It takes a great deal of courage to embark on and stay with any path of growth and transformation. In a recent conversation with Kripalu Yoga practitioner, teacher, and author Richard Faulds (Shobhan), LifeNotes explored the topic of courage within the yoga system.
Breaking through barriers
Yoga teaches that many of our problematic behaviors — patterns of self-sabotage as well as unconscious and addictive behaviors — are grounded in an inability to feel fear and other powerful sensations in our bodies.
The way Shobhan explains it, we need courage on the yogic path because as humans have an in-built resistance to feeling, especially when uncomfortable sensations and challenging emotions arise. This is a hard-wired defense mechanism designed to protect us.
From a psychological point of view, safety is our overriding concern and we generally choose to stay within the confines of what we know rather than risk our sense of security. Instead of responding habitually, the goal is to remain present in our bodies, feel fully, and choose respond authentically to the moment.
Through yoga practice, we can dramatically increase our capacity to tolerate fear and the discomfort that accompanies it. In the poses, we feel into the tightnesses in our bodies. In meditation, we witness the mind’s struggles while not dissociating from the associated feelings that pass through the body. Over time, we develop the skill to notice, be with, and release these tensions and conflicts rather than deny, avoid, or discredit them. We also become more accepting of the rise and fall of mind-states and the full spectrum of emotions that accompany them.
The essential role of courage in yoga, then, lies in the willingness to explore and feel what Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “the full catastrophe” — the panoply of the good, the bad, and the ugly of life. And in the beginning, this often means releasing the fear that blocks feeling, clearing the backlog of emotions lodged in the body, and gradually freeing ourselves of these barriers to growth.
Moving beyond fear
As we clear our systems from these accumulated “stucknesses,” what will replace them?
Shobhan says the good news is that a lot of our intuition, creativity, and innate wisdom is body-based, and therefore emerges from this enhanced ability to feel. As these blockages dissipate, we begin to access a flow of more reliable information, instinctual knowing, and fresh, inspired ideas.
Yogically speaking, the courage to feel opens the door to a treasure trove of benefits, from physical vitality (the body’s natural desire for health) to relational intimacy (the flow of heartfelt warmth and connection) and mental illumination (the awakening of the higher faculties of the mind, such as discrimination and insight).
Courage also plays another important role in yoga according to Shobhan. From a yogic perspective, we are all on this planet with a mission or purpose (yogis call this svadharma which means one’s own dharma). This is our reason for being. For most of us, following this inner prompting to walk your own path in life is an edgy proposition — it’s way easier to conform and stay small and safe. Conscious and unconscious fears shut us down and prevent us from pursuing our purpose and passion. Courage supports us in making the choice to align with our svadharma, no matter how much fear would have us choose otherwise.
With clear bodies and minds, our lives become simpler, more direct, and powerful. We know what to do — and we do it.
Yoga practices for embodying courage
Shobhan makes it clear that any yoga pose — as well as meditation practice — provides the opportunity to develop courage, to pay attention to hidden areas of tightness, the nooks and crannies of constriction, the limitations caused by injury that must be respected, and even numbness. To actively and consciously turn toward these is to practice yoga.
That said, it can be helpful to work with these specific postures when you want to dial up your courage:
- Warrior I pose. In Sanskrit, the Warrior poses are named for the fierce warrior Virabhadra. They are physically engaging and challenging, and they can help us access and develop inner strength, focus, and confidence.
- Heart-opening poses, such as Camel, Cobra, and Fish. The word “courage” comes from the Latin word “cor” meaning “heart,” our feeling center. By knowing what is in our hearts, we can meet troubles without fear. These postures (and other backbends), open up the chest and counter the tendency to slouch and restrict the heart area.
I am a frustrated yoga hopeful who has tried yoga through my gym and have only found it painful. I have the physical discomfort that comes with aging but nothing disabling so I believe yoga should be helpful rather then painful. Any suggestions?
I’m a yoga teacher, there are many different yoga styles and teachers vary widely in terms of skill and training. Usually gym teachers tend to have only the basic amount and tend to teach at a pace that is much too fast for aging bodies. I suggest searching in your community for gentle or therapeutic classes.