December 22, 2013

Airplane Yoga: I Hate Flying. ~ Michele Bickley

I hate flying.

Okay, maybe I should say, I just don’t like it. It is far from something I enjoy. As long as there is no turbulence, I am fine. But, lord oh lord, when we start going through bumpy terrain, my nervous system has a mind of her own. I start shaking, sweating, and panicking about the big metal machine that is hurling me through space.

When I started flying in my teens, I loved it.

I embraced the idea of being transported to new places and having a space, almost in-between time, where I could curl up, listen to music, and journal my little heart away. Then, I had my first scary experience in the sky on one of those “way too small planes” taking me to Greece after college.

We hit a storm, dropped through the sky, food trays flying, people screaming, and me searching for my boyfriend in the back of the plane to make eye contact one more time before I plummeted to my death. Needless to say, the pilot got us on the ground, people cheered and hugged and cried. All was fine.

All was fine, except for my loss of trust for flying and my traumatized nervous system. 

I lived on the opposite side of the country from my family for half my life. Flying was a constant part of my existence. Flight after flight, I addressed my fears and tried to find some sort of peace. I heard all of the arguments about how safe it is to fly. It is more dangerous to be in a car. I had engineers explain the principles of flying and the science to back up flying safety.

I worked with my therapist to uncover the psychological issues underlying my fear. The lack of control I felt when I stepped onto a plane. My need to have that illusion of control. The giving of trust to someone I didn’t know.  The ultimate fear of dying and not wanting to leave this world yet. Geez. 

When in fear, I noticed I was thinking about myself; a self-centered head and heart space.

I tried techniques like talking to the person next to me and being authentically interested in their story. Also, silently sending love and well wishes to each person on the plane, one person at a time. Those things helped. Sometimes. I also tried listening to guided meditations, music that soothed my soul, drinking a glass (or three) of wine, visualizing I was just on a bumpy jeep ride, talking the ear off the poor person who had to sit next to me and anti-anxiety meds (which I hated because I was au-natural-type-o-girl).

As I explored my fears in therapy, and I also started to get into yoga.

I developed a pranayama and mediation practice. Ujjayi Pranayama, “Breath of Sound,” became a foundation for feeling peace in my daily life.

One of my first yoga classes was with Mark Witwell. I didn’t really know much about him. I just stumbled into his class. He spent half the session (45 minutes!) talking and answering questions about the yogic philosophy. Then, he had people start moving through sun salutes at their own pace. I had no idea what was going on; I just tried to follow the person next to me.

Right away, Mark came over and had me stop moving and sit down.

He told me the most important thing in yoga was breathing and he would teach me how to breathe. He sat next to me and started making strange rushing sounds. He told me to slow my breath down and pull it through my throat; to imitate the sound he was making.

He must have sat with me for five or ten minutes.  It felt like an hour.

My “Breath of Sound” was more like a choking Darth Vader than a rolling ocean wave. But, I got the message of how important this breathing thing was and I made it a priority from the start. When I started teaching, I never forgot how Mark took the time and energy to teach me the importance of breathing.

Those ten minutes shaped my yoga forever.

Eventually, I developed an Ujjayi Pranayama practice: the slowing and balancing of the inhale/exhale with an audible rushing sound in the back of the throat. A sound that mirrored what you hear when you are listening to someone deeply sleeping.

At first, I experienced a deep calm that would spread from my throat through my entire body. I used the breath to guide my yoga practice and explore the many layers of each physical pose. I then learned about the science behind this powerful breath; how our brains recognize that oceanic sound (the same sound we make in deep sleep) and our brain waves actually shift from Beta to Alpha.

We are awake, but we drop into a more relaxed state and our brain sends the message to our nervous system to calm down.

Unintentionally, I started dropping into my yoga breathing when I wasn’t on my mat.

If impatient in LA traffic, anxious about something, nervous at the dentist, I would find myself doing my yoga breathing; in came peace during tense moments. It goes without saying that I would do my yoga breathing on airplanes. My yogic training helped during the scariest of times. I went from sweating and shaking to a mild anxious feeling.

I had one amazing moment where I was going through turbulence and looked out the window.

Our airplane was making a shadow on the clouds below. I sent a silent prayer for acceptance of what is out into the world. Just then a circular rainbow appeared around the airplane’s shadow. For me, it was a reassurance that, no matter what, all is well.

Then, I was on a flight from LA to Maryland and the plane caught on fire. Yes, on fire. We were told that everything would be OK and that we were making an emergency landing somewhere in Colorado. I was with my husband and daughter; it was her 2nd birthday.

The plane started to descend much faster than normal. There was nothing but snowy, steep, angled mountains as far as the eye could see.

We were briefed on the emergency landing procedures and told that we could not take any of our belongings off the plane with us. If we did crash land, I thought, we would surely freeze and starve. I hid snacks for my daughter in my pockets and implored the poor steward to just tell me what was happening so that I could prepare for my imminent death.

He promised me we were headed to an actual landing strip and everything would be OK.

Meanwhile, we only edged closer and closer to the sharp, rocky tips of cold mountaintops. My sole purpose for living became comforting my daughter and trying to be calm enough not to freak her out. She thought it was an adventure. She had no fear of death or of the unknown. She was as calm as could be. I took two Adavan (which I carried in case of emergency—this definitely qualified) and tried to emulate my daughter’s demeanor.

I was forgetting that I was not the biggest thing in the universe.

There was more at work than I will ever understand. I could choose to trust and let go of my thoughts of what I believed needed to happen. I could look at the world through the eyes of my daughter who had only ever experienced being taken care of and safety.

What if I chose to believe that we are always being held? That something I will never understand is supporting me, rooting for me, holding me?

I know when I drop into those moments of peace in my yoga practice, I feel this profound truth. I experience how time stops and all is as it should be. There is a rainbow around each and every one of us, even when we don’t feel it.

This may sound hokey to some. But, whatever gets you through the night. It’s alright.

Our plane did land that day. There was a very small landing strip in the middle of the mountains and we were all OK. My daughter had a blast exploring the little airport and picked out a bag of small polished rocks for her birthday gift. We sung happy birthday to her in the middle of snowy Colorado and, to this day, she still has one of those rocks that she calls her “Calarado rock.” The rock is very special to her, she remembers picking it out and it represents her fun adventure.

Oh, the things I learn from that little one. We are born with infinite knowledge and our only job is to do whatever we can to not forget.

For me, I do yoga.

I breathe. I move. I focus. I connect. I remember.

Whatever gets you to the light. It’s alright.

I have flown many times since that emergency landing and I wish I had some magic answer for what makes flying easier. For me, it is just hard. I feel fear, but I fly anyway. My fear does not stop me from experiencing life to the fullest. I chose to move through the fear with all of the tools I have at my disposal and I breathe like a mo-fo (or, like the yogini that I am).

“If you hold on to the handle, she said, it’s easier to maintain the illusion of control. But, it’s more fun if you just let the wind carry you.”

~ Brian Andreas

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Assistant Editor: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: elephant journal media archives

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Michele Bickley