Overcoming Fear with Yoga
Fear is a tough subject. On one hand, it’s biologically necessary. We evolved a sense of fear to keep us from doing things that could get us killed. We’re afraid of walking too close to the edge because of the dangers of falling. Somewhere along the evolutionary line, this healthy, helpful sense became over-developed. Now, we fear things that pose absolutely no threat to our lives (public speaking, anyone?). We let fear get out of hand, so instead of a just a friendly warning bell, we have full blown, life-long anxieties.
What does this have to do with yoga? This is a two part answer, so we’ll start with the more apparent. The asana limb of yoga is all about the physical body. We move our bodies into different poses to stretch and strengthen our muscles. For most people, asana is a process. Very few people begin their practice and are able to jump right into urdhva dhanurasana (upward bow or wheel pose). However, every yogi I’ve talked to has that quintessential yoga moment.
You’re in a class and the teacher demonstrates a more advanced pose. You look at this person and think they must be crazy, there is no way your body will be able to do that! What if you hurt yourself? Or mess it up and fall on your face in front of the class? But as everyone else in the class prepares to move into the pose, you push your fears aside and steel yourself for what’s ahead. The teacher begins cueing and that’s when the miracle happens. You put your trust in your body and it does not let you down. You are in the pose! Maybe it’s shaky and maybe you aren’t able to hold it for very long, but you did it. You leave class with the post-yoga glow, having overcome your fears by placing trust in yourself.
The practice of asana balances our over-developed sense of fear by gently pushing our physical limits. Each time you experience the rush of moving into a new pose, you build up even more self-confidence, which battles your anxiety. You begin to trust yourself and give in less to the unfounded fears that have plagued you in the past. Of course there will be bumps in the road. You may experience setbacks or injure yourself. But this too is part of the journey. Overcoming an injury confirms that you can accomplish your goals despite obstacles, resulting in even more confidence which combats your fear.
The second way in which yoga can help manage fear is more esoteric. While many people are drawn to yoga through the physical practice of asana, the meditative side of the practice is just as important. In many forms of meditation, the goal is to bring the awareness to the present and hold it there for as long as possible. We spend so much of our time regretting the past or worrying about the future, while completely forgetting about the present.
It is especially the worry of the future that can increase our anxiety. We get so caught up in worrying about one thousand different ways something could go wrong and in many cases, these things never happen, making all of that worry a waste of time and energy. Meditation counters this by bringing the mind back to the present and out of the future, letting go of the fear of what could happen. Settling in to the present is a bit like a reality check for your mind. Yes, bad things may happen, but they’re not happening now so why are you suffering? You are here and all is well.
For those of you suffering from anxiety or other fear related issues, the best advice I have is to trust yourself and keep your mind on the present. You don’t need a yoga practice to accomplish either of these, but I stand among the ranks of those who have battled my anxiety through the practice yoga and recommend it wholeheartedly.