"Have you ever had the feeling of coming home?" asks Lily Anne Hillis. "It was like that."
The 77-year-old yoga instructor is sitting in the middle of the main studio at Menlo Pilates & Yoga, chatting before her afternoon class begins. Lowering herself slowly into a one-legged forward fold, she searches for words to describe what it felt like to discover yoga.
"I took my first yoga class when I was 50 years old," she recounts, and begins to smile impishly. "It was a terrible class with a terrible teacher, but by the end of the hour I knew I'd do it all my life."
This reflection is typical of Hillis' style: In conversation and in her teaching, she's brash, slightly mischievous and prone to hyperbole. She pairs her cheeky sense of humor with a deep care for her students, extensive knowledge about the body, and a no-frills instructional style. It's a combination that has earned her a devoted following over her 25 years of teaching.
If the stereotype of the yoga instructor is of a lithe, super-flexible body wrapped in expensive lycra and exuding a reverent, zen-like demeanor, Hillis defies the cliché. She favors a tie-dyed t-shirt, some of her joints have limited mobility, she uses Sanskrit words sparingly and cusses on occasion. In Hillis' classes, silliness and sass are de rigueur.
Her teaching style continues to earn her new fans on a weekly basis. "I just picked up two people in the alleyway who are coming to class today," she announces casually. It's hard to tell whether she's joking.
Hillis teaches three classes each week at Menlo Pilates & Yoga. She also teaches classes at the Oshman Family JCC, which is where she developed "chair yoga," a class she now offers at MPY as well. Chair yoga is Hillis' answer to students who claimed they couldn't do yoga because of stiffness, pain or injury. Instead of requiring students to get up and down from a yoga mat on the floor, chair yoga utilizes a simple folding chair to provide stability in a range of standing and seated poses. "People think they need to be flexible to do yoga, but flexibility is a by-product of doing yoga, not a prerequisite," she explains. "I can take anybody and teach them yoga."
On Friday mornings and Sunday afternoons, Hillis offers a more traditional mat-based class at MPY.
When students start trickling in, Hillis hops up from her spot on the floor and heads over to greet them by name, laughing and welcoming each person through the door. "How was your vacation?" she asks. "Oh, I'm so glad you're back!"
"You made it!" she cries when one couple enters, looking slightly game if slightly uncertain. "I wasn't sure if you'd actually show up!" These are the recruits from the alleyway; Hillis welcomes them like long lost friends.
In bare feet, with her white hair cropped in a pixie cut framing a radiant smile, Hillis has a kind of agelessness about her. It's hard to believe that just six months ago she was wincing in pain with every step. "I put off getting a hip replacement for as long as I could," she explains. "Then I couldn't put weight on the leg."
If a yoga instructor with a hip replacement sounds like an oxymoron, you haven't met Hillis. In her classes, it's all about listening to the body, respecting its limitations and -- most importantly -- laughing about it.
"In my class we laugh a lot," she says. In fact, Hillis seems to have a knack for cracking a joke just when students might be about to take themselves or their yoga practice too seriously. Among her signature moves is the "rag doll," which involves a vigorous jiggling, shaking and flopping of the limbs and head. She does it standing, and also seated for chair class participants. "Where else is it legal to just stand there and make a jerk of yourself?"she asks, grinning somewhat maniacally as her head lolls on her shoulders. "That's it, shake it out!"
The effect of all this silliness on her students is profound. "We all want to be Lily when we grow up," says longtime student Candace Hathaway, who has been coming to Hillis' classes since the 1990s. "I had to take a break after my double mastectomy," she adds. "Now I'm using Lily's classes to put myself back together". Fellow student Karen Ersted shares Hathaway's love of Hillis' classes. "I've followed Lily from one studio to another," Ersted says. "She's contagious. Her outlook on life is so positive. You just feel good when you're done with an hour with Lily."
This level of loyalty seems to stem from Hillis' commitment to making yoga work for every student who comes through the door. All joking aside, she's adamant that yoga is for everyone, and she prides herself on providing modifications as necessary, a practice she calls "fitting the yoga to each individual body, not fitting the body to yoga."
And while it's clear Hillis is passionate about the benefits of a yoga practice, she's loathe to suggest what students "should" be getting out her classes.
"My job is to open people's bodies, and what they experience from having their bodies opened is personal; it's really none of my business," she says.
Hillis' ability to make yoga safe, fun and accessible to everyone is especially evident in her chair yoga class, which she insists "is not for wimps."
On a Wednesday afternoon at chair yoga, four students stand facing Hillis, holding on to the backs of their chairs and lowering themselves into a modified triangle pose as she peppers her instructions with witty asides. "Everything in your house is a yoga prop," she announces. "If you don't believe me, invite me over to your house and I'll show you."
Later, the students are in a supported warrior pose, their front legs bent in a lunge with the seat of the chair beneath their thighs, their backs arched, one arm stretched overhead. It's a fairly strenuous position to hold, but no one is complaining. Far from it. "This is awesome," one woman exclaims breathlessly. Then, it's time to sit down again. "Oh good," someone else says, and the whole class bursts into laughter.
Even when she's giving serious instruction, Hillis can't help from lightening the mood.
"Don't do this if it makes you dizzy or out of breath or agitated -- or especially if it makes you mad at your teacher," she warns.
For regular student Mary Ellen Sciarini, it's this balance of playfulness and attentive instruction that makes Hillis' chair yoga class so appealing.
"She knows what we can do and what we can't do," observes the 91-year-old student. "She knows how not to hurt us. And what a great sense of humor!" Remembering another student who hasn't made it to class for a while, Sciarini smiles. "We had a man who joined us. He was deaf in one ear and I'm deaf in the other, and Lily would joke with us about it. But she makes allowances for all these things."
Menlo Park resident Judy Adams has been coming to chair yoga for one month, and says she finds it a great way to relax. After two hip replacements, she explains, "I tired conventional yoga, but it's hard to get into the poses and up and down from the floor. I wanted to keep my flexibility and balance."
First-time student Shirley Collins from Palo Alto says she's an instant convert: "I thought it was wonderful. It helped me feel what my body needs to be able to do. I didn't realize how stiff my right side is. I'll come back as long as she keeps offering it."
At 77, Hillis has no plans to retire. "My goal is to teach yoga until my ten toes go up and they carry me out," she quips before growing earnest. "I've found something that I'm 100 percent passionate about, and it has become my life." Then, widening her eyes and dropping her voice to a whisper, she adds, "It's really just an excuse to go in and love people."
What: Yoga classes with Lily Anne Hillis
Where: Menlo Pilates & Yoga, 1011 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: Chair yoga, Wednesday, 11-11:45 a.m.; Alignment-based yoga, Friday, 6:30-7:30 a.m.; Yoga I&II, Sunday, 4:30-5:55 p.m.
Cost: $18 for a single class. Packages and student rates available.
Info: Go to menlopilatesandyoga.com or call 408-480-8977.