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I was about to have a sugar skull mask painted on my face for a Día de Muertos event Tuesday when I realized there was no way my make-up would stay put or I would be able to enjoy a party.
Tears had rushed into my eyes when I read the news of an incredible San Antonio woman leaving this Earth – appropriately on All Saints Day. I had only met her once, but she left a forever mark on my heart and on those of so many others.
Esther Vexler was lovingly referred to as the “Mother of Yoga” in San Antonio and lauded for her immeasurable contributions to the city she called home. I don’t think anyone in the local yoga community would disagree when I say that she is responsible for making this ancient practice a welcome addition to San Antonio’s cultural fabric. She was the oldest yoga teacher and practitioner in Texas, perhaps even in the United States. She died in her home Tuesday at the age of 98.
Esther Scharlack Vexler was the first baby to be born at Santa Rosa Hospital in 1918. She was the youngest of nine siblings and a mere five years old when she lost her father. She attended elementary, middle, and high school in San Antonio before heading to California to earn a degree in English Literature and Dance at the University of California at Berkeley.
She returned to San Antonio and began working for Southern Jewelry, a successful jewelry and pawn store established by her late father, before moving into an array of philanthropic roles, a calling that would define much of her life and legacy.
Vexler cited the social injustices she observed as a young woman during segregation as the origin of her passion for social advocacy, an ardor that Rabbi Samuel Stahl in his eulogy Friday said “was like a fire shot up in her bones which could not be contained.”
When she and her siblings went to the Majestic Theatre with her family’s housekeepers they would sit in the balcony with them instead of on the main floor with the white audience members because they knew in their hearts it wasn’t right. Her intuition, paired with her Jewish faith, fueled the fire to help integrate “New Americans” who were joining her community.
Vexler relied on principles in Judaism to overcome obstacles, solidify her perseverance, and sometimes “put her foot down,” as her mother had taught her: Tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” and a mitzvah – or a good deed – a day were two of many principles that carried her forward.
She became deeply involved in the workings of the National Council of Jewish Women, of which she would later become president – the first female to become president of any Jewish Social Service Federation in the country. In her role with the Council, she advocated for literacy and helped found and fund an “Each One Teach One” program, which, to this day, aims to improve literacy levels through individualized curricula and one-on-one tutoring. She also started a Girl Scout troop and was a volunteer teacher at Kenwood Elementary.
Another initiative close to her heart was teaching blind children. When her own children were at home, Vexler assisted at what is now called Sunshine Cottage.
“When you obligate yourself to something like that, it’s really meaningful if you show up,” she said in an interview in 2014. “It’s no good if you’re only there now and then. I would hire someone to watch my babies because I felt it was so important.”
The overarching theme of her leadership was improving lives through community engagement, which manifested itself in roles with the Texas League of Women Voters, the Texas Mental Health Association, Women in Community Services (WICS), the Family Violence Center, and a teen pregnancy prevention initiative.
Vexler fully understood that it takes a village to effect lasting change.
“The method that we used is that you looked … like you were taking a survey of what’s needed and try to fill that gap whichever way you can,” she said at age 96. “Then you’d try to get it to it last. You couldn’t keep it forever, so you’d interest other people and other groups and then when it (was) taken over and you knew it was in capable hands, you could start another thing.”
An integral part of this village was Harold Vexler, a friend of her brother’s whom she met at a young age. Esther, a Reformed German Jew, and Harold, an Eastern European Orthodox Jew, entered into what Rabbi Stahl called “the perfect interfaith Jewish marriage. They accommodated and respected each others’ religious allegiances for 73 years.” Such marriages were highly uncommon during those times, but their love and willingness to compromise conquered the differences of two distinct and often antagonistic worlds.
“Harold and Esther magnificently transcended these divisions from the very moment of their wedding and supported their respective congregations – Congregation Agudas Achim and Temple Beth-El – with their resources and their participation,” Rabbi Stahl explained. Together, they had three children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
In 1963, Vexler was invited to the first White House Conference on Women and Children. President Kennedy appointed her to direct the southwest region of the Girls Job Corps, and President Johnson praised her for relentless efforts in establishing training programs for lower income youth.
Always hungry for more knowledge and more ways to help, Vexler pursued her master’s degree in Urban Planning at Trinity University at age 55. For her thesis, she organized a nonprofit which provided home repair loans for low-income homeowners. She called on her network of supporters – community leaders, business owners, bankers, and politicians – to establish the Community Housing Development Corporation, which subsequently became a City agency.
In between this myriad of accomplishments, Vexler also took time for herself as she explored the world and broadened her already considerable horizons. With Harold by her side, she traveled to Europe, Morocco, and Mexico.
There’s no saying where exactly Vexler’s yoga story started. Perhaps it was in Hawaii when she accompanied Harold to a scrap metal convention, perhaps it was in Mexico City in the 1950s. One way or another, Vexler discovered yoga. At that time, few knew of the practice itself, let alone its history or its physical, and psychological benefits. Vexler was immediately fascinated by the healing of mind, body, and spirit as well as the exercise and relaxation that yoga yielded, and she decided to immerse herself in the study of Hatha yoga. She and Harold returned to Mexico many times, and Esther began teaching yoga and water exercises at a spa in Guadalajara.
She brought what she learned to San Antonio in the ’60s, which is why many credit her with laying the foundation for what would eventually become a flourishing yoga scene in the city.
