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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
1. Sukhasana (Easy Pose)
In a chair: If you’re on the shorter side, use a folded blanket under your feet to make your knees level with (or slightly lower than) your hips. If you’re tall, try sitting on a folded blanket instead. Do your best to sit forward so that you don’t lean against the back of the chair.
On a mat: Come to a comfortable seat on a folded blanket or a cushion. If sitting cross-legged isn’t comfortable, try putting your back against a wall with your legs extended in front of you. Inhale brightness, and lengthen your spine.
Take a few deep breaths here.
Grounding Breath Practice in Sukhasana
In a chair or on a mat: Find a comfortable seat and close your eyes. Focus on the solidity of the ground or seat beneath you. Inhale, and lengthen your spine. As you exhale, imagine your breath moving down your body into the ground as if you are growing roots into the earth. Spend a moment focusing on the feeling of your belly moving forward as you inhale and in as you exhale. You can place your hand on your belly to encourage this movement. This type of deep breathing calms the nervous system and creates a feeling of safety.
See also Easy Pose
Stay steady in the storm
2. Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
In a chair: Sitting tall, shift your weight to your left foot. Bring your right leg out to the right side, and lift your right heel off the floor. Bring your palms together at your chest. Exhale and lean forward slightly, sending your awareness into your left foot. Then inhale and raise your arms, keeping your palms together or separating your arms into a V shape.
On a mat: Come to a tall standing position with your knees soft, thighs engaged. Take a breath and as you exhale, grounding down through your feet. Shift your weight to your left foot as you bend your right knee, and rotate your right leg out to the side. Keeping the toes of your right foot on the floor, place your heel against your left ankle. Pause here and bring your palms together at your chest. Exhale into your left foot, and then inhale, raising your arms overhead, keeping your hands together or separating your arms into a wide V shape. If this is comfortable, try lifting the toes of your left foot and find your balance there. Wave your arms and fingers like a tree in a breeze.
Take a few breaths here. Repeat on the other side.
Become fierce & flexible
3. Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
In a chair: Sit with a bolster or folded blanket on your lap. Place your forearms and palms on the bolster, and pull it gently toward your belly. Inhale and lengthen your spine. As you exhale, gently hinge forward over the bolster, slightly lowering your head. Inhale and raise your head and chest, keeping your neck long.
On a mat: Lie on your abdomen with a folded blanket under your pelvis. This blanket can help to lengthen your lower back. Place your forehead on the mat with your hands underneath your shoulders, palms facing down. Exhale and press your pelvis into the blanket. Inhale and lengthen your spine, slowly lifting your chest and head. Stay low and keep your neck long as you look straight ahead. Feel your chest move forward as you move your shoulders back.
Take a few breaths. Repeat if it feels good.
Surrender to what is
4. Balasana (Child’s Pose)
In a chair: Sit tall and widen your knees. Stand a bolster on end between your knees and hold it in your hands. Inhale and lengthen your spine; exhale, hinging forward at the hips. Rest your forearms on your thighs, and your forehead on the bolster. If you don’t have a bolster, you can try practicing with a second chair in front of you, with the seat facing you. Place a blanket or block on the seat of the second chair, and as you hinge forward try to place your forehead on it.
On a mat: Kneel on top of a folded blanket with your toes coming off the edge of the blanket. Place another blanket or a bolster behind your thighs, and sit back toward your feet. Widen your knees. Either place a bolster in front of you between your legs, or bring your hands to the floor in front of you. Inhale and lengthen your spine. Exhale and hinge forward at your hips. Slowly lower your torso toward the floor, resting your forehead on the bolster or the floor in front of you.
Take a few breaths, feeling gentle pressure at your third eye center.
See also Child’s Pose
Feel calm & balanced
5. Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
In a chair or on a mat: Come to a comfortable seated position with a long spine. Using either hand, close the right nostril and slowly exhale from the left nostril. Then inhale and switch nostrils, closing the left nostril and exhaling slowly form the right. Continue with this pattern: exhale, inhale, switch nostrils. Focus on lengthening the breath, especially the exhalations. Make the breath as slow and gentle as you can without straining.
Continue for a few minutes, ending with an exhalation from the right nostril. Notice how you feel.
See also Channel-Cleaning Breath
Say yes to yourself
In a chair or on a mat: Stay seated, or recline in Savasana on the floor. Close your eyes, or look downward. Bring your awareness to your mind: Begin to notice the thoughts and feelings that come and go. Each time you notice something arise, silently repeat the word “yes.” Then see if you can let that thought go. This technique helps us learn to work with the mind, accepting the thoughts without judgement, and then letting them go. Notice if your mind begins to settle, and if so, enjoy a moment of well-deserved rest.
After a few minutes, take a deep inhalation, slowly exhale, and then open your eyes. Notice how you’re feeling.
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.