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Have you ever been consumed by the limiting grip of fear?
Fear is woven into the fabric of the human experience. It is natural for each of us to experience fear, and in some cases, it can protect our life. One day when my son Bodhi was nearly three years old, I took him to the beach. As soon as I set him down, he charged straight toward the water and was quickly knocked down by an incoming wave. Before the ocean tide could pull him away, I snatched him up and safely returned him to solid ground. From that day on, he has had a healthy fear of the ocean. In this case, fear played a positive role in survival.
But in many cases, our fears can be overblown and limiting and lead to unnecessary suffering. We might experience fear of failing, fear of not being good enough, fear of being hurt, or fear of not belonging. As Mark Twain famously said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened.”
See also: Breathe In Calm, Breathe Out Fear
What is the difference between healthy and unhealthy fear?
Our yoga practice teaches us the ability to quiet our minds and discern the reality of what is in front of us and the difference between healthy and unhealthy fear. When it comes to unhealthy fear, our yoga practice helps us learn to recognize it rather than let it dominate us. We discover that encoded within fear is an opportunity for growth. Instead of running away from fear, we lean into it and move through it. Instead of being overcome by the grip of fear, we meet it with courage.
How Yin Yoga helps you overcome fear with courage
For many of us, when we reflect upon some of our proudest moments in life, when we felt the most alive, it’s because we courageously overcame fear. And we learn that instead of being overcome by a feeling of being afraid, we can meet it with courage.
The root word of courage is cor, the Latin word for “heart.” Traditionally, one who is described as being courageous is one who acts or speaks from the heart. So if we want to cultivate and strengthen our relationship to courage, then we need to connect to the physical and emotional heart.
Ancient yogis believed our true power resides here, in the heart. When we align with this energy, no fear can stop us from awakening our fullest potential. And the beautiful thing is, when we find courage on an individual level, it also benefits the collective. As zen master Thich Nhat Hanh put it, “When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storm or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
A Yin Yoga sequence for overcoming fear
In this Yin Yoga sequence, we will move through a series of poses emphasizing the opening of the heart and the empowering connection to courage. I recommend you follow the suggested pose durations. Meet each pose with gentleness, relax into the stillness, and trust the innate wisdom of your body to improve your overall health and well-being.
Let’s start our practice on all fours in hands and knees. Then, crawl your arms out in front of you, spreading your hands a little wider than your shoulders. Wrap your outer arms down and spiral the inner arms up as you broaden your upper back and shoulders. Keep your hips above your knees as you allow your chest to relax down toward the floor. Rest your forehead on the floor or a yoga block. For comfort, place a blanket under the shins and feet for comfort. Suggested duration: 2–5 minutes.
Nice and easy, make your way out of Melting Heart. From here, bring your big toes together and separate your knees wider than your torso. Fold forward from the crease of your hips and place your forehead on the floor or a yoga block. Extend your arms forward, shoulder-distance apart, or try bringing your arms behind you with your hands extending toward the feet and your palms facing up. This should feel like a sweet complement to the previous stretch. If you have knee issues or tight hips, place a rolled blanket or towel in the fold of the legs behind the knees for additional support. Suggested duration: 2–5 minutes.
Sphinx or Seal Pose
From Child’s Pose, come up to all fours and then slowly lower all the way onto your belly. Slide your forearms forward, aligning your elbows directly under your shoulders. Draw your heart slightly forward as you relax your shoulders away from your ears. Gaze straight ahead or allow your eyes to softly close.
Or if you want to try a deeper heart opener, feel free to move into Seal Pose by sliding your hands further away from your body and a little wider than your shoulders. Rotate your hands slightly outward and press your hands down as you elevate your chest toward the sky and wrap your shoulders back. You may want to silently repeat the affirmation, “May I be filled with courage.” As you repeat, complement the thought with the emotional feeling of courage to amplify its effects. Suggested duration: 3–5 minutes.
