Q: Does yoga offer an antidote to fear?

A: In the Yoga Sutra (2:3), Patanjali lists five afflictions: avidya, ignorance; asmita, false sense of self-identity; raga, attachment; dvesha, aversion; and abhinivesha, fear of death. In Sanskrit, the commonly used word for fear is bhaya. But Patanjali did not use the word bhaya. Instead, he used the word abhinivesha, and he did it for a reason. It is made of three words: abhi + ni + vesha—two prefixes added to the word vesha. Abhi means “from all around and from every direction.” Ni means “completely, in every respect, in every possible meaning.” Vesha means “to enter.” So abhinivesha is something that enters and penetrates all aspects of our being; it enters from every direction, in every manner, in every respect, and penetrates every minute nook and cranny of our body and mind. This is the nature of fear. Once it’s there, it just spreads. There is no virus in creation that is as powerful and as fast-spreading as fear.

Abhinivesha is something that enters and penetrates all aspects of our being.

Fear is like a nuclear bomb that has just exploded. It is so quick, so fast, generating so much heat and pulling so much oxygen in such a short time that it immediately turns into an enormous storm from every direction—abhi. It is not a storm as we know it that moves from one side to another and has a pattern and will eventually subside. This storm starts sucking human consciousness from everywhere. One person is fearful. The next person also becomes fearful and then the next person becomes fearful. Then we become a fear-driven society.

Our politics are fear driven. Our religion is fear driven. Our ideologies become fear driven. Everything becomes fear driven. Our thoughts, speech, and actions are affected. Our priorities change. Our bodies change. It’s not only that you start having an ulcer. Shakiness comes in the body. You have a hard time even doing your relaxation. The quality of your yoga is disturbed at that time. Your interaction with your loved ones is changed. That is how fear works. That is why it is called abhinivesha.

Ultimately all fears are associated with fear of losing something which is very dear to you. For instance, you worked very hard to develop your career and now you have lost it. If you lose your job and can’t pay your bills, then you will lose your house. Even the prospect of losing your house is painful and scary and you become anxious. What will become of you and your family? So the fear of loss and the pain caused by that loss or the possibility of that loss go hand in hand. And that is all part of abhinivesha.

So how do we handle fear?

So how do we handle fear? Let’s go back to the five afflictions. The first one, which is the most subtle, primordial cause of all other afflictions, is avidya, ignorance. According to the Yoga Sutra (2:4), avidya is our unwillingness to explore anything outside the domain of our own habit patterns—our familiar world, our familiar way of thinking—and to consider only that habitual way of thinking to be the truth. This is an active process. It is not simply the lack of knowledge pertaining to something. Lack of knowledge is passive. But there is also a very active way of creating an image, a belief system, and really holding on to it and not having any willingness to consider any possibility other than that.

Avidya leads to asmita, or false sense of self-identity—the second affliction. This false identity is something we have been cultivating for a long time, continuously adding to the formation of our personality, our image.

Then comes raga, attachment, and wherever raga is, comes dvesha, aversion, dislike. These two afflictions are like two different ends of the same pole, from one part of the spectrum to the other. This is where fear shows up. We latch on to what we are afraid of losing, or run away from what we have an aversion toward and are afraid of having. It completely occupies our mind. That becomes our total reality.

Now trace fear backward to its origin through these twin laws of like and dislike, attachment and aversion. They take us back to our asmita, our false sense of self-identity. When our asmita is somehow challenged it’s terrifying. Why? Because it has its roots deep in avidya, ignorance. By understanding that we are more than our false sense of self-identity, that our true identity is our higher self, beyond these likes and dislikes, we can attain freedom from fear.

When we do this through the practices of yoga, we can change our experience—rather than taking fear in, we can experience a higher, expanded sense of reality. Meditation and the flow of divine grace are the antidote to abhinivesha.

Through a combination of meditation and grace, divine consciousness enters us, penetrates us, pierces us, transforming us into that higher consciousness. When that happens, your mind is no longer confined, narrow, a mind with almost no room for anything other than your thought constructs, your own preconditioning, your own prejudices and preoccupations, your fears and worries. Now it becomes filled with divine consciousness.

To overcome abhinivesha, allow your heart to be as big as the universe.

Divine consciousness fills your heart. There is space in and between every single cell of the body, but at the same time there is a space that is uniquely designed to give room to consciousness, self-awareness. That space is called the heart. It is so uniquely designed that it can shrink or it can expand all the way to absolute infinity.

Our heart can be so small that it does not have room even to share a cup of tea with someone we love. It shrinks and gets so filled with a tiny misunderstanding that suddenly it has no room to say, “Honey, would you like to have a cup of tea?” But our heart can also expand to be big enough to accommodate the entire universe. On the one hand, it is so small and on the other hand it has so much room—room that gets filled with divine consciousness through practice and the flow of grace. To overcome abhinivesha, allow your heart to be as big as the universe.

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