Virginia E. Papaioannou — genetics professor, yoga teacher

Mind, body, spirit — yoga is a holistic experience for many. But did one element or another first draw you to the practice? That is, were you seeking to settle your mind? Have greater physical flexibility? Explore your true, spiritual nature?

none of the above — I simply attended a class at my local health club because a good friend who moved away had loved yoga and I was missing her — it was love at first stretch as I realized it was what my body needed

How about now: does yoga feed your mind or your body or your spirit more, or are those elements more in balance than when you started?

I think those elements were in pretty good balance when I started, and the discipline of yoga has kept them that way, but the huge additional benefit I have from yoga is the pleasure and satisfaction I get from teaching it to others

How long have you been practicing yoga, and how frequently do you practice now?

I started practicing about 10 years ago and I practice (or teach) almost every day

How long did you practice yoga before you started teaching it?

only a couple of years — very soon after discovering how good yoga was for my aging body, I wanted to learn more and did a course of teacher training, never intending to teach, but just to get deeper into the practice — to my surprise, I loved the teaching side of it and began forging opportunities to teach people of my own age (seniors) — I think I have been on a mission ever since to show people my age and older how much they can benefit from the practice physically and mentally

Do you have a preferred yoga style?

Hatha yoga has always been my favorite but I also love experimenting with all other styles

When you first took up yoga, what came easiest and what was more challenging?

the most challenging part for me is the yoga philosophy — as a scientist, I am always questioning, and sometimes have trouble accepting some of the spiritual concepts

From your experience as a teacher, can you generalize about what comes easiest for seniors and what is more challenging?

in my experience teaching hatha and chair yoga to seniors, I find that the first challenge is always overcoming their tendency to feel they “cannot possibly do that” — once they realize nothing has to be done to perfection, each student seems to take away something different from the classes — to paraphrase a well known saying, it is sort of “from each according to their ability; to each according to their need”

What are the more difficult poses for seniors to execute?

that is impossible to generalize because in the age group I mainly teach (65-90+ yrs), almost everyone has at least one physical limitation or another — I emphasize equanimity, balance, posture and strength and offer lots of modifications for any poses that might be difficult, while not being afraid to encourage the students to go deeper

What have been the greatest benefits of yoga for you?

certainly yoga provides me with a calmer mind and greater flexibility of mind and body — it is a great way to keep the body feeling young(er)

Apart from yoga, do you practice other techniques of mindfulness or meditation?


Outside of a yoga session, do you ever just strike a pose and stretch? If so, which pose and where?

yes, often a balance pose, and any number of stretching poses

You have a choice: take a yoga class (1) outdoors on a beautiful day, overlooking the ocean, or (2) in a well-designed, very comfortable minimalist indoor space. Which do you pick?

I love teaching classes outside and take my individual practice outside whenever I can — I have no problem with distractions and I find the sounds of birds and insects and the sight of trees in the breeze highly meditative — I would love to practice near the ocean to feel the rhythm of the waves echoing my breath and often use this imagery in my classes — feeling a part of nature and inhabiting your body in a mindful way are part of what yoga is all about for me

—interview © Marshal Zeringue