Were you scared this Halloween? Whilst witches, mummies and vampires may no longer scare us (not as much as our credit card bill) they do represent the unknown darker side of life and those fears can still catch us unawares.
And those fears can lurk even in our yoga practice. I’ve had many poses over the years that have, for a while, been my personal nemesis. They have tortured and frustrated me as I struggled to master them. Even headstand, that King of asanas, that I practice most days, has recently become a pose of fear. Despite years of practising in the middle of the room, at a recent event, I suddenly found that I was starting to panic – the room started to spin, and I felt as if a cavern yawned behind my back that I was going to topple into.
I came down, and hid my head in child’s pose – thinking, ‘What on earth happened there?!’ As well as, ‘I hope that doesn’t happen again!!’ So, how can we deal with those poses that frighten us and make us feel that we’re going to break or fall, and how can we banish those lurking evil demons?
Take a step back
The wonderful thing about yoga is that the poses that terrify and outwit us, are always linked back, step by step, to the very basic poses that we learn as beginners. It’s the foundation poses – the standing poses, downward dog, staff pose, and so on, that have the ingredients for all the advanced poses contained within them.
If, for example, you’re struggling to lift up into a difficult backbend such as Upward facing bow pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana) then go back to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward dog), and if that’s still too hard then go back to bhujangasana and finally shalabasana. Learning to lift the chest and work the legs will eventually lead you to be able to lift up into the full pose.
Play more, care less
When children play they are naturally fearless (as any mother can confirm, watching with her heart in her mouth as her child disappears up a tree). They are also completely present and in the moment. They have a fluidity and a quality of lightness that we lose as adults. We have learnt to take yoga seriously, but sometimes, it is just as important to take it joyfully, and learn to play and even have fun on the mat! Instead of thinking, ‘I can’t do bakasana’ (for example), we can think ‘I’d like to do bakasana, so I’m going to play at doing it’. That way we take the pressure out of our attempt, and also it means that it doesn’t matter if we get there or not, it’s more important that we have fun trying.
Don’t care what others think
Which leads me neatly onto the next step into banishing those lurking boogeymen in our yoga closets. Real yoga is about learning to still the fluctuations of the mind – and nothing sets those brainwaves a-jittering like fear. Sometimes the fear is triggered by worrying about what other people are thinking of us. We’re making ourselves vulnerable by coming to yoga, by pushing ourselves to our limits, and occasionally coming face to face with our physical and mental shortcomings. This can make us feel fearful of being judged by those around us.
It’s so simply obvious, but it absolutely NEVER matters what other people think of us. As a yoga teacher, I’m constantly amazed at how each person has their different strengths and weaknesses on the mat. There is simply no ‘perfect’ yoga student, and each body is wonderfully unique in its own way. Instead of focusing on our shortcomings, instead, tell yourself, ‘my body is amazing and unlimited in its potential.’
Feel the fear and do it anyway
This method isn’t for everyone. The problem with feeling fear in a yoga class is that our bodies have all sorts of subconscious reactions to when our brain is telling it that it’s got a reason to be scared. The heart starts racing, our palms become sweaty, our muscles tense, and we can get shaky. None of those physical responses are going to help if we’re trying to tackle a balancing pose – for example. But sometimes, it helps to acknowledge our fear, see it for what it is, and then step out of our comfort zone and have a go at the pose anyway. As long as you’re in a safe environment or with an experienced teacher, the worst that can happen is that your ego might get a little bruised.
Treat or Treat
Finally, this Halloween, remind yourself how far you’ve come on your yoga journey. There’s always further to go, and more to learn, but that’s what’s so wonderful about this rollercoaster yoga ride that we’re on. So instead of giving yourself the trick of fear and self-judgement, give yourself the treat of self-acceptance.