It’s an exaggeration – but not much of one – to say that Tara Stiles brought yoga to Sacramento when she arrived in town in 1977, a young woman from Australia who’d wandered the world from one yoga community to the next and was ready to settle down. Now, at 62, Stiles is retiring from a lifetime of teaching yoga, tai chi and meditation to classes at Curtis Park’s Sierra 2 Center and its senior center, and to clients at Sutter SeniorCare.
“I really can’t go many places in Sacramento without people saying, ‘You were my first yoga teacher,’ ” said Stiles. “I’ve helped people open doors, definitely.”
The house on the edge of Curtis Park, where she’s lived since before 1980, is on the market. She and her husband, Michael Thurmond, 67, are hitting the road, hoping to travel and spend time with relatives while keeping Sacramento as their home base.
Stiles insisted she’s not totally abandoning her teaching – she still wants to give occasional sessions – but after more than three decades of carrying a regular slate of year-round classes, she’s ready for more flexibility: She’s ready, as she put it, to transition into the next stage of life.
In the late 1970s, there were a handful of yoga teachers in Sacramento, but the evolution of yoga from a New Age-y practice into a 21st century cultural and marketing phenomenon was decades in the future.
“It’s mind-blowing to me,” Stiles said. “There were probably five people teaching yoga in Sacramento when I arrived. It was more of an unusual thing. I used to get asked to work with health practitioners and professors at Sac State. When they wanted an expert to address the mind-body connection, yoga was it.
“That mind-body concept was considered avant garde then. I’ve seen a major culture shift.”
Today, according to Yoga Journal statistics, more than 20 million Americans practice yoga, and another 45 percent of people surveyed said they were interested in giving it a go. The numbers of yoga devotees are overwhelmingly female, and most are motivated by a need for physical conditioning, flexibility and stress relief. About 20 percent are 55 and older.
Along the way, yoga has also evolved into a $28 billion industry – and in most cities, including Sacramento, yoga studios seem just about as prevalent as Starbucks stores.
“It’s interesting seeing how the younger generation has popularized certain elements of yoga,” said Stiles. “I’m not critical of it. There are all sorts of catalogs of yoga products, but if that means more people are wearing comfortable clothes and getting the benefits of yoga, then I’m happy to see it.”
Over time, her own brand of yoga has evolved toward helping aging bodies remain limber and balanced – or regain flexibility after health challenges.
“Yoga is really good for seniors,” said Stiles. “Someone can start at 75, and it doesn’t take long for people to see benefits with their stretching and balance.”
Lana Paulhamus, a 68-year-old retired state employee who lives in West Sacramento, sought out Stiles’ gentle yoga classes more than a year ago.
“I knew her reputation,” said Paulhamus. “This is a gentle way of keeping your body fit. But her classes are more than that. She helps us meditate and become mindful of the body and breathing and gentle movement.”
Stiles has taught yoga at Sierra 2 for almost 35 years. When the senior center at Sierra 2 was established a dozen years ago, Stiles signed on as an instructor there, too.
“I have to say, Sierra 2 was almost synonymous with Tara Stiles,” said the senior center coordinator, Phoebe Celestin. “Some of these people have been attending her classes as long as she’s been here.
“It feels like family. They’ve known each other as a community for a long time.”