I have lost count of the number of times I have been sitting on the couch at the end of the day, the safest I could possibly be, when an anticipatory thought elicits sheer panic. My body reacts as if there were a lion perched on the coffee table, when the trigger is nothing more than a mental construct.
Fear is a powerful response. It is vital for our survival, yet fear can also be learned and, like all behavior, reinforced by repetition. The scarier something is, the more we avoid it, and the more we avoid it, the scarier it becomes. Luckily, those same behaviors and reactions can be unlearned. Our brains re-patterned and fresh neural pathways formed with new experiences and different outcomes. We just have to be willing to face the things that scare us the most. The way to move beyond fear is to move through fear.
Yoga practitioners are blessed with a laboratory for life known as the yoga mat. The old saying, “how you do one thing, is how you do everything” applies throughout the practice. Those of us who rush through sequences, tend to rush through our days. Those of us who give up in poses and doubt our strength are likely doing the same in other aspects of our lives. As internal scientists, yogis choose to examine behaviors. This includes manipulating conditions to elicit certain reactions and then practicing healthy responses. For example, when we flow through the Surya Namaskara B series (a dynamic flow sequence) the brain and body could easily be stressed. Yogis practice moving methodically and breathing so that off the mat when things are overwhelmingly fast, we are trained to maintain calm. Similarly, we can learn to move beyond fear starting from the microcosm of our mat.
Here are 5 ways to move beyond fear on the mat and in your life:
- Identification. First, identify the poses and/or parts of the practice that scare you most. Look for changes in your breath and an increased heart rate. Notice when you rush through things or most importantly, the poses that you avoid. Off of the mat look for similar autonomic responses. What interactions cause you to hold your breath or for butterflies to take flight in your tummy? What circumstances do you avoid? Are there similarities on and off the mat?
- Breathe. Once you have identified the things that scare you, observe your breath. It is both a mirror and cure for fearful situations. When we are uncomfortable or frightened we hold our breath, but that also makes us more scared. The body responds as if it were drowning. Practice breathing within the things that are frightening.
- Expose yourself. In Cognitive Behavioral Psychology, there is a method known as Exposure Response Prevention Therapy. A person is exposed to what scares them in short increments and over time their tolerance builds. Just as you would never throw someone afraid of swimming into the deep end, and instead wade them in from the shallow end. On the mat if handstands or other inversions scare you, practice at the wall to get comfortable. Off of the mat, try to spend a little time in a scary situation every single day. Be consistent!
- (Lovingly) push yourself. Many people get stuck with #3 and never take off the training wheels. But a key to exposure-response prevention therapy is building up tolerance over time. Every day increase the amount of time you are working on your nemesis pose or putting yourself in a fearful situation. As you build confidence explore taking it further. For example, once you have practiced inversions at the wall regularly, try to do one in the center of the room with a teacher you implicitly trust. If letting go of control scares you, start by giving your partner or coworker a small task and then in time, larger responsibilities.
- Our mind is our best friend and our worst enemy. The mind is a powerful tool. It can create our heaven or our hell. Once we are no longer in full-fledged panic when confronting our fear source, we can understand it better. For example, with handstands, is it really a fear of falling or a loss of control? Where else in your life does this theme present itself and how is the mind enabling this way of thinking? From inquiring on the mat, we start to understand and shift our thinking toward healthier patterns, which carry into the rest of our life.
Ready to face your fears? Join Sarah Ezrin and Hillary Skibell for the January 200 hour teacher training at YogaWorks, Larkspur in Northern California. It is a scary decision, but it is so worth it! Transform your life!
Sarah Ezrin, E-RYT-500, is an energetic and humorous yoga teacher, writer, and YogaWorks teacher trainer based in Los Angeles. With a profound love of travel, Sarah runs around the globe leading trainings, workshops and retreats. For Sarah, yoga is not about the tricks or the postures; it is about finding one’s center amidst the challenges and chaos of the world. She believes that life is short and that it should be spent laughing, with the people and animals we love, and doing the things we most enjoy, like yoga! Practice with her at YogaWorks and Yoga Tree, or online with myyogaworks.com. For more information on Sarah, visit her website or connect with her on Facebook.