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.”
The aim of yoga is to still the busy-ness of your mind – but if your life and relationships are a mess, it’s impossible to have peace. So, yoga starts, not with poses, but by cleaning up your relationships – with yourself, with others and with the world around you - so you can create the conditions for inner peace to arise. Moral and ethical practices are the foundation of Classical Yoga. The first principle of practice is ‘ahimsa’, which means non-violence or do no harm. Beyond just refraining from causing harm to others, you can think of this as a practice of actively nurturing or peace-building in your own body, mind, heart, and relationships. Here are some ways that you can explore ‘ahimsa’ from the inside out:
TALK NICELY TO YOURSELF
“Make sure you’re in a conversation with your body, and not an argument.”
I got this brilliant piece of advice from one of my very first yoga teachers. She was probably watching me try to wrestle myself into a deep forward fold … and failing … and looking miserable about it. Folding in half felt completely impossible in my body, but other people in yoga class seemed to do it with ease. And I thought I should be able to do it too. I hated forward folds – that is, until I got out of the habit of arguing with my body and started having conversations with myself instead. A dialogue with myself in a forward fold goes like this:
ME: (with eyes closed; not paying attention to anyone else) Hey, hamstrings. How does this pose feel for you?
HAMSTRINGS: This is kind of intense. You’re making me really uncomfortable. Can you back off a little?
ME: Of course! (shifting a little out of the depth of the forward fold) Is that better?
HAMSTRINGS: OMG. Yes! SOOO much better. Thank you.
ME: I love you like that, hammies! If there’s anything else you need to be comfortable, let me know. I’m listening.
You probably know the iceberg analogy … You can see 10% of an iceberg above the surface of the water. The other 90% is submerged. Like an iceberg, 90% of what is going on in a yoga pose is invisible to the naked eye. The invisible part of your practice also happens to be the most important part: your attitude and intentions.
If you’re at war with your body’s limitations or bullying yourself into the poses, you’re missing 90% of your yoga practice, and the most fundamental principle: ‘ahimsa’. There’s no bullying in yoga.
Folding yourself in half or forcing your ankle behind your ear is more likely to take you down a path to your physiotherapist’s office than it is to take you down a path to inner peace. Be careful not to place too much stock in the shapes of the poses. You get better at what you practice, so it’s most important that you practice includes adopting an attitude of compassion and curiousity towards yourself.
TAKE A SAVASANA
Your mind is the most powerful tool you have in your possession. Everything begins as a thought in your head. Many of us carry the belief – consciously or unconsciously, that we are not enough. The predominant cultural messaging we live with is that we need more – to do more, to get more, to be more – more money, more Instagram followers, more success, more thin, more beautiful, more fit, etc… so we can finally be enough.
Instead of trying to get somewhere else or become a new and improved version of yourself, Savasana asks you to find comfort and peace in who you are right now: to lie down, look inside yourself; disentangle yourself from the external messaging that you’re somehow inadequate, and engage with yourself for long enough to notice that you are enough – just as you are. You have everything you need in the present moment. You are already whole. There is nothing you can add to yourself that will make you more complete.
Your breath is always with you – which is fortunate – because it’s also a super simple & powerful tool for shifting your state of mind. And you can use it anywhere, anytime. Long exhalations are soothing for your nervous system and calming for your body and mind. Try this:
Close your mouth and inhale through your nose as you count to four. Then exhale for a count of 8. That’s it! Easy peasy! Long exhalations stimulate your body’s relaxation response.
APPROACH CONFLICT WITH CURIOSITY
Once upon a time, I went to school to become a mediator. Plans changed. I went on to study philosophy. In those 8 years of study, I learned a lot about arguing, and how to skillfully engage with people and ideas I don’t agree with. In mediation class, we used a textbook called ‘Getting to Yes’ to guide our practice in resolving conflicts. That book had some of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever read for resolving disagreements peacefully:
I’ve been using these strategies to help peacefully navigate my way through difficult conversations for my entire adult life. Many people haven’t had practice or instruction in how to deal productively with conflicts (I see you, internet!). It’s helpful to keep this in mind and forgive ourselves and each other when we get it wrong.
Disagreements are part of life. Just about every subject worth discussing (politics, religion, public health policy, the best way to raise children, etc) carries the risk of conflict. But there's also usually some common ground. And it’s important to be willing to find common ground - so that you can engage in a productive conversation. In the words of world debate champion, Julia Dhar, ‘If we are more focused on what makes us different than the same, then every debate is a fight.”
When you find yourself in a hard conversation where someone holds a different position than you (on vaccinations, for example), it's important to:
Even if no one changes their mind, you’ve likely glimpsed one another’s humanity, and learned about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That makes it harder to make someone an ‘other’ or an ‘enemy’. And that alone has value IF you are interested in practicing peace.
To learn more about the art of constructive conversations and negotiations, I recommend reading Getting to Yes. Or check out these talks with world debate champion Julia Dhar.
RADIATE PEACEFUL VIBES
Bolster your decision to practice peace by radiating good will to yourself and others through meditation. Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Relax. Visualize yourself and say:
May you have peace
In your body
Repeat those words, sending goodwill out to others
Instead of attempting to wrestle your body, mind, or other people into submission, a lot of peace-building activity boils down to trading in an attitude of coercion for one of curiosity. Peacefulness is a way of approaching life without violence or prejudice, and without thinking of others as ‘enemies’. It’s a way of approaching conflict that is collaborative and values relationships. Practicing peacefulness isn’t easy. It requires tremendous patience, compassion and skill. Like any skill, you can get better at it - with practice. If you want to make peace in the world, start practicing from the inside out.
