August 5, 2017

How I turned my crippling Flight Anxiety into a Spiritual Practice.

Three years ago, I traveled to Burma/Myanmar, alone, for what I called a “spiritual immersion.”

I was 42, had recently left my practice as an Ayurvedic practitioner, and before that as a yoga teacher, and wasn’t quite sure what the next chapter in my life would be called—other than “unemployed.”

You could say my decision arose from a midlife crisis, and I wouldn’t argue. But the simplest, if most nebulous, explanation is: Myanmar called, and I answered.

Shortly after I returned from this three-week trip, I blogged about my adventures.

I wrote about how I fractured my foot on my first outing, about the surprising cleanliness and brightness of a Burmese hospital, and about my guide running out to the local pharmacy to get me a brace, on doctor’s orders, so I could continue my trip. And, when I left, how the doctor reassured me that this was not bad luck, and to enjoy my stay in his country.

Overall, once my foot was safely tucked into a brace, my experiences in Burma/Myanmar were enjoyable and enlightening. But the trip was also taxing on many levels. Day by day, I grew increasingly weary from the heat and dust. The idea of having an evening glass of wine, alone, began to sadden rather than entice me. My foot begged for a day of not walking in flip-flops two sizes too large (to accommodate my brace) on uneven terrain. It begged to be freed and elevated on pillows. Meanwhile, I craved a good cup of strong, black coffee. Yes, Starbucks. In short, I was homesick.

When I was finally down to only one more domestic flight, the one that would take me back to Yangon, I was relieved almost to the point of tears. The next day, I would be embarking on my trip home. I settled into my seat, accepted a cup of tea, and comforted myself that, soon, I would see my husband and children again.

That hour-long flight was the scariest I’ve ever been on.

Turbulence rocked the plane within 10 minutes of take-off. The two flight attendants raced up and down the aisles, collecting trays of tea and cookies, making sure everyone had their seatbelts fastened before they could belt themselves in.

Separated by a language barrier, thousands of feet up in the air, and thousands of miles away from my loved ones, I felt more alone than I’ve ever felt. Fear slithered up and down my spine in cold waves, while my face alternately flooded and paled. I sucked air in short gasps, with my mouth open, even though oxygen still flowed freely throughout the cabin. I put my head in my hands.

I considered my journal, packed in my suitcase, in which I had written every day. Sure that it would survive a crash, I prayed—and I never pray—that by reading my entries, my family would know that my experiences, while not the life-changing, mystical ones I had hoped for, had been humbling, surprising, and funny.

By the time we landed, safely, I could barely find my legs beneath me to walk off the plane into the hot Yangon air. I couldn’t believe how everyone acted like that flight had been normal. But maybe, for the locals, or for that flight path, it was. I had no one to ask.

Three flight connections, totaling over 16 hours, took me home. With every bump, I startled. With every ding of the seatbelt sign, my heart thumped. I never once slept. When, eventually, I landed, and saw my husband’s face at baggage claim, I crumpled into him, and vowed never to get on a plane again.

But the thing is, traveling makes me happy. So, I simply couldn’t let this anxiety that I had developed stop me.

For the first year or so afterward, I took anti-anxiety medication to help me get through flights. While it helped, it never stopped my body shaking or the thoughts racing in my head. I couldn’t distract myself with movies or books. I couldn’t eat and had no appetite anyway. I sat with my legs crossed tightly, playing games on my phone that required no concentration, and clutched the hand of whomever I was traveling with every time the seatbelt sign went on. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I’m certain I have a form of PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder.

I began to talk through my anxiety with a trusted spiritual guide. I watched videos about flight safety, and read articles online about turbulence. I peppered my brother, an airplane mechanic, with questions about the many back-up systems available for a plane in crisis. But I kept getting on planes, checking the time over and over, counting down the minutes until safety.

My family began to understand that once we arrived at the airport, I would withdraw. I wouldn’t talk to anyone, nor laugh along with jokes, nor take pre-flight pictures. To their credit, they accepted this new version of me with compassion, knowing that the moment we landed safely at our destination, I would slowly reemerge and bug them relentlessly for post-flight pictures. I knew this too, which is part of what kept me going.

Slowly, in the beginning of year two, I noticed that I was able to read a chapter or two of a book. Soon, I no longer dreaded flights for weeks in advance and, sometimes, I was able to put an upcoming flight out of my mind completely until the moment I sat in the seat.

By the end of year two, I decided to stop being a victim of my anxiety and begin addressing it. I told myself that I hadn’t taught yoga for a decade without learning a few things about how to get comfortable with discomfort.

So, I slowly, and largely unconsciously, converted my flight anxiety into a spiritual practice.

First, I address limbs one and two of the eight-limbed path of Rāja yoga—known as the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances). Most helpful is the pairing of ahimsa, (non-harming) with satya (truth). This means that I don’t deny the reality of my anxiety, nor do I beat myself up for “still” having it years later. By simply continuing to get on flights, I’m practicing tapas (discipline), and by talking it through with family and professionals, I’m engaging in svadhyaya (self-investigation).

For the third limb, the asana (posture) limb, I consider how best to find comfort, stability, and balance in my physical position in an airplane seat. In answer, I now travel with a fuzzy blanket and fuzzy socks—things that make me feel safe, keep me covered, and smell like home. I dress in layers, so, as my body heats up or cools down with changes in my fear levels, I can remain (at least outwardly) comfortable. Giving myself permission to get out of the seat to stretch gently, or rub my thighs, or walk through the aisles is also part of this branch of my new spiritual practice.

The fourth limb, pranayama (breath) was difficult at first. I remember my spiritual guide asking me if I breathed deeply, even once, during a flight. I told her I didn’t know. Now, I try to walk my yoga teacher talk by drawing in a smooth, even breath through my nostrils, taking it all the way down into the bottom of my belly—slowly, mindfully, evenly—before exhaling just as slowly.

The fifth limb, pratyahara (sense-withdrawal) is probably the most important one for me. I’ve come to love noise-cancelling headphones, which prevent me from hearing all the normal clicks and clacks that go on inside a plane. I wear a sweatshirt with a soft, oversized hood that completely hides my face. Unable to see anyone or hear outside noises, I focus on relaxing my muscles one at a time, à la Yoga Nidra.

For the sixth limb, dharana (concentration), I play Deepak Chopra’s Chakra Balancing CD through my headphones. Between the calming music, his deep, soothing voice, and his reminder to “feel the breath of life flowing into your heart, and gently dissolving your pain and suffering,” I move my awareness from my root chakra to my crown chakra. I know that each time we complete a cycle, another hour has passed. Like the rules of meditation, I notice the CD has ended, and I begin at the beginning.

Practicing these limbs, I experience moments of freedom from my thoughts, which would coincide with the seventh limb, or dhyana (meditation).

Admittedly, I haven’t quite reached the eighth limb, samadhi (bliss). But I am not practicing to reach this, anyway. I am practicing so that perhaps, one day, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour and at thousands of feet in the air, I will experience peace.

I have a flight to Amsterdam with my family coming up soon. I’m prepping myself by saying that I will be “practicing yoga” for about nine hours.

One yogic limb at a time, I will make my way across the Atlantic, where I will reemerge as my joyful self. I am sure we will have some incredible experiences. But, I’ll have already had the spiritual immersion on the plane.


Relephant read:

Coping with the Fear of Flying, by a Buddhist in Training.


Author: Keri Mangis
Image: Gus Ruballo/Unsplash
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Copy Editor: Leah Sugerman
Social Editor: Sara Kärpänen

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