The Bendy Body and Mind of an Octogenarian

From chemistry to yoga, the long life of a teacher
Jaki Jackson of Springs, a longtime yoga teacher, got hooked about 60 years ago by the practice’s promise of perpetual youth. At 87, displaying a suppleness of body and mind, it appears that she might have found it. Judy D’Mello

“I teach people,” Jaki Jackson said at her house in Springs on Monday. Although seated in an armchair designed to encourage slouching, she held remarkably good posture. It’s the kind that reflexively causes a straightening of one’s own carriage.

“You teach people yoga?” this writer pressed on. “Any particular style?”

Her only answer was an intense stare, piercing, unflinching, and unsmiling. How absurd the world has become, her 87-year-old eyes seemed to say. Yoga, the most ancient of meditative practices designed to restore equilibrium to body, mind, and spirit and achieve a sense of wholeness, has ironically been fractured by a multibillion dollar industry into a cornucopia of varieties, like flavors of ice cream.

“I claim only one thing,” she said, finally breaking her bellicose stare. “I am a teacher.”

Indeed she is. Ms. Jackson has taught yoga in and around East Hampton for over 50 years, and, despite pushing 90, she still leads about 10 classes a week in her own style of yoga at the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter and the senior citizens center on Springs-Fireplace Road. She also has multiple private clients. 

“I think I’ve allowed myself to go to the unknown. To make sense of life,” she said in response to being asked what keeps her going. 

Becoming a yoga instructor was not her goal. She had been an avid dancer growing up as an only child in New York City. She discovered yoga while working as a chemist after graduating from Fisk University. 

“Not biochemistry,” she was eager to point out. “I’m not particularly fond of people so I wasn’t interested in anything related to human beings. I studied physical chemistry,” she clarified, which is the application of the techniques and theories of physics to the study of chemical systems.

She tried her hand at teaching in schools. “But I couldn’t get along with the teachers,” she said. “And the principal just wanted to get the scores up. . . . I just couldn’t get along with the culture.” So, instead, she started a dance program for kids in a South Jamaica, Queens, housing project.

“Everything is about vibrations,” she said, animated and excited, “and we people are the most exquisite vibration on earth.”

Continued from A1

In the early 1960s, she moved to Springs with her second husband, who was an artist, and her son from her first marriage. The family lived in a cowshed on Accabonac Road that had an outhouse and no heat. After the couple had a daughter, a friend suggested they move out of the cowshed and into her house on Neck Path with an indoor bathroom and heat, as the friends were moving away. Fifty-two years later, she still lives there. 

“Circumstances had to pin me down somewhere,” she said. 

For seven years, Ms. Jackson ran a nursery school in the house, which turned into a creative camp in the summers. But her seemingly endless curiosity about the mysteries of the world propelled her to take a computer-programming course at Stony Brook University, “to understand the brain,” she said. “Just by turning a switch off and on, I could get a computer to do what I wanted. That was so fascinating to me.”

Today, she admitted, she has put her machine away because it seems to have a brain of its own, apparently preprogrammed to sell her, and the rest of the world, things that no one needs.

“We’re losing our individual beauty to a collective group of people who are making money selling us things that promise to make our lives different.” 

She does not own a cellphone either. What she does possess is a vast collection of books, and she regularly refers to authors such as Eckhart Tolle and topics like Zen Buddhism and hypnosis. She has a collection of journals that fill two shelves of a bookcase. They are more like scrapbooks, with photos, news clippings, and writing. A yellowish piece of paper fell out of one book. It had “Yoga Routine” scribbled on top and the date — November 1984 — on the right-hand corner. “Took a class this morning with Dharma Mittra,” the note read. “He first allowed us to do sun salutations on our own. First round: easy. Second round: back stretch, twisted crescent added. Third: unsupported crescent.”

We expect yoga teachers to be supple, even at Ms. Jackson’s age — after all, isn’t lifelong flexibility the promise of the practice? She pointed to one of her favorite photographs, showing a rail-thin, gray-haired yogi in a handstand, his legs twisted like pipe cleaners.

Ms. Jackson said she goes through stages of standing on her head or doing other yoga exercises. “Today, I like to stretch in bed. Oh, I’m so strange,” she said laughing suddenly. “I’m not predictable.”

It is this suppleness of her mind, in the end, that appears to keep her strong and flexible, at an age when most have given up on any sort of quality of life. By twisting her body, she has found a panacea to soothe her mind. Through yoga, she seems to have found, if not total enlightenment, at least a glimmer of understanding.

“You don’t need to pledge allegiance to anything but the life that’s in you,” were the words she offered in parting.