The author in Yoga pose as she conquers her fears!

The small commuter airplane swayed as it began its descent toward rural Virginia. I gripped the armrest. The seatbelt chime dinged and the engines droned. I closed my eyes and felt the twenty-thousand feet below me open like a chasm. I put my earbuds in and raised the volume. Guitar chords and drums pulsed. A filigree of cymbals wove around the melody as David (Durga Das) Newman’s earthy tenor sang “Love Peace and Freedom for Us All” in a call and response kirtan; a lullaby which kept me from tipping into a full-blown panic attack.

After the nausea-inducing flight I drove my rental car to Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville. Hours later but still rattled from the flight, I made my way to a kirtan event lead by Newman. The hot summer air clung to my skin as I took a seat in the crowded hall. It should have been a happy coincidence to attend a live event by one of my favorite artists. I was at the ashram to serve as program coordinator for a different training program and surprised by the serendipity; but I could barely muster enthusiasm to tap my fingers. The relentless cymbal clanging and mantra repetitions seared my raw nerves. I resisted the guitars, the drums, and even more so I resisted the pull of the mantra. Only Midwestern-born politeness kept me in my seat. Sweat trickled down my face until eventually the chanting trailed its vibrations into a final Om that melded into silence.

I had so much resistance back then, and used it like some kind of backwards protective system: if I resist opening up during kirtan it means I’m safe from heart-break; if I fear dying on an airplane it means I’m alive.

A week later I returned home to Boston and wore myself out during the nauseating and panicked flights. But this time I got fed-up. It was time to face my fear of flying. Figuring that learning about aviation might help, I booked a Discovery Flight; a forty-five minute ground lesson followed by a thirty minute flight in a small four-seat airplane. On the way to Mansfield Airport I almost backed out and had to coax myself by bargaining the drive from stoplight to stoplight. And despite grumbling my way through his kirtan concert, Newman was my go-to artist when dealing with my fear, so it seemed inevitable that I’d chant along with Love Peace Chant as I willed the car forward.

After numbly enduring the ground instruction the time came to strap myself into the four-seat Cessna. I was a breath away from backing out but somehow held my nerve. And when the enthusiastic but patient flight instructor started the engine I almost ripped off my headset and bolted. Once airborne it took endless coaxing by the instructor but I finally put my trembling hands on the controls. The radio crackled and the wind hummed around us. It was late spring and the thick green canopy of trees rolled over the Earth. Just beyond the spinning propeller sat the rugged Boston cityscape and the cool blue Atlantic ocean.

Soon one lesson turned into another. Before my mind could catch up to my heart I had enrolled in flight school to become a certificated private pilot. To my surprise I had fallen in love with flying. Fear, however, had worn canyons in my mind. Each new sensation or flight maneuver triggered years of well-practiced fear. My brain was clogged and learning felt like a Sisyphean effort. My resistance wanted me to stay stuck; “It would be easier this way wouldn’t it? Give up now and go back to teaching Yoga,” it whispered. Each departure climb sent my pulse racing. My body was as taut as a guitar string and to keep my mind from giving into panic, part of it would repeat a mantra.

The seasons ticked by: we checked for bugs in the intake tubes that summer, then cleared leaves from the hanger in autumn, and in winter scraped frost off the wings.Then spring arrived and on social media David Newman’s wife Mira announced that he had brain cancer and would soon pass away. Even though I did not know him personally it felt like the blow of losing a good friend. It seemed impossible that someone so much younger than me could measure the time from first symptoms to final breath the span of weeks. Once again, I queued up Love, Peace, Chant and drove to the airport.

A few lessons later I was ready to fly solo; a rite of passage for every aviator. Three takeoffs and three landings around my home airport with just the plane and me. Flying in the pattern is busy; climbing, turning, radio calls to make, all the piloting jazz. But for a few moments on each downwind I exhaled slowly and gazed at Boston as it peeked at me from behind the Blue Hills and mentally waved at the Atlantic ocean. I no longer needed to repeat a mantra to keep my heart from racing; for I was now in duet with the sound of flight.

During my final approach to landing I pulled the power to idle and the engine purred. I slowed to my final approach speed and smiled when I heard the soprano whistle of wind over the fuselage, the sign of the speed dialed in just right; this was the song of flight. The wind and plane worked together and soon we made a smooth touchdown.

A few days later Newman’s wife posted to social media that he had “recently quoted one of his favorite musical artists, Nick Cave…‘I’m transforming, I’m vibrating… I’m flying, look at me now…’ ” I like to think that Newman was with me on that solo flight; that he saw the power of mantra embodied in a budding aviator stepping away from fear and into her power. A few weeks later he passed away.

In classical music, composers sometimes guide the decrease of volume—a decrescendo— by specifying with the notation al niente: to nothing. Fading into nothing reminds me of the quiet hush after the final Om of Newman’s kirtan or the smooth whisper of air over a wing. I used to resist giving up my fears; because without it to define me if felt like dropping into nothingness; my life disappearing al niente and with no meaning. The mantras and flying are slowly dissolving my illusions of separateness and as my vision expands, my fear has no barrier to push against. I no longer fear the void beneath me, for now I see that I am part of it, and it is a part of me. I was born from silence and shall eventually return to silence. In between, I sing with the sky.

(Author’s Note: the timeline of events in this essay have been compressed for clarity.)

About the Author:

Gita Brown is a wellness activist, musician, and writer. She is a certified Advanced Integral Yoga®  teacher and licensed Yoga for the Special Child® practitioner. Through her “Yoga with Gita courses” and podcast, “The Gita Brown Show,” her mission is to teach her students how to adapt the traditional practices of Yoga to bring more ease, wellness, and joy into everyday life. Gita started Yoga as a teenager, when her love of Yoga grew in tandem with her career as a classical clarinetist and music therapist. For three decades, she has taught Yoga, wellness, and music courses at colleges, schools of music, community schools, private studios, public schools, and hospitals. She offers Yoga to students of all ages and abilities through online programs and in person at her home studio at Three Dog Farm in Kingston, Massachusetts. Learn more about her services by visiting: