“I found this country to be the dream of a lifetime. I owe it a debt,” says Frank Iszak, 78, an energetic senior citizen who teaches free yoga classes to fellow elders and retirees through Silver Age Yoga, a group he founded.
In exchange for the freedom that America granted Iszak in his youth—after a stint in a forced labor camp, he escaped communist Hungary and immigrated to the States in 1958—the sprightly San Diegoan has spent his silver years tirelessly giving back.
His modus operandi?
Silver Age Yoga, a gerontology-based style of the ancient stretching and meditation practice that Iszak and his wife, Serpil Gole-Iszak, 53, co-founded in 2003.
Silver Age Yoga is a particularly apt story to appear on May 19—Senior Citizens Day. Their exclusive clientele is economically and physically disadvantaged senior citizens who are seeking better health through yoga.
The best part?
Every one of the 7,500 classes—that’s more than 70,000 class hours—taught by Silver Age Yoga instructors in the seven years since its inception has been delivered free of charge.
“The rich old guys can come to the health clubs and pay a considerable amount of money for a class. But most of our clients are living on a limited income. If you’re not giving it to them for free, they are not going to come,” says Iszak, who relies on outside donations and his own private investigation practice to keep the pro bono business model up and running.
Seniors age 65 and older constitute the swiftest-growing sector of the U.S. population. Between now and 2050, the number of seniors living in America is expected to double to 80 million. Nearly one-quarter are expected to live to age 100. Against this social fabric, Iszak believes Silver Age Yoga will not only function, but flourish. “The most important thing for seniors in terms of health is staying active,” says Iszak. “What you can move, you can use.”
What began as a local endeavor—at first, 13 teachers each taught one class per week—has blossomed into an organization with certified teachers in 10 states and two Canadian provinces. In the greater San Diego area alone, more than 30 Silver Age Yoga classes are taught weekly at more than 25 senior centers, including four blind centers.
“We have a waiting list of a dozen senior sites that want us to start the program. It is just the question of money,” says Iszak.
For those seniors who can’t wait, the San Diego County Television Network airs a 30-minute Silver Age Yoga class twice a day, five days a week.
Rooted in classical hatha yoga, Silver Age Yoga’s postures were designed around geriatric medicine and “typical senior related illnesses,” says Iszak. These include osteoporosis, arthritis, increased body fat and decreased lean body tissue, diabetes, and poor blood circulation.
During a recent class for a dozen blind and visually impaired students at the San Diego Center for the Blind, which Iszak co-taught with his wife and another instructor, Iszak carefully balanced a serene, soothing demeanor with visually arresting direction and well-timed humor. “The breaths warm your body, but cool your mind.” “Think of it like rolling a smiley face with your chin.” “Reach for the heavens, we all want to get there.”
Because Silver Age Yoga places a premium on balance, all of its postures are chair-centric. Some even come gift-wrapped in easy-to-remember names. For the “The Liberace,” which helps loosen arthritic fingers, students are instructed to “play the piano.”
Without exception, reaction from the students is overwhelmingly positive.
“I think it's great,” says Dolores Dobyns, 81. “I think we ought to do them everyday.”
Eva Flores, 59, compared Gole-Isack’s assistance near the end of the hour-long class to that of angel. “When she was guiding me, I felt like I was going to fly away. I feel awakened. It gives me energy.”
For Maria Salinas, 56, the weekly class makes her “happier, more cheerful.”
To study the positive effects of Silver Age Yoga on a scientific level, a research pilot project has been commissioned by the Veteran’s Administration and the University of California, San Diego.
As for the positive effect Silver Age Yoga has had on his life, well, Iszak doesn't need graphs or pie charts or any scientific study. He’s seen the certified results in the smiles on the faces of the thousands of seniors he’s taught, felt it in countless thank-you hugs over the years.
“The rewards are mostly emotional,” says Iszak. “It’s changing their lives. That’s really our basic motive, basic goal—making their life better in whatever years they have left."