Lying in my tent, I gaze up at a blue-black blanket of sky pierced by a billion silver, effervescent stars. The final fingers of smoke from the dying fire drift through the campsite, and the essence of crispy marshmallow and molten chocolate lingers on my lips as I drift off to sleep. I begin to dream of the Alaskan sunrise–the mist gently rising from the moss as the sun, introduced by the red, pink, and orange light of morning, creeps from behind the towering mountains. My slumber is perfect, peaceful, warm…until the tent crashes down upon me under the weight of a 900-pound grizzly bear. I try to scramble away from the angry, razor-sharp claws, but I’m enveloped in my tent. I’m trapped, with no way out, as this mammoth, ravenous beast tears into my flesh. This is my end.
Or so went the nightmares that plagued me in the weeks preceding my recent trip to Alaska. I could think of nothing but bears–all of them hungry, and all of them after me. At the office, my coworkers would comment casually about my upcoming trip, and instead of rambling, dreamy-eyed, about my 10 days of freedom in the wilderness, I’d find myself gripped by fear, wondering if I could make it through my planned backpacking excursions without panicking and running back to the safety of the rental car.
These feelings weren’t new; I’ve always had a tendency toward fear. When I lived in Washington, DC, my fear of rats kept me at home while friends enjoyed moonlit walks by the Potomac. On a visit to St. Louis, my fear of closed spaces filled the tram ride to the top of the Arch with hyperventilation and Ave Marias, and when I finally got to the top, my fear of heights made me scamper to the front of the line for the first tram back down.
After years of considering my fears part of my identity, it dawned on me before my Alaska trip that these fears were actually preventing me from expressing my identity. How could I fully experience my life, my travels–or even my relationships, for that matter–when my mind immediately clung to fear instead of possibility?
As my departure date drew near, I decided it was time to conquer my demons. I began tackling my fear of bears as I had approached every other obstacle in my life–as a researcher, writer, and editor. I loaded up on information, organized facts, and scripted a clear conclusion for every imaginable plot twist.
I was frustrated to find, though, that the more information I gathered, the more intense my fear became. I could not think of the trip without thinking, “Death by bear.” I continued waking up in cold sweats, with the same horrifying dream. And I continued my attempt to combat the fear through mental preparedness, but to no avail.
It was then that my revelation came to me: No matter how well I prepared myself mentally, nothing would stop the cycle of fear if I couldn’t get out of my head. I needed to get into my body and stop all the physical fear reactions if I ever wanted to be in control of my phobias.
Fear override: Taming the breath
It just so happened during this time that I was editing an article on pranayama, the branch of yoga that deals with breathing. Pranayama comes from the Sanskrit words prana (vital energy or life force, in part represented by breath) and ayama (expansion) or yama (regulation and control). It can be loosely translated as holding the breath and extending the life force. It suddenly occurred to me that learning to breathe properly might be the key to mastering my fear.
“You have to tame your breath to tame your brain,” writes yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar in his latest book, Light on Life (Rodale, 2005). “It is impossible, when we turn our attention to the inner movement of breath, to use our senses externally at the same time. . . . Pranayama is the beginning of withdrawal from external engagement of the mind and senses.” In other words, if you are paying attention to your breathing, you aren’t as likely to react to what’s happening around you.
Pranayama includes more than just breathing in and breathing out; it actually has four parts to it: the inhalation, a pause after inhalation, the exhalation, and a pause after exhalation. One of the basic exercises of pranayama is to lengthen each of these four segments evenly. In my first venture into this practice, I spent several minutes a few times a day consciously observing, holding, and extending my breath. Over the ensuing days, I was able to increase each segment to 10 seconds. I tried applying the technique in times of mild anxiety and was pleased to observe a mental calm–a feeling that whatever was bothering me at the moment wouldn’t be the cause of my demise.
One of the ideas behind daily pranayama practice, for me at least, was to create a relationship with my breath during periods of tranquility so that in times of panic, I would be able to step in and stop the familiar physical fear reaction. The other part of it was my desire to enter into a discipline, to learn more about myself by committing to a practice of nonjudging observation. And yogis emphasize the importance of committing to this regular practice of gentle self-reflection, rather than just trying to control the breath in the throes of a panic attack.
“You’ve absolutely got to make friends with your breath,” says Richard Rosen, author of The Yoga of Breath (Shambhala, 2002). “The best way to go about this is to be consistent and persistent, committing yourself, come rain or shine, to a daily (or almost daily) practice. In-the-moment practices won’t work unless you’re first relatively conscious of your breath throughout the day. That’s why daily practice is so important; it gets you “in tune” with your breathing. In panic mode, if you don’t have a relationship with your breath, it won’t occur to you to breathe. The key is always awareness. You can ward off a lot of panic by simply attending to your breath as much or as often as you can.”
Of course, I didn’t have much time to prepare, since my trip was just around the corner. So I boned up on a few pranayama exercises, fit them in whenever I could, and then packed my bags. When moments of panic set in, I couldn’t completely halt them, but I was able to lessen their severity by focusing on my breath and consciously lengthening it. But would my newfound relationship with my breath do me any good in the great Alaskan wild?
For the first mile of my big backpacking excursion, I had my doubts. Armed with my breath and my pepper spray, I felt woefully unprepared when I realized that every hiker I encountered had actual firepower in his holster. But I trekked on, and when the fear became overwhelming, I stopped, sat down, did a few rounds of nadi shodhana, and found the courage to continue.
That first night, just as I had in my dreams before the trip, I lay in my tent under the big Alaskan sky as my awareness lingered over the scent of the dying fire. Thankfully, the night ended more pleasantly than it had in my dreams: I woke to a breathtaking sunrise, watched the mist rise from the flora, and breathed in my new respect for life and my ability to experience it. In the next few days, my breath continued to be my ally. And on my final day of the trip, when I actually did see a bear (three, in fact), I respectfully observed both the bears and my breath, and the awesome strength of each.
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