Julie Smith tutors four Yoga courses at U3APP each week. All are on ZOOM. Most fill within minutes of being advertised. Only the one course has some vacancies. Julie talks about her passion for Yoga and the active life she has led.
How did you first get involved with U3A?
“Helen Vorrath has been very influential and supportive in my life.”
They met when Julie was about twenty-two, twenty-three. “A long time ago,” she says. “We just kept crossing paths. And I worked for SMS Management and Technology where Helen was CEO. We always had a women’s group connected through that. We both studied MBAs. She sails. I sail.”
Julie had always been into fitness and ballet and trekking. Around the time of her retirement, she began organising treks for people, who then wanted to stretch with yoga included at the end of their trek. “So, I decided to do a yoga-teaching course, and the advice was that ‘if you don’t teach within six months you never will’. Helen suggested I teach at U3APP.”
At that time Julie replaced a yoga tutor at U3A who was going overseas. The next year she took over teaching the ‘gentle yoga’ class and gradually it grew. She became aware of the need to understand teaching yoga to an older age group “in terms of things you should do and things you shouldn’t do.” She enrolled in a course at Duke University in North Carolina, teaching yoga to seniors. They integrate medicine with yoga, and she met geriatricians, physiotherapists, and “a lot of people who shared their research and experience … with their issues and illnesses.”
In her classes, Julie focuses on balance, and she won’t do anything that potentially places stress on bones. Women over fifty-five will have low bone density, and may not even know it,” she says. “You never do a shoulder-stand for example, because of pressure on the vertebrae in the neck. I have adapted classes to an older body and what skills we need for improved balance and range of motion.”
Julie discovered that people follow teachers. They get used to a particular teacher’s approach, where some teachers will spend more time on meditations and breath, and other teachers will spend more time on physical strength. “In yoga you have a lot of variety, you just must find the teacher that you relate to. There is no curriculum in yoga. You create that yourself.”
I had no idea that you were even thinking about the ‘older’ body. That is interesting for our U3A group. I just knew it worked well for me.
“My classes are arranged for different needs. The gentle class is really focused on range of motion for example, being able to reach higher, take longer steps, and how to keep your balance. It is a particular skill set for that class; you would never do a ‘down dog’ in that class.” The Monday afternoon class is designed for reasonably fit people. Julie says it’s lovely to see people sticking with her classes over the years. The Monday class is forty-five minutes of traditional yoga which then finishes with half an hour of Yin. “That was the feedback from the people. That is how I ended up with an hour and a quarter session. The Wednesday Yin class is all about fascia. One of the problems with tendons, ligaments and any connective tissue is lack of blood supply, meaning if injured they don’t heal as quickly. Injuries can take three months to heal. And if they heal incorrectly, you will get scarring, which means you have a reduced range of motion. The Yin poses aim to keep fascia and connective tissue healthy; it is a relaxing class.”
The other Wednesday class started off as a special class, for balance and spine strength, originating from a class Julie started at Walter Eliza Hall during COVID-19. People in that class had different problems such as Parkinson’s. She combined that class with her U3A series and, at participants’ request, upper body strength. At one stage she had more men than women attending and thought “this is a first!” She tries to push people in this class, while giving options.
“Wednesday is interesting because I have some people who do the two classes back-to-back.”
It’s wonderful that you have been able to keep classes running while you are attending to your elderly mother in Queensland.
“It’s been my saviour, because if I didn’t have that, I would lose the connection with Melbourne.” Julie says five minutes of conversation before the class is an important connection for all of us. She affirms it was phenomenal the way people adapted to the Zoom classes. “After the first year of COVID-19, sixty-five percent of people told us they preferred the Zoom class. The obvious reason is ‘I don’t have to get dressed and go’. But also ‘wherever I am (and this group does travel a lot) I can do the class’. The thing that really surprised me was people said, ‘I don’t feel that other people are looking at me. Therefore, if I can’t do things I am not embarrassed, and I won’t try and do things I shouldn’t do.’”
To avoid injury, Julie removed anything from her classes she thought people might do incorrectly. For example, she doesn’t suggest headstands. But people are advised to take care of themselves.
Do you take any other classes?
“I study French with Michel on Tuesdays. I can see him pulling his hair out because I am hopeless. Language is not my forte. I’ve been trying to do it for many years but I’m hopeless.” Julie has a share in a house in France, between Toulouse and Bordeaux, and her role is to manage the finances, thus communicating regularly with the tax department. “So, you would think I am better at speaking French than I am!” Ten friends from Melbourne got together in the early nineties and bought this house. The village is circa the twelfth or thirteenth century. “If you arrive on a Saturday, you get all the church bells on a Sunday morning.”
What was your speciality with your MBA?
