Into Thin Air
Overcoming Mental Fears and Anxiety
I recently hired the wonderfully talented Jess Kohler to photograph me for my website. We drove up to Vasquez Rocks just outside of Los Angeles. I had never been there before and was excited for the new adventure. We found a wonderful spot on top of a section of rocks to shoot Vrksasana (Tree Pose). I had about a 5 to 6-foot drop on my left side and pretty steep rock incline on my right side. I couldn’t balance on my left foot. I mentally could not steady my mind. The idea that if I lost my balance, I could fall of the rock was too much for me to steady my mind and thus steady my body. In reality if I had fallen to the right down the rocks, I would have probably been more injured than if I fell off the rock to the dirt below, which was only a 5 feet drop. There were sharp rocks to my right, but it was solid ground. To my left there was nothing but thin air. It felt like a long fall into nothing.
I can see how this applies to my own life, in many ways. I am afraid to trust myself, or life, or others, because I am unable to see anything concrete. I want assurances that if I fall, there will be something there to catch me. I am often afraid to trust myself and my abilities.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose) is a grounding pose but due to mental fears, the uneven ground, and the strong gusts of wind, I only balanced on my right leg for the photo. It was where I was at, and I didn’t try to force myself to do my left leg for the shot. I listened to where I was at that day and trusted that I was doing the best I could with what I had at that moment in time.
I chose mental ahimsa. In yoga, ahimsa is the concept of non-violence or harmlessness. Rather than mentally beating myself up or proving something to my patient photographer, I chose grace for myself. There are times when we have to step back and say, “This is all I can do for this moment,” and there are times when we have to push through our fears, because we know we have more to give, but are afraid of the unknown.
Not too long ago, a dear friend took me on a retreat with her. My mantra for the weekend was, “Just say yes.” So, if anyone asked me to do something, I would say, “Yes.” One of the things I said yes to was an event at a high-ropes course. I am still shocked that I said yes to this! My friend asked me, “Do you want to do Quantum Leap II?” My answer was a very sheepish, “Yes?” I didn’t realize I had agreed to climb a telephone pole to stand on a skateboard-sized platform and jump off. I have been afraid of heights for as long as I can remember. I was working through the mental and physical fear, while knowing that I would be harnessed and on belay. Then, to add more excitement, when we got to the pole the gentleman leading us on this terrifying experiment informed us that we had to do this together. Say what? So, one of us had to climb this 35-foot telephone pole and stand on the thimble-sized platform to wait for the other person to climb up the pole and mount the other three inches of this platform, without knocking the other off. And if we managed all that, we then had to jump off into the abyss together. My dear friend, knowing my deep-seated fear, allowed me the decision to either go first and wait at the top, or go second, have only half the platform and possibly knock my friend off. To my friend’s shock, I said, “I will go first.” It’s one of the most physically, mentally and spiritually challenging things I have done in a long time.
I started my ascent of the 35-foot pole at a slow and steady pace. I could feel my blood pressure rising. I told myself, “You have tools, yogi. Use your tools.” I paused. I looked at the mountains in the distance, and I breathed. I didn’t look down. I climbed. I paused. I breathed. I looked at the mountains in the distance. Repeat. Repeat. Now, here I was at the top. It turns out a telephone pole sways! Go figure! I am on a swaying pole, 35-feet up and they purposely don’t put hand and foot holds all the way up the pole so, in order to mount this skateboard-sized platform at the top, I have to make a leap. I know I am harnessed, but my body and my mind do not register that fact. I have nothing to hold onto when I make this leap. Pause. Breathe. Look at the mountains. The Yoga Sutra 1.2, “Yogash chitta vritti nirodha,” means “Yoga is the silencing of the modifications of the mind.” I take the leap into the unknown towards a tiny platform. I stick the landing! Now, part two. I have to stand here while my friend climbs up and then we have to leap together. She mounts the pole. There is a whole new level of swaying and I have to stand here and steady my mind while also steadying my body. I ask myself, “Are you afraid of heights or is this your mom’s fear of heights that you have absorbed?” “Would your mom have climbed this pole?” “Do you need to own this fear anymore?” “Does this fear serve you?” “Do you want to pass this on to your daughter?” Meanwhile, the pole is swaying and my friend (who is amazing) is climbing closer and closer. She gets to the top and realizes just how small a platform it is that she has to mount. She asks, “How did you get your first foot up?” I explain she is going to need to make a leap. I don’t have a lot to give because I am doing all I can to stand only on the half-platform now. I don’t look down, but I release the hand that has been holding onto my harness to trick my mind into thinking I have something to hold me steady. She grabs my hand and makes the leap. We do it! We are both at the top of this platform, holding hands and staring out into the beautiful mountains. Finally, we have to leap into thin air and trust that our harnesses will keep us safe. Can I face this last fear? Turns out I can face my fears on so many levels and I made the leap with my amazing friend. I love that I had this experience. I love that I faced my fear. I love that I didn’t do it alone. On this day, I needed to push through my fear and make the leap into the unknown to discover I’m a lot stronger than I thought.