Characteristics of a Yogi #1: Fearlessness

Overview: In the Bhagavad Gita, there is a comprehensive list of 26 traits that define a yogi, that are Divine Qualities. In a series of articles, I will take each of these as a topic for examination.

Fearlessness: does this mean, literally “to have no fear?” Or does it mean to behave in a way that others might interpret as appearing to have no fear? This is an important distinction. Fear is a very useful response—sometimes it serves to keep you alive, and from a very “basic instinct” perspective, this is a good thing.

Here’s a story to outline a distinction.

I was with a former boyfriend and we were visiting Florida. He arranged for us to have a tour of the Everglades, which are a marsh grass “forest” crisscrossed with tidal streams and rivers. One navigates them on a boat that has a big fan for a propeller. (An aside—Native Americans used to LIVE in the Everglades, which seems a feat of survival and peace with the natural world. O.K. back to the story.)

One of the main attractions of the Everglades is the wildlife, among which are alligators. I had never seen an alligator up close. When we got near one of them, I knelt down near the edge of the boat to get a closer look. My boyfriend was horrified. The tour guide suggested perhaps I stay back. Alligators can behave unpredictably, you know.

Me? I was simply overcome with curiosity.

So I ask you, was I behaving “fearlessly” or was I just being plain old stupid?

A different former boyfriend used to say that something within him was “broken” because he didn’t have the good sense to be afraid in situations that might call for it.

Again, I ask you: fearless, or…lacking in good sense?

There is a huge distinction.

And this is why I would like to argue that in “fearlessness” never implies that you are somehow deficient in the instincts and tools that are sensibly trying to keep you alive.

In this instance, the main attribute of a yogi is that he or she faces their fears head on, stares down that barrel, and behaves in a way that appears to be without fear.

Viewed this way, we might name this attribute “courage” or “bravery.” When exercised repeatedly over time, courage and bravery vanquish the fear that we had in the first place, leaving behind a vacancy that we might name fearlessness.

Can you see the difference between having no fear in the first place, and learning to overcome your fears? They are very different things.

When I casually asked some of my students what they fear, they said:

  • Failure
  • Change
  • Uncertainty

What a succinct compilation of things that create great angst! Just one thing really is missing…can you name it? More on that later…

My next question to them was: are these things certain to happen?

There were slow nods around the room.

Does it not strike you as wildly un-strategic to spend time and energy worrying about things that are certain to happen? Why not do this instead:

  1. Accept that you’re going to fail. Accept that change is inevitable. Accept that uncertainty is certain (haha).
  2. Work on how you relate to these real life elements in a courageous way that stops WASTING your precious time and energy, and helps you stare down the barrel of your fears and become…fearless!

Well, that seems so…sensible! Right? The problem is, fear is not a thing that is easily reasoned with. It is visceral. It is somatic. It creates a powerful FEELING.

I asked my students what fear feels like. I got back some of these words.

  1. Confining
  2. Paralyzing
  3. Bad

Bottom line, fear is stressful! And where did they feel it? They gestured to these places. Primarily:

  • Heart
  • Belly

And these places secondarily:

  • Head
  • Throat

I actually supplied “throat”—sometimes when I’m super nervous about saying something to another person, I’ll get choked up, and it feels like I’m being strangled. Not nice. It’s like I’m DYING. Fear can make you fee like (maybe) you are dying. Think about that for a moment. Fear can be powerful stuff.

Now, think about the OPPOSITE feeling of fear. What is that for you? My students offered these words.

  • Peaceful
  • Joyful
  • Confident
  • Freeing

I just loved hearing all these words, and especially that last one. That very morning of teaching, I had woken up in the wee, crepuscular hours ruminating about this characteristic of fearlessness, and I had this realization that it was describing something that is super-important, which is a feeling of freedom. The opposite of fear is free.

Fear confines. Fear binds energy. Fear paralyzes. Fear robs your strength. Fear chokes your words. Fear keeps you stuck.

And when you learn to wrangle the things that you fear the most…? You become free. Liberated.

I am so very grateful for the somatic practices of yoga, because otherwise what I’m talking about here—freedom, liberation, peace, blah, blah, blah—all just remain in the domain of pretty, shiny concepts. Concepts just aren’t helpful unless a person learns how to apply them. That’s where a skillful teacher is an invaluable resource—he or she answers the question “how do I achieve the outcome described?”

I’m gonna tell you. Hang on!

When I asked my students where in their bodies they feel all the hallmarks of freedom, the indicated primarily the same places that they had gestured to for “fear.”

Heart. Belly. Throat. Head.

Your fears and your freedom are two sides of the same coin! You feel them in the same place. One feels confining. The other feels expansive. And, we have a terrific tool in yoga for generating from within, on your own a sense of spaciousness. It’s called “the breath.” TA-DA!

When you breathe and feel inside, and work to grow your breath you are creating for yourself a feeling of freedom. Interestingly enough, a physiological response the body has to fear is to shorten the breath. The body does all the WRONG things, in the moment that you MOST need the resources of the breath! Isn’t that wild?!?! The very moment you need more space, more oxygen, more freedom, the body shuts all that down, and we become our most primitive, least resourceful versions of ourselves.

