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Dealing with Fear

Strategies for dealing with fear when working towards difficult yoga poses)

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Someone asked me about dealing with fear when working towards headstand. I thought I would include my background in fear and then talk about how to deal with fear when doing headstand.

Dealing with Fear on a Motorbike

One of my most memorable experiences of dealing with fear was after falling of a motorbike on a race track. I was attending a two day track riding school at Laguna Sega and at the end of the first day I fell off. At the time I thought I would be fine the next day but I wasn't.

The next day, each time I went around a corner I felt like the bike was going to slide out of the corner. And the more I looked towards the outside of each corner the greater the fear.

I tried looking at where I wanted to go just to see what happened. Looking ahead of me along the track, seeing as much of the road ahead of me as possible, the fear disappeared and riding became fun again.

Focusing on Undesirable Outcomes

Often with fear what we focus on is the thing that we don't want to happen. And so a simple remedy for this type of fear is to focus on the desired outcome.

That can sometimes require some analytical effort.

As an example, being afraid of caught speeding (and the resulting fine) what is the opposite of being caught for speeding?

When motorcycling one possible desired outcome is to continue riding, "to keep the rubber side down." While riding that translated for myself to seeing as far as I could see around corners since that was where I wanted to go. As the road changed my looking point changed with it. I was always seeing the road ahead and everything on the road between me and the road's horizon.

On roller coasters an ex-girlfriend had arrived at a similiar observation. In order to avoid the scary feelings induced by such rides she focused on looking far ahead. Which kind of ruins the fun of such rides but there you go.

Lack of Control

When I tried snow boarding for the second time I experienced fear regularly. It happened whenever I started going faster. On the nursery slopes it wasn't too bad because I ran out of hill before I got going too fast. The challenge was overcoming that fear on the bigger hills.

I realized that a large part of my problem was that I was leaning backwards. As a result I was getting no grip with the edges of the board. As soon as I started leaning forwards I could shift my weight to place an edge of the board into the snow and then I had control. With control I could steer the board and slow it down as I needed to.

And so another part of fear can be due to a lack of control. The remedy for this type of fear is to learn how to gain control. This too can require some analysis. Both in finding the source of the fear and also in developing steps towards gaining the control necessary.

While snowboarding I didn't realize that my fear was due to a lack of control until I tried leaning forwards.

And this leads to another possible source of fear, the fear of getting hurt.

The Thought of Getting Hurt

Few of us like landing on our faces in yoga poses like bakasana. And few of us like falling out of poses like headstand or handstand. And I personally didn't enjoy getting slammed on my back when I caught an edge while snowboarding.

A possible solution to getting around the fear of getting hurt is making it safe to fail.

When I learned headstand I was determined to learn it the hard way, lifting up with straight legs. Not necessarily the smartest choice but it was an interesting challenge. But to get all the way up I spent a lot of time falling out of headstand. And one of the first things I learned was how to fall or roll out of headstand safely.

When teaching students to do headstand without a wall I first teach them how to roll out. Then they can fail safely (and comfortably) while working towards balancing in headstand.

Fear Can be A Good Thing

Fear can actually be a good thing.

When I first got on a motorbike, before I had my license, my simple (and stupid goal) was to change gears and get all the way up to fourth gear. And so getting on a bike for the first time that was what I did. But then once I got to fourth gear the road started to curve. I didn't know how to stop the bike and even though I tried to turn the bike didn't turn and we both ended up in the ditch.

Later on I took riding lessons and the first thing that I learned was how to use the brakes.

If you are afraid, use that fear to understand analyze what you are trying to do.

Dealing with Fear of Doing Headstand

Using free standing headstand as an example, the goal is to be able to stay upside down without any external aid. (And to be able to come down from that position without hurting ourselves.) To that end it can help to understand how we balance while standing upright. Is it easier to stay balanced on the fronts of the feet when we use the toes to help us balance?

Understanding that it is easier to balance when our weight is distributed across a large foundation, an initial goal can be to keep the bodies center of gravity between the elbows and crown of the head (this is assuming "bound headstand" where the hands are clasped behind the head. This means that we have to be able to use the shoulders to press the elbows in the floor so that they can help support part of our body weight.

We may also understand that the neck is at some risk and so we can practice pressing the head into a wall at the same time activating the muscles of the neck to brace the neck.

We might also realize that a collapsing ribcage can be an issue so we take steps to develop the necessary awareness and control of the ribcage.

Towards failing safely, the first step is practicing the aforementioned roll out. The key is rounding the back so that you actually roll (and relaxing the fingers if clasped so that they don't get crushed in the process).

For extra comfort in this stage, cushions can be used.

Once we are comfortable with rolling, while actually working towards a free standing headstand an additional safety measure can be making sure that there is nothing in the potential "falling" area that might cause ourselves or something else harm. And rather than trying to go straight up, we can break the process down into stages.

While the only way to "get" headstand is to practice, if we break it down, we can work towards headstand while at the same time dealing with potential fear inducing situations safely.

Fear in Situations Where we Lack Control

But what about the fears that involve things that we have no direct control of?

One simple idea is focusing on a desired outcome. Having a safe and enjoyable flight. Landing safely. Being in a happy relationship with someone you enjoy being with. This latter example means not focusing on being in a relationship with a particular person but focusing on the idea of the relationship itself.

The idea here is that we can't force any particular person to like us. But we can focus on the idea of a desired relationship and with that we can be more likely to draw to ourselves a person who has a similar if not the same idea.

Focusing on What is Happening Now

Yet another way of dealing with fear is to not think. A simple way of not thinking is to focus on what is happening now. That can mean taking in sensory data from our eyes, from our ears, mouth, sense of touch and respond to what is happening now.

And that is actually what the focus is in any sensational yoga pose.
Focus on feeling your body and what is happening now.

Published: 2015 12 12
Updated: 2020 10 30
Clearly defined poses, exercises and stretches for improving stability, body awareness and flexibility.
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Mental models are created or modified whenever we learn. They drive habits, intuition and muscle memory.

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This understanding can be the basis for reducing frustration and making learning, problem solving and doing easier.

Find out more about Learning how to learn-Mental models