Recently at work I was sitting in my cubicle, sorting through an endless array of emails, when I overheard my coworker start to loudly complain to a third party about a project I had recently completed. It was hurtful, not only because my coworker was criticizing my work to someone else instead of addressing me, but also because I’d worked really hard on that project, and was proud of my own accomplishments.
Almost immediately I could feel my hackles rise as a swirl of anger, hurt and annoyance started to settle in my belly. Before I let those emotions stew to a boil I asked myself two questions: does this feeling serve me in any way, and are there any lessons I can take away from this encounter? I thought about it for a bit, wrote out my thoughts, and realized that I cannot change the actions of those around me, but I can continue to strive for my best work.
With that, I started to unwind the ball of knotted negativity rooted deep in my core, and little by little, let it go.
This is not something that comes naturally to me. My inclination is to stew in things that bother me, letting them build up until I can’t contain my hurt feelings any longer. Careful consideration followed by consciously dismantling my negative emotions has taken years of work, and yoga has been instrumental in developing this ability.
Many people think of yoga as a predominantly physical practice. It involves a mat, no shoes, and a series of postures that systematically stretch and strengthen every aspect of one’s physical being. That’s a very narrow view, though, of an ancient practice that delves into not only all physical aspects of being, but also emotional, interpersonal and meditative facets of life.
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there are eight limbs of yoga, and asana—the physical practice of yoga—is merely one of those limbs. The ultimate goal of yoga in his model is to reach samadhi, a meditative and conscious state. The other yogic limbs build on each other to help reach samadhi. What we often think of as “yoga” is actually a small fraction of the whole practice.
What does all of this have to do with letting go? In short, everything. If yoga is part of a system to achieve samadhi, then each component is designed to help practitioners reach that state. Letting go of that which does not serve you on and off the mat is key to reaching this highest form of yoga.
But what does it mean to “let go,” and how can anyone apply it to his or her own asana practice? This isn’t a Disney song after all. Simply put, letting go is trying to suspend any physical, mental and emotional tension. It’s the ability to push past mental and physical barriers to allow you to enter a new space. We are all constantly growing and learning, and letting go is one way to aid that process.
Below are a few tips for your next asana practice to start feeling comfortable releasing limiting thoughts while on the mat. With practice, you can apply “letting go” to your whole life.
1) Give yourself permission
As soon as you walk into a studio, remove your shoes, gently lay out your mat, and give yourself permission to take this time entirely for yourself. It’s easy to walk into a yoga class with a million things on your mind, but none of that needs to come with you to the mat. Trust that anything life requires off the mat will happen in its own time, and give yourself permission to let go of everything that doesn’t belong on the mat.
2) Start with your face
Stop what you’re doing right now and focus on your face. Is your jaw tight? Are your eyebrows drawn up or together? Do your eyes squint or open wide? Chances are, your face isn’t relaxed at the beginning of practice.
We all tend to carry tension and express emotions through our faces. Humans are social creatures, and facial expressions signal our mood to those around us. It’s natural to clench your jaw under stress, or smile at a baby. There’s no need to send signals in a yoga class.
At the start of each practice, begin by relaxing your brow, nose, and jaw. Continue to come back to your facial muscles throughout the class and check to whether your face is relaxed or still carrying tension. Relaxing the face helps to relax the mind, thus eases the process of letting go.
3) Focus on breath
Yoga classes can be physically demanding, and it’s hard to get around the bodily strain we may all feel. In these moments, relax your face and focus on your breath as air moves steadily in and out of your lungs. Pranayama, or yogic breathing, is an essential piece of any yoga class, and even constitutes one of the limbs in Patanjali’s model. Breath awareness is key to moving through strain. You may find that through pranayama, you’re able to hold a posture longer, or move past discomfort, thereby letting go of unnecessary stress.
4) Enjoy savasana
For many, savasana, or corpse pose, is the hardest posture in any class, although at first glance, it should be the easiest. Savasana asks yogis to relax every muscle from head to toe, and resist the urge to move or twist for several minutes. It sounds so simple. Just lie down relax. Why is that so hard? Savasana is the ultimate step to letting go in a yoga class. It’s an act of trust and a show of vulnerability. Lying prone in a room with strangers does not come naturally to most people. Give yourself permission to trust, not only those around you—but your own self—to feel safe resting in savasana.
By embracing your vulnerability, you just may find the gentle unraveling of your consciousness, and finally feel, like letting go.
By Julie Zack
Julie Zack is originally from Northern California, but has lived all over the country. Currently she’s living and working in Honolulu as a yoga instructor and writer. Her works can be seen on Huffington Post, Elephant Journal, Waikiki Menus and more.