01.07.2009

Inspired by Life

"Hope and serenity, darlin'...hope and serenity," Florence Zaccaria chuckles knowingly, as if she's been sitting on this precious secret all her life. Perhaps she's amused by my enthusiasm for this month's theme, Hope? But I'll let her have a laugh. She's 91 years old, sparkling with good health, fit enough to teach yoga - and has certainly earned the right to mix mirth with wisdom.

Even over the phone I sense the warmth of this woman known as Flo. I discard my prepared list of questions and we get straight to talking about what makes her tick - and tick remarkably well for her years.

How does she stay flexible enough - in mind, body and spirit - to complete demanding postures, as well as teach a weekly yoga class of 75 participants? Many half her age wouldn't be up to the task.

"For the last 36 years I've worked in the [Canterbury-Hurlstone Park] RSL club in Sydney teaching yoga. But I've done yoga all over Sydney since I was 28," Flo tells me. That's 63 years of practice. Anyone who doubts the rewards of a lifelong commitment to health need only see this humble woman in her 90s lie down, swing her legs over her head and touch her toes on the floor.

Flo has inspired others, too, and her Thursday class is full of people in their 80s. "Our youngest is 21 and participants are aged up to 87...they love it. It makes people use lazy muscles, use their mind, and be a more interesting person."

Of course, older participants modify postures to suit their fitness and even Flo recognises her limits. She now team teaches with colleague and friend Christine Gillet. Chris may be younger and sometimes stronger than Flo, and her eyesight sharper, but Flo describes Chris (with cheeky affection) as "a young pup" with a lot to learn.

Flo has practised yoga since its first days in Australia in 1945. This makes her one of the few to have experienced yoga's evolution from the suspect, marginal activity it once was, to the mainstream practice it is today. "Back then, they thought it was a very strange cult. If we tried to hire a hall to do the class we found a lot of resistance...because they thought it was a weird cult," Flo says.

The story of our nation's introduction to yoga is, for the most part, undocumented. But it is a fascinating story and begins with a woman called Roma Blair (Australia's "mother of yoga" as she is known).

Roma learnt yoga moves while incarcerated at the Changi prison camp in Singapore during the Second World War. When she returned to Australia, she started a school in a Pitt St studio in central Sydney, and continued to learn by inviting Indian Swamjis to Australia.

"Everyone was frightened of it back then," Flo says. "But when they realised it was only exercise, it spread like wildfire."

Now I'm always careful who I take advice from. But a 91 year old brimming with wellbeing...well I'm willing to listen. (And nothing says "hope" quite like those standout healthy, bubbly elders of ours.) "I like an odd drink now and again, a glass of wine. I don't smoke," Flo says. "And I always start the morning with hot water and lemon juice!"

So she's not too heavy about health-kick discipline. But her vital interest in living is clearly genuine - and I suspect that's her biggest health secret.

"Don't just sit there with a blank look on your face - take in life," Flo urges. "Keep your mind alert and body active. It's the mind, body and spirit that creates a whole person. What's the good of sitting there on a bus staring at nothing...take a look at the scenery, take a look at the clouds, the sky. See the contrast between everything, the good and the bad. This gives you a wide knowledge."

A wide knowledge is something Flo mentions several times. "It's not about books, it's about taking an interest in what's around you. This means you're not just a dull person; you know that your mind, body and spirit are all working today.

"Doing exercise or yoga is not a set thing. You just do it because your body wants action and your mind wants food," she says. Of all exercises, however, Flo says yoga is a complete exercise, "creating a lovely rapport between the mind, body and spirit".

Flo's experience of yoga has changed over her 63 years of practice. "When you're young it's excitement, fun. As you get older it enriches your mind, body and your spirit. It has a more powerful effect as you become older. It quietens the spirit. But it's strengthened my mind and determination especially. I'm a frail person, so it's strengthened me in a lot of ways I can't explain.

"Every day is a precious day," Flo adds. It's not the first time I've heard these words. But they do take on a certain gravitas when said by this woman who has earned the shine in her eyes as much as she's earned her wrinkles.

Flo shares her wisdom in a recently published book called Serenity: Yoga Meditations of Florence Zaccaria written by Ricky Price. (www.zenmunki.com.au) Her next project is a relaxation CD that includes the history of yoga's early days in Australia.

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