Lessons from Yoga: Embracing Fear

I want to talk a bit about fear. They say that life starts at the edge of your comfort zone, and as I reach the final weeks of my first solo backpacking trip never has that statement rung so true to me.

I have done numerous things that I have been scared to do over the last 4 months. Travelling to India to do yoga teacher training, getting on the back of a motorbike on the motorway in Vietnam, riding a scooter by myself for the first time since a fairly bad accident seven years ago, arriving in new countries alone, talking to strangers, learning to meditate, trying acro yoga…the list goes on.

The thing is, that fear can appear in the smallest of situations or the biggest, and which situations it appears in are different for everyone.  For example, I didn’t feel fear when I got in a cage to dive with Great White Sharks in South Africa (sounds weird but it’s true) but I felt fear when striking up conversation with my first fellow backpacker right at the beginning of my trip. The fear, and how you feel it, will differ depending on who you are.

What I have learned, however, is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s the tiny flutter of butterflies in the stomach, or full-on, sick-making fear which makes you want to cry – the only way to get over it is to hit it, square in the face, and just do whatever it is that’s causing the pain. Say yes, before your brain has time to catch up with what you’re doing. Turn off the negativity in your head and repeat after me; I can do this. 

If yoga has taught me anything it's that my mind thinks I can't do things that my body is, in fact, very capable of doing. I’m the queen of internal pep talks. Being a Gemini I always have two voices in my head chatting away and when they get into a discussion about whether I can or can’t do something they can really go at it. But after a lot of practice of mindfulness (more about that another time) as taught by the practice of yoga and a mouth that’s started to say yes regardless of how convincing the internal arguments are, I’ve managed to give a lot more power to the positive voice and am reaping the benefits.

The feeling when you prove yourself wrong and push through the fear is incredible; but it’s worth starting small. Nervous to talk to new people? Make eye contact, smile and say hello to the next person you pass in the street. Chances are they’ll smile back (unless you live in London, in which case don’t beat yourself up – try it with a person sitting next to you in a café, or the doctors, or at a party, or in a bar, rather than in the street or on the tube). Receiving a smile from a stranger is probably one of the nicest feelings, so you’ll have spread some happiness into the world at the same time as building your confidence to make the next step. The more you do small things each day which make your scared and push through them, the more you’ll be able to train that pesky mind of yours to believe in yourself and the bigger things will become easier to handle.

But what if I fail? What if they don’t smile back, or I can’t push through the fear? I hear you cry. Let me ask you this; have you ever answered the question “How are you?” with “I’m fine” when you’re really not fine at all? See how easy it is to lie? For words to form in your mind that aren’t true? Well how about you try that with yourself? Keep telling yourself you’re fine, that you can do it, and even if you don’t really believe it at first, you will start to.

When I finally plucked up the courage to drive a scooter by myself and I got to see this...

When I finally built up the courage to sit on that scooter for the first time in seven years and drive it myself I had to sit still, breathing calmly for about 5-10 minutes (no joke - the rental guy thought I was a maniac) repeating in my head “you can do it, you can do it, you can do it” over and over. My mind fought hard with me, but eventually it gave up, and off I went, and my outlook on fear changed forever. Your negative thoughts will get bored, unable to fight against your willpower and your words combined and before you know it you’ll be out the other side and never looking back.

Willpower, now there’s the key to this whole thing. It is my belief that embracing and conquering fear is only going to be effective if you really want to do it. If there’s something you’ve been scared of doing for a while and haven’t tackled yet, chances are that you will need a lot of willpower to push through. If you don’t really, truly want to change that fear into elation then it’s going to be a hell of a lot harder to overpower that negative Nancy in your head.

So, here’s what I want to put out into the world; something I have learned to be true on this journey and which has changed my life:

  • Fear it
  • Feel it
  • Say Yes
  • Do it
  • Love it

Do one thing every day that scares you. (1997) —Mary Schmich