What do I fear? What am I so afraid of? I tried kicking up into a headstand in the center of the room half paralyzed with this “fear” thing and half completely self-aware that everyone was watching me.
When people think about yoga they don’t necessarily consider it a daring sport, to say the least, yet, in so many ways it’s the most daring of all because it pushes you to know your greatest ally and your biggest enemy: yourself.
I’d been going to the studio regularly for a couple of months before I picked up Ana Forrest’s book, Fierce Medicine. Ana Forrest is a contemporary yoga teacher and founder of a specific practice called Forrest Yoga. With combined expertise in overcoming trauma, psychology and physical therapy Forrest developed a style of yoga that is both physically and emotionally rigorous.
Forrest Yoga is a transformative experience that pushes the practitioner into a deeper awareness and understanding of his or her own psyche in a “fiercer” way than many other styles of yoga. Forrest pushes you to keep going the moment you’re ready to sink into Child’s Pose. Forrest pushes you to fully experience the burning in your legs during Warrior II and not to stop until you can feel that euphoric sweet spot.
It’s no surprise that much about this practice has to do with courage and being brave of heart, but first, back to my headstand.
I’d never done a headstand before and here I was in front of all of my fellow teacher trainees in the center of the room in one. It felt like a long time, though I’m sure I was only in it for a few seconds. Inversions are often the scariest poses in yoga. They literally turn your world upside down and all of your weight is balanced on your head. You may fear that all the delicate muscles in your neck will break or perhaps that you just carry too much weight around to begin with. My mouth tasted bitter, not quite like the iron when you bite your tongue too hard, but metallic. My mouth tasted like fear.
Forrest says, “We have a lot of internal responses to fear. We push it away, we deny it, we freeze, or attack (fight or flight syndrome). But there are alternate ways to responding to fear.” Forrest’s preferred method is to go hunting for it until she finds the root of it and instead of “slaying the dragon,” she cuddles up to it and allies with it.
This, of course, is the furthest thing from my mind. I felt the pressure on top of my head mounting.
Step 1: identify the fear. Aside from the obvious (death from breaking my neck), I had always feared my own body. I remembered hiking with one of my boyfriends in the dead of winter. We crossed a river with very thin ice and had to jump huge rocks to get to the other side. It took him all of 3 minutes to cross, jumping confidently from rock to rock. It took me what seemed like an hour with a lot of encouragement from him on the other side.
“Trust yourself,” my teacher whispered. I had stopped shaking. “Good, good now squeeze my hand.” She had her hand between my thighs and I began to feel that burning sensation and my core strengthening through the pose. The weight on my head lessened.
Step 2: Turn around, hunt it, stalk it. Forrest says, “Fear is a signal. Be alert. Get vigilant. It wasn’t that long ago that other humans or predators hunted us. This means you have to take action. You can’t just sit and meditate your problems away; many meditators become my students because their abuse or rage doesn’t go away by meditation alone. It does teach you how to get steady though. So get steady and now go out hunting.”
In Forrest Yoga, it’s not enough to have awareness of a trauma that happened to you that you now feel in the tightness of your hips, no, one has to be able to chase that trauma out of one’s body. One has to be able to not back down when you’re in a pose and suddenly your breathing is shallow but take the courageous path to breathe in deeper and keep digging and once it surfaces get cozy with it.
Step 3: Stop making decisions based on fear. This is one I’ve taken off the mat more than others through reading this book. Forrest says, “…when I respond from that fearful or panicky place, 99 percent of the time I end up making terrible decisions…The hero’s choice is to disobey the dictates of the fear.”
When one chooses to not obey those dictates of fear, it’s empowering. It’s as Forrest puts it, “the brave-hearted path.” She says, “It takes a lot of courage to explore your fear. Courage isn’t the numbed out, flinty, Clint Eastwood-esq stoicism we’re accustomed to, but instead it’s daring to experience our feelings-even if this requires painful awakening- with discernment and intelligence.”
Step 4: Find the healing within the fear. How does one exactly do this? What does my fear of heights say about me? Does it say that perhaps I fear reaching new levels of success or perhaps I fear my potential or maybe I fell from a tree when I was a child? How will snuggling up to that fear make me a better person?
Fear is a very powerful thing when you think about it. When you make the choice to not make any decisions based on fear you begin to realize how much it may dictate in your life, such as whether you talked to that cute guy at the cafe or not (fear of rejection) or whether you stated exactly what you thought in a business meeting (fear of communicating your truth). Then you dig deeper. You realize you fear your own honesty and you fear others not validating you as a person. Dig deeper. Maybe you never felt worthy as a child or maybe that one time you told the truth before things went wrong.
Now, what happens when that scary dragon of unworthiness creeps into my life? How do I shift my reaction from fear to something else, and what is that something else? Forrest has a unique approach to this: “Once you’ve faced your dragon, your next task is to ally with it. Don’t kill the beast, you fool, because that’s your power! This is the archetypal hero’s quest: you’ll meet the dragons and demons and fight and fight and fight them until you finally get the treasure. Then you’ll depart that quest irrevocably changed, with that treasure a part of you. Every time you stalk your fear and choose life instead of oblivion, you’ll begin to reclaim the parts of you that have been blocked off.”
Step 5: Snuggle up to your fear: maybe this means confronting headstand head on (pun intended). Maybe I won’t be able to get into headstand on my own for a while, but I’m still trying and that’s a win. For me, snuggling up to my fear means trying even though it’s not perfect and I have to sacrifice my autonomy on the mat to go there for the moment. Learning to be in the moment and confronting fears like turning your world upside down might be enough of a win for today.
“I’d believed that in order to do what I was afraid of, I had to get rid of the fear first, but that turned out to be only an idea, not the truth. You have to do something two hundred times before the fear will disperse. Are you still afraid of something? Just do it again. Do it again. Do it again.” – Ana T. Forrest