Toni Bark is hanging upside down by a length of fabric suspended from the ceiling. Her silver hair almost touches the floor while her magenta toenails point north. Then she performs a set of midair sit-ups.
"This is all about your hips! No arms, Toni!" shouts the instructor, Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, a former acrobat for Ringling Bros. "You just want a lift and a real tight crunch. When you're tired, you can stop. No, actually, when you're tired you can do three more."
If Bark is struggling, she doesn't show it. At the end of the brutal set, she twists out of the fabric, flipping onto the padded floor, graceful as a cat. A few days later she'll spend an hour on a trapeze and in a circular metal lyra, floating across the gymnasium. A one-time paraglider, Bark loves the sensation of weightlessness so much, she installed a trampoline in her backyard and both an aerial silk and a trapeze in the bedroom.
After class we walk out of the gym into the bright January sunlight of Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, where Bark lives.
"Come to Monday night class!" she says, bouncing along in her green tennies. "That's when I feel like I'm really flying."
If, for most people, middle age is the plodding business of accepting what we haven't done, can't do, and never will—of indulging a litany of aches and pains and facing our mortality—for Toni Bark, it's the time of her life. With the lusty vigor of an undergrad, Bark, at 52, approaches these years as something thrilling and immeasurably precious.
Of course, she has been this way at every age, which accounts for her frenetically impressive résumé: ER doctor. Homeopath. Environmental designer. Belly dancer.
"My parents told me I'm the only person they know who went to med school as a hobby," Bark says later as we walk her Chihuahua, Neisha, on the beach, not far from her home. It's a 4,700-square-foot geothermal affair designed by Bark and her husband, David Dwyer, that draws and stores a huge amount of heat and light from the house's 50 windows. The space—decorated with eclectic mementos and a mini-forest of potted bamboo—is generally filled with a revolving cast of man-boys: neighborhood friends of her son, Ayal, 15; her stepson, Joey, 19; and Trinidad Twagirumukiza, a 22-year-old Rwandan Tutsi refugee she and Dwyer support.
With deep blue eyes that offset her wild silver mane, a sapphire stud in her left nostril, and a penchant for musky scents like Fir-ever Young, she looks more performance artist than medical dynamo—one who researches and lectures on vaccine safety, races off to disaster sites like Haiti after the earthquake to help out, and spreads the gospel of wellness in her homeopathy practice, the Center for Disease Prevention and Reversal. In homeopathy the big idea is to restore the body's natural balance by working with its own defenses, taking into account the entire patient by making connections between emotions and afflictions. As Bark says, "I look at the whole picture. I've never seen a body walk in without its head."
That passion for her work, the energy, the joy...I have to ask—what drives her?
"I don't know," she says, genuinely puzzled, digging her toes in the sand after a few triangle stretches. "What's the alternative—sitting around and watching TV? I don't know any other way."
Next: The secret to her energy