Face Your Fears in Yoga

Taking advantage of the challenges that spring up in yoga can help us face the fears and obstacles that also arise in our everyday lives.

https://www.wellbeing.com.au/body/yoga/Face-your-fears.html – By Veronica Joseph

Picture this scenario. You’re in a yoga class and the teacher announces that everyone is going to practise a headstand. Do you a) rub your hands together and immediately get into position or b) cringe and say, “I don’t think so!” If you love a challenge and go for the first option — good for you. Just remember to always practise safely. If you choose the latter, you potentially are missing out on a great opportunity. After all, taking advantage of the challenges that spring up in yoga can help us face the fears and obstacles that also arise in our everyday lives.

In yoga, when people avoid poses or refuse to do them altogether fear is at play. Different conditions or ailments can prevent you from practising particular asanas or poses. However, it’s not uncommon to find people who are otherwise healthy and, in some cases, even have a few years of yoga experience behind them but turn down the challenge of certain poses, simply saying, “I’m afraid” or “it’s too hard”.

Lifting your feet over your head or bending over backward is understandably a far from natural position and so there is a perfectly legitimate fear of falling and injuring yourself. However, when practising yoga with the assistance of a teacher or using props to create a modified pose, we have to learn to put our faith and trust in not only someone or something else but, most importantly, ourselves. Yoga’s more challenging asanas, such as backbends or inversions, are obstacles in themselves. The key to these poses doesn’t just lie in strength. It’s about finding perfect balance and harmony. Once you find the courage to attempt the pose and you find that alignment, you’ll realise the challenge really wasn’t that big after all.

What is fear?
Fear isn’t always a bad thing. We need to have a certain degree of fear to alert us of danger and protect us. This “healthy” fear is the kind that prevents us from walking into oncoming traffic or stops us from touching a dish hot from the oven with our bare hands.

However, in many cases fear gets to a point where it is unhealthy. Generally, our fears aren’t connected to life-threatening situations but more fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of change or fear of being unable to meet society’s expectations. These fears are paralysing and hold us back from achieving our full potential.

When fear manifests
Fear can manifest differently for different people. Fear can often also mean stress, nervousness, anxiety, anger or sadness. Many of us know fear as the feeling of butterflies in the stomach, tension in the neck and shoulder or even as sleepless nights when worry is on the mind. We can’t banish fear altogether. Fear will naturally arise during our lives. However, when it does, we can learn to master it so it does not dominate us. Many people refer to F.E.A.R as False Evidence Appearing Real, so what can you do about it? Face Everything And Rejoice!

The great yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, said fear is created when we mull over certain thoughts. These thoughts become rooted in the subconscious and super-conscious mind and eventually we start to think the fear isn’t as easy to destroy as the original thought would have been. These fears arise as we are rooted in a mindset that focuses on past actions (often with regret) and the “what ifs” of the future. Chewing over these thoughts isn’t constructive, so it’s important we cultivate greater awareness and garner faith and trust in ourselves. To do this we need to relax the body and mind, which is where yoga and meditation can be of great help.

What’s your fear?
Do you fear failure? Are you frightened of public speaking or scared of heights? Are you afraid of putting trust in others — or in yourself? Think about what you fear or the obstacles that may be holding you back in life. Write them down on a piece of paper or say them aloud. This is simply a way to define your fears and set you on the way to triumphing over them. Of course, yoga is not a magical cure, but certain poses can help you on your way. Although poses such as inversions and backbends offer a great chance for emotional transformation, they are rife with obstacles when it comes to practising and maintaining the positions.

It is precisely because of the challenge in store that these poses are also known to instil confidence, stamina and poise. Yes, standing on your head might seem daunting at first, but once you do it, what’s preventing you from applying for that new position at work or training for that marathon? If you can you tap into that confidence, that inner strength you didn’t know you had, it can do amazing things on an emotional and spiritual level.

Prepare yourself
When fear arises in yoga, it often comes from a deeper-rooted place. For instance, it might be symbolic of our fear of opening up emotionally or represent our unwillingness to face our obstacles. Confronting these fears and barriers requires us to step out of our comfort zone, which is naturally something we resist doing.

Rather than throw us in the deep end, yoga gives us the challenge and opportunity to step beyond our boundaries at a level we decide and offers a chance for greater spiritual inquiry while we’re at it. By attempting asanas that were once thought beyond our reach, such as inversions and backbends, we can transform our practice and allow those benefits to translate into our everyday lives as well.

In yoga, we might excel in the final pose or we may lose our balance, just as when we face obstacles in life there may be success or failure. Regardless of the outcome, it’s a chance to learn and grow. The act of conquering the fear and facing the obstacle is an achievement in itself. In turn, it might give you the courage to do something you’ve never dreamed of or give you the motivation to tackle a goal you’ve been putting off for too long. Like life, yoga is a journey. When we muster the courage, confidence and willpower to tackle our fears, we harness our full potential and, in turn, evolve and grow.

