Ana T. Forrest, creator of Forrest Yoga, says the key to self-actualization is to understand your fear and then hunt it down. It’s not about killing fear but becoming its ally—taking its power. Forrest’s book, Fierce Medicine: Breakthrough Practices to Heal the Body and Ignite the Spirit (HarperOne, 2012), chronicles her transformation from an abusive childhood to her position as a national leader in emotional healing through Yoga. In this excerpt from chapter one, “Stalking Fear,” she tells of how to get past one of the biggest blocks to happiness through self-study and training—how to go from victim of fear to its attacker.
They tell me I was born crippled, a funny-looking kid, my feet and the left side of my body all twisted. Family lore is that the doctor had told my mother that they would have to break all the bones in the left side of my body and then put me in a full-body cast. Luckily, we had a relative who was a chiropractor, which back in the fifties, was like having a witch doctor in the family. He told my mother, “Her bones are soft; you can straighten them out.”
My earliest memory is of Mother’s hands coming through the bars of my crib, and the terror and pain as she twisted my feet and legs this way and that, again and again. Whatever she was doing to me in the crib was probably her attempt to follow my relative’s instructions. It must have worked; the next time Mother took me to the pediatrician, there was no more talk of breaking bones and setting body casts. The doctor, without even glancing at any notes or file, just waved her away: “See, I told you she’d be fine.”
Fine, perhaps, but certainly not fixed. I crawled as much as possible as a babe, since it was so hard to walk and I looked so weird doing it. When I was five or six, my mother forced me to wear heavy orthopedic shoes fitted with steel braces inside that made walking even more difficult. Every day I was supposed to shuffle along a chart she laid down on the floor. The chart was dotted with footprints where I was supposed to step—a kind of evil Twister game. The steel braces raised blisters and welts on my feet, and the daily therapy made them bleed. God, I hated those shoes. Once I tried burning them in the fireplace—the damn steel braces wouldn’t burn. That earned me a smack from my mother.
Nothing new about that. Our home was a terrifying place where I never felt safe. From the outside, our lives must have looked pretty normal. We lived in a California tract house, fairly new, with four bedrooms and two baths for five people: my mother, my dad, my older brother and sister, and me. Inside, though, things had gone to hell. My father had long since moved into a separate bedroom. The house was always filthy and foul-smelling, with crusted dishes piled up in the sink, ants everywhere, dried cat scat in the corners and under the couches. My morbidly obese brother hoarded food, especially after a padlock appeared on the refrigerator door, so odd smells came from his room too.
My mother, who was also obese, was always hitting me for some reason or another. She could switch in a moment—from a helpless, whining hypochondriac to a violent, out-of-control tyrant. The smallest infraction—or sometimes nothing at all—would start her on a rant, which often escalated into slapping and coming after me. “Demon seed,” she’d say, or “bad seed,” or “goddamn kid”—she would scream at me.
She’d go off on my brother too—I don’t remember if my sister was ever in her sights—but I was her favorite target. I don’t know why. Maybe trying to fix my funky feet and legs wore her out and made her sick of me. Maybe she was just exhausted and frustrated trying to be a mother to three young children. Maybe she was just nuts. All I knew was that whenever I was home, I was afraid of her. She was a hammersmith’s daughter and had a hell of a swing.
In the beginning, I’d beg her to stop, but after a few years, I stopped protesting, even stopped crying—I refused to give her that much, to show her I was broken. I also discovered a method of protecting myself from her rages. Whenever my mother went on a rampage, I’d run to my bedroom closet, pull myself up onto a high shelf, and tuck myself behind the clothes and boxes, trembling. There in the dark, I’d close my eyes and just . . . disappear. I’d hear her tearing around my room, tossing aside clothes and shoes, looking behind furniture. I was mere feet away, but she’d never find my hiding place. I’d somehow figured out how to extinguish my life force so she couldn’t track me. It worked every time.
School was safe enough—inside the classroom. But getting there and back was a nightmare. An undersized, pale, sickly kid with bruised eyes and funny-looking clunky shoes, I had an obvious target on my back. The kids would circle me, calling me strange names, like “Jew bitch with nigger socks.” (I had no idea where they got this or what it meant.) The worst bully was my neighbor. It wasn’t like I could avoid her; we lived on a dead-end street, and I had to walk by her house to get to school. One day she dragged me into her backyard, picked up a board studded with nails and waved it at my head, laughing as her growling German shepherd menaced me, jaws snapping.
