Type 2 Fear
"Wait, you're planning to do what?"
It was the fifth or sixth time I was explaining my plan to spend my upcoming birthday learning to deep water solo to someone who doesn't rock climb.
“It’s climbing, just over the ocean…and without a harness…or a rope…and you kind just fall into the ocean if you mess up…” I would say. When I saw the inevitable look of confusion, I would bring up a photo of Chris Sharma on some epic deep water route on my phone. That's when their expression would change from confusion to fear. After a few seconds, it would change again, back to confusion, as they started wondering why someone who was about to turn 30 was so giddy about the idea of dangling off of pieces of rock high above to ocean, and without safety equipment.
If I was lucky, the conversation would end there. If I wasn't, a barrage of questions and comments about my and safety and sanity would follow. Eventually, I started just telling people that I was going hiking.
The day after my actual birthday, I stood peering over the edge of a limestone cliff on the island of Mallorca as a cocoon of doubt in the back of my mind started it's transformation into full-blown terror butterfly. I walked back a few feet where I had left my gear – an old black and brown pair of Five-Ten climbing shoes, a chalk bag, a copy of Spain: Mallorca, Sport Climbing & Deep Water Soling and a beaten up Nalgene bottle – in a heap. I grabbed the guidebook and flipped to the page for Cala Sa Nau. Below my feet a shallow cave sloped back from the top of the cliff, just like in the book. On the left, limestone cliffs stretched out into a prominent headland crested with a scenic arch. Also, just like in the book. Everything looked identical to the way it did in the book, and yet, standing there I couldn’t understand, for the life of me, what made the authors list this as “a good starter spot” for deep water soloing.
I shrugged my shoulders and searched for the top of a route named Frogger, deciding that the guidebook authors must have known something that I just couldn’t see from my vantage point. The route was the easiest on the wall with a European difficulty grade of 4c – something close to a 5.7 North American grade– and a deep water solo grade of S1. Apparently that meant it had a “pretty safe” landing in the water below.
I pulled on my shoes, chalked up my hands and stepped down over the cliff edge to start the down-climb.
Despite easy moves and massive, grippy holds, I couldn’t shake a feeling that something was wrong. About halfway down the climb, during a mildly technical move that I should have breezed through, my legs started to shake. I managed to get through the move, but my will to keep climbing had evaporated. Terrified and shaking, I scrambled to reverse my climb. I don't think I started breathing again until I finally flopped back over the top-out. On the hike back to the car I tried telling myself that it was because it was late and that I was just tired from spending the morning sport-climbing at some nearby sea cliffs, but the truth was that I just chickened out.
I spent most of that night replaying the climb in my head. I had jumped off higher cliffs and climbed steeper lines, but something was stopping me from putting the pieces together. Something about deep water soloing had brought up a fear that I hadn’t experienced since I nearly wet myself in terror trying to haul myself up a fifteen foot beginner wall during an elementary school field trip to a local climbing gym.
The next day, I decided to check out a spot near Port de Soller, a typical beachfront tourist town on the western side of the island. According to the guidebook, Port de Soller was home to a soloing wall with “many lines which would suit first time soloers”.
After a short walk away from the bars, souvenir shacks and peddle-boat rentals, the trail stopped at the a rocky outcropping on the edge of the Mediterranean. I packed my gear into a dry bag, dove in and started the long swim across the bay. After about thirty minutes of swimming, I dragged myself out onto a flat section of rock, pulled out my guidebook and started scoping out the towering limestone cliffs rising up all around me.
I decided to start out on a long left-to-right traverse. Moving laterally along the rock, a few feet above the water line, I could feel my confidence growing with each move. Each time the fear would start to creep up I would stop, lock off, breathe and work through the next few moves in my head before continuing on and repeating the process. Confidence growing, I found a nice vertical section, climbed up about a few meters and kicked off into the ocean. My hands and knees lit up with a searing pain as I sunk below the water and the salty Mediterranean found all the little incisions that had been left by the sharp limestone. I swam back to the wall, hauled myself up and traversed out again. Back on the rock, this time I climbed up even further, kicked off and repeated the whole process. I kept this cycle up for close to an hour, moving higher and higher and taking riskier falls. Before long the fear disappeared and I was topping out long routes, bailing on hard moves over sketchy landings and scrambling right back onto rock with a smile from ear to ear.
By the end of the day I was soaring. My fear had evaporated, even the irrational fear of sharks and sea monsters I get anytime I swim in deep water abated as I made the long swim back across the bay. For the weeks that followed, my climbing and adventuring was buoyed by a soaring sense of invincibility. But, when that feeling carried me into a shoulder injury and then to the doctor's office on my return to Canada, I found myself staring up at twenty straight feet of vertical beige stone, the fear welling up all over again.
