By Elle Garfield
“Courage faces fear and thereby masters it.” Martin Luther King, Jr
During my first yoga teacher training in 2004, I learned how to move into upward facing bow or wheel pose, which is an advanced back bending, heart opening pose thought to require a great deal of strength. It’s done by lifting the body up into a bow as you press your hands and feet into the floor. It was not my goal to learn this pose nor was it the objective of the course. It came to me as the result of all the increased opportunities to practice the basic postures I was learning to teach and the more challenging postures I found easier to access over time.
I had decided to take the teacher training that year because I felt stuck. Having accomplished many personal and professional goals I had set out to attain I still found that I was holding back. I was afraid to take that next step required to live more authentically and to achieve my aspirations. I wanted to make the transition from working at a family service agency and a psychological clinic to opening up my own private practice and offering the most effective methods to help people struggling with anxiety and depression.
Yoga had been my support, my friend for a very long time. My love of yoga started over 30 years ago when I took a Hatha yoga class as an undergraduate in college. Since then yoga has been calling me back to it’s healing embrace again and again. At times I would turn away from my practice, thinking I was too busy or too unfamiliar with it to be consistent, but I always came back especially during difficult times when my anxiety was high or the depression I was feeling held me back.
So in 2004 I was ready to immerse myself in the practice and study of yoga. As a student of the training I had many teachers in the form of books, gurus, teachers with varying degrees of experience and my fellow students. Some teachers helped me feel stronger and more confident feeling the power that I was able to tap into through the regular practice of this ancient art. Some helped to keep me humble and become accepting of being human and making mistakes. Many teachers were extraordinarily compassionate and because of that I was encouraged to begin to let go and open my heart more and more fully and joyfully even when I felt afraid to do so.
At first I gravitated to teachers who were very strong and disciplined. My logical mind told me the strength and confidence I lacked was the key to overcoming my fear. As I felt myself get stronger I started to try the more difficult poses, my confidence lifted. Still, I wasn’t able to come up into a full wheel pose. Something stopped me just short of it’s full expression. I learned that the muscle power I lacked was only part of the issue for me.
During the course I was introduced to a very compassionate teacher who explained we could create a safe space in our bodies so that the heart can open with ease. Forcing an opening only causes the heart to close more. She explained one way to create safety in this pose is to bring the shoulder blades together in the back so that the blades actually act as a shield for the heart in the back of the body so the heart can open freely in the front, just naturally lifting up toward the sky. She showed us a gentle way to bring the shoulder blades together by reaching our hands around the ankles of someone standing behind us. Logically, I couldn’t understand how this would help lift me into the pose but when I tried it myself I went right up with ease. Feeling triumphantly free in that moment, my heart fully open, I felt as if a wall had come down.
Having this experience showed me that my body was actually built to protect the most vulnerable part of me. I was able to relax and in a sense step out of the way allowing something natural to happen. I could feel my heart opening without force or really even trying very hard.
I began to want to live more and more of my life whole-heartedly, coming from an open heart. I began to see ways in which I was holding myself back thinking that this was the safe thing to do when in reality it was hurting me and limiting my life. Instead of trying to keep myself safe I began to work on aligning myself with integrity, compassion and trust. This was not something I was able to do on my own. Reaching out for help became a regular part of my spiritual practice.
For most of my life I treated asking for help as a crime I had no desire to commit, as a weakness that could possibly lead to more pain. In actuality I found it necessary and essential to continuing on a spiritual path. In our culture we value independence to the point of dysfunction at times. It usually takes quite a blow to our ego before we are able to admit our powerlessness and the need for help. And when we do reach out for aid something transforms inside of us opening us to all the possibilities in the universe. Paradoxically, this sort of dependence helps us to be more independent in healthier ways. We are starting to develop the courage to change.
The origin of the word courage actually comes from a Latin word meaning heart. Courage was what I needed more of to move into wheel pose and to move forward in my life to become the person I was meant to be.
Later that year I changed my name from my given name, Eileen to a name that had more meaning for me. I opened my own business and found a teacher that helped me cultivate effective practices shown to help with anxiety and depression. My journey isn’t over yet of course. I continue in my daily yoga practice to call on the qualities of the heart to help me navigate the ups and down of my life. I still get stuck and allow fear and doubt to keep me closed at times. Only now I have less tolerance for suffering and I’m more willing to ask for help, take the steps necessary to get out of my own way and move forward coming from an open heart.
If you are feeling stuck don’t let fear stop you from moving forward. Try something different, ask for the help and courage you need and allow your heart to lead you. The joy and happiness this is sure to bring is your birthright.
*Not every yoga pose is for every body so as with any exercise program check with your medical professional to make sure a practice is safe for you.
Awareness Counseling is a private practice that specializes in helping adults and families struggling with anxiety and depression using traditional therapy and mind/body methods that are intentionally designed to bring your life into balance. The result is more joy, freedom and enthusiasm for life. The founder, Elle Garfield, ACSW uses an effective combination of methods including cognitive/ behavioral, experiential, mindfulness, bibliotherapy, and Life Force yoga to help clients gain freedom from fear.