My waking hours were ruled by fear, yet sleep was no relief. That’s when the sharks and other shadowy monsters stalked me. People tell me you can’t die in your dreams, but I died a thousand deaths—torn limb from limb by sharks and demons, crushed slowly by stones, drowned, sucked into tsunamis. Whenever I finally succumbed to sleep, I lay pinned to my bed, paralyzed by these horrific apparitions. The next morning I’d wake up sore, covered with bruises, sometimes with ripping pain in my intestines and butt. The pain came on with such suddenness, such violence, that I’d gasp. Sometimes I’d force myself to stay awake for days rather than surrender to such dreadful dreams.
But I was a creative kid, and when I was about four, I figured out one way to numb myself to the constant fear: raid the liquor cabinet. I remember walking on my pathetic legs to get there. I snuck out to the kitchen and squatted near the cabinet. I unscrewed the caps and stole sips from the caramel brown bottles full of something that was sickly sweet, the pretty emerald green liquor, the clear bottles with the stuff that burned on the way down, the squarish bottle with the red waxy seal and sweet amber fluid. It wasn’t that I liked the taste so much; I liked the strange fiery sensation on my tongue, the feeling of floating away from my body. I liked that it altered my filthy reality very quickly. The fear was still there, but it wasn’t as sharp.
Then, about two years later, I finally found a safe haven, an escape hatch away from the horrors of home and the torment of the neighborhood bullies: a horse stable. For as long as I can remember, I’ve shared a sacred bond with horses. I’ve been told that someone had taken me to a parade when I was a year old, and there I’d seen my first horse. I’d pointed and said, “I want.” I was about six when my mother started taking me to a rent stable a few miles from home. I’m not even sure why she took me; probably just to get me out of her hair.
Pretty soon that broken-down rent stable, Azusa Canyon Stables, became my real home. It wasn’t a fancy place, just a bunch of horses for hire, some boarding. The owner, a rasty, amazing Greek Jew named Nick Angelakos, was a real wild man, though. When he was younger, he used to jump his horses through rings of fire at the circus, or over a jalopy with a bunch of smiling passengers. He had framed photos of his circus escapades all over his office, and I couldn’t stop staring at them. Nick was pretty fearless, and he didn’t condone fear in animals or children. I was at least a foot shorter and five or six years younger than anyone else working there, but he must have seen something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself. Pretty soon we had a deal: I’d help out at the stables, and he’d teach me to ride. For the next six years, I did whatever I could to be around those horses: mucking stalls, leading groups of riders, and eventually training horses.
I learned a lot about facing my fears by working with those horses. Far from being gentle souls, horses will bully each other, and they’ll bully humans. I was always getting stepped on and pushed over and kicked. Since I was such a runt, I really had to learn how to make those huge animals pay attention, let them know, “I may be short, but you better know I’m here.” When they’d rear up or try to kick or bite me, I refused to be spooked. Instead, I faced them down, drawing my tiny body up as tall as I could, keeping my voice low and determined. “Oh, no you don’t. You’re coming with me right now.” I got kicked to pieces a million times, but I stopped being afraid of getting stomped. Size has nothing to do with standing up to someone. I began to grow my power.
I remember the moment I knew for sure that I’d changed my relationship with fear. My mother and I were carrying a heavy piece of wooden furniture down the hallway when I accidentally dropped my end. “Demon seed!” she screamed at me. “Evil!” She brought back her arm to do her usual routine. But by this time I was close to twelve, much stronger from working at the stable. I’d been dealing with fifteen hundred pounds of equine temper often enough that I found myself thinking, This is justa two-legged one, and a fat one at that. On that day, I reached out and caught her hammersmith’s fist mid-swing. There were no words, just the two of us staring straight into each other’s eyes and a realization: this ends it. Fear left me and infected her. I think she was as astonished as I was. She struggled for a moment and then let her arm fall. She pretty much quit going after me after that.
That was a turning point for me. I learned to do a switch—instead of running from the fear, I turned around and went after it, making it my ally. On the playground, I challenged the toughest bully to take her best shot. “Go ahead, hit me!” I kept backing her down, right in front of her posse. I don’t know whether she was scared or just confused, but she kept her distance from then on.
I was done living in fear. I took a pledge to stop being prey, to turn around, face my fear, and stalk it. I’ve lived that way ever since.
