Courage doesn’t mean not being afraid. It means taking action even though we are afraid. Fear is important: it protects us from harm. When we are facing a change or new experience, however, it can feel like our bodies and brains are battling: we know we want to act, but the cold sweat and jelly legs have other ideas.
We need courage in everyday, immediate situations like making a presentation, but sometimes we also need it to face ourselves. Fear can prevent us from going back to school or leaving a partner, and we need to feel powerful enough to face the existential questions of our lives. Fear can make us want to run, but it can also nudge us to get so busy we numb out the larger questions of our lives. It’s hard to think clearly when we are working from a place of fear.
Thankfully, we have tools at our disposal to help us to get the brain and the body communicating in a more easeful way when fear arises. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy argues in her TED talk that animals tend to display high-power poses that make them seem big and dangerous when they are threatened. Think of a cobra raising its hood or a gorilla pulling herself up to her full size in the face of an enemy. Low-power poses indicate fear and submission, like a dog cowering when he knows you’re mad at him.
Humans do this too: we tend to slump when we are fearful and puff ourselves up when we are feeling confident and in charge. These shapes can affect not only other people’s perception of us, but also our perception of ourselves. Cuddy found that when we take high-power poses, like standing with our feet wide and hands on our hips, the hormonal balance in our bodies shifts away from stress and toward an alert sense of calm and confidence. It’s more than the cliché “Fake it ‘til you make it,” Cuddy argues, it’s “Fake it ‘til you become it.”
Perhaps yoga is so effective for stress relief partly because it involves moving the body through big, strong, high-powered poses, like the warriors. A sequence focusing on these shapes may help give you a quick boost, whether you need to make that presentation or sit down and journal about big life choices. Here’s a sequence that may help:
1. Simple Breathing From standing, inhale your arms wide and up toward the sky and look up. As you exhale, simply let them come down by your sides. Repeat five times.
2. Warrior 2 Take a big step back with your right foot, turning the toes in at about 90 degrees. Bend your left knee over your ankle. Open the arms wide and puff up your chest.
3. Exalted Warrior From this position, flip your left palm up and reach it toward the sky, letting your right hand rest on your back leg as you lean back, letting the throat gently open.
4. Goddess Squat Come back to center, turn both feet out at about 45 degrees facing the long edge of your mat, then bend your knees again over your ankles. Take your arms out into a cactus shape and spread the fingers.
5. Warrior II and Exalted, Right Side Then, straighten the legs so you can turn your right foot out to the right and angle the left foot in slightly. Bend the right knee over the ankle for warrior II on the other side. Then flip the palm and take exalted warrior.
Gently come out of the pose and give everything a good shake. Now you are ready to face your fears!
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