Sawbridgeworth's inspirational 71-year-old yoga teacher Elsie Burt found her true calling at 69
Elsie Burt has been many things in her life – wife, mother, florist, salon manager, administrator – but it was only when she reached 69 that she found her true calling.
"I found what I was destined to do – and that's being a yoga teacher," she said.
Now 71, Elsie is a huge hit in Sawbridgeworth, where she teaches three classes on Tuesdays, beginning with chair yoga at the Hailey Centre, where her students range from 71 to 89.
Elsie has always kept fit. To get back in shape after having had four children by the age of 21, she used to practise Callanetics in her bedroom because "in those days there weren't any classes or gyms – not for women at least".
After a varied career, including running her own florist with two lock-up shops and managing a hairdressing salon, she retired briefly at 59. But three months later she had another job working for Epping Sports Centre.
Then in 2012 she lost her husband John to mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. She says it was yoga that kept her going.
"When you have a husband for 46 years, you don't know who you are really. My life was my husband. Yoga helped me find my identity, figure out who I was and what I liked to do."
She had been practising with Jodie Merrick, then running a hot yoga studio in Sawbridgeworth. When Jodie opened her first studio, fringe.yoga by Redricks Lakes, Elsie signed up to one of her teacher training courses.
"I asked Jodie 'Am I too old?' and she said 'Of course not, you're really good at this'," said Elsie. "I was terrified at first when I began teaching, but it's given me so much already.
"I had children so young – I never had my teenage years. I started to live the life I was meant to live when I found Jodie."
By far the oldest in her fringe.yoga teacher training cohort, Elsie helped to motivate the whole group.
Jodie said: "She's that marvellous mixture of being wise yet young at heart: always open to new experiences, living her life to the full and embracing all walks of life, whatever comes her way.
"She's an incredible asset to the teaching staff, a shoulder to lean on for many, and I'm so grateful to have her as a truly inspirational friend and teacher at the studios."
At first, Elsie's family weren't convinced.
"They said things like 'You shouldn't be doing that at your age'. It wasn't easy, but then they started reacting to what other people were saying, things like 'You must be really proud of your mum'."
As well as her three daughters – she lost her son at a young age – Elsie has eight grandchildren, ranging in age from 11 to 31, and five great-grandchildren.
"They've started to look at me in a different way now. Before, I think they just thought I was an old woman," said Elsie.
Her Hailey Centre class students certainly don't view her as only an elderly woman.
Edna Rose, 89, said of her tutor: "She's amazing! She bucks us up. We always have a laugh and a smile with Elsie."
Jean Curtis, 84, said: "When someone first suggested yoga I said 'Oh no', thinking yoga was something you did on your head. But they said 'No, you can do it on a chair', so I went along and now it's something I really look forward to."
Whilst sympathetic to the workings of an elderly body – "because I've got one of those as well" – Elsie encourages her students to get out of their seats where they are able.
"I focus a lot on balance because that's important as you get older, also for your confidence," she said. "They're getting stronger, mentally and physically, and I'm so proud of that."
The classes are invigorating – as your fortysomething reporter can attest to. The main difference from yoga on a mat is that the chair is there for support for those who need it.
"Elsie's been a fantastic credit to us here at the Hailey Centre," says manager Kerry Reynolds. "Her lovely, warm, caring and compassionate attitude towards our elderly surely makes everyone enjoy our mixed-ability, chair-based yoga classes, and with that extra bit of fun thrown in everyone is relaxed and happy when they leave."
Elsie says her students are an inspiration. "It blows me away to see women of that age still wanting to look and feel good," she said.
* On Tuesdays, Elsie runs two classes at the Hailey Centre – chair yoga at 10.15am and mat yoga at 11.30am – and one at the Memorial Hall at 1.45pm. Contact the Hailey Centre on 01279 721221.