Path to peace: Yoga teacher, 82, finds healing power in ancient practice
Video: Stretching with Lilo
Video: Yoga for the Mind, Body, Soul
Video: Holocaust Memories
Photos: Yoga Class
By Elizabeth Libby Smoot firstname.lastname@example.org
Dressed in black yoga pants and a striped shirt, dangling earrings framing her cropped blond hair, and rings and bracelets making music on her hands, Lisolette “Lilo” Foster commands the full attention of the 17 students stretched before her on their purple and pink mats.
Urging them to “keep your tushes down, please,” the diminutive instructor guides one of her six weekly yoga classes through a session-ending relaxation exercise.
Stretching her red-painted toenails in front of her as she glides to the floor, Foster’s gentle voice rings of her German heritage. “Become aware, there is no worry in any part of your body. You’re letting it go, so you walk out of here feeling like a million bucks.”
The healing power of yoga — from the Sanskrit word “Yuj,” which means to join or unite — is thought to have originated in India 3,000 years ago. The practice can improve health and the quality of life through physical and mental exercises — an integration of body, mind and soul to achieve a harmonious and balanced life. It has three main focuses — physical postures, breathing and meditation.
While yoga exercises can improve all the systems of the body, some say the aim of yoga is freedom — to live in serenity and to be liberated from suffering. At 82 years of age, Foster achieves a union of mind, body and spirit through what she describes as “sweet discomfort.” But more importantly, the ancient practice put her on a road to tranquility she once never imagined was possible.
As a teenager in Berlin, amid the horrors of World War II, Foster — then Lilo Rosengarten — and her family endured horrific hardship at the hands of the Nazis. Confined to labor camps where she sewed uniforms and worked with poisonous gases to produce military hot-air balloons, Foster says she had many reasons to believe she’d never live to see another day.
The daughter of a Jewish father and Aryan and Lutheran mother who raised her children in the Jewish faith, Foster was a young teen when the Nazis embarked on their genocide of the Jews in the 1930s. Her brother, Herbert, was arrested after an altercation with a German soldier who had just insulted his father. He was soon injected with tuberculosis as part of the Nazis’ human experimentation and died six weeks later, at age 23, she says.
Her father, Isidor, a well-known decorator before the war, simply disappeared one night in 1941. Her beautiful red-haired sister Ruth, Ruth’s Jewish husband and their young son were taken away by the Germans, Foster says. Another sister, Kay, escaped with her husband to England.
At 16, Foster says she was taken from her mother, Emma, and held in a detention camp where each day the Germans assembled the prisoners on a whim into two groups.
“They just took them away. We never saw them again,” she whispers as the memory washes over her.
Foster’s mother worked tirelessly to get her daughter released, and was able to convince someone inside the camp to let her go after three months. During that time, Foster says she became emaciated from a diet of cabbage soup. She took up smoking, losing hope she’d ever return home.
“I said ‘What the heck.’ I was going to die anyway,” Foster says.
She was kept in hiding for five months after her release from the camp, until the war ended in 1945. It was then that Foster and her mother learned that Foster’s father had been killed in a Riga, Latvia, ghetto, and her sister, brother-in-law and nephew were killed in Auschwitz, the largest of the concentration and extermination camps set up by the Nazis.
Standing in her Rappahannock County dining room 64 years later, Foster fingers the yellow star she sewed together, inscribed with the word “Jude,” that the Nazis required her and all Jews to wear on their clothing during the war.
“I don’t know why I saved it,” she says.
From a simple, white envelope, she pulls out four small notes written in German on parchment-like paper. The writing is barely legible. During the war, her brother-in-law, Martin, wrote three of the letters while confined in Auschwitz. The profile of Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, stares out from the stamps. “Don’t brood too much, we are going prepared,” Martin wrote. “I am with my wife, child, that’s important.”
A fourth note, from Ruth, made its way out of the gathering camp where the family was first kept and was hand-delivered to Foster’s mother. Ruth was not taken by the Nazis when they came for her husband, but, not understanding what the future would hold, she turned herself and her son in to soldiers in order for the threesome to be together again.