Training the Fear
I started deliberately doing things that terrified me; I called it fear training. As a teenager, I was afraid of being out in the desert—it was so dry, so exposed to the elements. So I ran off to Hesperia in the Mojave Desert in Southern California to take my first job training horses on my own. When I first arrived, I felt like I’d been plunked down on the lifeless surface of the moon: blazing heat, no water. Gradually I learned to walk through the heat the way you’d ford a river—loose-limbed, going with the flow. I discovered an incredible amount of beauty and life in the desert; it was just subtler than I was used to. You have to look closer, but then you see hares, mice, rattlesnakes, buzzards, hawks, and all the folks that live in the desert. I began to sense the desert’s rhythms, the way the flowers can carpet the land after a cloudburst and then three days later leave just seeds rolling across the dry earth. The very briefness of those flowers’ lives added to the poignancy of it. I began to love what I had feared.
A few years later, when I lived up in the Santa Barbara Forest in my early twenties, I decided to stalk my fear of heights. I’d perch on this tiny ledge high above a river filled with rocks. I’d stand there, at least twenty or twenty-five feet above the water, petrified, waiting for the fear to leave. But it never did—so I would jump anyway. I’d keep climbing up that ledge and jumping off five or six times, even though my heart hammered harshly in my chest. I realized the fear wasn’t going to go away, but my paralysis within the fear would.
Sometimes I’d hesitate. I had this paradigm in my head: If I just stand here long enough, the fear will go away and I’ll jump and I’ll be fearless. That didn’t happen. I discovered instead how not to be stopped by myfear. I tried stilling my fear by sitting down and breathing deeply, butthat really wasn’t all that helpful. After a while, I’d clamber all the way up and just jump right away so the fear wouldn’t have time to build, the paralysis wouldn’t deepen, and all the subterranean scary stories in my head couldn’t bubble up. I didn’t wait to feed the fear. I just took a deep breath, exhaled, and jumped. The fear was there, but it wasn’t unmanageable. I’d believed that in order to do what I was afraid of, I had to get rid of the fear first, but that turned out to be only an idea, not the truth. You have to do something two hundred times before the fear will disperse. Are you still afraid of something? Just do it again. Do it again. Do it again.
Maybe I couldn’t banish all my fears, but I made the choice to stop allowing them to rule my life.
Choosing the Brave-Hearted Path
It takes a lot of courage to explore your fear. Courage isn’t the numbed out, flinty, Clint Eastwood–esque stoicism we’re accustomed to, but instead it’s daring to experience our feelings—even if this requires painful awakening—with discernment and intelligence. Choose the Brave-Hearted Path: have the courage to truly feel what’s going on inside you when you’re afraid, and respond appropriately. This requires patience.
Walk the Brave-Hearted Path now by deciding you will no longer be afraid of being afraid. Reframe your fear; be willing to get sick and tired of being sick and tired. I also got sick of being everyone’s lunch. Now I refuse: You don’t get even a snack from me!
So, right now I want to help you make the choice to face your fears by using Forrest Yoga poses to wash fear and its toxic after effects out of your body. I want you to be very grounded in proper technique so that Forrest Yoga can work for you.
Exercises for Walking Through the Spook Zone
There’s a saying: When in fear, or in doubt, run in circles, scream, and shout.
We have a lot of internal responses to fear. We push it away, we deny it, we freeze, flee, or attack (fight-or-flight syndrome). But there are alternative ways of responding to fear. Imagine your fear as a separate energy—a cat backed into a corner having a hissing fit. You could walk over, sit down next to it, and lean your hip up against this fluffed-up, tense cat—immediately your relationship will change. The cat won’t change its internal makeup, but it’ll change its fear response to whatever it was hissing about. Still, I wouldn’t suggest picking it up and snuggling it until it calms down a little. This fear is a part of you that’s scared to death. Go down and comfort it—it’s a part of you. It’s not something to be beaten down by or to wall off. Studying your fear is such a radically weird activity that it begins to change that part of you that’s in fear.
Change your response to fear. Stop numbing out. Track it and learn and grow. Here are my five steps for changing your relationship with fear:
1. Identify the fear
2. Turn around, hunt it, stalk it
3. Stop making decisions based on fear
4. Find the healing within the fear
5. Snuggle up to your fear
Identifying the Fear
What exactly are you afraid of, and where did that fear come from? Start working that path of discovery. Fear always has an origin. Always. People with anxiety attacks might disagree, but it’s true; they just don’t know what the origin is yet. Once you find the source of your fear, you can begin to address it.
