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I began my yoga practice three years ago, and in that time, I've experienced a definitive transformational change, both mentally and physically. As my practice has become a regular part of my life, I feel stronger, more flexible and, most importantly, I've started to feel confident enough to tackle some of my fears.
One of those fears led me to the edge - the edge of the pool that is. A little while ago I decided to add swimming to my exercise regime, a supplement to my yoga practice that would provide another outlet for my energy. But swimming, for me, is not an easy feat.
I learned to swim at 7 years old, but my fear took hold long before that. At the age of 2, I nearly drowned in a pond in my grandparents' garden. I was found face down among the fish with pond weed tangled in my hair. It took a long time for this memory to come to light; I knew swimming was never a "fun" activity for me and I felt anxious near water, but I didn't know why. My parents even enrolled me in additional swimming lessons (where I did everything possible to stay in the shallow end), but nothing helped. I preferred to have my feet firmly planted on land and my hair bone dry.
That's why it was strange when, not too long ago, I found myself drawn to the water. For some reason, now felt like the right time to address my deep-rooted childhood fear. And six weeks in, everything changed.
Releasing the fear
As my new-found confidence grew on the mat, I found the strength to carry it with me to the swimming pool. I incorporated my deep breathing pranayama techniques to soothe my nervous system and my mind before I entered the water. I didn't focus on achieving the perfect stroke or completing 50 lengths of the pool but on achieving what was within my power in the present moment and accepting whatever I was feeling inside.
It wasn't an instant success, but slowly, through the act of being gentle with myself whenever frustration arose, things began to click into place. For the first time in my life, I suddenly found relief from life’s stresses in the water. After several weeks I was able to put my head under and open my eyes. It reminded me of the very first time I was able to balance in Bakasana or the first time I flowed through Sun Salutation A and held Chaturanga without flopping, face down, onto the mat. As with my yoga practice, I had stepped into my strength in both body and in mind. I stepped into my power and realized that many of my limitations were governed by my fears. I rediscovered my courage and it was unequivocally empowering.
After I conquered my own aqua-related unease, I realized there was a whole world below the surface of the water that I’d never explored. The unfamiliar feeling of being underwater was like a breath of fresh air, the engulfing peace and the complete weightlessness was something on which I had completely missed out. The tranquility gracefully brought me to the present moment. I wasn't concerned about what I was doing after or what I was going to have for lunch, I was simply enjoying being.
Now, when I'm immersed in the water there is no past about which to feel guilty and no future about which to feel anxious. I'm right there in the moment. I experience pure awareness in every stroke, every kick and every breath. I feel as though I'm in a deeply moving meditation, free and unhurried. The feelings that arise in me are the same feelings I experience every time I step onto my mat.
How to face fear in your life
So that's my story, those are my fears. Now how can you use my experience to face your own? The first step to overcoming any fear is to address what the fear is and where it's rooted. Fear can stem from a particular event that has affected the way you do something, the way you interact with others or the type of activities that you do. There are many reasons for fear and many different things to be scared of or to be anxious about. As human beings, we are blessed, yet also cursed, with having our ‘monkey mind’ on all of the time. We tend to spend more time in the past or the future rather than in the now. Incorporating meditation and pranayama (breathing exercises) into a daily practice will help you quiet the mind and the nervous system, giving you more calmness and clarity even in fearful situations.
Processing and working through fear should be undertaken gently and with care. Start by taking small steps forward (literally or physically) to help digest what you're working through without allowing the situation to overwhelm you. Stay calm by devoting yourself to the present moment; yoga teaches us to move with mindfulness. Why? Because if we're focused on what we're doing in each moment, there is less opportunity to overthink things or to give in to our fear.
Also remember that fear, although at times is limiting, can also act as a protector, reminding us not to be reckless in our actions and our behavior. It can keep us safe from harm, but it becomes a problem when it limits our dreams and our ability to try new things.
Conquering a fear can feel exhilarating when armed with the knowledge that you have the power to step into your new-found sense of courage. Yoga helps us find this inner courage and strength. It helps us confirm what we already know in our hearts: that we have the power to accomplish anything in our journey along life's long and winding path.