Orinda Icon Shares Health Secrets

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(Sally Hogarty, photographer)
Jeanne Dowell’s passion for yoga and teaching is shared with daughter Dana Dowell (standing), author of the book Yoga Girl.

    While bringing joy to many, the holidays, including the beginning of a new year, can bring stress. Whether that results in depression due to a loved one no longer being a part of the holiday celebrations, stress at gaining a few pounds or other concerns, Jeanne Dowell has the answer – yoga!
    According to this 90-year-old Orinda icon, yoga not only improves circulation, specific postures can alleviate depression and help one breathe more fully.
    “Yoga helps us stretch the stress out of our minds and bodies,” Dowell says. “The practice of yoga brings us face to face with ourselves. Before we feel a loss of control, we need to take time out daily to be quiet and experience life more peacefully.”
    Dowell certainly practices what she preaches. Although she turned 90 on Dec. 29, she teaches a minimum of three yoga classes a week and takes one to two classes herself. She recently was certified to teach Dr. Baxter Bell’s Yoga for Healthy Aging.
    Up until last year, she was also an avid skier until vertigo forced her to stop. She attributes yoga to keeping her strong and physically active. “My knees, hips and shoulders just respond to the yoga postures, and I am so grateful,” Dowell says.
    The self-proclaimed “yoga junkie” read her first book on yoga as a 4th grader living in the Midwest. Although enticed by the subject matter, she didn’t take her first class until she was a young mother in Orinda.
    “My teacher, Rama Vernon, opened up this new world to me. Going through a divorce, I needed a way to deal with the stress in my mind and body and the pains of being a single mom raising three children. I feel yoga saved my life, and I am so grateful to teach the science of yoga and how it helps us age with grace and health through our senior years,” she explains.
    Dowell recalls how she uses yoga to help with everyday chores. “I hate grocery shopping, but if I go after my yoga class, I just glide through the store, totally peaceful and present.”
    “Peaceful and present” is not how yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar would have described Dowell when he met her in the 1960s. Well-known in yoga circles, the native of India had been invited to teach a workshop in Oakland. Dowell recalled she was in the front row when he stopped teaching and spoke to her: “You with the darting eyeballs. If you can’t concentrate, get out, out!” Needless to say, Dowell didn’t get out, and when they met three years later, she said he acknowledged how far she had come in her practice.
    “I remember Mr. Iyengar telling me my sternum was collapsing and he was right, not only my sternum but my whole insides,” says Dowell. “To this day, I think of how much the sternum tells us about what’s going on inside.”
    Thanks to the encouragement of her teacher, Dowell taught her first class in her backyard to students from Holden High School, then called Contra Costa Alternative High School, “I didn’t charge, but they had to bring something they made: bread, poems or whatever. I loved them and teaching,” she says.
    Dowell went on to teach at the Orinda Community Center, the Moraga Hacienda, Rossmoor, Alta Bates Hospital, Mills College, convalescent homes and so many more. “One of my most exciting yoga experiences was working under the U.S. Olympic Committee at Squaw Valley teaching yoga to the synchronized swim team from Heather Farms in Walnut Creek,” she adds.
    Impressed with the value of yoga, Dowell continued to teach and take classes, studying around the world including India, which she describes as her “boot camp in growing up.” She also shared her passion for yoga with her children, Duke, an electrical engineer in Martinez, David, a filmmaker in Glendale, and Dana, a professional actress and visual artist.
    Dana, who lives in Moraga, will sometimes teach with her mother and has written her own book “Yoga Girl,” with illustrations by Kevin Coffey. Dowell also has four grandchildren and a stepson who have been exposed to the positive effects of yoga as well.
    “My life has changed in a big way through yoga,” Dowell says. “It gave me a meaning and a purpose I didn’t have before. I’m helping people and, knowing that, helps me. Mostly, it’s given me an acceptance and understanding of life without resistance. I have more yesterdays than tomorrows and that’s okay because this is how life moves on. As the American spiritual teacher Ram Dass notes, ‘We are all just walking each other home.’”

(Contributed Photo)
Long-time Orinda resident Jeanne Dowell teaches yoga three times a week, attributing her good health and positive outlook to the practice.

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