Ever since I began practicing yoga I’ve looked at my behavior in a new way. I’ve noticed that how I behave in a physical situation resembles how I’ll behave in other situations and vice versa. For example, in yoga it's no coincidence that I grab my water every time the teacher calls wheel pose. It’s a challenging pose for me, so I grab water, towel off, and then slowly work my way into the pose. In my head I justify this as the most efficient time to take a water break. Likewise, in life when a challenging situation presents itself, I often drag my feet before jumping in (fully justified, of course). So when other physical challenges present themselves I try to tune in to my reactions and link the behaviors. I look for a pattern.
Hiking is one of my favorite activities. I love that I get to be outdoors. I get to see beautiful spaces that often are relatively untainted by humans. And I even get a workout in, usually without focusing on the effort I put forward. It’s an instantly gratifying activity. You put in the work and you reap the reward all in one outing.
Over the years I’ve hiked in many beautiful places. The only hike I can recall not finishing for purposes other than time or weather was Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. I have a fear of heights and although my desire to explore will often trump my anxiety in hiking up a mountain, I couldn’t bring myself to walk down the final mile of Angel’s Landing with steep drop offs on either side as the path jutted out into the middle of a vast canyon. I started. I tried. But only a few steps in a paralyzing feeling gripped my entire body. I felt I couldn’t move a muscle or I’d fall right off the canyon wall. It took everything in me to turn around and walk the few steps back to safety. Only moments before I hadn’t had a fear in the world and I started up the chained rock path eager to see the grand finale at the end of the hike. Overcome with fear, I stopped.
I’m not sure what makes me more nervous on a hike; heights, scrambles, or people. When there are a lot of people hiking around me I get nervous because they are uncontrollable variables. I don’t know what they’re going to do. I can be pretty sure a rock is going to stay put and a tree of a certain size is going to hold part or all of my weight, but people have the ability to make surprise moves. I recently hiked up Camelback Mountain in Phoenix which is an extremely popular hike and is almost always packed with people. So when I came to a steep piece of the trail where a long line of people were holding onto the railing as they slowly navigated up or down the rock, I opted to take the path less traveled without the railing.
I started as I would any other climb, surefooted and moving swiftly. About two-thirds of the way up I realized the rock below me was getting closer and closer to parallel with my body. That familiar paralyzing feeling started to creep in. My heart raced and my body shook. My confident feet stiffened into heavy weight I felt I couldn’t convince to make the right move. On the edge of panic a voice sounded loudly in my head—“You’re fine. You can get up this mountain, you just have to keep moving.” I looked for the next foothold and mentally drug my leg up until I was actually doing it. I connected with the nook and was able to lift myself. I did this again and again, forbidding myself to stop, forbidding myself to think, forbidding myself to let fear take hold of me. The whole process probably took less than 60 seconds, but in that moment time slowed for me. It took my full being to finish the climb. When I got to more level ground and the adrenaline began to release from my body I realized just how mental the physical feat had been. Controlling my mind was 90% of the battle. I had to convince myself not to let fear stop me.
Thinking back on Angel’s Landing, a link began to form in my mind. Two could be a coincidence. Three's a pattern...another fresh experience popped into my head.
I also love to ski. This particular day, I hopped on a ski lift to reach a part of a mountain we hadn’t yet explored. Usually ski lifts don’t trigger my fear of heights, I suppose because I’ve been on so many since I was a little kid. However, this lift was different. It took the rider up, up, up…and then over a couple cliffs. No thank you! I was shook up when we got to the top and that paralyzing fear set in. I couldn’t move—on skis! Every ledge to drop into a ski run took my breath away. And in a holy-sh*t-I-can’t-do-that kind of way. But my options were to get back on the terrifying lift and download or point my skis over a ledge and go. The moment I convinced my body to move I felt better. The fear evaporated and I felt in control.
I realized when ascending the rock face at Camelback that the situation was almost exactly the same to that of the ski trip and that of Angel’s Landing. When I stopped and let my focus shift to the fear beginning to fill my mind, I panicked. If and when a voice in my head moved my focus to getting through the challenge at hand, I was able to keep going. My mind influenced physical actions that eventually proved fear wrong and I was able to release the panic. I began to believe that I could complete the task. Of course, in the case of Angel’s Landing, fear won out.
Contemplating these similar experiences I realized that my moments of panic in daily life are handled the same way in my life. When I start to panic, I have two choices, give in to the fear or just convince myself to keep moving even if I don’t think I can. Ultimately, wherever my focus lies, that wins out. If I focus on fear, it wins. If I focus on what I need to do, I complete the task.
I’m going to go out on a limb (not physically, that would be terrifying) and say that many people can relate to this concept of their focus ultimately winning out. So if I may be so bold as to ask, when facing a challenge (in any part of your life), what are you focusing on? The challenge? Or the solution? Even something as hopelessly controlling as fear can be beat through a shift of focus.
Whatever your tendencies may be, it’s important to identify them so that you can work on the patterns that stunt your growth and reinforce the patterns that let you flourish. There’s always room for improvement, which is a good thing. Unless you’ve already accomplished everything you’ve ever wanted in life, it means you still have room to do more. So work on yourself. Focus on how you can do more.