Fear and fearlessness in yoga practice

Fear is a potent emotion which generally manifests as a response to an immediate danger.   A sense of dread alerts us, through the amygdala that our physical selves may be harmed.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system.  It is responsible for the response and memory of emotions – especially fear.

We tend to lump anxiety and fear together and they are certainly linked.  However, anxiety is a general state of distress that is longer lasting than fear and is often a response to a non-specific “threat”.  When we hold onto fear a sense of foreboding keeps the body on alert and the resulting tension depletes our emotional and physical reserves.   Movement can help to reduce tension.  Rocking is neurologically soothing.

Our knowledge of ourselves is organized through neurological patterns.  Bodily movement signals to the brain that there are decisions to make; opportunities to take; dangers to avoid, and pleasures to pursue.  Movements in a yoga class which stiffen the body and which are held in order to create a shape, are mechanical and undermine the fluid nature of ourselves.  In our yoga sessions we concentrate upon simple movements which create a “level playing field” for all participants.  By that, I mean that students can make choices as to the range of movement that is helpful to them as individuals, precisely because the movements themselves are ones which maintain human function.  It also means that these are movements that can be “taken home” and fitted into a busy schedule.  Relaxing the diaphragm becomes a familiar pattern, pressing into the feet to free the pelvis is established as part of our walking pattern.   We begin to believe that we can rely upon our bodies as tension is released.

Some people find the invitation to explore movement on the yoga mat with an emphasis upon curiosity as too unstructured for their liking.  This is understandable. Teaching within a framework of sensory movement does have guidelines (especially safety guidelines) but it requires some degree of fearlessness on the part of students since you may be exploring a movement in a slightly different way to the person beside you. You may have to be brave enough to stop.

When I took part in a 5Rhythms dance session, I floundered  due to the freedom on offer – to move in accordance with our bodies’ response to the music.   initially, I was taken back to movement and music classes at school and the encouragement to be a tree ( although that does sound like a yoga class also???)  in truth, I felt a bit silly.  However, as I relaxed, became less self-conscious and more fearless, I tried to “let go” but I am not saying that it was easy.

The practice of the 5Rhythms is said by Gabrielle Roth to move the body in order to still the mind.  The five rhythms are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness and when danced in sequence, are known as a “Wave.” A typical Wave takes about an hour to dance.  On paper this was familiar territory for me – the first piece “flowing” promotes movement that celebrates our fluid body; the final piece is “stillness”. The Wikipedia entry describes the work “…taught through a series of maps that explore the terrain of the inner and outer worlds of individuals, their relationships to others and the space around them…”  This notion of the space around us and our relationship to others was very interesting.  The final sharing of experience was so useful, something which is difficult to programme into a weekly yoga class, unless the class is a small one I think.

So, structure is useful, it supports our learning can help us to become less fearful.  In our practice we do not shy away from yoga asana that demand a degree of fearlessness, such as wheel, head balance and shoulder balance, but we approach them in a way that permits us to “back off” when tension creeps into a movement.  This requires a strong sense of self since we are not bound by the need to perform.  Our rolling back towards a form of shoulder stand is practiced gradually as we strengthen the mapping of flexion in the motor cortex.  We always have an “escape route” because we have a deep understanding of how the body works.  This applies to the scariest of inversions – head balance –  when Pete Blackaby’s wonderful notes on its purpose are so important:

  • To learn how to quiet yourself through finding useful support through your arms and head, even as the movement becomes more complex
  • To help you notice at what stage you bring unhelpful tension into the movement
  • To help you learn when to stop

Intelligent Yoga, Listening to the body’s innate wisdom (2nd Edition) p122

It is so striking that these notes encourage us to be contemplative rather than mechanical in our practice.  We spend much time cultivating curiosity and asking ourselves how we can organize the body in a way that is helpful.  We practice a standing backbend quite regularly – often following on from tree pose.  We investigate whether the spine can move as an integrated whole, on balanced feet and in a way that does not stress the neck (when strong neck extensors overpower the deep neck flexors and the chin lifts excessively) or lumbar spine (resulting in lordosis and flared rib cage). It always comes comes back to the breathing being smooth and easy – ie. when do you hold your breath?  It’s the whole versus the parts again:

Parts versus the whole in yoga practice.

We’ll be rocking and rolling next week.  See some of you then.

3 thoughts on “Fear and fearlessness in yoga practice”

  1. Dear Liz – very thought provoking especially having experienced fear in class and you being kind and wise enough to help me overcome it. always a balance…. looking forward to seeing you much love Fiona xxx

    Like

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