Centenarian yogi Tao Porchon-Lynch discusses her extraordinary life, from walking alongside Gandhi to vying with Marilyn Monroe as an MGM starlet to becoming a world-famous ballroom dancer at age 88.
By Paul Adler • Photographs by Dan Sagarin
In a county known for luminaries like Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart, Tao Porchon-Lynch just may be the most interesting Westchesterite of them all. To trace Porchon-Lynch’s life is to travel from the winding backstreets of southern India and the nightclubs of World War II Paris to an existence where Marlene Dietrich is a best friend and Fred Astaire is a yoga pupil.
The 100-year-old author, actor, activist, yogi, and dancer walked alongside Gandhi as a child before working as an international model as a teen, later hiding refugees as a freedom fighter, gracing the silver screen, and becoming one of the most respected yoga practitioners on earth. She has also garnered two separate Guinness World Records in the process. At the tender age of 88, Porchon-Lynch took up ballroom dancing and won more than 750 first-place prizes at international dance competitions, even taking her act to the hit show America’s Got Talent.
“The first time I ever saw it, I didn’t know it was yoga. I Just thought they were doing something wonderful….”
When she is not jetting around the globe, Porchon-Lynch lives in a warmly appointed apartment in downtown White Plains laced with the faint aroma of sandalwood and rose. Trinkets from her past line the walls and floor: ancient statues gifted to her by disciples of Gandhi, a photo of her meeting the Dalai Lama, honors ranging from an award she recently received in Singapore for her work disseminating yoga to a letter of appreciation from President Obama. “Early in the morning, the sun comes up, and there’s so much excitement, so much electricity in here,” she says.
Yet, of the countless people in Porchon-Lynch’s storied life, there is only one she mentions again and again: her uncle, Vital Porchon. “My mother died soon after I was born, and my [French-born] father owned a horse ranch in Canada, which we were heading to when she died,” says Porchon-Lynch, who lost her India-born mother when she was only 7 months old. “My father felt I couldn’t grow up with only horses around, so he asked my uncle to take me in, and I was then with him all the time. The first place we lived together was French India in Pondicherry, and that’s where I was brought up.”
Porchon-Lynch’s uncle was a noted railroad designer, and his work brought his young niece across the world and into contact with some of the most notable individuals in India at that time. He also fomented in her a love and appreciation of people from across the globe. “My uncle was an incredible man. He actually designed a lot of stations in different parts of the world because he liked the idea of people becoming closer together and understanding each other,” recalls Porchon-Lynch. “He said when people don’t know each other, that’s how wars start.”
Tao Porchon-Lynch during her heyday as an MGM starlet.
It was also in Pondicherry that Porchon-Lynch first got a taste of what would become her central passion. It happened for her at the age of 8, when she noticed a group of boys practicing a strange exercise on a sandy beach.
“The first time I ever saw it, I didn’t know it was yoga,” says Porchon-Lynch of that fateful day. “I just thought they were doing something wonderful, and they let me do it with them. I later went to my aunt and explained how terrific it was, and she said, ‘No, that’s not for young girls; you have to be a lady.’ I said, ‘I am a lady, but I believe in what they are doing.’ I really and truly learned to cope with the world when I was about 7 or 8 years old.”
Yoga remained an important part of Porchon-Lynch’s young life, although in those years she spent more time traveling alongside her aunt and uncle through such far-flung locales as Singapore and North Africa than practicing her downward dog. It was also during this period that Porchon-Lynch encountered someone who would change her life forever.
“When Gandhi was trying to escape the British and had no place to go, my uncle would have him over our home in French India and shoo me out of the room. I didn’t know who this man sitting on the floor was, but I did march with him during the Salt Marches when I was 8 years old. As my uncle once said, you are in this world to be a friend of everybody.”
From India, Porchon-Lynch went to live with her aunt on her father’s family vineyard in Southern France at the dawn of the Second World War. It was in these vineyards that Porchon-Lynch developed a love of Europe and where she rose to her first major challenge: hiding Jews and other refugees from roving German soldiers.
“There were lot of people hiding, but we had to be careful because [the Germans] had dogs, and they could smell them, so I put potato sacks over everybody I was hiding, until one day, they found out what I was doing, and I had to escape, too.”
Above, left: Porchon-Lynch’s second Guinness World Record; Right: Tao Porchon-Lynch and dance partner/instructor Vard Margaryan storm the America’s Got Talent stage
Porchon-Lynch then fled to England, where she found a new life as a nightclub star at the very height of the German raids. “During the worst bombings, I wasn’t scared,” she says. “It never occurred to me to be frightened, and people would follow me from club to club.” Porchon-Lynch’s performances were such cause for acclaim that world-famous journalist Quentin Reynolds declared that she “made dark London brighter.” And through her cabaret performance, the budding performer also became a protégé to composer, writer, playwright, and general man-about-town Noël Coward.
