Yoga Changed Ellen Millar’s Life. Now She’s Bringing it to Others
By Marni McEntee | Photographed by Kaia Calhoun
The serene smile on Ellen Millar’s face as she teaches her Easy Yoga Plus class gives her away. She really loves leading the group of mostly seniors in the same type of practice that has completely turned her own life around since she took her first yoga class at the age of 74.
Millar, now 78, is an evangelist for the benefits of yoga for seniors. The gentle version she teaches can help them stay strong and flexible so they can remain mobile as they age, and it can help them relax, focus their minds and increase mental acuity.
“I live in a senior apartment complex and I see other people that were where I was and I’m thinking ‘they don’t need to be there. They can do things to help themselves,’” Millar says. “And it’s my mission to try to convince them…that yoga isn’t just about what they call ‘the pretzel people,’” referring to the preconception that all yoga practitioners are able to, and want to, wrap their bodies into pretzel-like positions.
Where Millar herself was four years ago was gradually descending into a state of decrepitude. She’d had several failed eye surgeries after a misdiagnosis, and it was very difficult for her to see. She had to retire from her computer-based job reviewing insurance claims for a local hospital, and then felt stuck at home. She had diabetes and her toes were curled under due to lack of exercise and muscle strength. “I was tightening up all over,” she says.
“And I wasn’t able to do a lot of things. I mean, literally, if I took a shower I’d have to sit down and wait for my energy to build up before I could get dressed, that’s how bad I was. I shouldn’t have been driving, because I couldn’t turn my head to see cars coming. And I wasn’t getting any help from medical people or chiropractors,” Millar says. “Then I saw the Perennial Groupon 30-day offer, and I thought ‘well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ So I tried it, and my goodness, there’s a new me.”
Millar says she felt better after just one class at Perennial yoga studio in Fitchburg. “I got off the elevator at home and I had a spring in my step,” she says.
That 30-day membership led to Millar’s decision to continue practicing yoga, and then, to go on and become certified to teach.
Millar credits Perennial instructor Keith Borden for helping her get where she is. She took his Yoga RX class, which caters to older students and those recovering from injuries, for more than a year, and then decided that she wanted to train as a teacher.
“You don’t get people who just start coming to yoga at 74 years old,” Borden says. But, there’s nothing typical about Millar. “There’s nothing slowing her down and nothing stopping her at a time when many people are slowing down, paring down, doing less, going fewer places. She’s really ramping up,” he says.
Millar’s diabetes is now in check and she can stand with her feet flat on the floor in Mountain Pose—the curled toes are history.
Borden worked with Millar privately to help her adapt some of the teacher training poses so that she could succeed, and she did. Then, last year she attended Duke University’s integrative medicine program to help infuse her yoga teaching abilities with knowledge about instructing seniors. She’d already told Borden that she wanted to open her own senior yoga studio.
“Ellen decided she could see her niche,” Borden says. “She said ‘I feel like I should figure out how to bring this to people who are my age and are not as adventurous as I am. She started figuring out how she could create a business model that would really adapt this practice so she could successfully bring it to older people.”
Millar teaches her Easy Yoga Plus at Perennial, the Goodman Community Center and at the Fitchburg Senior Center. She also shares her knowledge at various senior apartment complexes in Madison.
“We just talk about what’s happening to your body,” she says. “And they even have a hard time sharing that and talking about it out loud. They just let it happen and they keep it all inside.” Her job is to convince seniors that yoga is about more than just complicated poses.
“It’s more becoming aware of who you are, your body, your emotions even. It’s mind, body and spirit. And beginning to realize that anybody can do yoga,” and that there’s no shame in using extra props, like the metal chairs, bolsters and blankets in Millar’s classes.
Some in Millar’s early classes took the bait and have become devotees. Cheryl Jenkins, 70, retired in 2014 and, after a stressful career that involved a lot of computer work, she was looking for something to keep her active and improve her wellbeing. She had thought yoga wasn’t for her until she tried one of Millar’s Easy Yoga Plus classes—the plus being the slow and careful instruction specific to seniors.
“I was amazed. It was easy. I could do it!” Jenkins says excitedly. “And right away I felt a little better.”
She’s noticed improvement in her strength and balance, her lung capacity—from yoga’s deep breathing exercises—and relief from her sore muscles. She recommends it to others in her age group. “Just take one class and see if you get something out of it.”
Millar has already met with small business bankers on funding for her new studio, and she is looking for additional backers, specifically, someone who can carry on after she needs to bow out.
“I think it’s something that needs to keep going on,” Millar says. “And so I need to identify the person that wants to be a partner…be a successor.”
She plans to locate her studio on the West Side, in the vicinity of Odana Road, where she knows there are multiple senior living buildings.
Although Borden taught Millar, he says he learned a lot from her, too.
“I hope that, when I’m Ellen’s age, that I remember Ellen’s determination,” says Borden, who is 45. “And to remember that we’re all going to feel different at an older age. We can choose to either let those things stop us or we can choose to figure how to work and live and be with those things in our bodies.”
“It’s not really about what your body can do. It’s about how your mind is helping you through this change, then discovering the physical benefit in that experience,” Borden says.
For information on Millar’s classes, visit thewonderofyoga.com