Shortly after I began teaching at Ella Yoga in November, one of my students highly recommended an Iyengar class with another American teacher named Nancy. Since I crave a class—or some instruction—in English, I decided to try the level 2-3. The first Thursday I went was sunny and hot, and when I walked in at 10:45am, the studio was bustling with activity. Everyone, it turned out, was signed up for Nancy’s class.
I walked into the long, narrow room and unrolled my mat to face the sea. Seated opposite me was a petite, slender woman with rounded shoulders dressed in periwinkle blue shorts, a long-sleeve white shirt and a grey scoop-neck sweater, an outfit, I later learned, she wears every class. I marveled at her muscular legs and saggy, sun spotted skin, trying to guess her age. Her square shaped face was hard to read, expressionless, covered in wrinkles and freckles and moles, like an aged leather-bound book.
Midway through class, we went to the wall to use the ropes to go from forward bend to up dog. We watched while Nancy demonstrated. Since there were so many of us, we paired up and took turns, each person doing a set of 10 and alternating. Nancy made her way up and down the room to correct us, myself included.
“Stop!” Come watch. Margalit is going to demo for us so you can see the poses again,” she said. “But first let me say, Margalit just celebrated her 86th birthday last week. With her twin sister. Nachon, Margalit?” she smiled and turned to this petite, older woman to confirm the facts. I loved Nancy’s ease at teaching her class in both English and Hebrew, seamlessly flowing from one to the other. “And do you know what Margalit does when she’s not practicing yoga? She teaches handicap people how to swim. OK, Margalit, boiey le kir!” she said, ordering her to the wall.
Margalit stepped forward, faced the sea and wrapped the straps around her fists. With her feet a few inches from the wall, she dropped her upper body in half, into a deep uttenasana. From there she pitched her entire body weight forward, leading with the chest, letting her arms straighten back behind her, and titled her gaze to the ceiling. In and out, breath after breath, this leather-faced woman flowed from pose to pose. I had never seen such strength and agility in an 86 year old.
“Stop!” Nancy shouted. “You get the idea. Now, if Margalit can do it so beautifully so can you. Go to it!” I had forgotten how authoritative Iyengar teachers could be.
After class, I squeezed myself into the cramped changing room to shower. Margalit was there putting on jeans and a sweater. “Cama pa’amim be shavuah at osah yoga?” I asked her, curious to know how many times a week she practices.
“Shlosha, lephaamim arba,” she said, three times sometimes four, in a deep, husky voice. She sounded like she smoked, or had smoked at some point in her life.
“Rak Iyengar o mash’eho acher?” Did she just take Iyengar classes or other styles?
“Iyengar, bevadai,” Bevadai was one of those funny words that was full of tone and attitude and meant many things: but of course, what else, or what were you thinking, you idiot? Clearly Margalit was an Iyengar junkie. I smiled, acknowledging her answer, and jumped into the shower before the hot water went cold.
Over the following two months, I saw Margalit in Nancy’s class every Thursday. She always dressed the same, wore the same expressionless face and spoke freely in class if spoken to. She did everything we did, making only minor modifications: instead of headstand she hung upside from the pelvic swing and instead of free floating shoulder stand, she used a chair. Oftentimes, I stopped my own practice to watch and admire her.
Then, one Thursday not long ago, Nancy was in an army captain mood and, after a set of six sun salutations at speed demon pace, she ordered us to lie on our backs and put our feet in the air as straight up as possible. With our arms by our hips, we were to exhale to lower our legs and inhale to lift them, first for a set of 10, followed by 20.
“Okay, now we’re going to do a set of 30 and Margalit is going to set the pace. She’ll do and count and you keep up with her because if she can do it…” she need not say more. “At muchana, Margalit?” Even though I was on the opposite side of the room from her, I could tell what was coming. My abs were burning, but with Margalit at the helm, I couldn’t slack off.
Like a race horse let out of his post, she started counting and lowering and lifting her legs with ease: achad, shteim, shalosh, arba. I lifted my head to look at her for a moment. She neither paused nor huffed nor winced once. Again, I marveled at her unbelievable abdominal strength and her will to work hard—in spite of, because of, still.
Ever since I got up into my first headstand, some 10 years back, I have always joked with my yoga friends that when I’m a grandma, I want to be able to stand on my head. I hope to be able to age with grace and strength and flexibility. This woman Margalit embodies all of that. Now every Thursday morning as I head to class, I hope to see Margalit and to get to know her and tell her what an inspiration she is.