By KATE LUDLOW
BERTRAM — “Yoga literally means to yoke up. To harness. To get it all together.”
That’s how 84-year-old Billie Gollnick of Bertram describes the impact that yoga has had on her life.
“What if I had to live in this body for 100 years? If I do, I want to be comfortable,” she said.
Since 1966, Gollnick has studied and taught yoga, and now brings the skills she gathered worldwide to a free class offered in Bertram. What has become a popular way to practice physical, spiritual, and mental discipline stared as a simple read for a young woman in Houston.
In 1945, Gollnick went to see the movie adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It contained the line, “I sent my soul through the invisible, some letters of that after-life to spell, and by and by my soul did return, and answered, ‘I myself am Heaven and Hell.’” From The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a collection of poems originally written in Persian, the quote held great weight with Gollnick.
“I went to the library to try to find more. I found the
book Heaven Lies within Us by Theos Bernard. Widely considered the first American book on yoga, it was definitely the only book on yoga in that Houston library. Gollnick was intrigued, but the obsession hadn’t started yet.
“At the time, I was into German philosophy, heavy, heavy stuff. Schopenhauer, those guys. It was so serious. I was at Brown Bookstore in Houston, and Ted Brown, said, ‘Put that away, this is the book you need,’” she recalls.
That book was Indra Devi’s Forever Young, Forever Healthy. After reading the two, she began studying yoga more seriously. She said at that time, there were no yoga classes in Houston or anywhere nearby, so Gollnick found a correspondence course and enrolled. She continued ordering and seeking out books that would teach her new poses, and mental exercises.
In 1959, she read in a newspaper that world-renowned yoga instructor and Sanskrit teacher Ernest Wood was moving to Houston. “It was mind-boggling,” says Gollnick.
Friends began mailing her clippings on Wood, and one day, while meditating, the thought occurred to Gollnick, “I should just call him. So, I did. I decided to call him up, and I asked if I could come over. He said yes.” She spent the next six years studying with Wood.
Gollnick said in 1963, she found herself living what she describes as a “Leave It to Beaver” life. She lived in a relatively upscale Houston area, she had a good marriage and three young children. Then tragedy struck. Gollnick’s husband passed away suddenly, and within three months of his death, her father passed away, leaving her mother a widow. Her mother moved in with her, and Gollnick had to figure out a way to keep the family above water. At the time, her only skills were yoga and Sanskrit — a dying language. Neither one of these prospects had people lined up to offer a paycheck.
Her friends encouraged her to teach yoga classes, but she didn’t feel confident in her abilities. She began giving lectures on the health aspects of yoga in country clubs, sorority houses, and sociology classes. She realized there was an interest in her skills, and she realized she was the only person in Houston that could offer them.
In 1966, she began teaching classes out of her dining room. The Houston newspapers found out, and began talking about the “weird lady in Houston that was doing the interesting exercises.” Gollnick was overwhelmed by interested people. The School Of Yoga was born.
As a teacher, Gollnick relied heavily on her training, and credits a 1964 trip to India with her lifelong love of educational travel.
“It was 1964, I had just lost my husband and my father. I was lost. I asked my mother to stay with the kids, and I bought a plane ticket to New Delhi. I didn’t know what would happen when I got there. I was just called,” she said.
She arrived, and began wandering, accepting offers to stay with families as she did. She wandered the Himalayas seeking out yogis in caves.
“This was before the hippies, before The Beatles even,” says Gollnick. She was one of only a few Americans there at the time, and the further away from New Delhi she wandered, the less English she found they spoke.
“I was on a bus, trying to get to a certain village I had heard about. Everyone seemed to have a different pronunciation of its name. I was getting teary. I was hot, I was alone, and I was beginning to feel lost,” she remembers.
Finally, the bus driver pointed, indicating that she should get off at the next stop.
“I got off next to a large compound. I went to the gateway. There was a tall, scholarly gentleman there. I asked if I could stay there,” she said.
He not only spoke perfect English, but he allowed her to stay as well. He told her that she would have to sleep in a room with another American woman, so she went in to meet her new roommate. It was Indra Devi, author of the book that sparked her love for yoga.
“It was incredible. Here I had traveled to the end of the earth, and I was put in a room with the revered mother,” she said.
It was in India she earned her name, Gargi. Gargi Vachaknavi was a revered natural philosopher in Vedic literature. The brahmayajna, a philosophic congress would debate on man’s origins. Gargi was one of only two women who gave arguments, and the only one whose arguments were recorded. As Gollnick has earned some pull around the ashram, and had become well-respected, the yogi took to calling her Gargi, the respected woman.
Back in Houston, her classes took off, and she soon moved from her dining room to a building on Lovett Boulevard. She started training new instructors, and building a large clientele, even though yoga was still wildly misunderstood at the time.
A newspaper column she contributed to described Gollnick’s classes as “Sanskrit in Suburbia,” apparently overlooking the fact that Sanskrit is a language, not a form of yoga. She was considered a metaphysician in one magazine, and lumped in with the astrologers and psychics. To this day, she encounters questions.
“I still have people that come to classes, and they think I’m a fortune teller. Maybe I should just pretend,” she says with an ever-present twinkle in her eye. Her advanced age has not dulled her sense of humor.
In 1990, the yoga scene in Houston had changed.
“It was falling apart,” says Gollnick. “One student lifted an exact lesson plan. I never had them copyrighted. He lifted the exact lesson plan and my techniques, and went over and opened the Institute of Yoga. I had the School of Yoga, which was later Gargi’s Yoga. He lowered his prices to bring people over. It was not in good spirit.” She decided to close the school.
She traveled continuously, going back to India for “a season or two at a time,” spending some time with a friend from New York City. She had an apartment in London where, from her kitchen, she could hear the sounds Big Ben, London’s giant clock tower. She finally decided to settle in Bertram, where her son and his wife were raising horses.
Last October, she felt a need to repay her spiritual debt to Ernest Wood, who had never charged her for a lesson. She walked into the Joann Cole Mitte Memorial Library in Bertram, and offered her services for free.
“I was intimidated at first,” says Gollnick, “I wasn’t sure how I would be accepted. Now I have separated the wheat from the chaff as they say, and those who are here want to be here, and those that are coming are very accepting,” she said.
Her classes are mild compared to what she knows, but she has tailored them to accommodate her students. She teaches a wide range of students now, from 11-year-old children to middle-aged truck driving men, and women who, though they are technically classified as seniors, move through her poses with the flexibility of much younger women.
Gollnick sprinkles her classes with quotes on spirituality, funny anecdotes, and insists that students keep their own pace and comfort level.
“I want everyone to leave feeling good, not leave in pain,” she added.
About the only requirement for her classes is the ability to get up and down on the floor, but in certain circumstances, serious students can choose to work in a chair.
“I tell my students to bring in blankets, cushions, whatever makes them comfortable,” says Gollnick.
Each class is just over an hour, and takes the participant through a series of beginner yoga poses. The focus is breathing and relaxation, and while it is a workout, it is completely unlike the gym experience.
Though her age is remarkable, she enlists her students’ help to keep from focusing on it.
“I keep a rubber band around my wrist, and they remind me to snap it every time I talk about my age,” says Gollnick, “I’m having fun, proving to myself that I can go.”
Gollnick’s classes are free to the public, and are held at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursday at the Joann Cole Mitte Memorial Library in Bertram.
For more information, call (512) 355-2113.