From birth to death, there may be no phobia as deep and instinctive as the fear of falling. How does this fear manifest in your practice? It can be as obvious as not wanting to injure yourself during an inversion or as sneaky as the fear you will lose your way during pratyahara or meditation. Underlying these fears is the klesha (affliction) known as abhinivesha, the clinging to life or fear of death.
Does it seem like a leap in logic to go from fear of falling in headstand to fear of death? According to yoga philosophy, the real death we fear is the death of the ego-mind, that part of the self that identifies with personality, thoughts, sensations, et cetera—the “me” in the mirror of the mind. This is a form of attachment (raga) to life as we know it. We are afraid to let go of what we know, even though deep down, we may long for change, whether it’s in the form of a rock-solid Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) … or inner growth or healing.
Fear of the unknown, the loss of control or autonomy, fear of failure—all of these falls from grace relate to abhinivesha, which keeps us from seeing yoga’s ultimate truth, that there is no separate consciousness, that all is one. Abhinivesha can color every corner of daily life, even dimming the ability to “fall” in love or to experience joy. Fortunately, as we practice and progress along the yogic path, we begin to recognize the many ways the ego will protect itself when it feels threatened. We come to see that the ego-mind is a trickster: It can rationalize fear in a multitude of ways, or even kid us into thinking that we are unafraid.
How, then, can we see beyond the ego to know if we are facing abhinivesha? By scanning the body as you practice: Even though the ego-mind can lie, the body can’t. Look for subtle signs of fear. Are you clenching the jaw or gripping the mat with your toes? In a standing pose, is your weight leaning forward (ready to run)? Or are you sinking into the heels (holding back)? In a balance pose or inversion, you might find yourself over-correcting, teetering from one extreme to the other as you react reflexively. Fear especially reveals itself through the breath. Is your breath choppy? Shallow? Erratic? Even worse, are you holding your breath in an attempt to steady yourself and prevent a fall?
This isn’t to say that our fears are necessarily bad. It’s healthy to acknowledge limits and not go over the edge into injury. Denied fears become samskaras, hidden in the depths of the unconscious, and we cannot change what we cannot see.
There are times, however, when unreasonable or unfounded fear might keep you from being fully present in a pose … or in a relationship. Once you’ve recognized and acknowledged the signs of fear, find your way back to center by grounding practices, focusing on the breath, the feet, the tailbone. Use the power of drishti to anchor yourself during asana, pulling your gaze in even closer to steady yourself.
Remember that the surest way to change your mind is to change your breath (and vice versa). If you can slow and steady your breathing, you will slow and steady your thoughts. Exhale completely, and then inhale deeply, allowing the diaphragm to expand downward toward the belly; this helps counter the nervous system’s sympathetic response—the body’s “fight, flight or fright” mechanism.
You already have these solutions (and more) in your yoga toolkit, so go ahead—befriend your fear. It can teach you about the depths of your self.
What do you do when you’re afraid?