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My Fear Of Flying: How Yoga Keeps Me Grounded

10/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It was hard for me to even write that title. Can I actually admit I'm afraid of flying? Not me! What happened to me? I used to love to fly! Plus I'm not supposed to be a person with fears, especially something so simple as flying! I'm a great traveler. I love adventure, and tend to fit in so well with locals that by the second day or so people on the street ask me for directions. Usually I can even be of assistance. Well, except in China.

I have flown a ton and have frequent flyer status with most airlines. When I renewed my passport this year I was sad to trade in my beat-up book crowded with stamps and visas that overlapped each other from all over the globe for a stiff new shinny book. Although I was glad to see the old picture go. I've been fortunate enough to travel to Thailand, China, Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean, Los Angeles (quite a bit), and loads of other destinations for work and a little play. My adventures in flying really took off when I was 19. I loved everything about it. I loved the anticipation and excitement of the trip ahead. I loved choosing which book I was going to bring to accompany me. I loved going to the airport and getting on the plane and settling into my seat. I usually had a window seat. Best for adventure seekers and daydreamers!

Watching the ground speed by as we soared into the air was thrilling to me. I loved seeing the rooftops and cars shrink into dollhouse size and then transform into broad patches of earth. I adored being in the clouds and relished in daydreams as we jetted through and above the fluff piles. I soaked in the textures of the ever-changing landscape from cities, to quilted farm patches, to hills, mountains, and water. I remember having such a peaceful feeling when I was flying. It was a time when I wasn't expected to work, or perform. Flying was a quiet reflective time for recharging and inspiration. The only thing I had to do was sit and wait, same as Siddhartha, a favorite character of mine from Herman Hesse. Siddhartha says there are only three things to do: sit, wait, and fast. So I would play the copy-my-hero Siddhartha game . . . except for occasional acceptance of the in-flight meal, usually on an international flight from Italy or Asia when they have something a little more culturally authentic. Ahh, flying is so yoga.

Fast forward to around a year or so ago. It didn't happen on one particular flight. The fear crept up on me like dust on a plant. The plant looks fine for a while especially from a distance. Then one day you're in a bit closer and notice your plant is a little more grey than green. I wish I could remove my fears as easily as I can wipe the dust off my plants!

So I'm a grown adult who travels lots for work, and I've developed this fear of flying. What's more embarrassing is alongside my death-grip on the armrests, I am a health and yoga professional. I'm professionally calm! I just opened my first yoga studio, I help people find a relaxed state of mind and body through yoga, and I can't seem to do it for myself when it comes to flying on an airplane. Everybody else on the plane is just fine. I'm imagining the engines falling off. It's a bit embarrassing.

So this is what happens. I get excited for my trip as usual. I go to the airport. All is still fine. I get on the plane. Still normal. It creeps up on me when we back out of the gate. I start to tense up a bit but not too bad until we hit the runway. When the engine revs up and we speed down the runway all I can imagine is something going wrong. The plane explodes, a wheel falls off, a wing breaks, the fuel leaks. My thoughts are unproductive and crazy but they are real to me. I clutch the armrest and try to appear normal to the other passengers. Usually someone notices my strange behavior and smiles at me, part comforting, part "what's wrong with you?" I usually smile back and make a joke that I hate this part. Once we're off the ground my whole body locks up. I switch from squeezing my eyes shut to staring out the window looking for reassurance that we are still ok. I absolutely hate when the plane turns during the climb. I imagine the wing tipping too much and plummeting to the earth.

Once we've reached the height when the captain turns off the fasten seat belt sign, which for me means we've reached the first plateau, my body releases a bit and my hands relax their grip. I notice they're numb from the strain as feeling begins to return. I'm still alive. I realize my actions and fears are silly to say the least. But during take-off, I just can't control my thoughts.

Now there's some time when all is ok again. I think of everything yoga has taught me, and how quickly I forget during take-off. I remind myself that even when I'm on the ground I'm not in control of my life completely. I make choices and feel in control but I know that's not how things are. I could spend my whole life worrying about what could happen to get in my way, annoy or even kill me. But if I go in that direction there is a good chance I could end up telling my story of the WE channel's Secret Lives of Women. What if the plane does dive into the ground? Do I want to die in a panic or do I want to be able to breathe and remain in peace? I remind myself to breathe.

I win the battle with my un-useful thoughts for a while, during this period when people are getting up and walking around and watching the movie. It's like being able to breathe fully in yoga class when I'm doing a pose that is easy for me, or being happy in life when things are going my way. Sure, it's easy to be focused and calm during times of comfort.

When the turbulence kicks in and the fasten seat belt light goes on, yoga (and common sense) flies out the window again. I return to a ball of tension. I hate the bumps! I imagine the air whipping our plane over and falling to the ground. It's awful. I remind myself these thoughts aren't very productive, and I have the ability to choose what my thoughts are and I try to change my thinking. Or better yet just breathe and empty my thoughts, because who needs thinking all the time. I should have no excuse with all my training in yoga and health-related activities. I have a go-to list of a million techniques to reduce stress. Applying them to myself in a turbulence situation, somehow this is a different issue!

I'm usually fine when the plane lands. It's almost over and we're almost there. I rationalize this with my Taurus nature. I'm grounded, psychologically and literally. I like to be on the ground and I like moving toward the ground. It's silly really when I think about it because I'm still flying but I feel better when we're making our way down. Of course, so long as it's at a rate that feels ok to me.

Fears or phobias are never rational. That's what I keep telling myself.

I'm determined not to turn into a frequent flyer with a crazy fear of flying. That wouldn't be good for anyone. So I'm prescribing for myself more flying and less freaking out. And some more on the ground practice too. On and off the yoga mat I vow to pay more attention to being calm, breathing, and focused during difficult situations, same as easier times. That's accessible I think. Maybe it won't make me into Siddhartha quite in time for my next flight. But I do see some easing the gap between easy and difficult. With a little time maybe I'll be practicing the difficult stuff with ease. Even looking forward to it! I suppose that would make the difficult stuff not so difficult. That's deep!

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