Last month, my local optical chain wouldn’t just sell me another box of contact lenses since over a year had passed since my eyes were last checked. I can’t remember the last time my prescription changed—and I’ve been wearing contacts for at least twenty years—but I knew there was no way around the fifteen minute exam.
Sure enough, I learned that my eyes were exactly the same as they were two years ago. At the end of the exam, however, the well-intentioned Vision Care Specialist shocked me by warning that I would probably soon be needing reading glasses. “It’s just something that happens when you get to be around your age.” She began explaining things further, giving some reasons why this was part and parcel of reaching the advanced age of forty-three. Motivated by professional kindness, her demeanor nonetheless revealed her certainty that my physical decline was not only inevitable, but also well underway.
Eight years ago, when I was a mere thirty-five, my life more or less fell apart. A long-term relationship ended suddenly and violently, resulting in tremendous personal and financial chaos at a pivotal moment in my career. For a long-time, I felt like I was sleepwalking.
Growing up, I was your classic bookish malcontent, prowling my way through my local library, desperately searching for some kind of meaning in my adolescent life. (Even now it’s rather frightening to think that if I were born a decade or two later, I might have wound up a goth.) Instead, I gained a smattering of library book-based knowledge about psychology, philosophy and even the occult, lingering a bit longer on whatever seemed more esoteric and exotic (and therefore, I assumed, more likely to be helpful towards surviving suburbia). And so, somewhere in my early teens, I devoured my first books about yoga.
In spite of myself, I was a reluctant, latent athlete, able to try (and sometimes succeed) at the strange poses I saw in Swami Vishnudevananda’s COMPLETE ILLUSTRATED BOOK OF YOGA. But drawn as I was as an adolescent to yoga, I never began a steady, consistent physical practice. It wasn’t the time.
But then at thirty-five, it was. With my life unraveled, wandering through my gritty hipster Manhattan gym, I stumbled into a yoga class. I’m not sure why I chose to attend—probably just a whimsical desire to contrast my regular traditional workout. In fact, I’m pretty sure I sauntered in with the class already in progress.
I remember being sore the next day, particularly in my thighs. And I remember being shocked about that, given that I was a runner and lived in a fifth-floor walk-up. Because or in spite of that, I came back to another class. And then another. And then another after that.
Soon I discovered the teachers who suited me best—the most challenging ones, but with either a sense of humor or irony—no granola, Kool-Aid drinkers for me. And I found one in particular, a yogic Janis Joplin, whose energy and enthusiasm I found totally electrifying.
Within two years, I was enrolled in teacher training, not really so much intending to become a teacher, but more because I was hooked on the rush and intensity of my own yoga practice. Now, more or less a yoga junkie, forever on the hunt for the next yogic high and physical challenge, I needed to go deeper. I craved more mystic thrills.
I’ve always been able to do a pose referred to as “Wheel Pose” – in Sanskrit, Urdhva Dhanurasana. Basically, you lie down on the floor, bend your knees and plant your feet. Reaching your hands besides your ears, you press down, straighten your arms, and lift everything besides your hands and feet off the ground. The body takes on a big bow shape, resulting in a major back-bend.
There are several different kinds of potential obstacles to achieving the pose. For some women, it’s an arm strength issue, while for other muscular guys, the shoulders are too tight to allow the arms to straighten enough. For people of both genders, however, often the obstacle is more psychological: opening the energetic heart-center of the body this way simply feels too emotionally vulnerable.
While I could always do a decent Wheel, no matter what emotional issues I might be having, the daredevil in me became fascinated with a virtuoso variation called “Dropping Back.” Standing, one simply falls backward into wheel pose. It’s only there that capital F Fear met me head-on.
You learn dropping back first by being assisted in the falling backward motion. In other words, you are “dropped back.” The first person who dropped me back was my Janis Joplin instructor. The instructor faces you, his or her leg between yours, framing your hips and back as they dip you backwards. The move has a feeling of a tango-like dip to it. They are supporting you in a vital and intimate way, and you are trusting them not to let you crash to the ground and bust open your head.
Being dropped back by a yoga teacher you trust completely has an element of risk and excitement to it, but it’s nothing compared to dropping back on your own. You are falling backwards, trusting that somehow the floor will be there and that your arms will support you. Logically, you know that both your arms and the floor can generally be counted on…but still that open-hearted backward plunge is terrifying.
In fact, it was only as I neared forty that I found myself ready to attempt it. I knew the floor was solid. I knew my arms were strong. But I didn’t trust something—I didn’t know what exactly—or maybe I just didn’t trust enough, period. I could never do it without the assist.
And then it started happening. At first, very awkward, leaning more to one side than the other. Many times, I’d lightly bang my head on the way down. I got better at it, despite lots of rocky, awkward splats. Extensive practicing, and more and more information about backbending in general helped, too I suppose. But honestly, I mostly learned how to just let it happen, knowing that I’d come up on the other side OK.
And after a year or two of wavering and wobbling, I’d pretty much gotten the knack of it—able to pretty much drop back whenever I was sufficiently warmed-up enough. Like a handful of other difficult poses—my party tricks as it were—I had it down.
I’m not sure where or when, but I somehow heard about a hard-core practice that particularly intrigued me: dropping back on one’s birthday…as many times as you had years to be thankful for! By this point, in a single class, I’d dropped myself back two or three times. And every now and then, in class my favorite teacher would bring me up and down rapidly four or five times or even six times, always assisted by her infallible support.
But only when I turned forty-one, was I ready and able to make the attempt on my own. Forty-one falls backward into the void.
Frankly, there’s not much to tell other than that I did it. Yes, I was drenched with sweat. Yes, I nearly conked myself out a few times in the mid-twenties and thirties (talk about a metaphor!), but I did it. And I was extremely pleased with myself.
Now we all know that yoga is supposed to be non-competitive, even with oneself. Yet nonetheless, I’m not bothered by my pride in achieving this. I could do something that once frightened me (that frightens everyone). Something beyond the range of 95% of my fellow students in their twenties and thirties. And I could do it forty-one times.
And the following year, I did it forty-two times. And then this past year forty-three. And in three months, I will be doing it forty-four times. I’d like to think that when I’m sixty or seventy, eighty or ninety, I’ll still be able to drop back once for each year I’ve lived.
I can’t help but sound a little boastful, but I didn’t make up this tradition—although I wish I had. Beyond the tremendous exhilaration and physical openness it creates, I also really like the “Fuck You” towards aging.
Rather than going easier on yourself, quietly into that good night, every year you raise the bar one notch higher. Indeed, the older you are, the more opportunities you’ve had to develop fearlessness, more chances to trust that you can fall backwards open-hearted and catch yourself. God knows, I didn’t really know that when I was thirty-five and adrift. I certainly didn’t have a clue in my twenties. It took me forty years to trust enough to even attempt falling backwards on my own.
And so when the Vision Care Specialist, in the nicest possible way, cautioned me that my eyesight—make that my entire body—was degenerating moment by moment, year by year, and that there was nothing I could do about it but comparison-shop for bifocals, I could only smile.
There was no way she could know that I was in fact, getting more flexible, and more importantly, more fearless with every year. After all, she was at best thirty-two. Give her time…
(This essay originally published in the collection 40 THINGS TO DO WHEN YOU TURN 40.)