Sometimes the simplest poses are the sweetest poses. When you’re ready, slowly transition away from Sphinx or Seal by mindfully lowering your chest and head. Bring your hands on top of each other as if you were creating a pillow and allow your elbows to open out. Rest your forehead on top of your hands and close your eyes. Allow your spine to neutralize from the effects of the previous stretch. Relax and let gravity pull you into the floor. Suggested duration: 3–5 minutes.
Take your time to bring your hands next to your ribs as you gently push your way back up to all fours. Crawl your knees forward toward the front of the mat. Bring your big toes together and spread your knees outward preparing for Saddle Pose. Sit back on your heels. If your knees feel healthy and you would like a deeper stretch, you can recline back onto your hands, forearms, a bolster, or all the way onto your back. Keep in mind, one person’s medicine is another person’s poison. So find the place that feels right for your body or skip this pose if you feel strong discomfort or pain. For comfort, you can place a blanket under the tops of your feet and shins while you remain in Saddle. Remember, John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” (But not if you feel pain.) Suggested duration: 3–5 minutes.
As you’re ready, ease your way out of Saddle and come back to all fours. Cross the feet behind you and sit back onto your hips. Bring the soles of your feet together, with the toes forward and the knees opened outward. Slide your feet forward until your lower body is shaped like a diamond. Bring your hands to the feet or ankles. Extend out through the spine and fold forward into the stretch, allowing your elbows to flare out. It isn’t important how close your forehead falls toward the mat. You can place a block or water bottle under your forehead to help relax your neck muscles. In addition to being a good counter stretch to the previous pose, Seated Diamond brings a healing touch to your outer hips and spine. Suggested duration: 3–5 minutes.
Make your way to standing on your knees. Bring mindfulness to your transitions, as they’re transitions just as important as the poses themselves. With your knees hip-distance apart place your hands on your lower back or heels. If needed, you can tuck your toes to lift your heels closer to your hips. Lengthen your tailbone toward the floor as you allow your heart to rise toward the ceiling. Lift the gaze toward the ceiling, keeping your neck in alignment with the rest of your spine. If you experience any knee discomfort, try placing a folded blanket or towel under your knees for support. Suggested duration: 1–2 minutes at most.
Cat Pulling Its Tail Pose
From here, we will make our way onto our back. Begin by bringing both knees into your belly. Extend your right leg out straight and reach your left arm out to the left. Allow your left knee to drape across over to the right. Rest your right hand on top of your left knee. Bend your right knee and reach back with the left hand to grab your right foot. Draw your left shoulder blade down into the floor, opening your chest toward the sky. Repeat on the other side. Suggested duration: 2–4 minutes on each side.
In your own timing, stay on your back and bring the soles of the feet flat on the mat. Lift your hips and place a block on the lowest height under your sacrum, with the long edge perpendicular to your spine rather than along the length of the spine. If you don’t have a block, feel free to get creative and use a stack of books or a small box instead. If it feels comfortable, try bringing your arms to a cactus shape as a way to broaden across your chest. Suggested duration: 2–3 minutes.
For some or all of this pose, you can incorporate Viloma 1 (Interrupted Inhalations) pranayama. This breathing exercise helps to accentuate the opening of the heart and lungs on a subtle energetic level:
- Inhale for 2 counts
- Pause for 2 counts
- Inhale for 2 more counts to the top of the lungs
- Exhale for 4 counts, emptying the lungs
- Repeat for 10 rounds or more
Last, we arrive at the final pose. Set your block or props off to the side. Straighten your legs and arms outward from the centerline of your body. Soften your entire body, close your eyes, and allow the effects of the practice to penetrate your body like a slow rain seeping deep into the earth. Relax deeply. Suggested duration: 5 minutes or longer.
Begin to transition out of your practice. Bring an open heart, and unshakeable courage, into the rest of your day. Blessings.
See also: More Yin Yoga Sequences
Travis Eliot is a renowned yoga and meditation teacher and author of A Journey Into Yin Yoga. He teaches his signature classes, workshops, festivals, and sold-out retreats around the world. He is the co-founder of Inner Dimension TV and the creator of many online yoga programs.