I had a friend who was afraid of binging and losing control. She found herself Googling the calories in a single M&M. “I’m afraid of an M&M,” she told me. “I feel so stupid, but I have this fear that I’ll lose control if I eat one.” “What would happen then?” I asked her. “I’ll eat the whole bag,” she said. “What would happen then?” “I’d break the promise to myself and my friend; we’re dieting together.” My friend was ultimately afraid she’d threaten a precious friendship; that’s a painful betrayal. Behind these fears, however, were other fears and self-mutilating thoughts: I’ll never lose the weight. I’m a moron who can’t get control over one little M&M. And behind those fears, way deep down, was her most primal fear: If I’m not slim and sexy, I’m not worthwhile. I’m unlovable, useless; I could be thrown away. Being cut off from the tribe—that’s some pretty scary stuff. So what seemed like the fear of binging was in actuality a lot more complex. Once my friend came to that realization, she could begin to deal with her feelings of unworthiness.
Our bodies archive our life experiences and often tell the stories of our deepest fears. When Dr. Timothy McCall came to one of my Yoga classes, I noticed right away that he had this weird twisty back; he was bent over like a perpetual comma. Where did that come from? I had him just breathe and stay in a forward bend, and he suddenly remembered climbing a tree as a young boy when he’d fallen and landed on his head, neck, and upper back. He’d really injured himself. His family freaked out—Oh my god, he could have broken his neck, been paralyzed for life! So here was this little boy: hurt, in shock, defenseless, and his parents were pouring out their terror into him. All that loving concern laced with terror made his body kink over and hold this physiological imprint. He’d made it worse by a lifetime of sitting in front of his computer, hunching, writing too many books. His body curled around the experience and never let go until my class, where I started to help him unwind it. It freed his upper back, and his body has been changing radically ever since.
Even though I spent so much time working on my fears as a teenager and a young adult, and even though I could point to my fearful upbringing as a cause, I spent many years feeling fearful, wild, crazy, out of control—and I didn’t really understand why. I just had this sense that I hadn’t reached the black heart of things. Then one day I was in Dolphin pose, butt up in the air, when I was jolted not just by a memory of hands grabbing my hip and thigh and being brutally raped, but the actual painful feelings. Suddenly all these horrific memory fragments rushed to the surface—all those times I’d woken with intense pain and bruising around my genitals and butt, feeling drugged out and woozy. This wasn’t the first time I suspected that I had been sexually abused as a little girl, but it was the moment that I made the decision to turn from prey to predator.
I started gasping for air, shaking uncontrollably, and going numb, but I thought, Hell no! I’m gonna chase this abuser out of my body! I went rampaging through my pelvis and colon, looking for every little vestige of fear—hip joints, blood vessels. I could smell the fear, taste it, feel the acidic burn of it. When I came to each painful spot inside my body, I would breathe and fill it with my essence, will it back to life. It took me years and years of therapy to come to terms with the physical and sexual abuse to which I’d been subjected, and I won’t minimize the hard emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual work involved, but it was the decision that day on the mat to transform from prey to predator that gave me the courage to take that journey.
When I finally stalked the origins of my abuse, I understood why I’d always felt so wild and crazy. Once you stalk the fear back to its source, you can begin to reconcile it. You’ll inevitably find your fear ramping up as you hunt—keep going; you’re on the right track! If you’ve suffered any kind of abuse or other trauma, please work with a therapist or other trusted professional as you take this journey.
Turn Around, Hunt Fear, Stalk Fear
If you’re still not sure what’s causing your fear, it’s time to go hunting. Fear is a signal. Be alert. Get vigilant. It wasn’t that long ago that other humans or predators hunted us. This means you have to take action. You can’t just sit and meditate your problems away; many meditators become my students because their abuse or rage doesn’t go away by meditation alone. It does teach you how to get steady though. So get steady and now go out hunting.