We’re emerging from pandemic isolation and re-integrating into social life. That means dealing with the strange and bewildering world of other people again. If you’ve ever met other people, you know they can bring out the best or the worst in you. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the original guide to practicing yoga written 2500+ years ago, has some sage advice about the timeless problem of dealing with other people.
According to the Yoga Sutras, there are 4 basic kinds of people you'll need to deal with in life:
In Swami Satchidananda’s commentary on this Yogic teaching (Sutra I.33), he says “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”
Keep in mind that the whole aim of yoga is to quiet your own mind. The only thing you can control about other people is the way you react to them. So, for the sake of your own sanity and serenity, yoga suggests that you adjust your attitude towards people in one of 4 ways, depending on who you're dealing with:
Happy People: be friendly towards them
Unhappy People: be compassionate
Virtuous People : delight in them
Wicked People: treat them equanimity/indifference
Satchidananda says that “If you use the right key with the right person, you will retain your peace.”
1.Dealing with happy people.
Key Attitude – Friendliness (Maitri)
Even 2500 years ago, there were people that weren’t happy about seeing other people happy. Some things never change. It's also a pretty common problem. You might be able to recall moments in your life where something great happened to someone else (they won a lottery, got a promotion, took a dream vacation) and instead of being happy for them, you felt the sting of frenvy: the feeling of being jealous or envious of a friend's good fortune. Maitri (friendliness) is the cure for that awful feeling.
The weird thing about jealousy and envy is that they don't trouble the other person, they only trouble you - and disturb your own peace of mind. When you catch yourself feeling this way, try replacing jealous thoughts with friendly ones, like “I’m happy that you’re happy.” Repeat. It might feel really unnatural at first, but with practice genuine feelings of happiness begin to grow. You can expand that into a full-on meditation and send practice being happy for your own happiness, then radiate that feeling outward toward every happy person you can think of. Repeat the following phrases, throwing as much sincerity behind them as you can muster up:
I’m happy that you’re happy.
May your happiness continue.
May your happiness grow.
May your happiness keep growing and expanding.
The best part? When you swap jealousy for happiness, you become happier! Win-win.
2.How to deal with unhappy people
Key Attitude – Compassion (Karuna)
Unhappy people. Ugh. They sure have a way of spreading around their dis-ease. Patanjali’s key to dealing with unhappy people is to show them compassion.
I was enjoying coffee on a patio a few weeks ago when a woman sat down at the table next to me and launched into a stream of consciousness rant about everything that’s wrong with the world according to the morning news. If you've read the news lately, you know there's a lot that's wrong. I really just wanted to enjoy my beautiful cup of coffee … on the patio … in the sunshine … and enjoy the moment after 16 months of pandemic-ing. I wished she would just. stop. talking. Her unhappiness was disturbing my mind. Then I remembered this teaching on compassion for unhappy people – the “Just Like Me” compassion practice – and decided to give it a try. As she was talking, I reminded myself of all the things we had in common:
This person wants to connect with others, just like me.
This person cares about other people, just like me.
This person worries about the state of the world, just like me.
This person wants to be content with life, just like me.
This person is learning about life, just like me.
And so on...
Then her husband came with coffee and sat down, and our conversation came to an end. The amazing thing is that this practice really did soothe my mind. By the time she was finished talking at me, I felt a lot less irritated. I used the compassion key – and it actually unlocked a sense of serenity with the situation.
Thank you for another winning life hack, yoga!
Here’s Pema Chodron explaining this wonderful teaching.
3 .How to deal with virtuous people
Key Attitude – Be Delighted By Them (Mudita)
Appreciate the way they use their gifts and talents for the benefit of the world, and try to imitate their great qualities. Don’t hate on the David Suzukis and Oprah Winfreys of the world for being ‘do gooders’; don’t try to drag them down or poke holes in them. Everyone has flaws. Don't let that stop you from recognizing the good in people. Appreciate virtuous qualities when you see them in others and aspire emulate them in your own life.
You don't have to do any of it perfectly. Just do something good and right because it's good and right. When you do, you've contribute to the overall amount of goodness in the world. Be delighted with yourself and everyone else that is striving in any way to make the world a kinder place. Yay, you!
4. How to deal with wicked (non-virtuous) people
Key Attitude – Treat Them With Indifference, Equanimity (Upeksha)
This is a tough one. How do you get to a place where morally bankrupt people do NOT disturb your mind? They sure disturb mine, but I'm working on it and inching my way slowly in that direction.
First, let's understand that if someone really doesn’t care about the way their actions affect other people, there is very little you can do about them. So, focus on yourself.
As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”
When you cultivate an attitude of equanimity, you can still be moved by injustice in the world and motivated to make things better. BUT, you prioritize hanging on to your serenity in the process. Mindfulness meditation practice is a wonderful way to build your skill at noticing thoughts and emotions without getting swept up in them. So, when you encounter people that trigger strong thoughts and reactions, instead of responding reactively, you can just NOT TAKE THE BAIT. Mindfulness teaches you how to sit back, take a pause, and choose peace of mind instead.
Try this meditation for Cultivating Equanimity with Diana Winston:
These four key attitudes (friendliness, compassion, delight and indifference) are known as the Brahmaviharas. Keep these keys in your pocket always. When you use the right key with the right person, you unlock the possibility of serenity in your relationships with others.