“Back then nobody knew what yoga was,” said Emilie Rogers, a long-time friend and colleague of Vexler’s. The two met in 1980 when Rogers was seven months pregnant and craving a form of exercise that would help her “regain her balance.” She attended one of Vexler’s classes at Hemisfair downtown.
“She was the only yoga teacher in San Antonio at the time,” Rogers said. “I took her class and had an epiphany: The yoga was challenging, but I came out of it not with exhaustion but with a sense of lightness and calm. I immediately devoted myself to practicing with Esther, which I did for more than 35 years.”
The bond that formed between Vexler and Rogers was a lasting one: they practiced together, Rogers sipping in the knowledge that Vexler had collected over the years. Whereas many yoga teachers adhere to one particular mentor, Vexler took what Rogers called a more “organic” approach.
“She never really studied under any one teacher. She gleaned yoga wisdom, integrated, and assimilated it. She dipped her toe in the ocean of yoga and here we are today.”
“Today” is a flourishing yoga school with Vexler’s name on it.
In the early 2000s, after completing teacher trainings that Vexler had encouraged her to pursue, Rogers recognized the need for a yoga school in San Antonio. At the time there were no Hatha yoga programs south of Austin. She approached Vexler with the idea and asked her if she could name it after her. Rogers recalled:
“She said she had to talk to her family first and then came back to me with stipulations: One, it (had) to be nonprofit. ‘I believe in education and providing scholarships,’ she said. That was her number one (criterion). Second, it (had) to be professionally and ethically run. That was important to her because of her family legacy.”
In 2007, the Esther Vexler Yoga School (EVYS) opened its doors, with Rogers at its helm. The school’s original home was at the Synergy Studio at the Pearl; it then moved to Two Hearts Yoga in Olmos Park, and has since relocated to 5 Points Local. In its nine years, the 200-hour Yoga Alliance certified program has graduated more than 100 teachers.
EVYS’ 10th class of 17 students is currently in place. In January, the school will add a 300-hour program, thus making it the first 500-hour level registered school in South Texas. This additional training, Rogers said, will help students become truly professional teachers.
A truly professional, albeit “unconventionally trained” teacher, Vexler was still instructing at age 98.
I remember seeing her name on the Synergy Studio schedule when I first started doing yoga in 2010. I so wish I had known more about her and taken one of her classes then.
I met Vexler at the Yoga Day celebration at the Tri-Point YMCA in 2015. It was a brief encounter. “It’s an honor to meet you” were the few, yet sincere words I produced when I took her delicate hand. She looked me right in the eye and smiled.
That brief interaction stuck with me and caused the tears to flow when I learned of Vexler’s passing on Tuesday, likely because of something she said during the meditation she led at the Yoga Day event.
“We all have a part of us that touches people, whether it’s your friends, your family, children, or even strangers. Yoga is a self-discovery. You learn more about yourself and you begin to be able to bring that into your life.
“We each have one little corner where we have some influence. Even though you don’t think you have it, how you act, how you treat others, how you talk to people … We have a chance to do one little thing each day that makes us a better person, a kinder person, a more understanding person. Any of those words that help bring beauty into the world and get rid of some of the nastiness that we all know is around us.”
Vexler had many of those corners and wide-reaching influence. She touched me and so many others throughout her long and fruitful life. That became apparent Friday at Temple Beth-El, the synagogue where she was confirmed in 1933. More than 200 people of all faiths and walks of life attended the memorial service that truly was a celebration of Vexler’s life and what her long-time friend and student Nydia Darby called “her next adventure.”
Darby, clad in a red dress adorned with colorful flowers – a gift from the grande dame of San Antonio yoga herself – said, “You could never leave her without being gifted something.” Those gifts came in countless forms, but always straight from the heart.
“She had this childlike curiosity and wonder, and an interest in everybody she met,” said EVYS Director Stephanie Carter, to whom Rogers passed the torch in 2014, echoing Darby’s sentiments. “No one person was more important than the other. She was very inclusive and always concerned about not leaving anybody out. I would always leave her having the sense that he world is an okay place, that everything was going to be okay.”
Vexler may have left this world, but her profound impact on everyone she met, no matter how briefly, will carry on. Her friend and Yoga Day founder Carlos Gomez, who wore a tie that once belonged to Harold at Esther’s memorial service, summed it up perfectly when he wrote, “We lose a hero, heaven welcomes one of its most powerful angels.”
The Jewish mystics say that marriage is not a union between a man and a woman but rather a reunion, and that when God creates a human soul, he divides it into two halves: one half descends into a male body, the other half into a female body. After 73 years of union and two years of temporary separation, Harold and Esther’s souls will now reunite for eternity.
“You always have to give yourself a challenge,” Vexler said in her 2014 interview. “That is what life is about.” Those who knew her said she constantly challenged herself, and the people and community around her were the beneficiaries thereof.
At the end of the day, I think we all want to leave this world knowing that we had a positive impact on the people around us. In many cases, as Vexler said, we might not realize it, but a consistently supportive and compassionate attitude will inevitably cause favorable change. Her words resonated and remained with me, and because of them I strive to be better and, like Vexler, cultivate good hearts.
“The heart has a bond of its own,” she said during a conversation with Gomez in June 2016. “The heart is a special tool…it can change the world, it can make everybody a little bit nicer. If everybody was just a little bit nicer, this would be a very beautiful world.”