Flying on airplanes has always been challenging for me. Whenever there was any turbulence, my body would go into a fear mode. I would spend the rest of the flight praying and, if the turbulence was severe, preparing for death.
My practice when I first step on an airplane is to pray deeply to our line of masters and to visualize angels protecting the airplane and carrying it safely to its destination. I also meditate and do japa for most of the flight.
Mainly because of the intensity of my spiritual practices during flights, my fear of flying has gradually lessened. Sometimes I even enjoy it.
A chance to do hang gliding
In the fall of 2006, my husband, Gyandev, and I led an Ananda Yoga weekend retreat in Chattanooga, Tennessee. After the retreat ended, the friend who organized it took us to watch people hang gliding near Chattanooga.
We sat at the edge of a large rock on the top of Lookout Mountain, overlooking a strikingly beautiful area. The weather was warm and the trees were turning beautiful fall colors. Despite the beautiful scenery, seeing people hang gliding caused my heart to beat faster.
As we watched, our friend asked, "Would you like to try it?" She had done hang gliding, and with great enthusiasm told us how much she’d enjoyed soaring like a bird in the air. "It’s a once in a life time experience!" she said.
My husband’s response was a big: "Yes." Mine was an immediate: "No Way!"
Compared to hang gliding, flying in an airplane seemed easy: in a plane you are encased in a large metal structure. With hang gliding you are tied to a small aluminum structure, fully exposed to the elements.
After inquiring at the office, Gyandev and I arranged to come back the next day. He would do hang gliding and I would watch.
The Guru’s stamp of approval
That night, as I reflected on the courage of those who do hang gliding, I recalled Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings on not letting fears paralyze you. I asked myself: "Is it important that I overcome this fear?" I left the question open.
The following morning during my meditation, I inwardly asked Yogananda whether I should try hang gliding and was surprised to feel his stamp of approval in my heart. I tried to visualize myself hang gliding high above the ground — and the fear returned. Nevertheless, I decided to try it.
The flip of the coin
The weather at Lookout Mountain was very good for hang gliding — clear skies with little wind. We watched a video that explained the process and gave many safety guidelines.
Though nervous, I tried to stay calm. By the flip of the coin, it was decided that I would go first.
The hang glider pilot arrived, a young man in his thirties who seemed knowledgeable and trustworthy. For inexperienced people, hang gliding is done in tandem with an expert pilot.
Instead of taking off from the top of a mountain, the hang glider is attached by a long rope to a small airplane that ascends to between 2000 and 4000 feet. The airplane pilot then disconnects the hang glider.
Before we started, I said my good byes. Since I wasn’t sure if I would make it back, I told Gyandev how much I loved him. I also prayed inwardly to all the masters to protect me.
An exhilarating take-off
The pilot and I put on padded suits. Next, he tied me, then himself, to the pole in the middle of the glider, and I lay on his back. As we took off from a grassy field, I held on tightly to handles sewn onto the pilot’s suit.
Taking off was exhilarating. As we soared upward, Swami Kriyananda’s yoga postures affirmation came to mind: "I soar upward on wings of joy!" I thanked Yogananda for this wonderful experience.
Dipping and rising
When we reached 2000 feet, the pilot told me we would be disconnecting from the plane and flying on our own. The snap came a few seconds later: we were disconnected!
The hang glider took a deep dip and my heart sank. As we took another dip, my heart sank even more. I had expected the gliding to be smooth since the air looked so peaceful, but we kept dipping and rising, going in and out of what are called "thermals."
"Thermals" are columns of rising hot air caused by the sun heating the ground. A hang gliding pilot, much like a hawks or eagle, relies on "thermals" to gain altitude and maneuver in the air.
The fear kicks in
While the pilot was adjusting the glider, I looked down and, for the first time, realized how high up we were. At first, my mind couldn’t quite grasp the situation. I thought, "I am up in the air, tied with a few ropes to a flimsy little structure — and flying. Impossible!"
That’s when the fear kicked in and my body went into a state of total shock.
All the muscles in my body started to tighten; even my facial muscles were clenching. Never before had I experienced my entire body becoming so stiff — nearly frozen.
Instinctively, I knew I had to detach myself from the experience in order to survive. I was afraid that as my body became more and more frozen, the fear would reach my lungs and I wouldn’t be able to breathe.
The way to stay alive
The pilot, unaware of my fear, began pointing to the beautiful scenery. We could see open fields, the tops of trees, the outline of hills, and small houses in the distance./
He asked me to smile so he could take a photo with a camera attached to the glider, but I could barely move the muscles of my face. Then he asked if I wanted a photo of myself with my arms out-stretched, which meant releasing my octopus grip on the handles attached to his suit. With my head, I signaled "NO!"
The pilot tried to cheer me up by talking but I told him I wanted to be in silence. Intuitively I knew it would take all of my energy to stay alive.
The grace of God and Guru
With my eyes open, I focused my full attention at the point between the eyebrows. Over and over I chanted "AUM Guru," "God, Christ Guru," and "Lord I Am Thine."
The glider kept dipping and rising and it took every ounce of my energy to remain focused. Yet, surprisingly, as soon as I tried to withdraw mentally, I became aware of God’s presence within. I felt my mind detaching from the fear and becoming still.
I had experienced mental stillness and detachment in meditation, but now in the air, I was able to achieve it much more quickly. It seemed as if God and Guru were pulling me inward and connecting me to a higher power.
The body remains "frozen"
Though staying focused took all of my mental powers, my mind remained detached, completely still, and free of fear. I felt enveloped in God’s presence and was able to endure (though not enjoy) the experience.
Whenever my mind becomes detached and still in meditation, my body also becomes very relaxed. During the hang gliding, however, my body remained tense and tight the entire time. It was as though mind and body were separate entities — I was aware of the body, but withdrawn into the inner Self.
After fifteen minutes, we finally started to descend. As soon as we landed, my body relaxed. I was relieved and happy to be on the ground — and alive!
Gyandev thoroughly enjoyed the hang gliding and felt it ended too soon. Sensing his spirit of adventure, the pilot added a few challenging dips and turns, and an unusually steep descent.
The practice of titiksha
During my hang gliding experience I consciously practiced titiksha, which Swami Kriyananda translates as endurance, even-mindedness, and inward non-involvement.
The goal of titiksha is to withdraw from the body’s reactive process, and to go within and experience joy. The underlying attitude is: "I am even-minded and cheerful under all circumstances."
Kriyananda says that titiksha should become a basic life-attitude. We should do what we can to relieve pain or other physical distress, but we should, at the same time, resist it mentally and affirm: "I am Spirit! I am not this body."
The hang–gliding experience has made me much more aware of the power of the mind, acquired through meditation, to detach from the body and to focus on a greater reality. As yogis, we can always do something, even if the body does not cooperate.
Why didn’t my body respond?
Why didn’t my practice of titiksha remove the fear concentrated in my body? My fear of flying is obviously very deep seated, with many layers.
However, by continuing to work with this fear, it is gradually dissolving. In a recent airplane flight to Wisconsin, which was bumpy all the way, I was able to stay relaxed both mentally and physically.
If the opportunity ever presents itself, and if I inwardly feel the Guru’s approval, I might try hang gliding again, just to see whether my body keeps pace with my mind.
Diksha McCord, a Lightbearer, lives at Ananda Village and teaches at the Expanding Light Guest Retreat.