August 1, 2012

Build Your Courage: Learn to Drive in India & Forget the Slogan “Just Do It.”

The real enemy of happiness […and a lack of courage…] is the mind’s fixations and delusions. Look at the situation differently; see the truth and the suffering is less. If you have the right mind, you can overcome anything—you can be happy, no matter what.

~ Dalai Lama

Courage and happiness tend to be intertwined.

I like this quote a lot and took the liberty of adding something about courage because to be happy, we have to take risks and become courageous in doing so. This inevitably makes us happy—knowing we did something we thought was impossible, difficult and perhaps even dangerous.

I especially like to think of this quote as I sail over speed bumps, glide out of the way of a truck, hit the brake to avoid a pedestrian, wipe grit from my eyes and get caught in the monsoon.

At the point of complaining an inner voice says, “These are the trade offs for studying yoga in India.”

It is not comfortable, and leaving aside a tad bit dangerous, it might be a high price to pay (a.k.a., shushed by an Indian bus while going to yoga). It is certainly no holiday.

It is scary and frightening to travel to the places we are not familiar with or have no road map for. As the practice of yoga reveals itself, many unconscious fears (including those who claim they have no fear or pain) manifests from an intense backbend, the headstand, folding one leg into half lotus or trying a pose you hate. It really does not matter what the posture is. What’s important is removing the layers of fear, aggression, stiffness and misalignment. And removing each one of these layers is a progress.

Today in class at the kutira, one of my fellow practitioners fell hard on the ground while doing a backbend she had been working on. Shortly afterwards she asked the brilliant question,

“How do I gain the courage?”

There is no fixed answer. Building courage is complicated. And where can we look for advice? Certainly the Nike slogan, “Just do it,” has done a lot of damage as much as it has good. It has a superficial quality to it that if you just do it all will be fine. Not only is this totally misleading, it could be harmful.

Indra Devi, a wonderful yoga teacher who has long passed away, shared the time she wanted a co-student to push her down in paschimottanasana so she could touch her toes. Krinshnamacharya told her, “No, no, no…” He said it will come “by and by” but not in that way (The Yoga of the Yogi).

Case in point, I was and am struggling with baddha konasana, a posture that has taken several years to feel “okay” in. Last week my teacher said, “What do you want to do…break your toes?” In other words, you can force, push, pull and get aggressive, but it will not become a lastling, internal change and may cause you injury.

I do not know of any yoga students who like to hear this including myself, but sometimes (actually every time) we need to stay longer with the basics and work from there and not jump the track. I have been taken to square on many occasions while in Mysore. For one month, I only practiced simple exercises. This year has been the same with five postures and a two hour practice. It sincerely lowers ego and brings you square in the face with many of the mind’s habits.

If we have not done the inner work or prepared well in advanced, then the slogan of “Just Do It” will not be effective or helpful. It is motivational, but does not include the truth of the process.

As a yoga teacher, I often receive e-mails from students discussing their personal progress and how to gain the courage in postures such as backbends and handstands. The number one thing they usually point out is a lack of progress, fear, and how to get beyond their current state. They also express the feeling that nothing has changed over a long period of time. They feel “stuck.”

Ironically, the fellow practitioner I mentioned above also shared recently with me how she had been “stuck” for a long time in this posture. What sort of struck me as curious is that while she obviously wanted to get beyond where she is, she also expressed not wanting to “press” herself.

This brings up a lot of curiosity as well as confusion about practice…a.k.a., pressure, technique and what to do in general.


How much do we relax and take things are they go/come? When is the right time to exert pressure, force or action within a posture but ultimately onto our minds?

Possible Answers:

Falling from a posture highlights the way we are always moving and a work in progress. Interestingly enough, it is the key to gaining more confidence and courage. The answer is not in a list of things to try but in falling down and becoming more awake. Think of the last time you stubbed your toe. It woke you up a bit. It made you feel a bit pissed that you were careless. You might even have thought I won’t do that again. Falling is like that—it forces you to wake up, look a bit deeper at things and decide to change your approach.

Patanjalim’s yoga is about a yoga that is a skill, an action and a force applied with skill. This takes time and usually we are like unskilled physicians working away at our yoga. Sometimes we have a better idea of where to apply the right pressure while on other days it was too much and we suffer.

In the end, there is no simple, easy fix to building courage. In my case, it may even pertain to staying out of the way of a bus.

Nevertheless, here are a few ideas:

1. Stay with the breath rather than reacting to the sudden rush of thoughts or emotions.

2. When emotions rise let them flow without the usual personal commentary or judgement.

3. Don’t play arm-chair psychologist with yourself. Sometimes the mind concludes this and on another day tells you that. While it is helpful to reflect on your practice avoid (and if you can) over-analyzing your mental fluctuations.

4. Breathe in. Breathe out.

5. Create an inner mantra. Many examples might pertain to the breath, relaxing or whatever personally resonates with you. You might want to explore fear as being irrational and a construction of the mind.


Editor: Brianna Bemel


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