A year after I moved to SF, I was invited to teach at a beautiful new yoga studio.
Although I have taught for years, this felt like a first: new city, new language, new studio, new students, new space, teaching among other very experienced teachers. I had dreamed of this. It is my passion. This is what I’ve always wanted.
Why then, was this other thing creeping up inside of me? That intense acrid feeling in the center of the belly. That strong force that put my mind to spin with waves of negative thoughts: what if I’m not as good as the other teachers, what if students don’t like me, what if I forget everything I know, what if I fail, what if this is not what I’m meant to do, what if what if what if…
After a while these thoughts took over and clouded my mind, paralyzed me, throwing my breath out the window. Here I was, thinking up a million dramas, lost in Hopelessville. An uninvited guest had come to visit:
“The mind conjures up its own fears, makes them a reality, and then suffers because of these fears. If only you would realize you are much stronger that your fears”
-Gurumayi , Courage and Contentment
Now, I have nothing against fear itself. It has its uses under life-threatening situations which ask for immediate fight or flight responses. Sometimes it’s a burst of adrenaline to quickly get out of a dangerous situation. However, for most other things, and this situation in particular, it was clear fear was but a mental illusion, a self-created drama made from negative thought patterns (and for the most part, pretty useless).
And so in the months before starting to teach, I tried shooing the fear away, I tried ignoring it, I even tried convincing myself I was better than others, and I tried being angry at the fear for being there, hoping this would scare it away. I did everything I could to avoid looking fear in the face.
All this seemed to work for a while. Then though, unexpectedly it crept up again at different times, disguised in one of its many different hues: self-doubt, judgement, criticism, anger, frustration, and all its close relatives. Avoiding was clearly not the way out. There was no escaping this, it was time to pause and face the fear. It was time to make this my yoga practice.
Every exhalation is a chance to let go.
Every inhalation, a chance to begin anew.
After realizing I couldn’t flee from fear, I decided to be determined in the new mind space that I did want. All the yoga scriptures (and all essential scriptures of humankind, really) remind us of the truth of our being:
You are great, You are the Self, You are dazzling with light!
I made a pact with myself: this is what I will work toward. This is the place where I want to live in (not Hopelessville). I knew I would have to be persistent, as these were old patterns that needed time and repetition to transform.
In the Yoga Sutras persistency is referred to as abhyasa/practice (1.13): “having an attitude of persistent effort to attain and maintain a state of stable tranquility.” Reconnecting with this clear intention has been an anchor for my mind and a daily dose of inspiration for my practice.
Next, I decided I would sit with the fear in meditation, however scary that was (and it was!). I sat and breathed normally, allowing for thoughts to surface naturally. Whenever I noticed a thought that came accompanied with even a tinge of fear and its nuances: self-doubt, criticism, judgement, comparing myself to others, it was my signal post to RELEASE.
It’s a practice I’ve grown fond of: ” Just Drop It”. The Yoga Sutras describe this as Vairagya/Non-Attachment(1.15): “learning to let of the many attachments, aversions, fears, and false identities that are clouding the true Self”
Negative thought comes up. Signal to drop. Drop it. Negative thought comes up. Signal to drop. Drop it. Repeat.
In this practice of releasing, my imagination played a vital role. Any image of releasing, worked:
-tossing a rock into the water, and letting it sink and disintegrate;
-dense smoke rising and then slowly dissolving into space;
-opening my hand and letting sand pour through my fingers;
-making offerings to the fire and letting the flames turn it into ashes.
Although some thoughts were easier to release than others, after some time the grip of fear began to loosen. Invariably, after every meditation session, I ended up with more space, more lightness. The stuck fear had become a moving energy able to transform, making way for my breath and for a clearer mind.
(PS: pretty cool thing about this practice is it that it is portable can be practiced in any place at any time ;) )
Another wonderful practice in transforming negative thinking comes from one of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras [2.33]:
“Vitarkabadhane pratipaksha bhavanam.”
‘Pratipaksha bhavana’, literally means substituting one type of thinking by its opposite counterpart. In other words, when a thought comes up and I notice it, I can replace it by the opposite.
Example: “What if I’m not as good as the other teachers” replaced by “I will join this great group of teachers and offer something great myself!” Or the thought “What if the students don’t like me” replaced by “I am here to serve the students lovingly“.
And so I started practicing, and kept on for days. As soon as I noticed a negative thought creeping up (either in meditation or in the midst of my daily activities), it was a signpost to come up with a creative way to replace it. Before I knew it, this became a cool and interesting game :) I also had allies in this practice (close friends and family) who could remind me to replace something negative I said about myself, with a new, kinder perspective.
Just like the thrill of having a clean closet free of old clothes, my mind relished this new space to bring in new, cleaner, nicer- fitting clothes/thoughts.
The Dance of Breath
There is no greater way to stay stuck than to stay static. One of the reasons I love asanas (yoga postures) is that they get me moving with my breath. Yoga postures allow for the body to release blockages and stuck emotion in the body and ease the flow of the breath.
When I noticed I was stuck with a thought of fear, I allowed myself to breathe through the fear while moving through asana. Sometimes going for a long walk also worked wonders in letting the breath move through the body.
Simple. I move, the breath moves, the thoughts move.
Finally the day came for my first day of class. I welcomed my new students into class, asked how they were doing. Some had aches and pains, some were just tired, others stressed out from their work, others were there for the first time and were a bit nervous about class.
Like a magic wand, the fear dropped. My imaginary spotlight was off of me. I was here for them.
As I taught the class, and every other class I have taught after that, I am reminded of the amazing power of service. DOING SOMETHING FOR SOMEONE frees me from my “little self” and connects me with a brighter, more loving self. It doesn’t have to be anything showy, glamorous, or worthy of mention. Just doing something for someone, works magic.
Finally here I am, putting my process into writing. May this writing help to remind me whenever I forget. May there always be signposts we can see clearly, in order to move in the direction our hearts desire. May we trust in the power of the mind and be grateful for every little effort, every little step. And may fear step aside, so we may follow our heart.
May we be without fear
of friend or foe.
May we be without fear
of the known and the unknown.
May we be without fear
by day and by night.
Let all the world be my friend.