February 15, 2012

To suffering there is a limit; to fearing, none – Francis Bacon.

Overcoming fear of heights

I was enjoying my afternoon stroll in the Park and when I went into a more isolated, but still safe, area thoughts of fear suddenly came from nowhere. As I hurried towards more populated path, I thought – What would it be like to have no fear? Patanjali defines fear in Yoga Sutra II.3 as an obstacle to the path of self-awareness and happiness. From my understanding, he is referring to the ultimate fear or the fear of death, in which all other fears are deeply rooted.

Life Without Fear

Where does the fear come from? I tried to remember why I am afraid of spiders. All I could think of was the memory of my friend’s mom’s yelling “bloody murder” every time she would spot a tiny creature. Let’s step back even more and look at our ancient ancestors. Imagine the old world with wild animals and natural disasters, full of unknown things, where death could come at any time. Mix these memories together, store them deeply in the brain, and voila.

We are carrying these memories with us even though there is so much less danger in today’s world. Our senses feed our mind as we constantly try to sort through the information. The mind is like a good old computer, constantly trying to find a match in the memory in order to make sense of the situation. Otherwise, why would we have a fear of death if we have never died before?

Why would we fear something that we don’t even know? Is the real fear to let go of the known? Even though everyone is born with an expiration tag – sorry, but when’s and how’s are omitted – we like to pretend like death doesn’t exist.

Reflecting on my earlier years, I had nearly no fear of death. At the age of 11, I came to the realization that I was going to die on or by my 30th birthday. I thought it would be most likely a car accident. I guess 30 seemed like an old age back then. There was nothing to be afraid of and, even though my life would be somewhat short, it would be very fun and fulfilling. After all, I have 20 more years to live – not so bad, considering that I wouldn’t have to deal with the burden of work, marriage, childbirth, family, and other responsibilities that come with age.  Not to mention, dealing with ageing and disease. For sure, I had to hurry up and get in as much fun as I could before I went into to the realm on non-existence.

I started smoking at the age of 12, I got drunk for the first time when I was 13, and this continued for quite a few years. I partied hard. I drank like a sailor and overindulged in foods. I made so many friends with all kinds of humans, such as junkies, the wealthy, intellectuals, aristocrats, and thieves to name a few. I traveled. I danced all night. I rode motorcycles with strangers through dusty streets and abandoned highways. I am still not sure how I didn’t die or get hurt duringthat time. I am very fortunate. By the time I turned 18, I was starting to feel old, depressed, and tiered.  The self-injected clock started ticking; death was not too far away. As you can see, having absolutely no fear can be reckless.

Having some fear is a good thing.  Some of fear helps us to survive, but most of our fears are rooted in the anticipation of an unknown future.  As neuroscience peers ever deeper into the brain, it emerges that fear often has no “rational” basis at all, but is triggered automatically by internal and external stimuli. That is to say, we don’t need to have a reason to feel fear.  As I was working on this article, I realized that the little girl inside me is still reckless and loud, while as an adult I carry on with the responsibilities of life.  In essence, I try to honor both aspects of myself, to find a balance between being reckless and not allowing the fear to prevent me from enjoying life.

Combing Back to Balance

Luckily for me, sooner than later I found myself wondering in the streets of NY. It was a long road. I realized that I didn’t want to die by the age of 30 and for that to happen, for me to live, something had to change. So I embarked on the road to a new beginning.  Some of my old patterns finally diedand here I am now, still kicking. Go figure.  As it turns out, life is great. There are none of the burdens or hardships that I imagined. In fact, I love getting older. Luckily, I found my life’s passion, which helps me tune into my inner guide so that I can differentiate between useful and useless fears. I often reflect on death and check to make sure that fear is not paralyzing me and keeping me from living. Yet, it also helps me keep things in perspective so that I can overcome the fear of living. Yoga has had a tremendous effect on my life.

Below is my list of top 5 ways to help you cope with fear.


Yoga Hike

Overcome Fear by Practicing These Steps

1) Little by little increase your tolerance for the subject of your fear.

