Spotting Janie, a yoga student of mine, in a handstand. She’s fearless!
Perhaps there are not many yoga poses more fear-inducing than doing handstands. If you are new to doing them, please do know that you have every right to be afraid.
I wanted to write about fear, because I for one have been stopped by it from time to time in my life. And for this past month, I wanted to see if I could free myself up more by moving closer to things I want by simply asking for those things and taking appropriate steps to try to obtain them. I wanted to see if I could take the approach of “feeling the fear and doing it anyway” as I’ve heard several spiritual teachers suggest over the years. Giving myself the gift of this mind-set has actually freed me up in some ways, and I’ve taken some chances I may not have before.
This month we celebrated the 4th of July, which to Americans symbolizes independence and greater freedom. As yogis/nis, we practice yoga to try to gain greater independence from the “little self” and to feel freer. I think one aspect of the pursuit of both is to meet our fears a little more head-on and to demonstrate to ourselves that we can be fearless, more so than we sometimes give ourselves credit for.
As I was reflecting on what fearlessness means to me, these two thoughts came to my mind:
True Fearlessness sometimes involves saying “yes” before saying “no.”
And, true fearlessness is not the absence of fear, but rather taking incremental actions in the face of fear.
Scary as it may seem to say “yes” before saying “no,” sometimes we can surprise ourselves and (as the slogan goes) “just do it.” We don’t always have to know the outcomes in advance, rather we just have to say “yes” to the moment that is in front of us. We can almost feel it in our gut that saying “yes” is the right thing to do, even if we are feeling fear.
I can remember feeling some fear when my dancer friend Norman asked me back in June 1985 when I was trying to decide if I should move to New York to pursue dance at the age of 26: “Are you going to move here soon? Because if you don’t do it now, you might as well give up on being a dancer.” I don’t remember if I answered “yes” at the moment, but surely I must have said “yes” at some point soon thereafter because 3 months later I landed in NYC ready to pursue a career in the performing arts here. The rest is history. I look back now and am so glad I said “yes” to that moment.
And in my 34 years here in New York, there have been many moments when I experienced fear. I experienced fear when I use to audition regularly, and even as the years went on I don’t think that fear ever went completely away. I experienced fear in my early years as a yoga teacher facing students who were expecting me to help lead them towards nirvana (or at least closer to doing a handstand!). I’ve experienced a lot of fear as I founded and grew my nonprofit organization, Keoni Movement Arts. In those early years, I knew I had a dream to help others through yoga, dance, and gymnastics, but I didn’t quite know how it all worked. I’ve certainly learned a lot over the years since we were founded in 2008, and we have garnered a great amount of impact and success to this date. Still, admittedly, as we continue to grow and I do new things with it for the first time, I do feel fear.
But as I reflect back now at age 60, I can say that I am glad I said “yes” before saying “no” at least on a few important occasions in my life. And I am glad that in pursuit of these major life goals that I proceeded incrementally. Certainly, doing so has helped to mitigate some of the fear I’ve felt.
I am comforted by some of the Buddha’s teachings about fear and fearlessness. Pema Chodron said:
Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the Truth. If you don’t know the nature of fear, you can never be fearless.
So, in other words experiencing fear might be an indication that one is moving closer to the truth. Especially if one is doing a lot of self-examination through therapy or self-observation though meditation, undoubtedly one will be confronted by many things that are quite fear-inducing and down-right scary. But if one can just stay with the fears a bit longer each time, over time one will become more fearless, more free.
Another aspect of being fearless that is oft-overlooked is this sentiment by Pema Chodron’s teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche:
“… Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. …”
In other words, if we can’t have compassion for our fears and know that they are the by-products of our heart which is opening up to the truth more and more, then we can never be truly fearless. Fearlessness is not some “machismo” thing where we act without feelings, but rather it is acting in the face of our feelings – or at least being still with them – rather than running away from them.
I’ve heard several famous actors talk about their fears and how they’ve dealt with them. Hearing them open up about their fears certainly made me feel less lonely in this respect and like I was in good company. Here’s one quote by the SAG Award winning actor Sterling K. Brown (also a fellow Stanford Alum) which he gave in his commencement address to the Class of 2018:
“When I feel fear, as uncomfortable as it may be, I know I’m in the right place. Whether you’re 22, or 42 [or 62], never allow fear to keep you from expanding your definition of self.”
I hope that in some way yoga and meditation can help to normalize your feelings of fear, and help you to expand and know greater definitions of your self.
And I hope that you will take on the challenge of practicing handstands – one incremental, and perhaps fearful, step at time.
May you be happy, … May you see fear as normal, … May you move closer to your Truth, … May you be tender-hearted, … May you be Fearless, … May you ask for what you want, … May you be Freer, … for the benefit of all beings everywhere.
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