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Going Upside Down (and facing F.E.A.R.)

Updated: Feb 9, 2022

Fear (abhinivesha): Eric Schiffman created one of my favorite articulations about fear:

F: false

E: evidence

A: appearing

R: real

Whether or not we acknowledge it, fear is a very real fact of life for us. As animals who have healthy sympathetic nervous systems (the driver of fight or flight) we need this response system to keep ourselves safe from danger. While we no longer live in caves and have to fear the imminent danger of apex predators, we still have a sympathetic nervous system. It’s unavoidable and, even though we don’t have to worry about wolves and giant cats, we still need our sympathetic nervous system. Without it we wouldn’t have any sense of intuition when we are in danger and wouldn’t learn that touching fire burns (and should be avoided). In my experience, fear is something we try and pretend isn’t real, or at least that it doesn’t control our actions. In the yogic text The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the author discusses the impact of the five klesas (or obstacles to enlightenment), the fifth of which is abhinivesah or the fear of death. Here death does include physical death but also includes the death of ego and attachment, etc. Often our fear is based on false evidence, because our perception is inherently limited due to the environment in which we were raised, our socialization, and our limited exposure to other ways of experiencing life. We create beliefs based on our limited perception (and misperception). This is the origin of false evidence - and, as we have created a belief around false evidence, it appears to be real.

For most of us a belief is something that becomes an inherent part of ourselves. Belief becomes us and impacts how we interact with the world. Confronting belief is a form of death - the death of belief is the death of ego and attachment. The death of who we are. This relates to inversion practice in that we create beliefs about what we can accomplish. I hear it all the time as a yoga instructor: I CAN’T. "I can’t because my chest is too big," "I can’t because I’m not strong enough or flexible enough," "I can’t because…" After saying this to ourselves over and over we will discover that in fact we can’t.

Another way fear creeps into inversion practice is the very real fear of death: “If I fall I’ll break my neck and be paralyzed, or worse, I’ll die.” Physiologically we have something called the horizon righting mechanism which causes us to always want our gaze to be level with the horizon (and right side up). Because of how we are put together we aren’t necessarily meant to go upside down. We lack all the traits needed to go upside down: our bodies don’t regulate blood flow upside down, our feet can’t hold onto branches we don’t have prehensile tails. Our bodies evolved to be right side up. One of the traits we developed as prey animals was a trigger that fires when upside down. When this occurs, the sympathetic nervous system engages, and we instinctively turn our gaze to look out at the horizon, so we can effectively watch for predators. Due to the many necessary adaptions we have evolved with over time, going upside down is triggering on many levels. When we begin a serious inversion practice we have to face all of it - but we don’t have to do it all at once. For some people going upside down is easy. Children often go upside down and revel in the experience-- but theses same children lack a fully developed frontal lobe and so they can’t see the inherent danger of being upside down. They also haven’t developed a sense of body shame that tells us we’re not good enough, not strong enough. Children have the luxury of feeling invincible which we lose over time as we confront our perceived limitations. Its not only children who come to inversions easily - some adults take to it like a fish breathing water. My introduction to inversions was easy and simple and I love it! It’s a huge part of my practice and I didn’t have to deal with over coming fear to engage in the practice. But I’ve seen people get angry and frightened to the point of tears. I’ve had people tell me that their feet won’t come off the ground and they don’t know why. I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from trying inversions but rather acknowledging the thing we must acknowledge - the very real fear that accompanies the practice. Fear is something most of us would rather avoid at all costs. We push it down and pretend its not there . . . but fear is your friend. One of my all-time favorite quotes about fear comes in the form of courage (fear’s opposite):

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, I will try again tomorrow” - (Mary Anne Radmacher)

Fear lets us know that its time to evaluate: “is this real or is it simply False Evidence Appearing Real.” Fear gives us boundaries and shows us where we have potential to grow. Learning to sit with fear, allowing the sensations to arise and getting in touch with it is how we become fearless. It is in fact the only way to become fearless. It is never about not experiencing fear, it is always about what we do with it. Let fear be your ally. Never try to push past it. Fear is juicy and can be your best teacher. Remember it doesn’t matter if you ever get your feet off the floor - all that matters is that you continue to try.

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