Aug. 14, 2000 -- At 77, Jean Cotner is not the oldest person in her yoga
class, but she's the most accomplished. Of course, you'd expect that of the
teacher. A devout practitioner for over 30 years, her body is the best
advertisement for her classes: She appears strong, flexible, and much younger
than her years.
"Of all the aids to self-improvement," says Cotner, "mental as
well as physical, yoga is surely the most reliable, the safest, and the
best." Yoga, she says, works to improve the circulatory, glandular,
nervous, and muscle systems. Known as the First Lady of Yoga in Orange County,
Calif., where she has taught since 1969, Cotner practices daily and teaches
five days a week. Most of her students are much younger than she is, but they
are much less flexible as well.
Your best-selling book The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles your grief
following the loss of your husband, John. What surprised you most about
I did not expect the degree of derangement-both physiological and mental. An
example of the latter: Two weeks after John died, when I filled out a hospital
form for the autopsy report, I gave not my own address but that of an apartment
in which we had lived for the first four or five months of our marriage, in
"I wake up doing yoga," she says. "I stretch even before I get
out of bed, always accompanied by deep breathing. Breath is life."
Countering the Effects of Aging
I first learned about Cotner's classes through my mother, Rhoda Rafkin, who
at 79 is one of the few students actually older than her teacher. My family has
always been athletic -- I practice martial arts as well as mountain climbing --
and my mother broke her right hip and several leg bones in a hiking accident 20
years ago. She had tried weight training to compensate for her injuries, but
nevertheless, simple, everyday movements like bending in her garden had become
Six months ago, my mother began taking Cotner's classes to deal with the
stiffness, aches, and growing arthritic pain she was experiencing.
"Already, I see a great improvement in my flexibility," she says.
"After many years of not being able to sit on the floor and cross my legs,
I'm now able to do so."
While my mother was conducting her own real-life experiment, a recent bevy
of studies lend support to the beneficial aspects of yoga:
Two small studies published in the February 2000 issue of the journal
Rheumatic Diseases Clinics of North America found that yoga helps with
pain associated with osteoarthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
A study published in the April 2000 issue of Indian Journal of
Physiology and Pharmacology showed that yoga may be as effective as drug
therapy in controlling hypertension. (However, until this is more firmly
established by additional research, yoga is better regarded as an adjunct to
drug treatment rather than a replacement. Needless to say, any changes to your
drug regimen should be made in consultation with your doctor.)
A second study in the same journal documented that a four-month yoga
regimen significantly increased feelings of good health, as rated by a
standardized "Subjective Well-Being Inventory."
A Stanford University review of the research on complementary treatments
found that mind-body techniques including yoga were efficacious primarily as
complementary treatments for musculoskeletal disease and related
Other studies, including one at the Roosevelt University Stress Institute
in Chicago, have found that yoga stretches reduce physical stress while
increasing physical relaxation.