Stalk your fears the way you’d stalk an animal. You might start out noticing a scuffle in the dirt that you recognize as a track, a little nibble and rub marks on the trees, a tiny tuft of fur that has rubbed off on a bush, a little pile of scat. These are all signs. When you get close enough, you’ll smell the musk of the deer or hear that funny way they thump the earth with their hooves to make you back off. Fear will do the same thing—as you get closer, it’ll do something to make you back off, to scare the hell out of you. Whatever it takes to make your heart pound, to get that stinky fear-sweat, to pump the adrenaline, or to sense that nasty taste in your mouth—those are all signs that you’re getting close. Every time you hit a fresh pocket of terror, that’s a useful sign; it’ll take you to whatever most needs your attention. This takes courage! Keep going until you begin to close in on what’s generating the fear. In the process, you’ll make tremendous discoveries about yourself—an incredible treasure.
Sometimes our fears are based on past experiences or on what happened around those incidents. Don’t discount the experience that’s causing your present fear—but recognize that it’s only one of the experiences available. Sometimes our fear is triggered by a resemblance to something that put the fear there in the first place, like having a love affair that ended really badly, so you tell yourself, I can’t love again becauseit’ll just kill me. That fear may be just one of your stories.
When you hunt fear inside yourself, you’re not going in to kill. Some of the greatest hunters are photographers because they have to get close enough to get a picture. You have to be really stealthy or build a blind—it takes hours of patience. Then you get your insight; what’s creating this trail?
When you get to the source of your fear, that’s when the real work starts. Just because you see the deer doesn’t mean you’ve got dinner or the perfect photo. You’re just ready for the next step: now what?
Then comes the process of unwinding the insight. Ask yourself, Where does this come from in my life? Track back through time. You may need to ask more questions to pinpoint what’s going on—and again, you need to work with a mental health professional to do deep work. You won’t always get an answer—ta-da, there it is!—but frequently you’ll discover how a past experience has archived your fear.
I was in northern California in the late seventies, careening along a mountain road, a snaky path along a cliff. I was showing off my 914 Porsche to a soon-to-be lover, being bold and adventurous and reckless. Suddenly I hit a slick patch, spun out, and cracked the car smack into the mountain, mere feet from a plunge off the cliff. I really banged up the car and myself and my friend—minor trauma but high drama. In an instant all that high reckless exuberant energy curdled into fear, shame, guilt—I’d endangered this man because I’d been so stupid. I became morose.
Later that year, I found myself in the passenger seat with a man I had been living with. We were heading down another wet mountain road in the driving rain. My feet were stomping so hard on the imaginary brake on the passenger side that my whole body tightened with fear. What’s this about? I wondered. Oh, sure: my car accident. Man. Wet road. Driving too fast. “Slow down,” I told this man. “I’m really scared.” But when I hunted that fear, I realized that it wasn’t really about the car accident at all. It was more about the desire for that high, exuberant, reckless feeling I’d had in that other relationship, which had all been woven into the accident. It took me a number of hunting trips until I realized what was going on. I missed the delight in that other relationship—that excitement and exuberance—that was absent from this one. The huge gift for persisting in the hunt was that when I realized I’d lost my exuberance for life, I got it back.
Stop Making Decisions Based on Fear
Once you’ve located your fear, take a look at how it’s made your life smaller. How does acting out of fear hurt you? When you figure that out, you’re more open to making different choices. For example, I’ve worked with many women who stay in self-negating relationships because they’re afraid to be on their own financially. They become what I call a Sacrificial Whore—someone who gives too much and who gets off on giving too much, whose reward for giving is to drain her own marrow. These women sabotage opportunities for richer relationships because they’re afraid to strike out on their own.
Usually our fear comes from triggers that developed in an earlier, unpleasant situation. I have an aspect inside myself I call Firefighter—all of her triggers were developed during intense, terrible situations. When I’m in a present situation that’s intense but not terrible—perhaps I’m having an argument with a friend or I’m worried about someone’s health—Firefighter comes up, flooding me with fear or rage or some other urgent feeling. When I respond from that fearful or panicky place, 99 percent of the time, I end up making terrible decisions.
Walking the Brave-Hearted Path means vowing to stop making decisions based on fear. To work with what I call a Warrior’s Heart is to plant your feet when you feel that energy coming up, take a moment to sort through the signals you’re sending yourself, and ask, What is themost healing response that will bring me to a resolution I can be proud of? When I act out of fear, I lash out. I’m most bewildered when I’m dealing with people I deeply, deeply love; I get swept away by the feeling and forget there’s a path to be walked here. On the other hand, I don’t want to kill Firefighter or lock her in a fireproof room; I want her to develop steadiness and discernment. I know the alarm bells are ringing; what’s the most healing, helpful action, especially in a hot situation like an argument? To create a healing solution, make your decisions and good judgments based on your wise assessment after checking in with head, heart, gut, and pelvis—your chakras, wisdom and information centers that correspond to your endocrine system.