Make it a gradual process. Treat yourself with compassion, not self-loathing. For example, I had a fear of heights and these are the steps I took:

  • Start small: I went on easy hikes, nearly flat hikes
  • Take lessons: I hired a private guide
  • Educate yourself on the subject: I read all about hiking trails, nutrition, proper footwear, and real dangers.
  • Keep practicing: I live far away from the trail-head, but it didn’t stop me. I allocated two weekends every month during the hike season and signed-up for hikes.
  • Be persistent: In the beginning, it was draining to learn something new and put forth so much effort, to face my fears in addition to dealing with fatigue, but I kept practicing.

Now, I feel like I am aware of danger, but it does not paralyze me. By overcoming my fear of heights, I now rock-climb, ski, and enjoy outdoor life. I merge my passion for yoga and the outdoors by co-organizing yoga-hikes in NY area.

2) Use mantras to overcome fear. Last summer our last yoga hike was completely sold-out. Lila, a virgin hiker, signed up for an advanced hike and it was truly devastating for her.  After practicing yoga, Lila’s fear ceased.

Even though I generally don’t teach affirmations to adults, it really worked in this instance.

Do You Yoga Hike: find your Warrior!

  • Tadasana – mountain pose: Close your eyes and imagine you’re a mountain. Say three times load and once silently, “I am steady.”  Feel the stability of the mountain.
  • Virabhadrasana I – warrior pose: Find your inner warrior.  Rrepeat “I am strong.”  Feel the strength.
  • What if you are not into yoga? About 13 years ago my partner and I went hiking in the Grand Canyon. I had just started exploring yoga, but was not really into it. I remember constantly reciting the “Survival of the fittest.  Only the strong survives” tune in my head.  It worked!

The bottom line?  Find a mantra that works for you and use it.

3) Use Pranayama – breathing. This is one of the best tools for overcoming any fear. Taking deep even breaths, counting as you inhale and exhale.  Simple.  It really helps a person to come back to present as all the fear and tension is released from the body. You can practice it anytime and anywhere. It is best to practice daily. Set 5-10 minutes aside andfollow this technique:

  • Find a comfortable seated position (on a chair is fine, as long as your spine is straight)
  • For a few seconds focus on inhaling and exhaling
  • Start ujjaii by inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of four and do this 12 times
  • Return to breathing normally

When you’re facing your fears, you can come back to the same practice and instantly get into the relaxed, alert state of mind.

 4) Build trust and confidence in yourself.  The practice of yoga can really help. On the mat, we train our bodies through Yoga Asana.  Our mind relaxes and sharpens with pranayama as we find our inner light with meditation. This translates into our daily lives and it makes it much easier to learn how to trust ourselves.

  • Challenge yourself. Set yourself a challenge that you can realistically achieve. Start with something relatively small, but which still has meaning for you. For example, you might decide you are going to write a comment on a blog that interests you. Tell someone about the challenge and, when you have achieved it, accept their praise. Then set yourself another slightly harder challenge (e.g. join a night-class in which you’ve been interested).
  • Get into the habit of thinking and saying positive things about yourself to yourself.
  • Accept compliments.
  • Spend time with positive and supportive people.
  • Acknowledge your positive qualities and the things you are good at.
  • Be assertive; don’t allow people to treat you with a lack of respect.
  • Be helpful and considerate to others.
  • Engage in work and hobbies that you enjoy.

5) Use Visualization Exercises.  One way to do this is picturing yourself as vividly as possible in a situation, completely calm, capable, and confident.

For example, before I went rock-climbing, I saw myself on the top of the mountain.

You can also try this visualization:

  • See yourself with a balloon.
  • Place the balloon to your lips and begin exhaling all your fear into the balloon.
  • When the balloon is full, tie it up, and release it. Watch it drift up into the sky, higher and higher and further away, until it is out of sight.
  • Feel the lightness of having released your fear.

Share your techniques on overcoming fear with others.

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Anna Sheinman  |  Contribution: 2,520