Updated: Oct 4, 2021
12 April 2021
Fear. We all feel it at one time or another. Fear can be just a small niggle, or it can loom large and give us sleepless nights. Sometimes whatever we are afraid of can take over and stray into the realm of the “irrational”. We can conjure up all sorts of potential scenarios which cause fear – but that are not realistically likely to happen. Fear can, in certain circumstances, protect us. To illustrate this with a rather obvious example, if we have been taught from a young age that touching fire is dangerous and can cause pain and injury, we will probably not to go and stick our hand in a fire in later life, because we have learnt a healthy respect for fire, and we rightly fear the consequences of sticking our hand into it. That’s fear as a survival strategy.
But fear can be much more subtle of course. We are all to some extent hard wired to value the status quo and to resist change, because doing what we’ve always done is known, and we’ve been ok doing it up to now, right?
The difficulty with that approach is that even if we remain rigidly the same, the world around us is constantly changing. Life is in a constant state of flux, and if we try to resist it, we are likely causing stress and anxiety by so doing. Yoga is a great friend during times of change, because it can help us to stay flexible and it teaches us to go with the flow. As we practice adapting to change in our yoga practice by encountering new poses and sequences, we will become better equipped to adapt to change in life.
A great way of looking at fear, one which I find useful, is to see the word as an acronym: False Expectations Appearing Real. Don’t you find that, in most instances, whenever you’ve been entertaining negative outcomes for hypothetical future scenarios, they’re usually way off what actually happens? That things don’t necessarily crash at the first sign of change? And that more often than not we find that as changes happen we are pleasantly surprised to find they are for the better? Meaning that the negative energy and stress we’ve created for ourselves by worrying was unnecessary suffering of our own making.
Fear can be defined as “moving out of our comfort zone”. This can be in a small way or a much bigger one. An approach to overcoming fear is to flip it on its head and choosing to display COURAGE instead. We can do this as we step onto our yoga mat. Here are some suggestions on how we might develop courage in our practice: Trying new things. Of course we need to always make safety our main concern, so if you’ve never done a headstand before, and you’re fairly new to yoga, it probably wouldn’t be wise to try to “throw” yourself up into the pose with little or no preparation. However, you could instead take the pose on as a project, and commit to achieving it over time, gradually, and with input from a qualified teacher. That means working on strength, balance and the technique to be able to eventually achieve a headstand.
When teaching the preparation for working towards headstand, I often tell students that I practiced solidly building up to the pose for over two years. Firstly, as with most women, I had to build up my upper body strength – planks and sun salutations galore! Then I worked on getting comfortable and on finding the best position for the base of the pose, without loading the weight into the head, but instead using the upper body to provide the required support. And then I followed all of the other stages and processes required to build up the strength, technique and balance consistently, over time. Once I did manage my first free standing headstand it was a fantastic experience and a real sense of achievement! If I hadn’t plucked up the courage to commit to working into the pose in the first place, or if I hadn’t sustained the work I had to put in, I would, of course, never have got there. Taking this off the mat and into life, working in this way can be equated to “chunking down”, i.e. identifying a path leading to a goal by mapping out the sequential steps needed to get there.
To give you a personal example of this chunking down technique in action off the mat, the process of learning to teach yoga online when lockdown hit last year required me to take this approach. First I found a platform to offer classes online, that being (the now ubiquitous!) Zoom. Then I needed to learn how to use the platform effectively to enable others to connect with me on it. Then I had to research and purchase the other equipment I needed; primarily a new laptop (the previous one, having last been seen in use on Noah’s Ark, was not up to the job!). Then, over the following weeks, improving my classes by using upgraded equipment such as a microphone and a better quality webcam. It was also necessary to set up an administration system to manage classes and distribute recordings, to create and refine a class timetable to suit students’ needs in our altered circumstances, and all the while getting used to a very different way of working. It didn’t of course come together overnight, but by taking it one task at a time and building on that, it all did evolve into a workable solution. What would have been overwhelming had I tried to do it all at once, was much easier to cope with one step at a time. Just like building up to headstand. Rooting and grounding in standing poses is another way of summoning up courage, because they give us strong energy, connection and a sense of purpose. There’s no doubt that your attitude will affect this work too: if whilst coming into your warrior poses you imagine yourself as determined, courageous and strong, you will soon come to embody those qualities. There’s no point imagining you’re a wet rag as you come into the shape of a spiritual warrior, as this will simply not enable you to connect with the essence of the pose. Next time you take Warrior 1, 2 or 3, imagine it’s going to be the proudest, best and most determined expression of the pose you’ve ever done! Give it maximum effort. And then carry on doing that each time you practice it. Be the embodiment of courage in action.
Hip opening poses, particularly those which work to release and stretch the psoas muscles and the frontal hip flexors, can also require courage as we practice them – they can be uncomfortable if we’re tight in this area (and most of us are). As we know, yoga teaches us that this, being the zone of the sacral chakra, is where we tend to trap or hold onto unexpressed negative emotion. So releasing those negative energies by stretching with courage allows us to unblock limiting beliefs and physical resistance to working into more challenging poses, clearing the path to further development.
But you don’t by any means have to be constantly expressing grand gestures (or so called “advanced” yoga poses) to be courageous. It can also be as simple as recognising where you are, and from there deciding what you need in the here and now. Sometimes we do need to back off and give ourselves a break. This, in the midst of our busy lives, can also take courage to achieve. When we’re stuck in a feedback loop of mind chatter and distraction, Savasana can be the most courageous choice.
So whether you’re practicing your courage on the mat, or taking it out into the world, learning to be comfortable with change and working on staying calm rather than spinning off into unnecessary “what if’s” is key.
I’d like to leave you with a quote from Winston Churchill:
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Happy practising yogis xCx