Fear is the mind-killer.

By on Feb 27, 2016 in The Unruly Ascetic

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“The only this we have to fear is fear itself.” -FDR

Why is it that so many women are drawn to Ashtanga these days?  As a practice that has been historically and/or critically linked to the youthful masculine, why is that women are moving into the upper echelon of teachers and practitioners at a much steeper rate than men?

Feminism? Women’s lib? The straightforward stubbornness that women can do everything men can do and sheer determination to prove it?

Maybe we can make the gender-balance assertion for the general population, but not for the individual. I don’t think there are a lot of individual women who take up the practice for the sake of proving gender equality, just as women become doctors and lawyers and executives for the same reasons men do: it interests them. I don’t personally know any individual woman who will say directly that they began practice because they wanted to prove they were as good as a man…

except me, now that I think of it.

I was recently published in an interesting book of essays about women in Ashtanga.  I disliked the process, unfortunately, as a result of being the least qualified of the group to hold opinions and feeling particularly out of my element and susceptible to manipulation.  I probably made most of these issues up in my head.  I was fearful about how my story would be received.  I was insecure about my inevitable naiveté and hubris in sharing my less-than-10-year-old experience.

Basically, I was being a girl about it and kind of ruined the process for myself.

But I have learned some things from that process and the aftermath which I kind of wish I had realized beforehand because being a woman in a man’s world is a constant up hill battle and I wish I could tell my younger (and current and older) self that I don’t need to be afraid.

Women are trained to be fearful.  We are trained to be cautious.  We are discouraged from taking risks or being adventurous at a rate that far outstrips our male peers.

I happen to have been raised by two level headed feminist types who did me the disservice of shielding me from the reality that my life will be shaped and limited by my gender.  Bless ‘em.  I had no idea that this was actually something that still happened in the world.  I was so sheltered from misogyny that when I ended up in an emotionally manipulative, arguably abusive relationship at 25, I had no idea that I was being guilted and gas lighted into a gender role that didn’t fit.  I was confused and pressured into a such an extreme level of caution and fear that it started to break me down at my very core.

Kino once told me that we each start practicing because we are somehow aware, subconsciously or consciously, that we are suffering greatly.  The practice is our way of processing and escaping that suffering. In retrospect I realized how right she was, how much I was suffering when I started practicing. What I only just realized is that I started practicing, and I keep practicing, because I don’t want to be afraid.

I was raised to be cautious, but not fearful. I was taught to believe in possibility and to fight for it, tooth and nail. I had somehow (probably from being too willing to trust and not afraid enough!) ended up with someone who taught me that I should be living in constant fear of failure and judgement, that I should alter my behavior to the point that I was unrecognizable in the vain attempt to be beyond reproach.

Turns out: if it’s fake, you turn into a judgmental asshole yourself. Lesson (hopefully) learned.

I started practicing Ashtanga because it was the most powerful practice I could find.  I thought, if I can do this, then no one can tell me I’m not legit. I started practicing Ashtanga because it gave me the opportunity to address every thing that I was afraid someone would find out about, every weakness, every stiffness, every confusion (I didn’t realize I’d have confusions and weaknesses I hadn’t even dreamed of! but that’s another story).

When I started practicing I was afraid. I was afraid of failing, afraid of not being good enough. I was afraid of the judgment of other people. I was afraid that I would live up to my partner’s expectations: that I would flake on the work and eventually fail, only to be the person he always told me I was, irresponsible, unliked, and lazy.

Well, he was wrong. I am not a failure and now, thanks to the practice, I am not afraid.  I will only fail if I stop trying.  I am not a failure because I didn’t succeed today; I faced the attempt and my sense of self worth was not determined by the result. The willingness to try is where the bravery is.  Courage is not in the success, but in the attempt.

I think so many women are being drawn to the practice (and excelling in areas that were once deemed unavailable to the xx chromos) because the most important thing we can do as women is face the fear we’ve been conditioned to embrace. The practice gives us the platform, the paradigm, the heuristic to train into our hearts and minds an open bravery that will allow us to be the leaders, mothers, and world shakers we have the power to be.

We all come to the practice because somewhere, deep down, we want an opportunity to face our fear and remind ourselves of our courage each and every day.