At a time when yoga was an activity of the counterculture—the purview of rock stars and hippies —Lilias Folan brought yoga to the living rooms of average Americans through public television. Her long-running PBS series Lilias! Yoga and You first aired in 1970 as a local Cincinnati-area program, but it soon went national. For another 29 years, her signature leotard and long braids became familiar to viewers who tuned in to bend and breathe and stretch with her.
Between the show, 11 videos, and five books, Folan introduced yoga to thousands of people nationwide. Her gentle, open-hearted manner conveyed the true spirit of the practice to viewers across the country, demonstrating that yoga is for everyone. Inspired to teach yoga on TV after watching Richard Hittleman’s yoga programs, she added a spiritual component, meditative silence, and her own cheerful persona.
While her presentation made yoga approachable to a mainstream audience, Folan’s own practice was founded in what she learned from yoga icons. She learned Vedanta philosophy and meditation with Swami Chidananda of the Divine Life Society in Rishikesh, India. She also studied with T.K.V. Desikachar and B.K.S. Iyengar, two of the most influential yoga teachers from India. In 1998 Goswami Kriyananda, the founder of the Temple of Kriya Yoga, bestowed upon her the title Swami Kavitananda, “one who knows bliss through energy, movement, and poetry.”
“You and I are in the process of finding and giving life to our own spiritual hearts,” she said in a Yoga Journal interview. “Sustained yoga practice thins the boundaries that separate us from who we really are—that which water cannot drown and fire cannot burn.”
Here, her thoughts about connecting with your inner “friend,” facing the challenges of the body, and finding joy in the journey.
Would you call yourself a spiritual seeker?
Absolutely. I’ve been a passionate spiritual seeker since I was a little girl. My upbringing was very difficult. When it got really tough, I would go into the center of my chest, and I would meet with my inner friend who would soothe and connect me to something that I had no words for. And that’s where I would heal. But as a teenager, I forgot about my friend. Then I had a major crisis and thought, “I can solve this. I’ll go back inside.” When I did, I couldn’t find my friend. Yoga brought me back to this inner friend that’s always been there. Yoga brought me home again.
How and when did you discover yoga?
I went to my doctor with a litany of problems. He just said, “Madam, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re suffering from the blahs. Exercise.” I had a wonderful husband, two beautiful sons, a golden retriever, a boat on the sound, and the question was, “Why aren’t I happy? What’s missing?” I decided to go to a Sivananda Yoga class at the YWCA in Stamford, Connecticut. I stopped smoking, slept better, and had more energy.
How did your television show come about?
I would watch Richard Hittleman’s shows in black and white with two beautiful, perfect women demonstrating yoga postures. I thought, “I could do that better.” Then, the wife of a local PBS producer took my yoga class. She told her husband I would be perfect for a TV show.
How did it feel to be a part of something so groundbreaking?
I got very good schooling from Sri Swami Chidananda, a teacher in the Sivananda lineage, and some wise teachers like Angela Farmer, Goswami Kriyananda, and Dr. Jean Houston. Their advice was that this was service. Don’t hold on to the fruits of your actions—people writing in and being recognized in the streets, that kind of thing. It became and still is a practice. It’s my sadhana, spiritual practice.
Do you ever worry about how much yoga has grown since you started your show?
Losing its connection to the mystics of the past of India? No. It will be what it will be. I really do think that all is well. Joy belongs to everyone.
What motivated you to write your book, Yoga Gets Better with Age?
I wanted to share my journey. In 2005, I was in a 70-years-young body, and I did my yoga practice differently. Certain postures didn’t mean as much to me anymore, but other ones did. The essence of the book is to show how to work intelligently with a midlife body and beyond in a way that’s pain free. Then in 2011, I published Lilias! Yoga: Your Guide to Enhancing Body, Mind, and Spirit in Midlife and Beyond.
And then came the cancer diagnosis in 2012.
About a year before my diagnosis, my doctor said, “Lilias, slow down. You’ve got to slow down; it’s beginning to show in your health.” Then much to my surprise, I had a mammogram and they found cancer was knocking at my door.
As someone who spent their life pursuing health and teaching others about it, how did you respond?
I went into it like it was a teacher. And I was very serious about that. Cancer is a guru. And they call them an upa guru—they are the people in your life who are teaching you the lessons you never thought you had to learn. Nothing is by accident. I made the vow more than 40 years ago that if there are things for me to learn here, bring them on.
How do you keep your uplifted outlook?
How amazing to make this a part of the journey—the sadhana, the practice. Strangely enough, I didn’t feel discouraged about it at all. If I leave this body tomorrow, glory hallelujah. I know there’s a next step. If you can breathe, we can do something. That has always been sort of a motto of mine. We will go onward and upward. Really, the joy is in the journey.