I was recently reminiscing about the first time we took my youngest son Rakhi skiing. The Saturday night before we went we had a family movie night and watched Finding Nemo. There is a scene right at the beginning of the movie where his dad, Marlin, is about to take Nemo to his 1st day of school. Marlin is instructing Nemo on how to leave their home cautiously: poke your head out, look around for danger, pull your head back in, then do it again, and again “just to be safe”, until Nemo gets so frustrated with his father’s anxiousness that he just swims away when Marlin isn’t looking. The next day I spent hours on the bunny slope with Rakhi, then 3 years old, surrounded by both little and big people, learning to conquer their fears on skis. Most of the little ones, including mine, were completely fearless, leaning into the hill, skis parallel, bombing their way down in a racer’s tuck, knowing some big person would get in the way to stop them before they crashed. Or they would just crash and then get up and do it all over. I couldn’t help but feel that there is a middle ground between these two extremes.
|Rakhi on his skis for the first time|
Yoga teaches us the middle ground. When we practice regularly we come to learn that most of our fears exist in our heads and serve no more purpose than keeping us imprisoned in self-limiting thought patterns and behaviors. Here are some of the daily fears I live with: FOMO, saying the wrong thing, gaining weight, not fitting in, my kids saying or doing something hurtful to someone else, my classes not being interesting enough or inspiring enough or good enough...I could keep going but you get the point. Here’s the thing about fear and what it does to us. Fear of falling off a ski lift is a legitimate mortal fear and one we should listen to. The fear of saying something stupid is not, and yet from a physiological perspective, the reaction is the same: fight or flight, otherwise known as the stress response. Living with fear, or its punky little sister anxiety, is no joke. Fight or flight pumps adrenaline through the body, which, when you are actually facing a bear on the bike path or saving your child from falling off a ski lift, can be super helpful. But when it’s not a life or death situation, that same adrenaline that can help you fight the bear or catch the child causes increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and breathing rate, and slowed digestion. When we succumb to these daily little fears, we become perpetually stuck in a fight or flight cycle, which, since most of us are not in mortal danger with any sort of regularity, only functions to hold us back from the life we really want to be living.
One of the more popular slogans I hear in yoga and other mindfulness circles is “the opposite of fear is love”. Although I understand where this comes from, on the practical level this does not ring so true for me. In fact, I think love (the love of my children and husband for example) has almost made me more fearful, because the more you love, the more you have to lose of course. For me, one of the best antidotes to fear is joy. I was in a mindfulness seminar a couple of years ago and the speaker taught us that if you can connect to joy in the present moment, it’s nearly impossible to feel things like fear, anxiety, disquiet, or unease. I have found this to be completely true in my own life. When I am present with happiness my fears disappear. And the ones that don’t, well those are the ski lift variety and those are the ones you should pay attention to. Melody Beattie says it like this: “Do not allow the fear of what if to ruin the joy of what is.” Connecting to pleasure is the doorway to releasing fear. Life doesn’t have to be so hard! A friend asked me recently “Is it possible to get where you want to go with pleasure rather than pain?” YES! But it is a choice, and not always one easy to make because it requires vulnerability, authenticity, and the courage to stand steady and strong in your own light. It requires the risk of being seen in all your glory.
The actor Jim Carrey speaks about fear both eloquently and hilariously in his commencement address at Maharishi University in 2014. It is worth listening to the whole thing when you have 25 minutes to spare (I often listen to motivational clips on YouTube while I make my children’s lunches in the morning), but here is one of my favorite clips from the speech:
“My father could have been a great comedian but he didn't believe that was possible for him so he made a conservative choice. He took a safe job as an accountant and when I was 12 years old he was let go from that safe job. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which is that you can fail at doing what you don't love, so might as well take a chance doing what you love. Fear is going to be a player in life, but you get to decide how much. You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about the pathway to the future, but all it will ever be is what’s happening here, the decisions in that we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear. So many of us choose our path based on fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect so we never ask the universe for it. I'm saying I'm the proof that you can ask the Universe for it. And if it doesn't happen for you right away it's because the Universe is too busy filling my order.”
For more YouTube inspiration, as promised, check out this video of the making of the song “This is Me” with Keala Settle from The Greatest Showman.
In yoga practice we open to the bigger energy of the universe, the energy that moves the planets, that breathes our breath, beats our hearts, and changes the tides. We come to know the part of ourselves that is an integral part of creation and we learn that we can participate in its unfolding in whatever way we uniquely can. We learn to take pleasure in what our bodies are able to do, the joy of challenging poses and the sweet reveling in their release and integration. Joy (Ananda) is one of the attributes of the Divine. When you choose joy you deepen your connection to God, Source, the Universe, love, or any other name you want to call whatever it is that is bigger than you and me and all of us. We don’t have to look for it, it is always there, just like all the possibilities and passions of our hearts. When we are living with constant fear or anxiety joy can be hard to find and we feel stuck. We often find ourselves staring at what we think is a wall but it’s actually a door. Sometimes we know it’s a door but we still choose not to open it because we don’t REALLY know what’s behind it. But if we believe we are truly worthy of love, of success, and of being happy, the barriers will disintegrate before our eyes.
Off the Mat:
Visuzliation exercise: Unrecognized or unacknowledged fear keeps us from moving forward. Melody Beattie tells us that power comes from being vulnerable enough to say “I’m scared”.
Take a moment to close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and get quiet with yourself. Then ask yourself “What are you afraid of? What scares you?” See what comes up. As each fear arises, acknowledge it, face it then release its energy, let it dissipate. Usually the little things come up first but let yourself go deeper, and then deeper still. What are you so afraid of you’d never voice it out loud? Acknowledge it, see it, then release it. Breathe it out with the exhale.
Into the space you’ve created inside by releasing your fear, now invite in joy. What brings you joy or connects you to pleasure? Bring to mind all the things that make you feel full, content, and connected, like a happy little parade marching across your consciousness. The big things and the little things. Really let the feeling of joy arise inside you. Let it well up and fill you up until you can’t help but smile. Then let go of your parade and just sit with the joy of simply being.
On the Mat:I made sure we did some scary poses this week, so we all got a lot of good practice at connecting to joy in the face of worry, stress, and challenge. I encouraged all my students to judge their practice by the level of joy achieved, rather than the depth of pose. Because nothing magical happens when you finally nail ganda bherundasana (ok, maybe for a second), but it sure as hell does when you can live with joy in every moment.