Some of us hide our fears behind noble causes, so we don’t see how they hold us back. I had a client who was a banker. Her deep, passionate desire was to be a painter, but she chose this safe job to support her family and to avoid the angst of being the starving artist. I put her in Camel pose for a while. This was a radically uncomfortable position for her, and it brought up a lot of fears: I can’t do this. I’m afraid. It was a very long time before she could say her heart’s desire, “I want to be a painter.” First she gave me all these reasons why she couldn’t. I wasn’t buying it. “Draw or paint me a picture by next week, and don’t you dare cancel.” She gave me a really good, detailed picture. It was the first time she’d drawn anything since she’d stepped away from art.
The act of drawing it had brought up painful and dramatic realizations. She discovered that she had turned from her heart and Spirit’s desire. Finally she asked herself, What if, once a week, I go into the laundry room and paint for twenty minutes? She started taking art classes on family vacations, thus honoring her family as well as her needs as an artist. She’d have little breakthroughs, but then her old programming would take over and she’d get sick. But the more she reconciled the fear, the healthier she got and the more her Spirit returned.
Find the Healing Within the Fear
Once you’ve faced your dragon, your next task is to ally with it. Don’t kill the beast, you fool, because that’s your power! This is the archetypal hero’s quest: You’ll meet the dragons and the demons and fight and fight and fight them until you finally get the treasure. Then you’ll depart that quest irrevocably changed, with that treasure a part of you. Every time you stalk your fear and choose life instead of oblivion, you’ll begin to reclaim the parts of you that have been blocked off.
When you finally do get to that point of the fear’s origin—I’m still grieving the loss of that dream or hope; I’m still afraid because of that accident—you can make a Warrior’s Choice to take a healing step at that very moment. That healing step might be very small; you might decide simply to take one deep breath, or not to numb yourself out with that slice of cheesecake, or to book a massage instead of doing a punishing hour at the gym, or to take a nap because your body is crying for sleep. But each small step takes you closer to your goal of healing.
The hero’s choice is to disobey the dictates of the fear. Your fear may tell you to run, but don’t do it. You can hit the wall of fear twenty-five times. It doesn’t mean you failed if you ran away twenty-four times—if you’ve faced it once, you’ve succeeded.
I used to have recurring nightmares. When I’m in the midst of a really big life-altering change, I’ll frequently dream of T. rex. What could be more terrifying than something that fast, that big, with that many teeth? The T. rex would rampage through a little village (I have no problem mixing my time periods) so fast, you could barely track it, snapping heads off, bearing off hapless humans. Sometimes I’d be running away, other times looking down on the carnage and feeling sad that I couldn’t help my villagers. I’d wake up and write down every detail of my dream—the shame, the guilt. Writing it down started to break that conditioning that translated into my waking life: I’d get afraid, and then I’d choose not to act, wallowing in shame or guilt instead. But my dreams wanted me to make a better choice.
Then I started having a different kind of T. rex dream. It was stomping through the trees after me when suddenly I got really grounded and steady and shouted, “Wait!” T. rex stopped. That was weird. Then T. rex started to advance again. “No, wait!” I ordered it. T. rex stopped. Then I started playing with T. rex, walking under its legs, tickling its belly and balls (my humor has its own weirdness). I allied myself with this dragon. The terror was still huge, but I could still figure out how to join up with T. rex. All those legends say, “Kill the dragon,” but the dragons were the ones who spoke the first words, the keepers of the oldest magic, the ones with the longest memories—why would you kill them just because they’re more powerful and bigger than you? You can have a different response. Did I ever tame T. rex? No, but I began to build a strange alliance with it.
So how do you ally with your fear? How do you face the monster and tickle its belly? Because of my past, one of my greatest fears was of being a cripple. The solution turned out to be right in front of me. My fear was telling me, If I’m crippled, I should die. I’d be worthless. Then I got to thinking, I’ve got a really good mind—it’s good at problem solving. What else could I do and still be a worthwhile human being who helps others? My first healing step was to find the answer to that question.
