.

Soon after she decided to get her official certification through the studio and become a true yogi, “As time went on I just let the other ones go. I didn’t really want to jump on my knees, and when I had knee replacements I didn’t want to take a chance on hurting them. I had lost interest anyways, I had done it for years.”

Currently teaching at Dalplex, Halifax Yoga and a seniors class at the Chocolate Lake Recreation Centre, Ryan is spreading her knowledge of the activity to a wide range of participants.

Coming from a high intensity fitness background, Ryan was sceptical whether yoga could keep her in shape but she soon realized that although yoga was great for the body  it offered much greater benefits.

It is a tradition in India to clean your mat before practice, as this symbolizes going into the session in a state of purity. “We all hold onto things, and sometimes we hold onto things for years and years, but the nature of yoga is that you start to let go.”

“Sometimes that physical twisting and turning and just learning to sit with yourself allows you to let things go,” says Ryan, who has often witnessed people coming to yoga for a workout, but end up in tears. “Yoga can attract people who want to get fit, but also who are grieving.”

As the class winds down an hour later, calming music comes on and a soothing chant of the female vocalist Wah! travels across the room. The class takes part in Shavasana (corpse pose), where you lie on your back with your arms and legs spread 45 degrees and your eyes closed. The music dances on the rising and falling chests of the group, as their breaths lengthen. The final pose of the class allows the body to regroup itself, as the mind leaves the body in a state of relaxation.

“When you start it’s all about being physical, and then it changes. It’s very subtle, but you do realize you feel better, and when you do Shavasana at the end of a class you feel more spiritual. I’d be surprised if someone didn’t feel a little softer and kinder at the end of a yoga class.”

Although it hass been shown to get people in shape, Ryan believes the greatest benefit yoga has to offer is balance, and not the physical kind. “Everyone is looking for balance in their life. If you practice yoga, you start to understand how to get balance and how to be a little more mindful.”