Floating in the Pacific Ocean, exhausted from trying to pull a capsized canoe into shore, I watched over a dozen, full grown blue sharks circle only ten feet below me, in a behavior typically preceding what marine biologists refer to as a feeding frenzy. My mind spontaneously matched the apparently threatening image underfoot to the only other familiar reference it had conveniently stored in my subconscious: a National Geographic special I had watched on shark attacks.
It wasn’t the sharks themselves that had initially concerned me, for I was used to body surfing until sunset in shark-populated waters. I considered the gentle grey sharks and harmless leopard sharks my friends. Not the killers everyone makes them out to be, the poor things always get a bad rap—they very rarely attack humans. I spotted sharks much more often than dolphins or sea otters and had come to feel relaxed around them. We shared the sea. I was familiar with their behaviors and had never witnessed anything threatening. There was harmony between us.
That day, however, was different. Although merging with nature had always soothed me, I didn’t exactly want to end up as the shark’s meal. That was a little too much merging for me! I was in deeper waters that day. The sharks were abundant, many over six feet long, and exhibiting suspiciously hungry behavior.
As the sharks got closer, colorfully graphic pictures of multiple jaws tearing at soft and vulnerable flesh challenged my nervous system. (I’ve always had a wonderful imagination.)
Momentarily, I panicked. Was my body to become the shark’s lunch? As I contemplated this dark and dreadful picture, all the idealistic fantasies I had of mystically exiting my body as an old woman in perfect Samadhi became instantly extinguished like a superb quality incense stick reaching its dreaded end.
Then something inside of me isolated a singular word from the recalled TV program: predators. They will not attack a corpse! The next thing I knew I had swiftly assumed the yogic corpse-pose, savasana, with oceanic determination. After negotiating the lack of a firm surface to sink my body’s weight into, and the way my breathing made me bob atop the sea’s surface, I was able to surrender before the unchangeable circumstances, and really take shelter of savasana. This asana is all about trust. And I really needed to trust what was happening to me that day. Life is presenting me with this specific experience, I thought. Whether I found it palatable or not (regardless of the outcome) I was being forced to swallow it, for whatever reason, and hopefully it wouldn’t involve the sharks swallowing me!
Feigning bodily lifelessness on the sea’s surface, I never felt more alive! I closed my eyes to the perfectly blue sky above me, and the dorsal fins that rotated around me, like a moving mandala, and trusted that I’d be able to find the bliss in the present situation life had placed me in. After all, great spiritual teachers say that bliss is accessible anywhere. Right? So there I was; surrounded by sharks, beckoning bliss. After all, what other option did I have? Okay, so it was a by default that I found it.
Sending the breath into my muscles I felt myself enter that comforting and familiar state of relaxation. Through water-submerged-ears I could hear the seagulls. They were louder than my breathing, so I used their calls to help me relax. As conscious breath flowed into my body, I relaxed even more. With each slow and long exhalation, I meditated on releasing all attachments to manipulating the outcome of an external situation that was clearly beyond my control.
I envisioned my human life like a sandcastle on the verge of being devoured by the high tide of yet another lifetime on my journey through eternity. Something I had read in the Bhagavad Gita’s second chapter popped into my mind. Something about the unborn, eternal, wondrous nature of existence that protects us from ever dying when our body dies. That shields us from being attacked, killed, slain, every time our body is injured. But was my then fifteen-year-old body about to be slain by hundreds of sharp teeth?
Inexplicably, as I floated in the deep waters beyond Scripps Pier, surrounded by hungry sharks, something told me I wasn’t about to be attacked. The waves rocked me. The scent of the sea worked liked aromatherapy. I felt serene, like a babe in her mother’s arms. I was happy! Why? Maybe I had momentarily made the connection (yoga means to connect, to link), with my higher self? With that peaceful state of being that is perfectly satisfied in any situation, under any circumstance? Somehow, I had never felt more relaxed! Maybe I had just decided to surrender to just being instead of let my fears carry me away, like a strong rip current.
Even though most of you will never find yourselves in the situation I was in, on that memorable day, humans have remarkably made sharks prominent on their list of fears. Derived from the Greek words for shark “galeos”, and fear “phobos”, the irrational abundance of galeophobia, (or fear of sharks) is perhaps a testament to how helpless humans feel in relation to the environments they inhabit. How trapped one can feel when faced with a perceived threat.
Historically (and especially now through the manipulative aid of the movies and the media), sharks have come to symbolize monsters in our lives: those scary things, which threaten and attack us. Fear seeks to destroy monsters and demons. Consequently, around 150 million sharks are killed each year. The senseless over-fishing of this valuable species upsets marine ecosystems tremendously, potentially making us as endangered as many sharks now are. But what does this slaughtering of sharks tell us about our own species?
I wonder if perhaps what we are really endangering are the opportunities that present themselves in our lives to face our fears. Cliché as that sounds, perhaps sharks ask us to accept the existence of the ‘monster’, instead of trying to destroy it. Sharks appear in all shapes and sizes in our lives. Hunting and killing them all is impossible! Sometimes we will find ourselves floating vulnerably in their waters, surrounded by snapping jaws. Inevitably one asks: What purpose do these monsters serve in my life? Are they really monsters at all? This is where our beautiful free will makes an entrance. Ah! The power of volition!
The sharks became my gurus that day, communicating powerful messages to me: I am always free. I always have the choice to connect with my blissful core. No matter what perceived threats the outer world may swim in my direction, I know I can still find my inner peace. Calm, the opposite of fear, is an internal state of being. It ultimately depends on nothing, but my own willingness. That’s my yoga practice. Something I now know I can do anytime, anywhere. Even while surrounded by sharks. Because, frankly, that’s when I really need the practice the most!
That savasana session, many years ago, was abruptly broken when a coast guard heroically pulled me up by the arm and energetically tossed me in into the motorboat. It was quite a shock. Apparently, I was so deep inside savasana that I didn’t even hear the motorboat approaching! Excitedly, the young coast guard exclaimed “You were that close to getting eaten alive! How did you know to float?” I suppose if I had let fear be my guide the sharks would have reacted to my panicked movements. But instead of feeling trapped, I felt so connected to my freedom of choice. Because I was physically stuck in one spot, the direction I chose to move in was an internal one.
So now, whenever I feel stuck in my life, all I have to do is think about sharks. Am I really trapped, I ask myself? Or does it just appear that way on the outside? Surely apparent obstacles to my yoga practice, or in my personal growth, will continue to target me like hungry predators, swimming distracting circles around my rather vulnerable consciousness. There may be no way to avoid them. There may be no actions I can take to manipulate the externals to fit my agenda, my comfort zones, or my preferences. But there is always yoga! It seems to magically turn any fears into calm. At least it did that for me on that most memorable day.