I used to be afraid of everything. When I was a kid I refused to participate in gymnastics during PE lessons – even a back roll (chakrasana to us Ashtanga yogis) was out of question. Let’s not even talk about hand stand… The first time in my life I ever kicked up against a wall I was 33 years old. I had been convinced that my shoulders would never support me or that I would crash down on my head. Of course that was just my imagination. But still, who would ever have thought I’d end up doing Ashtanga yoga later in life…
Despite being very anxious when younger – fearing I would damage my clothes if climbing a tree or fall when running and thereby make my mother angry with me – I was always very active, as long as I felt that I was in control. I played a lot of sports such as basked ball, did martial arts, got involved in Fitness training and became a spinning instructor and did a lot of long distance running. I travelled to foreign countries, often alone, and never reflected much upon the dangers of doing this on my own.
Fear is often irrational and what makes one person freak out doesn’t even bother another one. Practising Ashtanga yoga has been the key for me to face many of my fears. My practice empowers me daily and has taught me many important lessons about how my mind works. The practice forces me to surrender and trust that things will work out – it teaches me to let go of the need to control everything.
Moving and breathing in and out of asanas on the mat has not only made me stronger physically or allowed me to understand my body. It also continuously teaches me to go a little further outside of my comfort zone every day. Step by step it tricks me into learning more and more difficult postures, progressively adapting the body and mind. With repetition and dedicated practice the posture that seemed absolutely impossible a few weeks, months or years before suddenly feels “easy”. Like this the boundaries for what is possible are slowly pushed a little further every day.
In my yoga practice I have to face my fears every day. And I do it because I’ve learnt that every small victory on the yoga mat shows me that I am much stronger than my mind tells me. The phrase “Yes, I can” – although it feels almost a cliché – becomes a mantra that grows stronger with every hurdle passed. In the end it’s not about mastering the postures, but the result that comes with achieving something that used to be “impossible”. If I can do the “impossible” on the mat the same should be possible off the mat – in daily life. And that’s where the real empowerment of yoga practice lies.
What my practice also teaches me is that nothing is permanent. In Ashtanga yoga each posture is held for five breaths – it can be five long breaths when a posture is really challenging or is causing fear. At the same time it’s only five breaths – then it’s over. That knowledge makes the time in the asana much more bearable, and that knowledge makes difficulties in life more bearable. Because it’s the same off the mat – nothing is permanent. Change is the only constant. Even if it seems like the things we dislike take forever to pass and the things we enjoy are over all too fast. This is the cycle of life – there will be ups and downs all the time. We cannot control that – but we can control how to respond to it.
The practice is in a continuous flow with the breath from one asana into the other. The body and mind are opened, strengthened and transformed. When discovering that breathing softer, deeper and more focused the asana becomes less stressful. Practice teaches me to keep my breath stable despite challenging asanas and the same goes in daily life. If I end up in a stressful situation I have learnt now that I can turn focus to my breath and by controlling it I control my response to the situation. An example of this is a stressful situation that I had to deal with only just last week:
I was invited to speak about yoga at the University of Lund, at the same department where I graduated 13 years ago (Political Science). The theme of the lecture was my experience as a volunteer yoga teacher in Rwanda in 2011. Although I master the topic and had known about the event for a long time, I ended up being really nervous. In my previous career I developed a fear of speaking in front of larger groups. The fear was not so much linked to being the centre of attention (I quite like that J), but more to the fact of not being able to defend my position when facing questions or criticism – I became afraid to seem unprepared or not knowledgeable enough.
Now the time I’d spent on the yoga mat became really useful. As I stood in front of the students (a class of 60 or 70 people) and their teachers I felt as if I was about to faint. But with my knowledge of the breath I was able to quickly change my body’s initial response to the stress. Actually what I did was that I asked the whole class to join me in a breathing exercise. Since the topic of the lecture was yoga as a tool to treat PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) in post-conflict societies – the breathing exercise fitted well into the lecture. While the audience closed their eyes and followed my instructions I was able to take control over myself and the situation. Plus it was a good way to get every one’s attention!
My practice has taught me that through patience and trust and the four D’s: dedication, discipline, devotion and determination anything is possible. If something doesn’t go according to “plan” the deviation from the plan was probably needed and a good lesson learnt. Practice also teaches me not to grasp onto things in life – whether asanas, material things or relationships – as everything constantly changes. It teaches me to enjoy the present and cherish and be thankful for what I’ve experienced so far in life. It teaches me not to be afraid of the future but and to face it with enthusiasm and curiosity. Much like Yoga sutra 1.20: sraddha virya smrti samadhiprajna purvakah itaresam