Fear is a complex emotion. One of a handful of emotions said to be fully tied to our biological mammalian nature (in the sense of its existence, not in our particular fears), fear has a strong impact on our physical beings. Fear protects us by preventing risk-taking behavior or providing us with the energy needed to manage danger. Being in a fear producing situation causes the body to release adrenalin in preparation for fight or flight. Increased adrenalin production dilates the pupils, increases heart and breath rates, causes shaking, may produce nausea or headache, and so on. Fear also affects us mentally, particularly when experienced over long periods. It can cause mood swings, lack of self-efficacy, depression, inability to trust others, helplessness, loneliness, hostility, and more.
While fear serves a valuable purpose, in terms of our protection, it has drawbacks, as seen in some of the effects above. Most of us have fears that are less about “real” dangers than imagined ones. I am scared of spiders. I love snakes and I have no problem with lizards or fish, or pretty much any animal with four or fewer legs. Spiders sort of freak me out. On an everyday basis, this is generally ok, but it does prevent me from going into situations where I think there might be many spiders (it took me quite a while to be convinced to try tent-camping, and I never want to go into the bug house at the zoo), and that is opportunity lost for very little “real” reason. Seriously, I wanted to put a spider picture on this post, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at them long enough to select one.
So, too, in a yoga practice fear can protect us from harm and also prevent us from growth. When I started yoga, I was pretty sure that I would never ever ever (ever) do an headstand, handstand, or forearm stand. Ever. I felt pretty sure that I would fall on my head and break my neck. This fear prevented me from really even trying to do inversions for quite a while. At some point, I got past it and started doing them. Then I had an “incident” in a hot yoga class that involved skidding across a carpet on my face during pinca myurasana. Suddenly, I could not do inversions again. Another few months were required to get past that fear and I was back to it. A few weeks ago, I fell on some ice and managed to concuss myself and get whiplash. Oops! Back to the fear. Three weeks later and I’m starting to recover my confidence in inversions, but I’m still working on it.
Fearing inversions in this way may be an obvious example in a yoga practice, but I think fear effects practice in ways that are more subtle as well. Since I started yoga, I have struggled with the jumps (forward and back) in vinyasa. Jump-backs came more easily to me, but I’m still not so good at the jumps forward. I’ve pondered and tried. I’ve reviewed videos and read books. And then, today in class, it really hit me. My jump forward issue is because the forward jump requires lift. It doesn’t work (thump!) if you just try to hop forward, you have to actually jump up, as into an inversion, and then bring the legs forward. With no wall behind me, I’m scared to jump up, so my forward jumps end up as sad little hops that don’t get my feet where they need to be.
It’s not just falling on the head that can be a fear in a yoga class. Students might fear turning an ankle, injuring a knee, letting go too much in the hip flexor, stretching the neck far back – there are many physical fears that can come up in a yoga class. In addition to these, there are emotional fears that can easily crop up in a class. Fear of failure, fear of appearing vulnerable, fear of being open to others, etc. (And I’m not even getting into abhinivesha – or fear of death – which may well be the root of most of the others).
So, what do we do about this in a yoga class, for ourselves or for our students? We could say “don’t be afraid,” but it’s probably not that easy. Identifying fear as the cause of some inabilities to do poses is a first step. Then, affirming the normalcy of fear may help reduce additional discomfort of embarrassment. Analyzing what the underlying fear is might help. This may involve asking the fearful individual (self or other), “what is the very worst thing that could happen if you try this pose?” Doing so allows us to meet each perceived potential outcome head on. “I could break my head right off!” “What are the odds you would really break your head right off?” “Probably close to none, but I could really hurt my neck.” This may provide a clue as to steps that can be taken to alleviate that concern to some degree, whether that is placing blankets under the head or providing support for a knee or moving to a corner for an inversion.
Like everything else, it’s a process. We likely didn’t develop our specific fears in a day, or a week, or even a month, so we can’t expect them to disappear that fast. But, allowing ourselves to acknowledge them and then attempting to identify ways to work through them in our practice may slowly whittle away at the fears that hold us back, or down.