Yoga’s Perspective on Fear & Guilt

16 October 2013

Like many other things in life, fear and guilt (in themselves) are neither good nor bad, they simply are. In any given instance, they can serve to further our goals and needs or just the opposite, they can push us further away from them. In any event, they are not to be ignored, but instead, when these feelings arise, they warrant some compassionate reflection; that way we can discover what attributes they possess that might be useful or helpful to us and which ones we should just let go of.

During yoga practice we may find fear to have its place. A healthy fear of injury works well to prevent our egos from pushing us into asanas that we’re not ready for, or it may give us pause when we feel driven to force ourselves to go further into a pose than we should. it seems guilt is not quite as useful in most yoga practice, but now and then, it is that guilty feeling about not practicing regularly that keeps us coming back to our mat. So, as we all have probably realized, it can be a motivator in many cases.

Due to our conditioning, fear and guilt are commonly perceived by us as negative emotions. But come to think of it, they may be not so bad.

Would it be going too far to state that fear and guilt are good? It’s easy to see that both these emotions have played important roles in our evolution, and they continue to do so. They are necessary for our conscious and spiritual evolution, making us more thoughtful and capable of more compassion.

Fear functions well when it comes to instilling in us the necessary respect for life, and often prevents us from behaving recklessly. Almost all young children have fears (like the fear of darkness, loneliness, fear of animals etc.). These fears ensure that the child seeks to remain in safer situations. As they grow older, they gradually shed these fears, evolving beyond them.

Feelings of guilt ensure that we evaluate our thoughts and actions from time to time in order to become better human beings. When we commit a misdeed, or bring harm or suffering to someone or something it is natural for us to feel bad about it. This makes us want to correct it and make an effort not to repeat our mistakes, but rise above them instead. If it weren’t for guilt we would become insensitive, perhaps even ruthless.

Humans are fortunate to have evolved above other forms of animal life. Animals have no guilt but possess lots of fear. As a result they do not evolve as humans do and develop compassion or any understanding of empathy for the suffering of others. But some may protest, saying animals do feel guilt, citing dogs as an example. But this has been proven to be a mistaken notion. Recent studies at Barnard College in New York, uncovered the origins of the “guilty look” in dogs and found that it is a response to the owner’s behavior, and not necessarily indicative of any response to its own misdeeds.

Yoga philosophy teaches us that balanced emotions equal a balanced personality. As in everything else, a balance needs to be there to hold everything in check; similarly excessive (or obsessive) fear and guilt can ruin our personalities.

Excessive, and especially irrational, fears (aka phobias) hamper one’s life. One begins to become afraid without any reason. When fears persist after we should have outgrown them, they should be addressed and if need be treated by a trusted health care professional.

Also, too much guilt, will often lead to a flawed and/or dysfunctional personality. When a person feels guilty most or all the time, they become apologetic about everything. From this an inferiority complex will often develop.

When we’re not able to properly balance and manage such emotions as fear and guilt, it affects our relationships as well as our physical health. Unhealthy, unbalanced guilt and fear lead to excessive adrenalin production, prompting other hormonal imbalances; this in turn establishes the breeding ground for a host of ailments.

Yoga practice fosters mindfulness and compassion that can help you replace negativity with self-acceptance. When you feel physically tight, yoga allows you to breathe into the muscles to relax them. It’s the same when you encounter difficult emotions such as fear or guilt. You learn to inhale and exhale through that too, working toward a place of greater balance, understanding and confidence. Therefore, when properly balanced, the emotions of guilt and fear are beneficial. One should not be overly bothered about them. They are a natural and inherent to our state of existence. As a person evolves spiritually, their usefulness dissolves and they tend fall away on their own.

*Rae Indigo is ERYT500 

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