Yoga takes root in couple's retirement

By Frank Marquez

Better late than never.

Mike and Pam Brunner of Gering, Nebraska, were introduced to Yoga in their seventh decade of life. Mike, 62, retired last year from a desk job as a certified transportation broker after 37 years. Before that, he started out in the workforce as a DJ on radio stations in Gering and Portland, Oregon. Meanwhile, Pam, 60, worked for Gering Public Schools for 22 years, the last two as a librarian at Gering’s Northfield Elementary. 

Both performed relatively sedentary jobs and their bodies felt the effects. Mike kept his head firmly into the receiver of a telephone, one elbow on the desk, while Pam pushed book carts and chased kids. With two kids of their own long since gone, the empty-nesters began to settle into retirement as couch potatoes, which didn’t abide their interests.

Their children, for whom they have become examples, Kayleigh Kenik, 31, of Laramie, Wyoming, and Jeff Brunner, 30, of Wellington, Colorado, both elementary school teachers, see the value in what their parents have found in Yoga. “They’re full of applause and encouragement,” Mike said. Kayleigh bought her mother a Yoga mat for Mother’s Day. Mike hopes she does the same for him come Father’s Day.

Photo by Frank Marquez

Retired couple Mike and Pam Brunner demonstrate Tree Pose in their vegetable garden. They have discovered a new vitality in gardening and yard work with their regular yoga practice.

Mike said his “strength, and balance wasn’t good,” and found himself using a garden kneeler to assist getting up and down to weed a patch of plump vegetables and maintain a well-manicured lawn at their home in west Gering. “AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) suggested Yoga in an article I read,” he said, about advice for combatting the tendency to slow down to the point of stopping.

In January of 2018, he found himself at Prairie Arts Yoga Studio on Gering’s main street. He spoke with Yoga Instructor Lisa Betz-Marquez, saying that he heard she “taught yoga to old people.” It was a bit of serendipity. She had been planning to offer a Gentle Beginners’ class. Unbeknownst to Mike, that day he was making history, becoming the first signee for the new class. The studio was a year old.

Pam remembered the first day he went. “The class started at 2 p.m. and I expected him to come back and say no, that he wasn’t planning to keep going,” she said. “I was sitting at home watching the clock. An hour had gone by, then another, and he still wasn’t home. I wondered what happened—I wondered, did he pass out?”

Pam expressed her own concerns about aging. “I wasn’t excited about retirement. I had memories of my grandparents. They were chair-bound in their 70s. I worried that eventually I wouldn’t be able to get up and get around.”

After Mike’s positive report, the couple began attending class twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the start of the year when most people make New Year’s resolutions. They stayed with it, only missing three classes due to obligations that took them out of town. They have since learned the value of Yoga and sing its praises. “It’s the best gift you can give yourself,” Pam said. “When I leave Yoga, I feel wonderful. All is well with my soul.” With the growing student list, including some people they’ve invited, “it’s become family. We laugh, we cry, and we cheer each other’s accomplishments.”

It’s not about vanity. “We’re long past that,” Mike said, referring to “the fit people you see on TV, and the flashy Yoga clothes they wear.” Mike wears simple T-shirts and sweat pants, which fit right in with Lisa’s reminders that it doesn’t matter what you wear or how you look, what matters are the significant changes that take place on the inside of a person learning Yoga. He used, as an example, a picture he saw of a guy named Bob, who struck the perfect Warrior II pose, arms spread to a T, forward knee bent, gaze over the forward arm, as though leading a charge. “I can’t do the pose like Bob, but it’s OK.” That’s what Mike likes about Yoga; it’s not a competition, and there’s no judgement.

Sitting at their kitchen table during our interview, Mike, with a cheerful bespectacled face, like Pam’s, reaffirmed the benefits too. “I leave class with a slightly sweaty T-shirt but I feel energized. I used to think about having a few beers after a workout but instead I have a few cups of water. (With each class) my energy level keeps going up.”

As a result, Mike said he’s had several “ah-ha” moments. One allowed him to de-winterize his camper which means maneuvering underneath it, a little “bit of twisting and turning” as he put it, to get in and get out more easily. Yoga, he said, has helped with increased flexibility and core strength. He’s deduced this year’s ease in doing the task can’t be attributed to anything else; he’s not made any significant changes to his physical regimen except for adding a regular Yoga practice. Another victory has been finding it “easier to garden,” by abandoning the garden kneeler, a reminder of knee surgery, which left him less mobile. These days, he exclaims that he feels “elated, relieved, and better off than last year.”

Aside from Mike’s ah-ha moments, the couple eats better, making better choices about what to give their bodies. “More fish and chicken,” Pam said. “You want to improve and keep improving… but it’s not about competition. (Lisa) encourages us to push, by introducing new poses, and if I can’t do it at first, and someone else can do it, I don’t feel defeated. I’ll just keep trying until I do.”

Mike exemplifies that effort. He too participates in whatever the gentle sequences have to offer, knowing it’s about what he can do, and not what he can’t. “I am grabbing my ankles for the first time in years,” he said, about a pose called half-boat in which the novice yogis turn onto their stomachs and reach back to grasp their raised leg.

“It’s a big deal,” Pam said. “A rush!”

For such an occasion, the entire room breaks out into mini-celebration yelps and applause.

Both Pam and Mike have vowed to keep going to Yoga. Before Mike started going, he referred to the situation as dire. “You think about mortality,” he said, “about getting older, and it doesn’t need to be a painful process,” or even one about breaking down or limiting oneself. Lisa tells the yogis that those are stories people tell themselves, ones they have come to believe. They have convinced themselves about what it means to get old but we can change the story.

After getting past that couch-potato phase, Pam said, “walking feels wonderful, an everyday activity. It’s easier to get up off the ground, too. The stretches we get for the back help with working out in the yard.” In the past six months, she’s lost 15 pounds, her clothes fit better and she’s not about to let that go. “I want to keep doing yoga into my 80s,” she said. “You have to work at it, it’s not just about the oms,” which is a mantra chanted at the end of Yoga sessions.

She’s right. Yoga is so much more for Mike and Pam. It’s about living a full life, especially one in retirement.

Mike and Pam Brunner execute the Cat/Cow series in Gentle Beginner's Yoga Class at Prairie Arts Yoga Studio in Gering, Nebraska.  The class meets from 2-3:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

Studio owner and yoga instructor Lisa Betz-Marquez assists Pam in reaching her ankle in Boat Pose.