“I realized why I have so much trouble focusing on my breath,” said a student after Gentle Vinyasa ended. No sweeter words have ever been spoken to a yoga teacher. Yoga insights rule! I invited him to tell me more.
“When I focus on my breath,” he said, “I feel a lot of fear. Fear of death.” I clamped down my jaw so I wouldn’t excitedly blurt “Abinevesha!” I held it together so I could listen to him share his experience.
“I kept thinking, ‘Breathing is involuntary. Am I supposed to focus on something that just happens naturally? What if I pass out? Will Nicole notice and revive me?’” he laughed. “Then I stopped thinking. I just let go, and it was so peaceful. I really went somewhere,” he said. I thanked him for being willing to draw his awareness to his breath and to let go in the midst of his fear.
Floating home, ecstatically happy that teaching yoga allows me to bear witness to such awesome experiences, I thought of a great drawing in T.K.V, Desikachar’s book The Heart of Yoga. In it, he describes the kleshas, or afflictions, namely, avidya, raga, dvesha, abhinivesha, and asmita. First illuminated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, these are the obstacles that prevent us from seeing things as they really are. Desikachar uses the image of a tree, with the root of the tree as avidya, or misperception, ignorance. The tree has four branches: raga, which is attachment; dvesha, which is aversion; abhinivesha, which is fear; and asmita, which is false identity. It is the practice of yoga that reduces these afflictions which obscure our true nature.
The yogi in my class had come face to face with abhinivesha, or fear. He experienced it as fear of death. Abhinivesha comes in many flavors: For me it’s fear of being seen, or fear of getting it wrong, for you might be fear of change, or something else based on what’s happened in your life.
Fear is pervasive in our society. People are scared of losing their jobs. Scared of their financial security. In this election season, some are scared Romney will win. Others are scared Obama will be reelected. As we move through our day, abhinivesha is bound to come up.
So what’s a yogi to do in the midst of all of this?
The process the student followed at the beginning of the article outlines the steps found in the Sutras. The student was in a yoga class. That’s step one: tapas, which means heating, purifying, or discipline. His choice to come to class to practice yoga asanas, pranayama, and meditation each week had a cleansing effect that removed blockages physically and energetically.
Step two: he practiced svadhyaya, which means self-study. When he felt the fear of death arise, rather than run from it, he noticed it. Sat with it. Wondered about it. He included it in his experience.
Step three: he practiced ishvarapranhidana, or surrender. He trusted that even though he was scared of drawing his awareness to his breath, if he did so he would be okay. He let go. And as a result, he had an amazing experience of his true nature.
Avoiding fear only grows that emotion. Tantra teaches us that energy follows thought. Even when you’re trying not to think about something, you’re directing a lot of energy to the very thing you’re trying to avoid. It is through welcoming in what we fear that we are able to grow and expand.
We are constantly presented with opportunities every day to practice these steps. Having a daily meditation and asana practice allows us to make discipline an integral part of our lives. Whether it’s by practicing early in the morning or by practicing for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes at night, meet yourself where you are and commit to a practice that fits your lifestyle with ease.
If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably made self-study a part of your daily life already. The very fact that you’re seeking out an article on yoga or meditation means you have a relationship to these practices and want to learn more about yourself. To go a step further, at different moments in the day, drop into the observer. Notice what’s occurring for you mentally. Which types of thoughts flow through and which ones get stuck on your mental conveyer belt? What shifts your thinking from negative to positive? Tune into that part of you that remains unchanged by all experiences.
Lastly, surrender is just a breath away. When fear arises, stay present with it, drawing the breath down into the belly and breathing smoothly so the inhalation flows right into the exhale, evoking a sense of inner calm. Know that there is a natural order to the universe and in that knowledge, move forward. Accept that fear is there, and take action anyway without expectations regarding the outcome. The yogi at the beginning of the article had no idea what was on the other side of letting go. He just trusted, and surrendered.
Of course, this is easier said than done. As I write, I’m reminded of my father, who used to tell me when I tried to do things too quickly, “Do it by the numbers.” Moving through fear is a tall order. But if we do it by the numbers of daily practice, self-study, and surrender, choice by choice we can live into our true nature.
What part does daily practice, self-study, and surrender play in your life? How do you move through fear?