As if it could sense my hesitation, a little voice in my head pushed me forwards. You’re going to regret not doing this.
The first move wasn’t physically hard, but it was intimidating as hell. Focusing, I stepped forward, reached out my right hand, closed it around the metal door handle and opened the door to the yoga studio.
It’s a little embarrassing to realize, and even more so to admit, but I’m terrified of yoga.
To me, yoga has always seemed to land in one of two camps. The first is the intimidating fitness-yoga types. Seeming to be populated primarily by the professionally attractive, this camp is full of no-arm handstands, well lit Instagram photos and all-white yoga studios with names like Bliss Happens or Fountain-of-You*. It’s perhaps best exemplified by Chip Wison, the human dumpster fire famous for fat-shaming women, building the most expensive house in Vancouver and just generally being a terrible human being. The second camp is a sort of global commune of neo-hippies filled with people wearing earth toned MC-Hammer pants, drinking prodigious amounts of Yerba Mate and using the word Namaste like a suburban dad uses Aloha on a Hawaiian vacation.
*Actual real-world yoga studio names, I do my research
Despite all this, I had seen and heard a few things that had piqued my interest in yoga, chief among them a flyer at a climbing gym in Montreal advertising “Yoga for Climbers”. The flyer promised to improve my flexibility, strengthen my balance, make me less susceptible to injuries (and heal my existing injuries), all so I could climb harder and go bigger. Part of me was convinced to to try it out, but each time I started down the path towards trying out a yoga class, I found a reason to avoid it. Then, a few weeks after returning from my climbing trip in Spain, my doctor took a look at my shoulder and how it was worsening some and prescribed yoga as a part of my rehabilitation program.
I resisted for as long as I could, buying every kind of pain management gel, cream and balm I could find. I took a lot of painkillers and anti-inflammatories. I searched for the internet for second opinions, even relenting partway and watching yoga videos on YouTube. This would typically end with with me contorted into a human pretzel on my kitchen floor trying not to notice how dirty the floor under my stove was.
Despite all my efforts, the pain persisted. I finally relented and googled the address for a nearby yoga studio that some friends had recommended, telling me that it definitely didn't land squarely in either of my preconceived "camps". I don't remember thinking much as I rode my bike towards the yoga studio. If I thought anything, it was that at least the chances of death or grievous physical injury trying yoga had to be lower than most of the physical activities I engaged in, making it all the more shocking to find myself standing terrified with my hand on the door handle of that of that yoga studio the next day.
I’ve been to yoga a lot since that first day, but unlike my experience at those cliffs in Mallorca, the fear hasn’t dissipated. For some reason, standing in one place, contorting my body into uncomfortable positions and consistently being told to focus on my breath brings up a potent cocktail of terror. I’m worried if I’m doing it right. I’m scared because I know I look like an absolute moron during most of the movements. I’m worried that yoga isn't hardcore enough and that even by writing this I’m going to lose some of my adventure cred.
While people all around me seem to slip into meditative bliss in yoga classes, the deep pit of social anxiety that I typically fill with beer, whiskey and awkwardness rips wide open. It starts the minute I walk through the studio door and builds as I climb the stairs until I find myself nervously sweating and wringing my hands in terror, all while standing in a room above a Starbucks filled mostly with women my mom's age.
Overcoming the kind of fear I felt on that first deep water solo is pretty easy, and it’s something that I do a lot. With yoga, there isn’t any piece of gear I can buy or borrow to reassure myself or backstop my weaknesses. I can’t google beta or read trip reports to intellectually calm my doubts. And, since I find stories about the pursuit of inner peace and deep breathing kinda boring (I mean, no one almost dies or has to shit in a bucket perfecting their poses), getting excited to the point that I forget to be afraid is pretty unlikely. Instead, I have to sit, bend, twist and fold, right into that fear.
Part of the reason I keep climbing is because it scares the shit out of me. For me, overcoming that fear is one of the most fulfilling things that I’ve been able to find in this world. I’m realizing that might also be why I keep showing up to the beige facade of that terrifying yoga studio.
My shoulder is starting to feel better, and with some more physio I should be back on the wall in a matter of days. I know that yoga wil never replace climbing – or backpacking or skiing, or anything I really do outside for that matter. It’s missing too many of the key reasons I head into the outdoors and onto trails, rocks, rivers and into the sea. I'll never be the kind of person to identifies with yoga as a culture or a community, but since I’ve spent most of my life doing things that challenge my external fears, it hasn't been the worst thing in the world to spend some with the fears inside my head.