Yoga and Fear

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I’m no expert. I’ve been practicing steadily for some time now, but I don’t think of anything I say as the inside scoop. I’m not a life-long yogi setting forth the truth from deep experience. I’m just a writer writing about yoga.

And only hatha yoga at that, which is what most Occidentals mean when they talk about yoga. I’m going to follow that usage, because it’s too much trouble to keep writing “hatha yoga” over and over. So when I write “yoga,” I mean hatha yoga. If I mean something different, I’ll tell you.

One of the main things I like about yoga is it really works. Just do it, things go better for you physically. You don’t have to take anybody else’s word for it. You could probably manage to start with nothing but the pictures in a paperback book, but it goes quicker, at least at first, if you have a teacher.

A knowledgeable teacher, I mean. There are genuine things to be learned. And a compassionate if firm teacher. If you get hold of one of these latterday exotic jocks who treats yoga as a competition, run, do not walk, in the other direction. That’s a view that’s common to westerners. It’s the misconception a friend of mine was under when she asked how many tricks I could do.

Yoga is for you. It isn’t about competition. It isn’t about tricks.

Nevertheless, there are difficulties.

Early in my practice, I was preoccupied with fear. I find myself fearful more often than I want to be, especially when I’m trying out new practices or new situations. Maybe you’re the same way.

There was also that minor panic, familiar to anyone who works out, that you experience before every session. In spite of knowing that you’ll be healthier in the long run, the fact is that now, just right now, you really don’t want to.

For what it’s worth, with yoga, I’m no longer particularly afraid. With maybe one exception, ado mucha srivasana (the downward-facing tree pose, or standing on your hands). That one, all of a sudden, after having managed without trouble for years, I suddenly myself incapable of.

I know what the problem is. I lost my trust in what would happen after I deliberately threw my feet over my balance point.

There was a while there when my original teacher, Kirsten Mustain, would practically weep at failing to manage ado mucha srivasana, though she had been doing it just fine for years. At the time I found it hard to imagine how she could lose an asana after being so successful at it for so long.

I get it now.

The kinds of fear that yoga aroused in me fell naturally into four different categories. I count them (1) the fear of pain; (2) the fear of falling; (3) the fear of humiliation; and (4) fear of the holy.

 The Fear of Pain

Nobody likes to hurt. We’ve seen the contortions that some yoga adepts go through, and we think how much we would hurt if we tried those. Or perhaps we’re trying to get into a recommended position, and all we’re aware of is how much it hurts. There was one Kirsten tried to get me to do that was simply impossible for a human with testicles. The thighs would crush them.

She saw what I was talking about, and that led into a fruitful discussion of sexuality and yoga, and how yoga was originally developed for young monks, whose sexuality had to be diverted into other activities.

It also led to dropping that asana for others.

I believe deeply that yoga teaches you to do yoga. I believe it because that’s the way it has worked for me. That is, if you simply begin, if you simply establish a regular practice, doing the asanas will lead you to a better understanding of the goals of those same asanas, and you’ll do them more successfully.

One of the better understandings is the difference between actual pain and mere discomfort. Too many Americans are confused about this difference. They refuse to exercise because they think exercise hurts.

If it actually did, only a very few people, the masochists, would engage in it. Exercise (including yoga) is about stretching your limits, but it is not about pushing your body too far. “No pain no gain” is one of the stupidest sayings around. What it ought to say is “No discomfort no gain.”

Here’s the difference as I see it. Pain, actual pain, means you’re damaging yourself. Discomfort means you’re stretching your limits, but not causing actual physical damage. If an asana hurts too badly, give it up for a while. Try a milder version, one that develops the flexibility needed for the one that hurts.

Kirsten could loop an arm over the pulled-up knee of the opposite leg and the other arm around her back and join her hands under the arch of that knee. I still can’t, not even close, but I’ve developed a modified approach that may, some day,

give me the needed flexibility.

It wouldn’t be surprising if you did have trouble distinguishing the two. I had trouble, and I had been working out for decades (running and swimming for distance, primarily.) In general, our culture simply fails to teach us that. It teaches us instead that there are only two sorts of people, jocks and non-jocks. This is patently and obviously untrue, since plenty of people have been one type and turned themselves into the other. Nevertheless, we get the message drummed into our brains constantly, and most of us accept it without noticing.

So the rule: If the asana hurts, if it seems likely to do actual damage, leave it. But if it is merely uncomfortable, not a position you find natural, but not one that tears muscle or tendon or damages you in some other way, embrace it. You will rapidly learn to tell the difference.

In most yoga postures (I’ll more often use the word asanas—AH-sun-Nas), if you can assume the asana at all, you are extremely unlikely to damage yourself, so the truth is you don’t really have to worry. Just don’t force your body, from a misguided sense of competition, into a position it can’t assume without damage. Don’t sacrifice your well-being in order to temporarily look more adept. No real adept will be fooled, and you won’t be able to do anything the next day.

