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70 Backbends?

Subject 

On his 70th birthday, Tony Briggs kneeled down on the floor and did a perfect headstand in front of a room full of people. He is a master yoga teacher and an iconic example of how to age unexpectedly and joyously.

Angle 

Tony Briggs challenges our preconceptions of aging. He challenges our ideas of what is possible. He shows up honestly, and sometimes he makes mistakes. He is not foolproof. That is why his students trust him, and why they are able to change.

Profile 

70 Backbends

Tony Briggs decided to hold a 70 backbend workshop for his 70th birthday. He posted an announcement on his website, and sent out an email.

The response was terrible. A week before the workshop he was teaching his regular Sunday morning class. He stopped the 22 students.

“Next week is my 70th birthday and workshop, for which almost NONE OF YOU HAVE SIGNED UP! Silly me. I thought, ‘I've been teaching for 25 years. I'm 70 years old. Somebody's going to come!”

Then he laughed.

“I swore I wasn't going to say that, and I went and said it. Did you ever do that?”

“He has the ability to show up honestly,” said Barbara Murphy.

Even advanced yoga students are afraid of backbends. There is no good reason for this. Apparently, human beings just do not want to bend backwards. B.K.S. Iyengar, Tony’s root teacher for 37 years, believed backbends are increasingly important as we age. In his yoga tradition, the ideal is to do one backbend for each year of your age on your birthday.

Tony had reserved the training hall at Petaluma Orthopedic and Sports Therapy (POST) near his home in Petaluma. Large windows at the end of the converted warehouse overlook the Petaluma River and the theater district. That morning the sky was bright blue, and the air had the fresh coolness of early autumn.

The parking lot was empty when Mr. Briggs arrived a half-hour before class. He parked, unlocked the red sliding barn doors and went inside.

Soon, students began to arrive. The parking lot filled quickly. People parked next door. Inside, laughing friends surrounded Mr. Briggs. They piled coats, sweaters, scarves, shoes, yoga bags, birthday presents, cards, flowers, and a lopsided homemade chocolate cake with a single candle on the benches near the door.

By 9:00, yoga mats filled the room. Mr. Briggs opened the class by thanking everyone for showing up. He introduced his partner, a tall, graceful gray haired woman with a gentle smile. He confessed that they honestly did not expect so many people to show up. He said if there was not enough ice cream after class, to blame his partner. “She was in charge of ice cream!”

Mr. Briggs began by leading the class through a brisk half hour of standard poses. Then he began a series of increasingly difficult backbends. Finally, it was time for the most advanced backbend, dropback into bridge pose. In a bridge pose, your hands and feet are on the floor and you push yourself up so your back arches like a bridge. It takes strength, determination and flexibility to do this pose.

“If you want to be dropped back, make two rows... and give me about three feet of space in between. If you don't want to be dropped back, go do something else and we'll catch up with you.”

About half the class lined up in two facing rows in the middle of the room. Mr. Briggs stepped close to the first student, placed one hand on her back, and the other on her stomach.

“I got you.”

She leaned back until her hands touched the floor. He released her and immediately stepped to the next student and repeated the process.

When everyone had done three dropbacks, Mr. Briggs gave a speech.

“I didn't rehearse except for one thing. I want to acknowledge Mr. Iyengar.” He pointed to small table in front of the open glass doors facing the river. A small bouquet of flowers and a picture of Mr. Iyengar sat on the table.

“His teaching is everywhere. They'll be reading about this guy for hundreds of years, and he was my teacher. He died on the afternoon—our time—of the 19th. Today is the 13th day (after his death), the last day of the mourning period. So I want you to do 13 back bends of some kind. Dedicate them to any person or situation, which helped you to learn and grow, which has now passed out of your life. Do 13 and we will have done 69 backbends.”

When everyone was finished, Mr. Briggs said,

“The last one's for me. You are going to do your (70th) backbend and sing me happy birthday before you get to come down. Up you go!”

When all 60 people were into a backbend, the room erupted into a cheerful happy birthday song.

“That's for you, as much as for me. Some of you guys thought you could never do 70, and you can! You don't have to be afraid of that anymore.”

After leading the class through a 40 minute cool down, Mr. Briggs said,

“Now, the fun stuff. The ice cream truck just pulled up outside. Just go out there ... tell him what you want he'll give it to you... you can even have seconds!”

I was sitting with several students having ice cream when Annette shared her backbend story. Several years earlier, she had just returned to class after giving birth.

“I gained forty or fifty pounds – with the pregnancy and the breast feeding. I was struggling to get into a bridge pose when Tony walked by. He said, “Struggle some more.”

“I could have wrung his neck! Struggle some more!” she repeated indignantly.

“I am very determined person, and after he said that…”

Within a year, she lost forty pounds and was doing bridge poses.

Briggs is the teacher that other yoga teachers send their students to. His classes are extraordinarily demanding and effective. I finally decided that a combination of things makes him unique.

He is male and 70, in a field where most practitioners are women and younger.

There is absolutely no sentimentality in his teaching. He once said ‘I teach reverence. But not here. Class is a place to work hard and laugh a lot.’

He knows all aspects of yoga intimately—physical, mental, psychological and spiritual.

Like his root teacher, Mr. Iyengar, he constantly tinkers, experiments and learns.

 

 

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