Photo by Mike Regan
Most of us are inhibited by fear, and I’m not talking about healthy self-protection. I’m talking about the irrational fear that stops us from communicating our needs clearly or making important life changes. As a therapist, yoga teacher, and thoughtful human, I’ve seen it countless times: In both myself and in others. We limit our possibilities for growth and we crush our joy because we’re scared of making mistakes. We’re scared of getting hurt, abandoned, or rejected. Basically, we’re scared of loss. Sometimes the only way to conquer fear is to face it head on. To qualify, I lost my sister to Cystic Fibrosis when I was 20, my mom to pancreatic cancer this year, several boyfriends to breakups, and my health a few times. For me, it was precisely the things I feared that unleashed new life, and enabled me to develop a tool kit for living that opens the doors to new possibilities every day. Each loss helped me to develop skills to overcome fear, and to unlock personal riches. And much of this story unfolded on the mat. Like many yogis, I didn’t begin my practice in a happy place. I started as an anorexic, depressed teenager that survived on hard-boiled eggs (only the whites) and Diet Coke. I distinctly remember my first class, and the feeling of connection to something bigger than me, something that was warm and comforting, something that made self-care seem like a good idea (where it was previously considered the plague). I wanted more, and kept going back. Slowly, through conscious movement, I developed insight into my behavior. I realized that I was trying to control family circumstances by (mis-)managing my weight. I wanted to save my dying sister and rescue my mom who I feared might go with her. I was starving my body in an effort to numb my fears of inevitable pain and loss. It didn’t work. I felt hungry, irritable, and lonely because—of course—I avoided any situation that involved food… And people.
Starting to Take the StepsI could see what I was doing, and what I was missing as a result. I turned to alternate ways of dealing with my pain, and in yoga found space for self-reflection and community. The self-reflection made me aware of my issues in a way I hadn't been before. This awareness wasn’t enough to make me a healthy eater, but it was a solid start to help me expand my palate, and put on a few pounds. Awareness was and always is the first step. I was in my early 20s when my sister passed. I did Sun Salutations while listening to Krishna Das in my childhood bedroom before the funeral, and it calmed my mind. I felt grounded, anchored, and able to breath through the pain of burying her. I was awake and present for the whole, terrible, frightening experience. I’m grateful for that, and I know it helped me to accept the loss. Acceptance is the second step. Losing my sister made me realize that life is short—and I wanted to live mine. Efforts to control and manipulate my weight weren’t working or getting me what I wanted, what we all want: Love and connection. I developed a deep acceptance around this reality, and a willingness to take risks in an effort to experience these things. I didn’t know how to get what I wanted so I was (and remain) open to suggestion. I was willing to experiment with all kinds of tools that others deemed helpful. I went to a therapist to talk through the feelings. I kept practicing yoga, and I started a gratitude journal—which I kept diligently for almost a decade. I gave up being skinny and let go of the prevailing belief in an imagined inadequacy. I felt good enough, on par with everyone else, not better or worse. Being grateful trained my eye to look for good and to naturally grow it. Slowly but surely I found myself at a healthy weight, eating whatever I wanted in moderation.
My experiences with pain and loss paved the road for me to exchange fear-based beliefs with life-affirming ones. After all, the worst thing already happened.Don't get me wrong: Loss may have happened to me, but dealing with it and learning its lessons isn't a passive process. I was actively engaged in a change that I wanted. You have to want to change; you have to want to be better! Action is the third and most important step. Thankfully, I was in a healthy place when my mom got sick with cancer. Her death was awful and hard on me in a different way, a deeper way. Ten years had passed since my sister died, and I had cultivated a deep bank of experience in courage and self-love. My mom’s journey to the end was 16 months. For much of that time, I was in chronic fear of her departure. Every text or phone call from my dad or brother would raise my heart rate. Was this it? Bracing for this epic loss made me want to live even more.