In yoga, you have to think about time. The way you are now is not the way you will necessarily be in the future. You practice toward the goal of making the asanas more natural for you, not to impress others.

The Fear of Falling

Then there’s the fear of falling: We all have an instinctive dread of falling. We know it hurts. Many asanas require not just flexibility, but balance. Arda Chandrasana, for example, the half-moon pose. For a long time the balance will not come, and the pose will disturb you because you don’t feel well-grounded. Your body triggers an atavistic fear of falling.

The fear is not realistic, though it’s powerful. It isn’t realistic because, as with hurting yourself, even if you were to fall, for most asanas you won’t fall far enough or hard enough to really hurt yourself.

Ado much srivasana may be one of the rare exceptions, though even with it you aren’t likely to get badly hurt. For one thing, unless you’re a deep adept, you are probably doing it against a wall. The couple of times I’ve fallen over backwards it was because I was doing it against a door and although I thought the door was firmly closed, it wasn’t. Even so, I wasn’t really hurt, not enough to skip a single practice, just thumped up a little.

The Fear of Humiliation

There’s the fear of humiliation. This fear is more prominent in classes, because we’re all afraid of looking like clowns to others, and especially when you’re a beginner, you’re acutely aware of your limits.

And yet many people learn better in classes, will not keep on with practice unless they have the structure of a class.

There’s always a troll or two who want to show off how far they’ve advanced, and who may play on your fear of humiliation. Just ignore them. Most of the people in the class are suffering the exact same fear you are, but you aren’t thinking about what clowns they are, are you?

This is really just self-consciousness. Fight it by saying to yourself, many times each day, that yoga is about stretching your limits to live a healthier and more fulfilled life. It isn’t about impressing other people. Which is better, developing gradually, over time, a practice that will give you new life, or attempting to impress your temporary classmates right now?

This approach gets easier once you begin to notice that you do, indeed, feel better, that it isn’t just that sudden easy freedom and relaxation you feel after a session, but that it carries through into your daily life.

I realized once that yoga could be thought of as a martial art. You train your body to adapt many more positions than most adults do. What do you think that body will do if you’re ever in a frightening situation, when the adrenaline kicks in and it’s time to break a few moves to save yourself?

Under adrenaline, even the asanas that feel difficult to you will become available to your body’s need for instant reaction. That’s one of the things training is about: enlarging your menu, so to speak, of crisis moves.

If you stick with it, you may be able, someday, to manage impressive feats. But that’s a by-product of regular practice. It isn’t a goal, and until you can see it as no more than a by-product, you’re crippled by your own fear of humiliation.

There’s simply no learned behavior in which you can start out at the top. Think constantly about your fear of humiliation, until you have reduced it to a ridiculous little quiver, one you can vanquish at will.

Fear of the Holy

I phrase the fear this way even though the phrasing isn’t as immediately obvious as in the other cases.

There are certain asanas—downward dog, for example—which communicate a sense of submission. You’re literarily putting your body into a position it can’t help sensing as submission. These asanas make you feel like a peasant kneeling to a king or god.

Then too, there is the awareness that you are not all you could be, physically or morally, that there are forces larger than you and greater than you. You feel not merely the concept of such a thing, you feel with absolute certainty that there is something out there so wise and so loving and so far beyond you that you feel completely exposed, completely obvious. You feel yourself a preposterous little jackanapes in the presence of the holy.

But you cannot advance in your practice, or in love, until you learn to quit being afraid that there’s someone more advanced in practice, or in love.

This fear touches on yoga and religion, but I will leave that discussion for a later column. Perhaps I should call it fear of submission, but I think that the awareness of other and greater forces and beings is salutary.

And here’s the thing, finally, about all these forms of fear: Yoga brings them home, forces you to notice them, deal with them. We usually hide our fear from ourselves, but yoga won’t let you do that.

Yoga is a way to confront your fear over and over, to actually work on it. Every day if you like. It was years after I began before I could see how there was no solution to fear except to do away with its physical symptoms. One cannot think one’s way out of fear, or talk one’s way out of it. One can only train one’s body to maintain those positions and rhythms that do not permit fear.

Fear doesn’t go away because you figure it out. It goes away when you learn to breath deeply and fully and to expand your heart center at will.

More than all that, yoga is a safe way to confront your fear over and over. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. You might be afraid that something bad will happen, but it won’t. Trust the powers who give you yoga.

Pay attention to your fear. See where it comes from. See what physical behaviors remove it. This approach turns your fear into a teacher. When you have learned to send that fear away at will, you will be a far more powerful being.

And far more accomplished at yoga.


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