A Bend in The Road

“No fear, no fun.” This is what my yoga guru tells us after a student asks him about overcoming fear in an asana (yoga pose/position). A little fear is good (not too much), he says, but you have to work out how you can master the fear and go beyond it.

I’ve been practicing ashtanga yoga for maybe 12 years (very sporadically and inconsistently for the first 8 or 9 of those years) and what I’ve noticed is that wherever I am in my practice (stuck, usually – haha) is wherever I am in life. Whatever poses I struggle with or am able to achieve, directly represent my nature or my disposition – for good or bad.

Manju Jois Backbend Assist

Manju Jois, assisting a student in a back bend.

I could list a 1,000 examples. For instance, I have trouble being grounded in life, with my head always in the clouds, off day-dreaming. This is because my feet are flat and I have little muscles in my legs to draw me toward the ground, to keep me rooted. Overtime, I have worked on creating more of an arch in my feet and in reminding myself to stay rooted, but it’s always going to be a struggle for me. Another very explicit example is that my chest used to not be as open as it is now, and neither did my heart. I wasn’t as nice of a person; I felt less compassion for people. Through doing these yoga poses year after year, I’ve opened up my shoulders and allowed my heart to expand, physically and emotionally. This has also allowed me to relax, because not only do I have more compassion for others, but I have more compassion for myself.

An example of an “easy” pose (for me) that reflects my nature, and one in which a lot of other people struggle with and get stuck on, is Marichyasana D, or “Ray of Light” pose. This pose requires a strong twist and with that twist, an acknowledgement of the spine – the skeleton, the core – our innermost self. I am already introspective by nature and so this pose is pretty easy for me, though stretching and straightening the spine seems not to have limits. This pose is also said to release anger and I would say, in general, I am much less angry than I used to be, so something must be helping!

Every facet of my life can be analogized to my yoga practice, but the characteristic on my mind over the past several months has been fear. Earlier this year while I was practicing ashtanga in Mysore, India, Sharath, my yoga guru, would come by my yoga mat, point his finger at me and say “TOO MUCH FEAR! Hahaha…”, and then laugh at me. I think the first time he said it, I smiled and nodded, as if to say “Yeah, I know. I’m a chicken shit”. (Just a side note: Sharath probably wasn’t really laughing at me but this was my perception. And if he was laughing at me, I’m sure it was out of kindness and in trying to get me to laugh at myself. *Some people* take this practice way too seriously sometimes.)

Anyway, of course I had too much fear because what I was working on in yoga was being able to drop back into a backbend from standing on my two feet. I was standing up straight and then I had to fall back. Fall all the way back, and catch myself with my two hands. I had to trust myself to catch myself.

Now, if I had been one of those kids who had done lots of gymnastics or sports or dance or whatever, maybe this wouldn’t be such a challenge. But I am a very un-athletic  mid-, er…late-, thirties woman that spends most of her days bent over a computer screen. Of course I’m fucking scared to drop into a backbend.


Sharath Jois assisting in BackBend.

Sharath Jois assisting a student (not me!) in BackBend. Screenshot from video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAkcFuXAmXA

And, before I forget to mention, it’s not just a scary one-time thing – the requirement is to drop back THREE TIMES in a row. If I ever actually did do it during my eight weeks of daily practice in India, by the second time I went to fall back, my legs were shaking so bad that I never made it to a third time.

My legs were shaking. Isn’t that what usually happens to people when they’re scared?

And what was I scared of? Not trusting myself? The couple of times that I failed to catch myself fully and did land on my head, it really didn’t hurt that bad. Sharath would never have told me to “Go back!” if he didn’t think I COULD do it or if he thought I would hurt myself.

So I wonder how this “too much fear” relates to my life. I certainly seem scared to make any permanent decisions — about where to live, the type of person I want to love, about letting people love me, about being “good enough”, about making mistakes, about not following my true passions, and just in general being terrified of absolutely everything. Fuck! I’m terrified of absolutely everything.