Foster remembers the day her mother received Ruth’s note.
Standing outside the holding camp, Foster says she watched as prisoners emerged and were put on trucks that had hauled furniture before the war. German soldiers hurled insults at everyone assembled. Suddenly, Foster saw Ruth, Martin and their 4-year-old son, Uri, come out of the building. Spotting his grandmother, Foster says Uri yelled out, “Oma, Oma” — grandmother in German. Her mother fainted, Foster says.
“For the grace of God it would have been so nice, for the grace of God, it wasn’t meant to be,” Ruth wrote in her note.
“When I think back, I don’t know how we lived through this, but we did,” Foster says.
After the war, Foster went to work for the American occupation troops that governed war-torn Germany. It was there she met a soldier from Rappahannock County in Virginia. His gentlemanly ways won over a skeptical Foster. In 1947, she married James Foster and returned with him to his native home. Her mother joined them 18 months later.
The self-described “city girl” says she had a hard adjustment to life on the farm. After giving birth to three sons, she eventually went to work for Rappahannock County Public Schools to put to use her “knack for languages [she knows four] and knack for teaching,” she says. She primarily taught remedial reading for 26 years, although she never earned a college degree.
Foster also put to use her experience with yoga — a practice her mother introduced her to as a young girl — by leading classes for fellow teachers who needed a release from their tension-filled days. She eventually became a registered instructor, combining many different yoga systems in her teaching.
“I combine what I feel is beneficial,” Foster says. “My philosophy is anything you can help people with. I combine and add.” A pose, she says, can never be perfect. “A pose of yoga is never done. We can all do the same pose but experience different things.”
Diagnosed with osteoporosis because of the poor diet she endured as a teen in Nazi camps, Foster is an example of the physical benefits of yoga. She exhibits no symptoms of the disease, which thins bone tissue and density.
“Yoga is [the] taking over of your mind and spirit, not just your body. It helps me accept things as they are, people as they are,” she says. “I became an entirely different person with yoga.”
Foster’s students tell a similar story, while heaping praise on a teacher they call inspirational and gifted.
Sandee Craft, of Front Royal, searched for many years to find an exercise to relieve the pain in her joints and muscles from fibromyalgia. She says she eventually tried Foster’s yoga class, figuring it wouldn’t last long. That was 12 years ago.
“It is my answer,” Craft says, crediting her physical improvements to Foster’s vast knowledge. “She teaches you the right way to do it. We hope she lasts forever and we can do this class with her always.”
Foster’s longevity alone is an inspiration to her students. She looks like and moves with the ease of someone 20 years younger. Yoga has given her back some of the time stolen from her childhood.
Foster says she was in her 50s before she began publicly sharing the story of her youth. She rarely spoke of her experience with her children or two granddaughters, but when the principal of her school asked her to give a talk to students, Foster agreed.
“They brought things out that were buried,” she says, which wasn’t easy. She cried in the parking lot for an hour afterward and swore she’d never talk about it again, she says, but soon she shared her story a second time and felt “like a rock had been lifted off my shoulders.”
Foster told of her experiences again a few years ago as part of a video project by film director Steven Spielberg, which is archived at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education in California. The institute has an archive of nearly 52,000 videotaped testimonies from Holocaust survivors and other witnesses.
Still, Foster remains reluctant to revisit this time in her life. She has returned to Berlin once — in 1995 as part of a government-sponsored trip for survivors. She says it was a difficult visit.
“There’s no such thing as closure,” Foster says, but the trip did help her “make up my mind that you can’t live in the past. You have to live in the future.”
“All I know is you can’t live hating, because that makes you miserable,” she says. “You want to live carefree — hopefully, a successful life helping other people.”
In many ways, yoga makes that possible.
“No matter how many problems you have, when you [practice yoga] for an hour and a half, your mind cannot be anywhere else. I’m gonna do it till I drop.”
Given all she has withstood, that probably won’t be anytime soon.