While I could always do a decent Wheel (aka backbend), the daredevil in me became fascinated with a virtuoso variation called “Dropping Back.” Standing, one simply falls backward into wheel pose.
Being dropped back by my favorite yoga teacher had an element of risk to it, but it’s nothing compared to dropping back on your own. You're falling backwards, trusting that somehow the floor will be there and that your arms will support you, and that you won’t crash to the ground and bust open your head.
In fact, it was only as I neared 40 that I found myself ready to attempt it. I knew the floor was solid. 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. 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. But mostly I learned how to just let it happen, knowing that I’d come up on the other side OK.
I’m not sure where or when, but somehow I 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 41, 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 for those years!), 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 feat. 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 41 times.
And the following year, I did it 42 times. And then this past year, 43. And in three months, I will be doing it 44 times. I’d like to think that when I’m 60 or 70, 80 or 90, 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 tiny notch higher. Indeed, the older you are, the more opportunities you’ve had to develop fearlessness, the more chances to trust that you can fall backwards open-heartedly and catch yourself.
And this is all why, when a Vision Care Specialist recently cautioned me (nicely) that my eyesight—and in fact, my entire body—was degenerating, day by day, and that there was nothing I could do about it but 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 32.
Give her time…
On July 2nd, Edward Vilga will celebrate this year's birthday drop backs.