OK, so how do I master this fear?

Two days ago the acupuncturist told me that all my strength was in my head. Everything is in my head. I took this to mean that my energy, my chi, or maybe my chakras, aren’t connecting correctly. The energy isn’t flowing through to my core, or my legs or my feet. It’s all stuck in my brain, apparently, causing me anxiety, paralysis even.

This morning, while practicing at the yoga studio here in California, it was time again for me to do these backbends. I was in the position to go back and I looked to the instructor for help. “Do you need help spotting?”, she asked. “Yes, please,” I said, knowing full well that what I really need is to practice going back on my own without a “spotter”.

“What if I told you that you didn’t need any help…” she said, “would you believe me?”

Ugh. I know she’s right. What am I so scared of? I know I need to let go of something, but what? Or maybe I just have to want it really badly. Or maybe I need someone to believe in me and make me do it. Or maybe this is just where I am and I have to be OK with it and work through it and bear the idea of needing even more patience.

I’ve been very patient lately. I used to be terribly, terribly impatient. I am now more patient than I ever thought I possibly could be. I’ve been patient while I waited for some mild back pain to go away. Patient while I waited for my sits bones to stop aching from over-stretching my hamstrings. Patient while I waited for the stomach troubles I’ve had for the last six months to go away. And, I don’t always like to share my personal life, but I’ve been extremely patient off the mat as well.

But, hell, I can’t quit now. It’s all a process. But I do get the feeling if I let myself fall in my life that I’ll be able to let myself fall on my mat, and vice versa. I know I can catch myself, but I don’t know that I can pick myself back up completely.

I guess for now, I’ll have to remember that the point of yoga is non-attachment. I can’t be too attached to the ideas I have in my head about who and what I want to be and I can’t give up on them either. It is the struggle of life, or the balance of life, depending on your point of view. The image below best sums up what I am trying to say:

Yoga Sutra 1.12-1.16

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8 Responses to A Bend in The Road

  1. Kevin says:

    Drop backs are a major hurdle for us ashtangi’s who are older, especially as you say if you haven’t come from a sporty or gymnastic background. It’s about belief and trust, after all gravity is always going to win. The first time I stood up was in Mysore, it was an amazing moment. After I got home I was speaking to a teacher who had been assisting Sharath, she told me that he had told the Assistants NOT to help me because he (rightly) believed I could do it myself. Yoga is certainly as much mental as it is physical.

    • admin says:

      Thanks — that is very encouraging! Yes, I believe Sharath has some sneaky ways to get us to do things we think we can’t. He definitely has a powerful way of making you believe in yourself.

  2. Marya Roland says:

    You voice my own experience perfectly. Thank you! And during my time in India Sharath used to bust me for trying to slither out of standing backbends. :-). He pushes, makes it light, and has so much compassion, don’t you think?

    • admin says:

      Haha, yes, Marya. I think Sharath magically knows how different people need to be treated differently. He definitely makes it more fun and interesting for each of us.

  3. Ilse says:

    I’m a fearful person and I live in my head too. I drop back to foam blocks and I still feel the fear. Yoga has helped me tremendously, as you said, to realize what goes on in my life. What happens in the mat is what happens in life. I have also neglected to use my legs for a very long time while practicing. I guess I lack that connection to earth. I am a literature teacher and I would rather be lost in a book’s story than anywhere else, which is also, from a point of view, to leave in my own head and not in the real world. Thanks for sharing your experience and enlightening

    • admin says:

      Thanks for sharing, Ilse. At least I know I’m not alone! I find it fascinating how connecting our minds to our bodies makes us more complete, whole beings. Not that there is anything wrong with us the way we are but, for me, I feel better when I’m more connected and I feel like I want to be a better person, to change — so I do yoga.

  4. Daniela says:

    Wow!!!! I feel you completely!!! thank you for sharing this!!! I needed this! thank you! om shantih om!

  5. eric says:

    I finally attempted yoga recently…still sore lol

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