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For longtime yoga instructor, 90, only her age isn't a stretch

Fran Miller became a yoga teacher in her 50s and now leads three classes a week in the San Fernando Valley. She is so lithe and energetic that her students say they hardly notice her age.

March 10, 2013|By Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times

Fran Miller was in her 50s when she became a yoga teacher.

That was four decades ago.

Miller, who turns 91 this week, is still at it — teaching three classes a week in the San Fernando Valley for the city's Department of Recreation and Parks.

She is so lithe and energetic that her students say they hardly notice her age. "I didn't even know she was that old," said Maureen Hanrahan. For much of the 10 years she's been taking Miller's classes, Hanrahan thought the instructor was in her 70s, she said.

Miller moved from her native New York to the Los Angeles area in 1941 and eventually settled in Valley Village. Her husband passed away when she was 40, and the onetime secretary was left to raise her daughters: Robin Cosio, 64, and Wendy Nordstrom, 60.

She first tried yoga after spotting a newspaper ad for a class taught by a rabbi at the Van Nuys YMCA.

Yoga had always fascinated Miller. But it seemed "so far out," she said.

A rabbi teacher was a different story, however. "How could I pass this up?" Miller recalled thinking. She is Jewish, and the class was close by, she said. She enrolled "and took to it like a duck to water."

The rabbi asked Miller to be one of his demonstrators in exchange for free classes. She agreed, and soon he asked her to fill in teaching his classes when he was away.

The first time the anxious Miller arrived to teach, she was armed with a list of notes. She didn't need them. She kept teaching, and when the rabbi announced he was retiring, he gave his position to Miller. Offers to lead private sessions followed, including a full-time summer job at the Highland Springs Resort in Cherry Valley, Calif.

"It just grew and grew," Miller said.

Years passed, and she just kept going. Her age is not something she dwells on. "To me, it's just a number," she said.

Though experts say Miller's staying power is rare, the prospect of "more and more 80- and 90-year-old participants" in yoga is likely as people live longer and the popularity of yoga grows, said George Salem, associate professor at USC's Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, who has researched yoga and older practitioners.

The 5-foot-31/2 Miller, who weighs around 120 pounds, credits her overall well-being to yoga, along with weekly walks and a diet that includes nuts and yogurt and a mandatory cup of hot water with lemon each morning.

"It's not only stretching," Miller said. "It's your mind, your body, your breathing. It gives you more awareness."

Her classes at Balboa Sports Center and Studio City Recreation Center have built a faithful following. Students' ages range from 12 to the 70s.

It took Charo Martinez months to persuade her husband, Rick Benzel, to accompany her to Miller's yoga sessions.

"I'm not going to take yoga," the 61-year-old writer and publishing consultant told her. "And what, the teacher is 90 years old? How can a 90-year-old be teaching yoga?"

Martinez coaxed her husband "just go watch her, just once."

That's all it took, Benzel recalled. "I fell in love with it and with Fran on Day One." That was a year ago. Today, Benzel is a regular at Miller's sessions, which he says have helped improve his balance and flexibility.

Hanrahan, 61, the veteran student, said she feels "more comfortable" with Miller as an instructor than, say, a 20-year-old.

At a recent session, Miller, dressed in black leggings and a blue-and-black-striped top, ambled between the 20 or so participants as they lay on mats preparing to commence with 90 minutes of Hatha yoga, which focuses on balancing mind and body.

"As you quiet your body, you quiet your mind," Miller told the group as they lay in a restorative pose. Later she guided them through a salutation to the sun.

"Stand at the front of your mat … feet apart … inhale reaching upward," Miller commanded.

Bending forward, she pushed her chest to her thighs and her hands to the floor. With hands at either side of her right foot, she lunged her left leg behind her while lifting her shoulders and lengthening her spine. She stepped her right leg back so her feet were side by side. Head down, arms extended, body straight, she held the pose for several seconds.

ann.simmons@latimes.com

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