I want to share some ideas about fear and faith, and the support offered by yoga philosophy and yoga therapy.
Fear is a typical, healthy, initial response to a threat. The yoga sutras say that fear is one of the 5 kinds of pain, or kleśa. It is the most difficult kleśa to overcome and all fear is said to be based in our primal fear of death. Our bodies and minds are wired to react quickly to preserve our lives. It can be surprising to feel your body move quickly to hit the breaks or yank your hand away from the fire “before you have time to think”. The thinking is so quick that we don’t really register it. At some point, before this moment, the body learned how to stay safe.
The body responds to all threats, physical, mental and fictional. I often have sweaty hands when watching suspenseful movies – even though I know it is all fake! I have awakened with my mind racing and muscles tense from a scary dream. When I have had a near miss while driving, my body is flooded with adrenaline, even though I don’t actually need this hormone blast to get to safety. After the driving scare or the other “near miss” situations in life, it is up to me to calm myself down again, in the moment, and in my big-picture view of life.
Learning from fear
If I have an actual, dangerous experience, like being followed by a stranger when I am walking at night, I could then decide to change my night-walking behavior to prevent that same experience. My body’s reactions of tensing muscles, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, heightened senses, etc. were on board if I had needed to run to safety. The fear led me to new habits that help me feel calmer. My world got a little smaller but loss is worth the benefit of feeling safe.
However, if I have an unpleasant experience where I experience fear, such as being growled at by a leashed dog, I might decide to avoid all dogs or to stop walking where I might meet dogs or even stop walking altogether. My world could get smaller and smaller. If I don’t make the choice to renew my faith after a scary experience, I could stay in the physical and mental sensations of fear. When this happens, my body stays in sympathetic nervous system response and it can’t heal. I may start to lose sleep, have trouble with digestion, suffer from headaches or muscle tension, because my body still believes I need to stay vigilant in order to be safe. I don’t have access to the hight functioning part of my brain and I have fewer choices. The trade off is not making my life better.
Through the lens of yoga therapy we can respond rather than react to fear. Cultivating faith can mean learning to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable. When I feel that adrenaline flooding in I can remember that my body in amazing and has many systems on board to help me get through many kinds of danger. To return to parasympathetic nervous system response, I can deepen my breath, strive to relax my muscles, soften my eyes and jaw, and use a mantra that’s soothing.
Many years ago, I made up a mantra when I was hiking with my two young children. One child was on my back and the other was probably 3 or 4. We had to cross a rushing stream by walking across a log. Our mantra was, “I am safe. I am strong. I am happy.”. I still use this mantra today! We used a scary situation to strengthen our faith. We chose to view it as an opportunity to grow. Did we fall in the stream? Did we get wet and cold? Practicing faith doesn’t mean that things will go the way we think they should, but that we will have the inner resources to meet whatever is coming. We can remember how the body shows up immediately with the hormones needed when we get into trouble. We can remember the last time we faced fear (got lost, forgot to bring snacks, got locked out of the house) and that we came through it. We might remember that someone helped us when we were stuck or lost or hungry. We could find solace in the greater safety net of humans and the natural world. For some folks, this might also include remembering that a higher power has upheld them in the past.
Another way to keep renewing your faith is right outside: see how the dry sticks on the bushes and trees and revealing tiny green leaves, maybe even flowers. Notice the bulbs offering their stalks and colorful, sweet-smelling posies. Feel the sun’s return after the dark night. You are here to enjoy another day.
Last week’s practice was about calmness, finding ways to soothe yourself. It was about balancing this soothing with refreshment or vitality. As life might be ramping up around you with recent global events, (or more local stresses), this could be a good time to ramp up your resources with a faith practice. This week’s breath-focused practice emphasizes exhalation and pausing. You can find it (Fear and Faith) on our practice recordings page.