Breathe through Fear: The power of yoga to provide focus when jumping from a plane.
The thunderous roar of the C-130 engines filled the inside of the huge aircraft that was in flight at an altitude 1,200 feet above ground. I stood with shaking legs behind three other jumpers. Every muscle in my body quivered in anticipation. What allowed me to stand strong in this moment was the clarity and focus I found in my ability to breathe through fear because of yoga.
I was a new soldier in the U.S. Army, and I volunteered in Airborne School to take on my fear of heights. Two men in Air Force uniforms slid open the doors allowing icy cold wind to flood through the airplane. My shoulders already ached from carrying the 40-pound parachute on my back and a 30-pound reserve on my front, but I kept my eyes trained on our instructor who gazed out the door to ensure that all was clear. He gave the thumbs up to the instructor inspecting the other door.
“Thirty seconds!” he shouted to us.
In that moment, I was brought back to why I was there and what jumping meant for me. I learned while in Advanced Individual Training that an Airborne certification would increase my chances of traveling abroad to be stationed where I could cover stories overseas. Writing was part of my ambition to become a military journalist. Through this, I wanted to learn and be exposed to as much as possible. This training changed my life when I realized that I would learn how to breathe through fear.
Although I learned to trust my equipment during the long days of training known as Ground and Tower Week, that experience alone didn’t bring me comfort. My back, neck, and shoulders grew sore from strapping in the tight harness and learning how to fall with it.
I took the course alongside hundreds of other service members from different branches of the military. In a large outdoor pit, we mimicked our instructors who showed us how to fall on our sides and avoid injury. Our instructors progressively built upon each skill, watching each of us execute our falls. After successfully completing this skill, we dove into the next lesson—which comprised of exiting an aircraft through mock doors and assembling our parachute equipment.
We practiced jump techniques on 34-foot zip-line towers that brought up my fear of heights. With every step up the next level of the tower, my breath grew shorter and my palms began to sweat, but jumping out of that tower felt like riding on a small roller coaster; it wasn’t nearly as terrifying as the thought of jumping out of an aircraft while flying at an altitude of 1,200 feet.
I feared the chaos of jumping out of the C-130, and I was afraid of what could possibly go wrong and what I could not control. I tried reasoning through this fear with a few fellow soldiers who encouraged me to be brave. Talking helped a little. Still, I felt neither calm nor confident.
After getting beaten up from falling and carrying extra gear, we all needed something to soothe our muscles and keep us in shape for Jump Week. Four of us decided to use our time off on a Saturday morning to take a hot yoga class at a small studio in downtown Columbus. The class was just like any other hour-long hot yoga class. But unlike any other class that I had taken on any other day, this practice was instrumental in helping me control my fear.
I was was already thinking about how I could apply yoga to my upcoming jump, since I practiced yoga before enlisting in the Army and knew of its healing power to calm negative thoughts and ease anxiety. In that Saturday morning class, as we transitioned from sun salutations to balance poses, I actively released each negative thought from my mind. My focus was finally off of the fear and on something I could control in that moment: my breath. I left the class feeling rejuvenated, not just in muscle but in mind. Turning my attention away from my fear and onto something as simple as my breath showed me how different this particular class was for me when compared to other classes that I practiced at home.
“Okay,” I thought as I strolled out of the building. “Take it one jump at a time. Check them off like a to-do list. It’s simple. It might even be fun.”
I tried to maintain this level of optimism two days later when I approached the entry ramp of the roaring beast of the plane for my first jump. Propellers blew what felt like the air from blazing hot tornadoes against all of my 64 inches of shaking legs, sweating palms, and dry mouth. My hands clutched onto my reserve (the emergency parachute) while the loud wind challenged me, reminding me of my mortality.
My inner confidence whispered, “Complete the mission, Amanda. Trust your training, trust your equipment, and trust yourself.” I remembered to focus on my breath, the one thing that I was able to control: one deep inhalation through the nose and slow exhalation through the mouth. I did this repeatedly as we filed into the aircraft.
Suddenly, the calm washed over me as we ascended. My body moved as if it were in sync with the aircraft when the red light by the door flashed green. One by one, the three jumpers ahead of me exited the door and the remaining dozen or so followed behind me.
It was my turn. I moved forward against the resistance in my feet, cast off my yellow static line, and pivoted towards the door. I immediately kicked out with one foot and snapped into an L-shape with my eyes glued to my feet. The static line that I passed to my instructor pulled open the parachute as I surrendered to the chaos of the wind.
I let the wind toss me around like a rag doll.
As I fell, I felt the reassuring tug of my risers above my head. No lines were twisted and no holes were in my canopy. All around me were 20 other jumpers floating peacefully in the air.
I didn’t have time to enjoy the beautiful scenery of green trees and fields. I was rapidly approaching 200 feet where I needed to determine my direction of drift and slow my descent.
Frantically, I pulled the wrong risers that steered my direction and fell even faster. I prepared myself for a hard landing and immediately felt the harsh impact as I came down on my left ankle. Luckily, I wasn’t limping, so I threw my parachute in my bag and ran out of the drop zone.
Each time I approached the aircraft, I returned to my focus to my breath. That focus alone was powerful enough to keep me grounded and confident. I learned how to improve my landing over the next four jumps, and I completed all of the five jumps that were required to earn my wings.
The same grounded and confident feeling stayed with me as I have moved to Joint Base Fort Lewis-McChord in Washington State as I am preparing for my first deployment to Korea in with my unit, which is attached to Special Forces (SF). In general, our mission in Korea will be to provide the liaison between Special Forces and the civilian international media. For me, this means that I will have the opportunity to cover stories that I may not have been able to do without my “wings.”
Although my schedule has kept me from taking yoga or meditation classes in studios since that hot yoga class in Airborne School, I have kept up my personal practice of connecting with the breath as I face my first deployment and prepare to travel to an unfamiliar country. As long as I continue to breathe, I know I can overcome any fear.
I might even embrace it.