Do you ever find yourself clenching your jaw waiting for something bad to happen? Or waking up in the morning with a sense of dread? Whether they come in small doses or huge heart-stopping moments of panic, these feelings can be traced back to fear, which can be debilitating, producing a gnawing anxiety that sucks the joy out of life.
In my life, one particularly fearful time stands out: leading up to the moment I told my mother I was gay. I was 17 and confused. I’d found myself living a secret life and not sharing it with her. Speaking my truth was a major victory, and it made me understand even more how fear had been ruling my life.
Those of us who are marginalized tend to internalize our oppression, which can manifest as fear. During this time in my life, I was scared of being different and of being excluded from society—tossed out like garbage. Mostly, I feared disappointing my mother. My self-worth was so intimately tied to what she thought of me.
See also 5 Poses to Help You Own Your Worth
It wasn’t until I began practicing yoga regularly that I recognized I was living in a constant state of fear, even after coming out to my mother. A mild panic was always boiling just below the surface. Savasana (Corpse Pose) gave it away. I remember getting very quiet, maybe for the first time ever without the help of alcohol or drugs. I jerked awake as if I had fallen asleep too quickly. But I wasn’t asleep. My nervous system was just reacting to its first opportunity to unwind the tension it had been storing up for years—in an effort to protect me. It had saved my life by giving me the quick reflexes I needed to duck when some drunk, homophobic man threw a beer bottle at my head. But it was also killing me slowly with stress and anxiety.
Yoga became my refuge, helping me undo a lot of the hidden tension in my body. I realized that so many people carry similar burdens—knots of anxiety in our jaws and necks. I started teaching yoga, sharing it with the HIV/AIDS community in the early ’90s and I saw the practice’s power to offer relief from the fear that silently engulfs us.
In our shared suffering, I also saw the possibility of salvation. The strength of a group “Om” echoed in my heart louder than when I chanted it alone. In yoga, I found the possibility of overcoming fear through community. Those of us who look different, move differently, and love differently need to support one another and hold each other in strong embrace. That initial yoga community I discovered through teaching was the birthplace of Accessible Yoga, the organization I founded to support teachers like me, who are bringing the practice to communities that are underserved and underrepresented in yoga spaces.
I always felt that yoga offered more than a great stretch or workout. It gave me a way to connect with others and myself at the same time. It’s a great paradox—when I turn within, I find you there. It is in the presence of community that I’m able to release my fear. I feel carried and cared for. I feel like I have a special place in the world and that I belong. You can find a bit of that feeling in this sequence.
Sequence: The Antidote to Fear
Yoga can offer an unbridled calmness and gentle confidence. This can be realized in multiple ways: through an asana practice that releases physical tension, breathing practices that increase energy and soothe the nervous system, and guided meditations that build trust and faith. Fear isn’t something to simply overcome, it must be understood and worked through. Yoga allows us to decipher the messages that come from our spirit in the form of emotions like fear.
Are you afraid to practice yoga? Do you feel like you don’t have a yoga body? It’s important to remember that the overarching goal of yoga is discovering peace of mind, and it’s fair to say that there is no correlation between physical ability and peace of mind. It doesn’t matter if you practice on a mat or in a chair, or what the pose looks like from the outside.
Learn more: Find a video version of this practice at yogajournal.com/accessibleyoga.
About the author
Jivana Heyman is the founder and director of Accessible Yoga, a non-profit dedicated to increasing access to yoga teachings. He’s the author of the upcoming book Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body (Shambhala Publications), co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center, and an Integral Yoga minister. Learn more at accessibleyoga.org.
About the models
Carole "Kalyani" Baral has been an Integral Yoga teacher for more than 40 years. She is co-author, with her teacher Swami Satchidananda, of The Yoga Way—a guide to a vegan lifestyle.
Natalie Dunbar is a hatha yoga teacher. She is a community partner of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition and an Accessible Yoga ambassador. Learn more at theroadomyoga.com.