Releasing fear through yoga

At first we might think yoga is all about bliss and relaxation.

The truth is, yoga can make us feel uncomfortable.

It’s a great teacher, because how we practice mirrors how we live our life.

Unsettling emotions can start to pop up. Feelings or thoughts we didn’t know were (still) there can surprise us.

Fear is one of these. The question is, do we run a mile or pretend it doesn’t exist, or are we open to it potentially creating something brilliant?

Back in the nineties I discovered that I was terrified of inversions (going upside down). For some it can be a backbend, meditation or lying in relaxation pose that brings emotional discomfort.

Any attempt at entering a headstand was met with the classic fight or flight response. My heart seemed to pound rampantly, my body temperature rose, my breathing became uneven, I had that awful, sickly feeling of stress. My usually slight frame was suddenly impossibly heavy. Hips above shoulders? Feet off the ground? It just wasn’t happening.

At the time I had left a corporate career and, while studying for an MA really had no idea what I would be doing in the coming years. I was living alone and needed to support myself. I had taken a leap, was in mid-air and didn’t know where I was going to land, or when.

Here is what I learned about meeting fear and gaining clarity in life through yoga:

1. Discomfort can be brilliant
Often, if something makes us feel uncomfortable or fearful, chances are it is worth getting to know. It can be the catalyst for transformation.

There is an aspect of yoga called svadhyaya, or self-study. This doesn’t mean engaging in endless self-analysis and judgement, but simply seeing ourselves in an honest way and being open about what we can learn. In this way, an obstacle can actually bring out the best in us.

Our mind can be full of thoughts about what we can’t do. Well-worn limiting habits and patterns – samskaras in the ancient yoga texts – can keep us from reaching our true potential.

In practical terms, rather than thinking ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’ll just leave it out’, how about ‘How can I do this?’

Stepping out of our comfort zone brings with it excitement and a chance to grow. We can be playful about it.

I was curious about that headstand: how would it feel, how could I learn to do it, what was I capable of? I knew that inversions quite literally challenge us to gain a new perspective. What fun to be doing something like that as an adult. Similarly, with my future beyond corporate life the expansiveness of not knowing what was to come was liberating and full of promise.

2. Trust the process, take one step at a time
Any apparently insurmountable obstacle can be broken down into digestible pieces. It just requires consistent focus and dedication to go through the steps and trust in the process. If the process is good, the outcome will take care of itself.

I sought technical help for the pose. How to build the necessary strength and stability, how to enter, be in and exit safely. I had the support of teachers (and padding at home), while I wobbled and fell. Nobody gave me too much too soon. The small pieces gradually came together to form a whole. Repetition, tweaking, taking my time. No pressure. No expectations. I applied this approach in my life too.

3. Be gentle – be quiet – breathe
I have done some possibly crazy things, like skydiving and micro-lighting while knowing I have a fear of heights (I loved both experiences). Sometimes you just feel compelled to.

In the long-term, what helped immensely with both my fear and with gaining clarity was the time I spent in quiet contemplation and non-doing. Without doubt, yoga’s breathing practices, meditation and restorative poses calmed my nervous system and kept me from panicking. Importantly, they enabled me to go deep within to unearth my purpose in life and a place of peacefulness and contentment. This is the bedrock of my life and work now.

‘Then the mind will turn inward and the obstacles that stand in the way of progress will disappear’. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Life is a dance of innumerable steps, experiments, adjustments, failures, revelations and great leaps. Leap to your heart’s content.

What might appear to be a weakness can be our greatest strength.

And here’s that headstand.


Photos: Kieron Helsdon

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