You’re probably familiar with the ‘Hang in There’ cat meme. The original was created by a photographer named Victor Baldwin back in the 1970s - the cat clining to a bamboo pole, trying to prevent a fall. It may be the first ever motivational poster - meant to inspire us not to give up when the going gets tough. And it’s implied that if you can just hang in there long enough, there’s a reprieve or a reward waiting for you.
The artist received lots of letters from people concerned about animal cruelty – worried that Sassy, the cat, was legitimately scared and suffering. Although the meme certainly ‘hung in there’ (for 50+ years), Sassy the cat did not. She let go moments after the picture was taken – landing feet first on the ground before running off to play.
*No cats were harmed in the making of this blog post*
The inspiration I draw from the story is – sometimes you just need to let go. And life frequently gets better when you do!
Even the ‘Hang in There’ kitty (THE FACE of hanging in there) had to let go at some point.
‘Aparigraha’ is the yogic principle of ‘non-grasping’ or ‘letting go’. Both yogic wisdom (and life experience) tell us that trying to hang on to what’s past its ‘best before’ date in life just creates suffering.
Life is in a state of constant flux, which means life offers us an endless string of reasons to let go. We have to learn to let go of circumstances beyond our control (illness, job loss, weather, natural catastrophes, other peoples’ behaviour) and let go of people we care about deeply (breakups, deaths, and drifting apart). As an inevitable part of living. Trying to hang on often hurts more than letting go.
Still, life changes are stressful - especially changes you didn't invite. Death, illness, marriage, divorce, job loss, retirement, moving & pregnancy are some of the most stress-inducing adjustments people have to make in life. Whether it’s good or bad, change is hard. It requires you to let go of one way of being in the world and adapt to another.
In spite of the fact that letting go is:
a) an inevitable part of being alive, and
b) can open the door for wonderful new things and people to enter your life
it’s still really hard to do! Which might lead you to wonder…
WHY IS LETTING GO SO HARD?
It’s in your wiring. Resisting change is part of your inherited evolutionary strategy for surviving in a dangerous world. You’re wired to find change and uncertainty difficult and to find comfort in what is familiar. There’s a measure of safety and security in knowing what to expect from day to day.
When you find yourself needing to adapt to new circumstances in life, it activates your stress response. Have compassion for yourself if you have a hard time with letting go. You’re working against your biology. The good news is that you can get better at letting go by practicing.
And yoga practice provides a tremendous training ground for giving your ‘letting go’ muscles a workout. If you’ve been taking yoga for awhile, you’ve surely been instructed to ‘let go’: of tension, of your breath, of stress, of anything that isn’t serving you on your path to peace and anything else in your life that you may have outgrown. A job, a relationship, an old sense of identity, any beliefs that prevent you from moving forward. Your yoga practice is full of amazing techniques that you can use to help you ‘unclench’ and loosen your mental and physical grip in everyday life.
HERE’S HOW YOGA CAN HELP YOU LEARN TO LET GO LIKE A PRO – ON AND OFF YOUR MAT:
1.SET AN INTENTION
Next time you hop on your mat, begin by setting an intention to let go of something (an attitude/belief/way of being) that’s blocking your growth: perfectionism, tension, stress, the need to rush, judgment, criticism… And devote your practice to doing just that.
Let’s use perfectionism as an example. Perfectionism can make you tight, anxious and preoccupied with doing things ‘right’. That can really suck the joy out of your practice and leave you feeling bummed out when you fall out of tree pose.
Consider this: if you're reluctant to do things you can’t do perfectly, you deny yourself the opportunity to grow, change and master new skills. Do the poses you find challenging. That’s how you get better at the poses you can't execute perfectly. You might fall out of tree pose today – but over time and with patience and practice, you'll improve.
Each time you make an effort to accept yourself and your abilities as they are, you loosen your need to make your practice, your body and your life more perfect. Your mat is a perfect training ground for letting go of attitudes and beliefs that keep you stuck – both on and off your mat.
2.CREATE A POSITIVE MANTRA AROUND CHANGE
Like this one: "I AM FORGING A NEW PATH IN LIFE.”
Repeat it to yourself often and throw as much positive energy as you can behind it. To move into the future, you have to let go of the past. Remind yourself that when you let go of one thing, you energetically free up space in your life to create something new. That idea is kind of exciting.
Bravely go forward into your ever-evolving life!
Breathing like you’re relaxed actually makes you relax. When you exhale deeply (like you would if you were letting out a long sigh of relief) it sends a message to your brain that it can calm down and let go – and your brain sends a message back to your body telling it to relax, too – creating a beautiful feedback loop that starts unwinding mental and physical tension. Try this breathing exercise:
4. TRY PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION (PMR)
PMR teaches you how to free yourself from tension from head to toe. By systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups. When you Juxtapose the sensation of muscular gripping with ‘non-gripping’, it helps you understand what those things feels like in your body. And gives you the skills you need to consciously relax yourself when you’re in the grip of muscular or mental tension. It can also help reduce physical problems associated with stress - like stomachaches, headaches, and trouble sleeping.
The communication pathway between your mind and your muscles travels in two directions. A stressed out mind signals muscles to contract in preparation for fight or flight (your body’s stress response). But you can signal your muscles to relax and send a powerful message to your mind that it can relax too.
Try PMR to let go of tension in your muscles and your mind
5. PRACTICE SAVASANA
The corpse pose. Savasana is a reminder that eventually, at the end of life, we will have to let everything go. It's the ultimate practice of renunciation and teaches us how to let go with grace: relax, be in the moment, be with things as they are, surrender, and let go.
OFF THE MAT: WATCH YOUR THOUGHTS
When the ‘what ifs’ in your head are running wild and you feel yourself freaking out about change, DO NOT let the worst case scenarios running through your head get the best of you. Recognize them for what they are: it’s your biologically wired preference for familiarity talking to you. It’s not reality.
When you think ‘What if I let go of this job and can’t find another one?’ or ‘What if I let go of this relationship and I never find love again … and I die alone and no one even notices except my dog?” Do yourself a huge favour and cut that voice off. The ‘what ifs’ can tighten your tendency to grip and make it even harder to let go.
Beat the 'what ifs' at their own game. Start with this thought: ‘“What if instead of expecting the worst, I expect the best?” ‘What if I leave this job and get my dream job?’ It could happen. It happened to me when I quit my day job and switched to teaching yoga full time. Talk back to the voices in your head. When they present you with a worst case scenario, fire back with the best case scenario. Keep talking over your fears with hope and optimism.
6. REMEMBER THAT THERE ARE TIMES IN LIFE TO 'HANG IN THERE' AND TIMES TO LET GO
For those occasions in life when you need to let go to move forward, yoga offers you a multitude of ways to improve your ability to unclench: breathing strategies, muscle relaxation techniques, intention-setting, etc. All of which you can use to calm yourself and build trust in your ability to land on your feet in any situation.
If Sassy the cat had just kept hanging on all these years, for fear of the unknown, he would still be there suspended from that bamboo stick today – static and afraid – forever.
Artist James Victore created an alternative take on the ‘Hang In There’ kitty poster when he was asked to design motivational posters for New York State’s Department of Probation. About which he said “‘hang in there’ is the worst advice to give to anyone in the probation rotation system. Hanging on to what brought you to that place will just bring you right back to the same damn place, right? So, let go. Let go of all your fear and bad habits. Let go of the people around you who are poison, who don’t support and raise you up. Let go of your limiting beliefs about WHO you are and what you’re capable of. Just let go, kitty.”