Like most people I know, I love Halloween. We still get lots of trick-or-treaters on our street, and seeing them dressed up and eagerly roaming the neighborhood is somehow reassuring to me – I guess because it’s a tradition I’ve been part of since childhood, and it’s still safe enough in my area for them to carry it on here.
Many philosophers and psychologists have written about the usefulness of celebrating fear the way we do on Halloween. (See, for instance, http://bit.ly/2xMKpq.) In my classes this week, we explored the role of fear in our yoga practice and how it may translate to the fear we experience off the mat.
The Anusara yoga teachers I’ve practiced with frequently employ the concept of edge. I recently completed the Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy Level 1 teacher training in L.A., and learned that in this system, too, the concept of edge is key.
One way of understanding edge in your yoga practice is to think of it literally, as in moving to the edge of a cliff or precipice. You’re still on safe, solid footing, but one more step and…
The idea is to find your boundary. Relatively, no vantage point will offer a more sweeping view of the landscape at hand than the edge, but to get there you have to take a risk. For most people, standing on this precipice induces fear.
And that’s a good thing. Fear is what keeps you aware of where your feet are (i.e., your foundation). It’s what tells you that you need to back up a little or grab a hand-railing (modify the posture) before you lose your balance and fall. It serves a purpose.
The trick is to cut through any hysteria or anxiety you may feel and find the authentic fear – to hear the voice of your deepest, wisest, most divine self. Another way to understand it is as finding a balance between the value and the danger of going further.
This takes practice. A great way to do it in yoga is with inversions, especially handstand. In my experience, this category of asana tends to freak out a high percentage of people.
You wouldn’t run up to a sheer drop-off; nor should fear-inducing inversions be approached too hastily. Here’s how we did it this week:
- After warming up the shoulders, back and hamstrings with some sun salutations and standing postures, do Uttanasana (standing forward fold) at a wall. Start facing the wall and fold forward. Staying aligned, move toward the wall until your head or back touches the wall. Continue to deepen with the breath, moving the point of contact with the wall down your back. Stay very tuned in to what’s happening during this deep forward-fold inversion. (Those with tight backs/hamstrings can still do it with blocks under the hands, knees bent if necessary and the back of the head to the wall.)
- Slowly back away from the wall and come to standing with your eyes closed. Listen to any feedback your body-mind offers.
- If it’s safe to go another step, try L Pose (handstand prep). While in the pose, keep your gaze focused on the floor between your hands and listen to your breath. Count the inhales and exhales until you need to come down. Move into Balasana (child’s pose) and again absorb feedback.
- If it’s safe to go another step, try kicking up into Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand) at the wall. Maybe you’ll just practice lifting your feet away from the floor and floating back down. Maybe you’ll go all the way up. Again, pay more attention to foundation (hands), drishti (focused gaze) and breath than to reaching the wall or some other goal.
When we do this in class, we do it as a series of three poses. Inevitably, some students end up repeating step one and/or two and not going to the next step. The most interesting part, however, is that a majority of students usually say they went further than they ever did before.
Why is that? I think it’s because they are in a neighborhood where it’s safe to trick or treat, so to speak. Or, to use my other analogy, they have established that the hand-railing is there for them if they need it. Their fear tells them how far they can go safely; all they have to do is listen.