Monday 16 July 2018

64-year-old Irish yoga teacher on how the practise has changed her life

Life has come full circle for yoga teacher Elma Toland, as she brings her message to a whole new audience

Elma is on a mission to let others know how yoga can enrich their lives. Photo: Patsy Toland
Elma is on a mission to let others know how yoga can enrich their lives. Photo: Patsy Toland

Kathy Donaghy

If Elma Toland thought her move back to her native Donegal was going to coincide with her taking it easier, she was mistaken. The yoga teacher and yoga therapist is busier than ever and bringing her message of the benefits of yoga - at all ages of life - to a whole new audience.

Outside the village of Clonmany in Inishowen - the country's most northerly peninsula - Elma Toland has made her home at a cottage called the Spout in front of a mountain called Bulbin.

It's a jaw-droppingly beautiful place and a blustery November day, the cottage with its fire lighting inside is a welcome refuge from the gale blowing outside.

Elma Toland's grandparents owned the Spout and she and her husband Patsy have lovingly restored and renewed the place to make it their home now.

Having lived and worked in Dublin first, then Leixlip, Co Kildare, Elma, now 64, did not have some master plan to be back in Donegal teaching yoga. She and her husband, who's also from Clonmany, left their native village many decades ago and settled in Leixlip, where they raised their two daughters Catriona and Isabel.

They spent five or six weeks of every summer in the cottage and when Catriona got married to a Clonmany man she met on one of her many summer holidays, it seemed fitting that they got married in the garden of the cottage.

Now life has come full circle and Elma lives in Clonmany, giving yoga classes several times a week at the Market House in the village.

She never knows how many will turn up to a class but the demand for yoga is such that she's putting on a few different kinds of classes to suit everyone in the community, including a 'men only class' - which her husband Patsy recently started attending.

Elma's own journey to yoga, first as a regular practitioner and then as a teacher and therapist, began when she was at home with her daughters in the 1980s. She joined a class run by Linda Southgate, then the only yoga teacher in Co Kildare. After some years of practice, Elma decided to take it a step further.

After qualifying as a Montessori teacher, Elma says she found the confidence to train as a yoga teacher through the Irish Yoga Association.

She says she never intended to teach yoga - she'd only wanted to know more about it. But as soon as she stepped on the mat to begin her training, she knew she would love teaching.

"I was so enthusiastic about it. I could get people to do things, and realised that I was so passionate about what I was telling them, that I could motivate them," she says.

Young mothers made up the bulk of her clients at her first classes in Leixlip, although she says yoga has become something that people of all ages are doing and this is reflected in her classes today.

"After six years of teaching, I realised I knew nothing. I felt I needed to know more about illnesses and conditions and I was one of five people to train to become a yoga therapist at the time," says Elma.

She describes yoga therapy as being a marriage of western anatomy and eastern yoga and a better understanding of how the body works being born.

This knowledge, she says, totally changed her practice and her own teaching of yoga changed too. "I became more anatomy-centred. When I meet limitations in the body now, I know how to modify the posture to make it simple," she says.

Elma began working with organisations like the Rutland Centre in Dublin and MS Ireland where everything she did related to the person. "It's more about the yoga adapting to suit the person".

As she met limitations in her classes, she was able to adapt the moves for people and found she loved this and what it did for people who couldn't believe what they were able to do. In the late 1990s Elma and a few colleagues set up Yoga Therapy Ireland to train yoga teachers here.

When her daughters flew the nest - both Isabel and Catriona, her husband and two children are living in Australia - Elma and Patsy began to feel their home was too big for them. And while they'd always been regular visitors to Donegal, they started to spend more time in Inishowen.

They started to imagine what a life might look like back in Donegal but it had been so long since they lived there that Elma worried about not knowing anyone and not doing anything.

While Patsy worked in development education, he was also very involved in the music scene and already had many friends and acquaintances. However Elma felt she would have to do find her own way to get to know people in the area. Teaching yoga in Clonmany was her way of reaching out to people.

"I really just wanted to be able to say hello to people in the shop - I wasn't looking for a best friend. I also wanted to do a little bit of yoga. I started off with two classes and that went to three and then five," she says.

Through word of mouth her reputation grew and she recognised a hunger locally for yoga classes. Now Elma is preparing to give classes to yoga teachers with one specifically about teaching teachers chair yoga.

While these classes can be especially good for people with limitations, Elma says the chair is underrated as a prop and when you do yoga in a chair you are learn about breathing so much easier.

"I want to share my passion for yoga. Learning yoga is a life skill - what is there not to like? It's about maintaining your body as you get into your older years too. I love seeing people blossom," she says.

At her Monday morning class, she take a mixed age group with women in their thirties up to their sixties. "Yoga is achievable for everyone and it's adaptable. It's not high impact and people who are starting to have issues like arthritis and osteoporosis can benefit greatly," she says.

With these conditions Elma says working on keeping your strength is important and postures like Warrior Two, a strong pose that strengthens the shoulders, arms, feet, ankles and legs is powerful. As well as helping with mobility and keeping the body supple through stretching, she says yoga also teaches you how to think about things differently.

"It teaches you how to focus and how to live in the present. You learn that you have emotional control through your breathing and you can train yourself to relax. As we age, we will all get things in life - we will get sick. Yoga can help build resilience to cope with life situations and it teaches you body awareness," says Elma.

Two years ago Patsy started attending Elma's classes and now he says he's converted. "My body is more flexible. I don't get as achy as I used to. It's just a really calm, nice thing to do. As a man you don't get to do nice, soft things very often. To do something beautiful with your body - I like that space where I can do these things," he says.

He says his own practice also made him more thoughtful about his general health and well-being. "I went for a check-up and I lost a stone in weight. I wouldn't miss the classes now," says Patsy.

While they always remained connected to Clonmany through summer visits when there was no running water in the house and no inside toilet, the house and its owners are enjoying a renaissance.

Now rainwater is harvested and UV filtered for their use in the house and a small extension to the old cottage mixes the old with the modern. Elma's yoga is allowing her to bring her passion to a whole new audience, bringing an added dimension to her life back in Donegal.

"I think you have to have a passion and you follow that. You need to do something that inspires you. I sometimes think 'what if I had never found yoga - what would I do?' Not everyone is going to like yoga. I would love it to work for you but for some people it doesn't float their boat," says Elma.

"Yoga changes as you get older. The yoga that you do at 20 is not going to be the same when you are 60. At 20 you may be making these amazing shapes. You are full of ego. At 60 the postures may not be as driven but there's a deeper understanding of them," she says.

While she says it's something of a paradox yoga is about a journey into less, not constantly striving for more. She says life is like that too and while everyone can get stuck and wonder why things can't just stay the same, life is not like that.

Losing her beloved friend Linda and her cherished mother-in-law Isabel earlier this year - she knows only too well that life is constantly changing.

Letting go of the past and learning non-attachment is something that Elma feels she's learned through yoga. Now she's on a mission to let others know how yoga can enrich their lives to regardless of age or ability. It's no wonder she's in big demand.

● This article is part of a series of profiles of people who are redefining later life. If you know someone who may fit the bill, email lkearney@independent.ie

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