What Does It Really Mean to “Let It Go”?
I cringe at the phrase “let it go.” Not because it doesn’t hold meaning but because its original meaning has been lost in a sea of spiritual clichés. Yoga teachers, myself included, often invite students to let go of thoughts or worries. But how do we let go? If only it was that easy, right? Let go, and poof!, your mind is pristine.
There may not be a magic pill to let go of your past or whatever it is you’re clinging to; however, you can begin simply by loosening your grip.
So what does it really mean to let go? Sure, it’s simple for a well-intentioned friend to flippantly encourage you to let go of an emotion or difficult experience, but, as most of us know, not quite as simple when you’re the person attempting to do the releasing. I think “let it go” can be irritating because it's often used as though the phrase itself were a solution (i.e. blink your eyes or wave your wand) instead of a reminder of work that needs to be done. There may not be a magic pill to let go of your past or whatever it is you’re clinging to; however, you can begin simply by loosening your grip.
I remember when a close friend told me to relax my body on a frigid winter day. To breathe into the cold rather than bracing against it (i.e., hunched shoulders, tense jaw, tense everything). And ya know something? It worked. I was still freezing my tush off but I was more comfortable in this tush-freezing state as I softened into the cold air, as I breathed with the harsh winds, and as I basically accepted, rather than tried to escape, the artic-like temperature.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a heart-opening restorative yoga workshop in Manhattan. Our teacher, Mona Anand, pointed out that the exhalation, which reflects the process of letting go in the body, is akin to generosity. When we are in this more generous state of being, there tends to be a sense of “flow” or connection in our lives. When we “hold on” or “hold in” (picture a person crossing her arms in front of her chest with rounded shoulders), Mona offered, we are in a self-protective state, which generally stems from fear and can cut off a sense of flow, or make us feel stuck.
Some of us have a hard time letting go of our physical possessions. The accumulation of physical stuff can reflect stuck emotions—emotions that have nowhere to go and therefore stagnate. I have a childhood friend who admits to having trouble discarding items she knows she no longer has a use for. She's found a way of dealing with her desire to save everything she ever owned by first moving the item in question outside of the room where it's located and into a hallway, where she can contemplate its next destination. Eventually, the item makes its way to her front door, where it usually sits for a period of time while she gets used to the idea of parting with it, until she feels ready to finally send it on its way. I think we can consider releasing old emotional patterns in a similar way. Slowly. Methodically.
The accumulation of physical stuff can reflect stuck emotions—emotions that have nowhere to go and therefore stagnate.
Emotions begin in the body. We can feel where our emotions live if we tune into them. In a recent video on the Huffington Post, Pema Chödrön tells Oprah that the way to deal with suffering and discontent is to face it, not to run away from it. “Sometimes I say, 'What does your heart feel like?'” explains Pema. “People will say, 'It feels like a rock.' 'What does your stomach feel like?' 'It feels like a knot. It's as if my whole body was clenched… because I'm so miserable.’ So, breathe in and let that heart open. Let the stomach open.”
We face emotions by sitting quietly, breathing, feeling them. Simple, but not easy when our impulse is turn on the TV or log onto Facebook.
That’s where the yoga comes in. We shift and change negative emotions by first bringing awareness to the body. We can start simple. We bring attention to our posture by lifting the sternum and dropping the shoulders. In seated postures we use blankets, if needed, underneath the seat. The added height helps to release tension in the hips and back so the spine can lengthen, which makes space for the breath to move freely through the body. When hunched over, we are closed off and it is difficult to breathe. Try it.
When we change the way we automatically interlace our fingers or the foot we always lead with, we are changing our habits. I have switched the interlacing of my fingers so many times in class that I no longer know which is the “weird” or “unnatural” way. They both feel right. I have stepped back to downward-facing dog so many times with my non-dominant leg that I no longer automatically lead with the same leg. When we change up our unconscious patterns, we can open to new ways of doing things, to different ways of being in the world. We can loosen the places in the body where we habitually hold by bringing awareness there, by imagining we're sending our breath there. Over time, we coax tight muscles to soften through steady awareness, breath, and movement. In the same way, we strengthen weaker, underused muscles so that we can protect the vulnerable parts of our bodies. Do not underestimate the mind-body connection.
When we change up our unconscious patterns, we can open to new ways of doing things, to different ways of being in the world
Rumi wrote, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” It's not that we must rid ourselves of something we don’t want, something “bad.” Instead, the key is learning to accept it. And the first step is to look at whatever it is that you are holding onto (as they say in the 12-step programs, “admit to having a problem”), to sit with it and be with it until you are ready to loosen your grip on it.
That’s what yoga teachers mean when we talk about “letting go.”