“I originally went to Queensland University. I did chemistry, maths and computer science. I graduated in 1976. Information Technology (IT) at that stage was quite new, where only the big companies had the big mainframe computers. Most people who graduated then moved away because there weren’t many opportunities in Queensland. I ended up getting a job with Ansett in IT in Melbourne for a couple of years, and then I decided that as I had a science background, I would need a business background. That is when I did the MBA. I was very young. I graduated from that when I was twenty-five. I was a part of an experiment. They took two of us in who had only two years working experience. That was the time when Ansett was taken over by (Rupert) Murdoch and Sir Peter Abeles. They brought in all these bright young stars and a lot of people from Harvard and Stanford with MBAs to restructure the airline. I was grabbed from IT and put into Marketing because I had business and IT training. Marketing had previously been about printing brochures and such. Then they got quite sophisticated. My first job was to set up Golden Wing – the product for frequent flyers utilising my marketing and IT background. I moved to Sydney working for Ansett Express (the regional airline) as their Marketing Manager, and I ended up as their General Manager. Then I came back and did the marketing for their international division. I was flying all over Asia and then became marketing manager for the whole airline. I led the team when Ansett and other aligned international carriers became the official airline of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. When I turned forty, I was thinking what am I doing? I had been there (Ansett) twenty years at that stage. My job was made redundant. I then worked with Helen for a couple of years at SMS. From there I got into e-commerce and worked for a dotcom travel agency. I ended up as marketing manager for an American company called Boise Cascade, when the whole ‘tech-crash’ happened.”
Julie was sailing a lot at that stage and received an offer to sail from Vanuatu back to Queensland. She put it to her parents: “How often do you get an opportunity like that?” She thought she would quit her job and go sailing, and her parents just looked at her and said, “Okay.” Unfortunately for Julie, the boat did not leave Melbourne and she found herself “a bit stuck in UK”, until a friend reminded her that she was a highly skilled immigrant. As it was November, with winter approaching, that friend suggested she go to Dubai. She worked for Emirates Airlines for two years setting up their Business Rewards program. She learnt a lot working with the world’s best, and loved the opportunities provided by living in Dubai. “You could travel to London for the weekend.” But then the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) hit, and although she was offered another job in Saudi Arabia, that too fell through. Julie then picked up a job as marketing manager of Mitre 10, the Mighty Helpful hardware store chain. She worked there for seven years.
During this time her father became ill. “We had full time carers, and I was flying in every Friday night to care for him and then back to Melbourne on the Monday morning – which I did for six months. I am an only child. When I was about to turn sixty, I drew a line in the sand and decided to retire.”
Did you retire?
“No, I’m not really retired, because I can’t sit still. Other things came up and I am now in ‘healthy aging’. I’m on the board of a company called Specialisterne that looks after employment of people with Level 1 Autism. Essentially, these people have great skills and are particularly good at certain jobs, for example cyber security and IT. We not only find meaningful careers for them, but we also train their managers and co-workers how to best manage and work with people with autism. We are a global organisation, headquartered in Europe.”
Again, Julie’s specialty is with sales and marketing, making sure top line revenue contracts are coming in, and the company’s strategy is in place. She is also on the strategy board for MePACS – a company that supplies alert devices for older people, and for lone workers, such as a health worker going into a home on their own, or a roof tiler. The ‘press of a button’ helps protect these people. This company is part of Peninsula Health.
Also, she works with Walter Eliza Hall as a consumer in several areas of medical research, one being dementia – after the experience with her father. “They need consumers for their research. The Colonial Foundation has put a lot of money into the research. The team is trying to diagnose dementia from a blood or urine test. My other area of research is with melanoma. I have had three melanomas and am interested in the diagnosis and treatment of melanomas. And I help with research in the area of breast cancer. I am fairly busy.”
Do you have any time for yourself?
“Mum passed away recently and was in aged care. Spent a lot of time at the aged care home around four to five hours a days and on weekends seven hours a day. Instead of me working at home I could work there. If I had to read board-papers, which can take five or six hours, I would sit in Mum’s room and do it. I was able to help with my mum’s care. Mum had cognitive decline – she was ninety-eight. She was virtually drug free – quite with it although she lost her mobility. I have been with her since the beginning of COVID-19. The journey is amazing. I have been on it twice now with my parents.”
While Julie worked in Melbourne, Sydney, Dubai, Perth and Darwin, setting up businesses, often six months at a time, she became proficient at developing social networks. “I have been limited here with Mum, but I found ‘Meet Up’ to be a fantastic resource. It is an App, and you find groups with similar interests, and you join in the activities, be it walking, lunches, movies, and friendships form. One of the groups I’ve joined is ‘North Brisbane Ladies Who Lunch’, and I’ve found a gang of four girls, and we do lunch, and I’ve joined a book club. As mentioned, I went to university in Brisbane, so I have caught up with some of those friends, although we don’t go out at night very much. That’s my only complaint. I have formed a bit of a social life here, but I do plan to return to Melbourne.”
“I honestly think the hardest year of my life was the year I retired. Where you once had deadlines for reports and work, and holidays were planned, all of a sudden this structure was gone. Then you have to rebuild a structure, which I think is harder for single women. I found during COVID-19 I had three girlfriends in Melbourne who had just retired. They all left because in the first year of retirement, they could not build their social networks.”
Julie is renovating her house in Melbourne. She has missed her life in Melbourne. “I never married. I don’t have children, so my friends in Melbourne are family. I’ve got this core group of strong friends formed in my twenties, and I’ve added a few more over the years.”
So, what now?
“Well, I’m still doing the ‘Tuesday enrolments’ for U3APP. It can be a lot of work…
Now that my mother has passed, and we are learning to live with Covid, I’ll be back to travelling and trekking.”
Interviewed by Julie Butcher