Saturday, March 22, 2014

Facing Fears & Doubts through Yoga - (Learning to do Salamba Sirsasana 1)

I'm no Psychologist, but I've learned a few things about my doubts and fears while doing yoga.

First there's the obvious that yoga teaches you to slow down your breathing when it gets tight or constricted, which relaxes the body and helps you with whatever is restricting your breath in the first place.  I have done that in moments of great fear.   For example, several years ago, when I was up high in a ski lift, I realized how afraid I was of the height -- I was shaking like crazy and was gripping the rail like I was going to die -- heart beating fast and out of control.  I told myself that while I couldn't get down from the ski lift, but I could slow down my breath and relax my grip.  I made myself open my hands slightly so my body wouldn't be so tensed up.  And I made myself consciously breathe more slowly.  That eventually led to me relaxing in my thoughts and made me adjust to the height  -- amazing!  Relaxing the body in order to relax or change the thought patterns is one approach to conquering fears.

Another thing I've recently learned in my yoga workshops is that I tend to send thoughts of doubts and fears to myself more often than I realized.  I tell myself that I'm too old to do something and that I can't when others are diving in and aren't afraid. There have been some poses introduced that I think will make me collapse on my head, flatten my face, and break my neck.  Who wants that?   I tell myself that my arms aren't strong enough, my torso is too long compared to my lower body, I'm too heavy,  or that I'm just not as young as I used to be (well, I think everyone can fall into THAT category!)  But then I'll look around the room and everyone else would be trying it.  Why am I so afraid?

In these instances, I've had to tell myself that perhaps my thoughts are incorrect.  I may be JUST the right age for doing that particular pose.  Or my body may be completely equipped to do it -- I just have to learn to "ride that bike." I tell myself to have trust in my teacher and listen to what he's telling me to do.

One day, Mark Stephens asked us to do Sirsana 1 pose, which is the headstand where you rest on your elbows.  I have been doing tri-pod headstands (Sirsana 2) for many, many years and an can stay up seemingly forever.  My body knows it, likes it, and is very comfortable there.  But the few times I've tried this yoga headstand that I've seen over and over in yoga videos and books, I thought my neck would break!  My neck felt very vulnerable and I didn't ever want to try it again.  I may have even read something online about someone saying it wasn't safe for the neck, etc.

All of these thoughts were swirling around in my head -- fearful thoughts for sure, as Mark was introducing his thoughts to my mind.  He told us this was a safer, more supportive headstand.  One could stay up in this headstand much longer because it created less stress in the neck.  Hmm, really?  Could I rid myself of the old thoughts and allow new ones to reside instead?  I pondered the possibility while others tried the pose.

I approached the wall and finally decided to give it one try. Just one.  I couldn't even kick up into that version of headstand.  But I had a friend help me.  And I could do it somewhat against the wall.  It wasn't easy and I didn't hold it for long.   I had a few questions and when Mark asked for ?s at the end, so I raised my hand.  What does he often have us do when we have a question?  Go up and show him our pose so he can see what we are experiencing. And was I to go up against the wall?  No.  He would be there to spot me on the mat in the middle of the room in front of the rest of the class.

I had a little fear of falling over or hurting my neck, but had seen him spot others in Dolphin handstand before, so I knew he would keep me safe.  But my legs had a hard time even getting up or staying up, despite my efforts.  My fears of breaking my neck may have been gone, but my doubts of my abilities to figure this out were HUGE.

But Mark told me it was just a matter of getting my body aligned and properly stacked.  He told the class that for some, it may take a year or more to get this pose, but he could see me able to do this pose in just weeks. WEEKS!, he emphasized.  My doubts were starting to melt.  Mark has over 20 years experience teaching.  He must know my abilities much better than I can see them.

I was determined to practice.  I practiced in class with 2 friends spotting me (still a bit of fear there) and one of my friends told me that my elbows were too far apart.   Another told me to lengthen my shoulders away from my elbows.  That made a huge difference in my alignment.  I went home and tried it this away against the wall.  I still couldn't kick up by myself, so I put a block beneath my feet to give me an edge.  Once I could do that, I was able to kick up without the block (within maybe a week's time).

One night at home, I found if I looked across the room (as I'm sure Mark suggested in class) instead of more toward the floor, my alignment improved to almost what it was in my tripod headstands.  Amazing!  It's so great to watch the body and mind connect like that.  After a few more days, I thought I might be able to do it in the middle of the room without the wall.  I was!  I did!

I was excited to finally be able to do this in class and with my first opportunity to do so, I couldn't do it.  I was about 90 minutes into the practice and I didn't have the strength to hold it without the wall. I also think I created some anxiety and instability by building it up so much.  But that was okay.  I'd get there.  And get there, I did!  Just a few days ago, I attempted the headstand on my mat without the wall nearby.  I did it.  I DID IT!  Fears gone.  Doubts gone. Too old?  No way.  I can do this now and I love it.  I'm excited to see what I will learn to do next -- not just for the sense of accomplishment, but for the ability to strengthen my body in new ways and to be able to re-pattern my thoughts.  Love it!

Class photo courtesy of Neeta Lind
Beach photo courtesy of Sweet Carolina Photography

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