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The “Let Go” mantra that structures the message of many yoga classes can be a self-defeating one. For a long time in my practice and even still at times, the gesture of letting go looked more like pushing away than it did releasing. But letting go and pushing away are not the same thing and the cue to let go of tension and pain can be an excuse to escape and avoid it. And so the practice on our mats becomes another variation of the other habits we invoke in order to avoid, ignore or otherwise displace the emotions that live in our bodies.
Recently I have offered my students an invitation to explore all the stress and tensions of their lives as they come onto their mat and into their practice. Bring the job you hate, the partner you fought with, the jeans that don’t fit, the bounced check, the hurt, the anxiety and the sleepless nights. Let it mingle with the breath and the joy and peace and see where the conversation goes.
But if that feels like a desecration of your yoga sanctuary or you just can’t quite conceive of how to practice it, there are other ways to find a more attentive embodiment of your full life experience. Yoga is not the only awareness-cultivating practice. It is not the only path to embodiment.
For instance, I went to a concert a couple of weeks ago. The room was crowded and the music started, first a slow conversation of instruments and voices. As the songs went on the bass grew deeper, the beat grew stronger and I could feel each note and pulse vibrate in my sternum as I lightly jostled up against the other bodies that surrounded me. I surrendered my body to the music, letting joy overtake not just my aural sense, but my whole body experience.
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Or how about sex? Whether with a committed partner or a recent, passing acquaintance, sex is a way that we embody our sense of love, belonging and connection. In our experience of pleasure we transcend the chatter of the mind and just feel the things we express in an impassioned moment.
A more relaxing way to observe the sense of the body can be through restorative yoga or even Thai Massage. I recently had a massage that introduced me to tension in my body that I never encountered in my yoga practice. It helped me recognize how I often bury tension in my belly even deeper when I practice vigorous yoga. When that happens, my breath becomes more rushed and I hold or reserve energy in my lower abdomen instead of softening in that vulnerable, rich space. Allowing someone else’s hands to do the body probing can help put the judgment of your own mind at bay.
To let go on the mat is not as simple as pushing away the day’s cares as soon as you start moving in a sun salutation. It requires a deep curiosity to see first where you are holding on to old beliefs, worn out views or stale perceptions. The reason we hold on is often for some measure of protection. Our spaces of tension and clenching should be respected for what they are. As yogis and as humans we are responsible for letting go with responsibility, caution and care, not fling to the wind all the things that we would rather not have to deal with. If we lose our demons and fears to the world, they will find another stronghold in someone around us or they will circle right back. Our work in letting go is one of resolution and redemption and so we should approach it with wise patience and a playful curiosity.
And the work does not end at being empty, at letting go. Our work continues in being filled. We let go not in order to disappear, but to find our true grounding and manifestation. We let go not to disperse completely and dissipate into the air, but to find the containers that our bodies are–containers of life, spirit, breath and truth.