With a taste for the spotlight in place, Porchon-Lynch was modeling for some of the biggest names in fashion by the dawn of the 1940s. She was considered Chanel’s top model and even won an award for “the longest legs in Europe.” The notoriety helped her catch the eye of Hollywood scouts, and by her late 20s, Porchon-Lynch was signed as a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player. She was cast in such films as Show Boat and The Last Time I Saw Paris. With the newfound fame also came an abundance of famous friends.
“Marlene Dietrich threw a big party for me for my birthday, and I thought I had to look like her, so I got a long cigarette holder, although I had never smoked. When I went down some steps to meet her in a hotel, I fell, and I was so ashamed. She started to laugh and said, ‘Oh, ma cherie! Don’t worry; it makes all of us feel good that you’re with us.’ When I went back to Hollywood [after some modeling], she’s the one who got me my own agent. She would never take anything from anybody — she was always giving.”
Fred Astaire’s sister, Adele, was also one of Porchon-Lynch’s closest friends, and she had asked her famous brother to chaperone the up-and-coming actress when the she first came to Hollywood. In return, Porchon-Lynch taught Astaire yoga poses in-between takes on the MGM lot. Porchon-Lynch also found herself vying in the tabloids with a rather well-known actress of the time.
“Marilyn Monroe came in from Japan, and the newspaper headline of that day read: “French Girl Says That Marilyn Monroe Has No Sex Appeal.” I was very upset because I didn’t know what they were talking about — I didn’t even know who she was,” exclaims Porchon-Lynch. “[Marilyn]went everywhere, found my number, and called me up and told me not to worry about it and that as long as you’re in the news, you’re in good hands, and you’ll be able to succeed. Marilyn was very, very sweet.”
And yet even during these freewheeling times, Porchon-Lynch retained her connection to her past, love of solitude, and deep spirituality. Indeed, when most young starlets were living it up out on the town, Porchon-Lynch was spending her evenings doing something else entirely.
“I didn’t want to go out and just get drunk at parties. That didn’t interest me. Going alone into the desert interested me. It was funny that everyone in Hollywood thought I was out playing and drinking, and I was out in the canyons,” says Porchon-Lynch with a smile. “One day, a [forest ranger] asked me what I was doing so far out, and I said, ‘Why should I be scared? I put a piece of purple ribbon all the way along, so I know how to find my way back.’”
Beyond her acting, Porchon-Lynch dabbled in writing film scripts as well. It was also during this period that she began returning to India in order to study with the monumentally influential yogi B.K.S. Iyengar. Porchon-Lynch was the very first female student Iyengar ever accepted and, when she returned to Hollywood, she brought her teachings with her.
“Marilyn Monroe and Debbie Reynolds said, “Tao, will you teach us yoga?” And I thought [I could], since I’d been going back to India and working there with Iyengar; I just didn’t want to hurt anybody!”
Porchon-Lynch still teaches yoga today, although for a greatly expanded clientele. She runs frequent yoga classes in Tarrytown, Hartsdale, and Scarsdale, and has been a featured guest at India’s International Day of Yoga and England’s World Yoga Festival. She also frequently speaks at major yoga organizations, like the Integral Yoga Institute New York and The Kripalu Center. Additional students fly in from such locales as Serbia and Mongolia. It is this pedagogy that earned Porchon-Lynch her first Guinness World Record, for being the world’s oldest yoga teacher. But Porchon-Lynch was never one to rest on her laurels, so at age 88, she turned to yet another physically taxing means of expression: ballroom dancing.
“I teach yoga at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio,” explains Porchon-Lynch, who also happens to be the founder of the American Wine Society, an interest she had picked up from her late husband, Bill Lynch. “They got to know me, and they asked if I do ballroom dancing. I said, ‘No, but I like to dance.’ So they taught me. So now, I’ve won 758 first places. My partner, Antoine, is just waiting for me to be strong enough, since I had broken my hip. But just the other day, I got up and danced with him.”
Porchon-Lynch is referring to three separate hip-replacement surgeries she has endured over the last few decades, none of which have slowed her down. In fact, Porchon-Lynch brought her act before Howard Stern, Heidi Klum, and the rest of the America’s Got Talent judges in 2015. Two years later, she took home her second Guinness World Record, this time for being the oldest competitive ballroom dancer. Today, Porchon-Lynch still remains deeply passionate about eschewing all negativity.
“Don’t breathe in the negative,” she says. “Whatever you put in your mind materializes. So materialize what you want to happen and know that it’s possible. The problem is that we sit too much inside ourselves. You will never gain anything just sitting there, wondering what you should do. When I wake up in the morning, I think: This is going to be the best day of my life!”