I started studying to be a therapist. You can be a healer without legs. My fear shifted radically because I found something else I could do that was extremely rewarding—energy work, hands-on stuff. I found the skills of therapy utterly fascinating. Yoga has its asanas, or poses and so does the psyche; therapy taught me those asanas as well. I started finding out how to work with things that had previously puzzled me—like how when I left people in poses for a long time, they would burst into tears. That’s where the root of the healing was. In my work with horses, I had already perceived that hurtful experiences stored in muscle tissue could resurface. If a horse has been badly injured and frightened while jumping a certain kind of fence, it’ll start limping when it sees that same particular jump, rolling his eyes, throwing his head back. Horses are so smart that they can create their own neuroses. (Sound familiar?)
I was terrified of becoming obese or a cripple, but my greatest fear was that I’d become just like my mother: a monster. Becoming a healer was a revolutionary way of using those fears. A fear journal teaches you to study your fear instead of run like hell from it, which is our natural inclination. I could become a catalyst for the release of people’s fears from their bodies, but first I had to deal with my own. The therapist with whom I apprenticed was obese—crippled in his own way. He was also brilliant, with the talent, skill, and willingness to work with me and pull me through the abuse. Because of his care and skill, I was able to look beyond my initial disgust and revulsion regarding his obesity—the negative conditioning that had sprung from my relationship with my mother. My fear began to lose some of its claw-hold on me. That freed me to teach in a bolder and more compassionate way.
I learned how to go inside, feel the habitual internal response to something that scared me—and then hold steady and look for what else was inside. Then I had to come up with a creative solution that made me feel worthwhile and I could fascinate upon.
When you come up with a solution for allying—interacting and strategizing—with your fear, give yourself a decent trial period to see if it works. Can you fascinate upon this fear and honor that it had a purpose at one time?
Snuggle Up to Your Fear
I recommend you keep a fear journal as a way to snuggle up to your fear. A journal helps you give your fear a voice; you let it talk until it empties itself out. A fear journal teaches you to study your fear, which is radically different from our natural inclination, which is to run like hell from it. Write down each time you hit a fear, large or small. When did it come up? What triggered it? What did you feel? How did you respond? What healing step did you take? What solution might work better? The more you write down your fears and start tracking them, the more you’ll zero in on what works and what doesn’t.
How often is your fear twisting your response to your life? Keeping a journal helps you achieve clarity on your fear and avoid selective memories. Sometimes I don’t recognize my own fear at first, but when I write down the actual sensations I notice—metallic taste, smelly sweat, clammy palms—I am able to say, “Oh, that’s fear.” The next time it gets triggered, I’ll have a resource to access how I feel. My fear has gotten sneaky; it makes me forget what releases it. Writing it down makes it really obvious—Oh, when this person said these words, I went all numb because I got afraid and angry. So I stopped, took a few deep breaths, and then I was able to respond from a place of truth instead.
Some people’s fears are more obvious. Let’s imagine you come to one of my classes and tell me, “I’m afraid to go into Handstand because I could fall and snap my spine.” That’s a scary thought—there’s truth to it. Then another scary thing happens: someone offers you help or you have to ask for help. Suppose you accept the teacher’s help and she braces herself for any kind of fear dance you do—arms buckling, legs turning to water—so that no matter what, she’s got you, you’ll get to experience Handstand. That’s a win. You’ll have a whole different feeling in your body, a completely different chemical response. At the end of class, take out your journal and write it all down—how hard it was to ask for help or accept help. Every little detail you could track. Maybe you felt a glimmer of hope. What happened internally? What happened externally? Did you kick up a foot and then clunk back down? When you came down, what shifted? What’s the win? Sometimes the win won’t be a full-on chemical release or a huge epiphany, but it’ll be I did this, and I didn’t get hurt or I did this, and I asked for help, and it was a trustworthy person, and I didn’t get hurt or I asked a neighbor to spot me, and she was small, not strong, and didn’t know how to help, and that was a mistake.
Whether it’s pushing yourself at Yoga or facing a fear at your job, on a date, at a party, or in your marriage, when you start writing things down in your fear journal, you start to see the wins. Studying your fear changes your relationship to it and begins the exciting, terrifying breakthrough to freedom.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Fierce Medicine: Breakthrough Practices to Heal the Body and Ignite the Spirit by Ana T. Forrest, published by HarperOne, a dvision of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012.