This is why learning to breathe in yoga class is so very, very, VERY important. This is why learning to breathe in poses that are challenging or confronting, is so very, very very important. It trains us to cut through our physiological response to fear with a tool that creates, on its own, a self-generated feeling of calm, peace, and resourcefulness.

No one is going to save you from yourself. Only YOU can save you. This is why you MUST learn to breathe, with a fervency and passion for your own survival and will and desire to GROW as a human being.

The breath is the pathway to “tricking” yourself into feeling fearless, even at the very moment that you are not. The breath is the thing that will take you out of your paralysis, and give you back your body, mind, and spirit, so that you can act courageously.

“Fearlessness” describes a person who has trained to fight for his or her own freedom—of body, mind, and spirit.

And when you meet a person who appears fearless, what does it make you feel? When you meet a person who is self-possessed, confident, assured what is their impact upon you? Fear? Inspiration? Check out that word—inspire. It means both “to breathe in” and to “fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something.” WOW. NEAT. More on fearlessness inspiring fear in a moment…

The path of a yogi is one of a battle in this earthly plain to grow in spirit. In the journey from birth to death, this is our quest. And framed like this—on a spiritual plain—the thing that the yogi fears most is to die without fulfilling the contract of this lifetime. The thing that the human animal also fears above all is the termination of the body—its demise. And viewed this way, our human animal and our human spirit are in agreement: the top line fear is death.

And here’s a thought for consideration—the most dangerous person in the world is a person who has nothing to lose. The most realized individual is the person who has come to terms with their own most predominant fear, that of death. And when you no longer fear your own death, anything is possible. It fills you with a “no fucks to give” confidence of a turbo-charged fuel variety.

A friend of mine told me a story about warriors who were like this. It was World War I, and his family, who are Sikhs, were fighting with the British forces. It was trench warfare back then, and the way to stay alive was to stay in their trench. But not these soldiers—they REFUSED to get in the trench, and stood up on the ridge to display their fearlessness. Death was no obstacle to their victory! It is reported they said, “We want to show the enemy our contempt for death!” And their behavior—fearless, or plain crazy? What do you think now?—intimidated the Germans so deeply that the British Indian Army won their first two battles and advanced the line.

Then the British commanders showed up, and told the crazy Sikhs to get back in the trenches and stay alive. And then they lost ground…

Fearlessness is the attribute of a warrior. Do you think of yourself as a warrior? If you embrace this path, you are. Warriors fight for principles that they believe in—what principles do you believe in so strongly that you would go to battle within yourself to vanquish your fears?

Yogananda says, “Fear robs a man of the indomitability of his soul.” In other words, fear makes you easy to defeat or subdue. Fear ties you to the feeling of fear, which resides in the body, which constrains your ability to grow in spirit—through generating the practices of courage and bravery.

Yoganada also says, “Death is perhaps the ultimate challenge of faith in mortal man. Fear of this inevitability is foolish. It comes only once in a lifetime; and after it has come the experience is over, without having affected our true identity or diminished in any way our real being. (…)”

Ahhhhhh, yes. As I asked at the beginning, why do we waste our time and energy fearing things that are inevitable?

The answer—because they are painful. We don’t like pain.

How to handle? You already have the answer. Become adept at handling our discomfort, through practices like breathing deeply in uncomfortable postures in yoga. Or, through sitting meditation.

The Buddhists, close relatives of the yogis, also teach about “no fear” and “warrior practices.” Pema Chodron writes in The Places that Scare You, “To the extent that we stop struggling against uncertainty and ambiguity, to tat extent we dissolve our fear. The synonym for total fearlessness is full enlightenment—wholehearted, open-minded interaction with our world. Meanwhile we train patiently moving in that direction. By learning to relax with groundlessness, we gradually connect with the mind that knows no fear” (pg. 103).

This is it, my loves. We are warriors, fighting our own demons, using the weapons of breath, asana, and meditation. These tools will free us from our own suffering and allow us to fight for the freedom of all beings.

And that is the way of the yogi.

Oh! WAIT. There is one bonus tool that I mentioned earlier and I MUST follow up on. It’s the energy of curiosity.

I learned from my yoga teacher Ana Forrest that this energy can be tremendously helpful in so very many situations. Curiosity has the potential to take you out of the messy experience of fear, in a constructive way. I say constructive, because a coping mechanism for fear we might reach for is dissociation, which might save you life in the worst of situations, but as a strategy over time hampers your chances of recovery from trauma and your potential growth into the best rendition of yourself.

Curiosity gives you back your power. When you have the great fortune to observe that you are experiencing fear, instead of feeling like you are stuck in its claws, then calling on curiosity will help you to disentangle yourself from fear’s grasp even more completely. Curiosity will help you to understand why this thing or person or experience has you experiencing fear in the first place. And once you’ve applied this energy to fear, the funniest thing happens—fear starts to shrink immediately. You may be able to tap into secondary emotions like sadness or anger, and MOVE them in a way that helps dredge out any backlog and access the fear itself, pulling at it from its tap root. Finally, curiosity will help you be creative and playful in finding ways to help yourself overcome whatever fear still hangs on, and when you start using fear’s antithesis emotions—joy, creativity, playfulness—fear will be cancelled out and in its place will be a space that you can name and claim. FEARLESSNESS. Fear—once it lived here. Now it does no more.

THIS is a triumph of human spirit.

Many blessings. May you end the suffering of all beings.