Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What is the place of fear in the practice?

This post is inspired by Claudia's latest post about fear and its effects on the practice. Claudia writes:

"Although I know I can probably come down from a headstand, for some reason I have not attempted it... I call it " lack of time, it does not go here in the series, it could hurt me, may bring bad karma to jump around" and other, pretty silly excuses...

This leaves me wondering about how much my mind gets on the way of my legs going behind my head for example, or me dropping back from standing, which is totally within the confines of primary series and where my mind can come with no further excuses...

"just do it" , yeah, I have tried that, not happening...

I have resorted back to "it is what it is and it will come when it might" ...

I am also not buying that anymore...

Am I falling asleep here? What is it I need to understand?"

Perhaps many of us can relate to this. There is very often in our practice a particular posture, sensation or body part that brings up particularly strong feelings of fear or anxiety; feelings that our rational minds try to rationalize by presenting us with excuses not to attempt the posture.

What should we do about this troublesome thing called fear, this raw feeling that seems to pop up at the most inconvenient places in our practice, and which prevents us from being the "best" yogis/yoginis we can be?

As usual, I'll venture to give my own answer here. I believe that fear is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe that in most circumstances in life (including during yoga practice) fear can be a useful thing to have, if one is able to condition oneself to experience the fear appropriately and to react to it in a way that is appropriate and productive. In this regard, I think we might be able to learn something useful from somebody who lived a couple of thousand years ago. According to Aristotle, 

"...it is in the nature of things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health... both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and all the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash..." (Nicomachean Ethics, translated by W.D. Ross)

According to Aristotle, if one is to be courageous and to live well, one must constantly navigate a path between extremes: One must not be fearful of and run away from everything; but one must also not be rash, and uncritically and blindly meet every danger. The thing to do is to condition oneself to use fear as a sort of "emotional radar" to alert oneself to the dangers before one, and take the appropriate action.

Does all this talk of being courageous and taking one's stand and not meeting every danger have anything to do with our practice? One might ask. In my opinion, yes. I have come to realize in the last few years that to do the practice is to constantly navigate a path between extremes. To get the most out of one's practice, one must not be so fearful that one "runs away from" and not attempt things just because they seem new to one's experience or frightening or unsettling. I think many Ashtangis would agree with this. After all, Guruji famously says, "Why fear?" (Or is it "Why fearing, you?")

But what about the other extreme? Are there dangers in one's practice that one should not rush into? I think so. In order to illustrate my point, let's think about something I am very familiar with: Injury. I recently came across this very insightful quote by the Iyengar teacher Julie Gudmestad:

"...as you or your student look at building or rebuilding a yoga practice after an injury, it's important to be honest and present with how you deal with pain. It's rarely appropriate, while working with an injured joint, to "push through the pain" unless you are under the guidance of a trained professional. Instead, work at the point where you have significant sensation of stretch, or even discomfort—if you don't push a little into the scary place, you won't make any progress—but not so far into discomfort that you generate resistance in your body or mind. Holding the breath is a sure sign of resistance, as is the tightening and guarding of muscles trying to protect themselves from injury during an overaggressive stretch." (Quote taken from this blog)

According to Gudmestad (and according to my personal experience of working with injury), skilfully working with injury involves navigating a path between extremes: If one does not work the "scary" joint or muscle that is injured, one makes no progress towards healing. But if one pushes too much, to the point of holding one's breath or tightening one's muscles, one risks aggravating the injury.

But what has all this talk about navigating between extremes to do with fear in our practice? I think that just as fear in our daily lives can serve as a warning of possible dangers in our environment, a feeling of fear in the practice can also serve as an alert signal that tells us that we are moving into very unfamiliar territory, that we should be mindful and be alert to possible dangers and pitfalls. If we "overreact" and run away from that which is unfamiliar and which brings up the feeling, we lose the opportunity to navigate the situation/posture/whatever skilfully. If we simply rush headlong into the situation/posture/whatever without paying attention to what we are feeling and experiencing, we open ourselves up to unpleasant consequences like injury or unnecessary pain. The path between these two extremes lies in staying with the breath and listening to every sensation that comes up, and using these sensations to ask ourselves questions and make decisions moment by moment as we are in the situation/posture/whatever: Is this sensation a "good" pain or a "bad" pain? What can I do to reduce the sensation, if it is a bad pain? What does my quick breathing here signify? Why do I have tightness in my facial muscles? Do I need to change the way I do this part of the posture? Notice that if we are in either of the two extremes (running away or rushing headlong and not feeling anything), we simply will not be in the position to ask ourselves these questions.


  1. Very nice Nobel. Really enjoyed reading that. I guess the specific thing for me, at this particular time, has to do with the fear of droping.... I feel I am a master at finding my edge when I am in control... As in pretty much any asana where no falling into the floor is required.... This is interesting,

    Through your post I realize now I fear that moment where you just need to trust and drop, let it go, and have faith that I will survive... Oh my goodness... Maybe fear of death? Reading your post may have been more revealing to me than I expected.

  2. Interesting, Claudia. I haven't thought about this, but you may be right: Perhaps the fear of dropping back is a different kind of fear from other kinds of fear (I don't know if it is related to fear of death, though...). I don't have this problem, because I tend to be on the rash side where these things are concerned; I just drop and see what happens. Which brings its own problems...

    Hmm... now I'm wondering if Kino might have anything interesting to say about this. I wonder if I should trouble her and email her about this?

  3. Hi Nobel - This is an interesting conversation. I tend to think along the same lines you do, as I understand it. I find fear to be an excellent motivator in my practice. Ashtanga, particularly, asks us to face many fears, and a little bit of that rashness, the ability to let go of the fear and just drop into the unknown or sit with the discomfort, is a large part of the power of the practice. At least it has been in my experience.

  4. Thanks Megan. Now I don't feel so alone in my rashness. This makes me wonder: Do "naturally rash" then have a certain advantage as far as the practice is concerned. Just wondering.