The benefits
So now we are familiar with the emotional and mental benefits these poses offer, let’s take a look at their effects on a physical level.

Inversions: Inverted poses are just that — poses which invert the body and turn it upside down. As a result, inversions reserve the effects of gravity, rejuvenate the mind and help to tone the internal organs. Inversions boost circulation in the body. In particular, they allow for increased blood flow to the head, including the brain and eyes, which help improves their function.

Backbends: In yoga therapy classes, backbends are given to patients suffering from depression as they are literally and figuratively, uplifting. They are known to release emotional energy while opening the upper back, chest and shoulders. They can also help us better deal with stress and thus help create a better mindset for us to meet our fears and obstacles.

Asanas for fear
Remember, yoga is an individual journey. Some leap at the chance to do a headstand while others dread it. Even if you are enthusiastic, safety should always be your biggest concern. If you are a newcomer, practise under the guidance of a teacher, take the poses gradually and never rush into them. Your progress should be gradual and there’s a range of poses you can try before building up to a greater challenge. Similarly, if you feel like you aren’t ready for an inversion or backbend, that decision lies with you. No one should force you otherwise.

However, at the same time, allowing ourselves to face the fear of the pose by taking it in pieces or through modifications can gradually help you reach a higher level of awareness in both your practice and personal life. The following asanas seek to do exactly that. If you are already familiar with these poses, keep them fresh by adding a new challenge. For instance, try to hold the position for longer, add a variation or attempt the full pose. If you feel you have any conditions that may prevent you from practising inversions or backbends — for instance, spinal problems — seek the advice of your yoga teacher for alternative poses to try. So let’s put these asanas into practice.

Warming up and recovery

Traditionally, inversions and backbends are done towards the end of a class. As they are physically demanding poses, ensure you warm up sufficiently and also practise other standing and sitting poses before getting to these. After an inversion or backbend, remember to slowly retreat into utthita balasana, or the extended child’s pose. This reverses the stretch and gives you a chance to relax. For this pose, bend the knees and rest the shins on the mat. Walk the arms forward and lower the forehead down. Keep the elbows elevated off the mat so you still get the benefit of a stretch in the recovery pose.

Wall back bend
Stand one to two feet away with your back to the wall. Raise your hands over your head. Arch your back and bring your palms to the wall with the fingertips facing downward. Start to bend your knees, walk your hands further down the wall and open up the chest. Go as deep into the bend as comfortable and hold the pose. To exit, slowly walk your hands back up.

Ustrasana (Camel)
Bend the knees and come on your shins. Square your hips to the front. Raise the right hand up to the ceiling and curl back and bring the left hand to the left foot. In the full pose, bring both hands to the feet. Lift up from the chest. Keep the neck long.

Ardha chakrasana (Half wheel)
Lie on your back. Keep the knees bent and feet on the mat. Place the palms down and roughly in line with the ears, fingertips pointing toward the shoulders. Inhale and lift the hips off the mat. Place the crown of the head on the mat. Let the chest open. In the full pose, straighten the elbows and lift the head off the mat.

Halasana (Plough)
First, enter shoulder stand (sarvangasana). Lie on your back then raise both legs. Lift the lower back off the mat and support yourself with both hands. Extend and straighten the legs upwards. From the shoulder stand, enter halasana by lowering one foot onto the mat. Then bring the foot back up and lower the opposite leg. Continue this repetitive movement or, if comfortable, bring both legs down at the same time and interlace the fingers behind the back.

Ardha adho mukha vrksasana (Half handstand)
Use the wall as a prop for this pose. Start by coming onto all fours and bring your feet close to the skirting on the wall. Spread your fingers apart. Lift your knees off the mat and start to walk your feet up the wall. Allow your body make a right angle. Keep the shoulders aligned as best as you can with the wrists and let the head drop downward.

Ardha sirsasana (Half headstand)
Create a tripod base. Bring the elbows onto the mat and interlace the fingers. Lower the crown of the head down and let the fingers cup the back of the head. Lift the knees off the mat and walk the feet inward so you assume a downward-dog-like pose. Attempt to lift one leg at a time and maintain your balance. Release and repeat on the other side.

Ganesha mudra
Complement these asanas by finishing with a meditative pose. This mudra is named after the Hindu elephant god, Ganesh, who is known as the remover of obstacles. By placing your hands over the heart in this mudra you are concentrating your energy at the spiritual centre to help foster awareness and give you the courage to tackle your barriers. Choose any seated meditative pose and bring the left hand in front of the chest with the palm facing forward. Lift the right hand and grasp the fingers together. Keep the elbows elevated and place the hands over the heart. Combine this with deep, steady breathing. On your exhale, pull the hands apart but maintain the mudra. On your inhale, continue to maintain the grip but release all tension. Repeat six times, then switch the position of the hands.

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