Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Letting go

500 Hour Advanced Yoga Teacher Training thesis
March, 2014

To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have—to want and want—how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again!
—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Oh, what it is to cling! How familiar we are with the mechanics of seeking, desiring, and holding on for dear life to a person, a quality, a plan or a dream that may be complete fantasy—and yet how difficult it can be to keep ourselves from repeating the same patterns again and again in our daily life.

Clinging is a huge part of most humans’ life experience. Our tendency to clutch is commonplace—expected, even. The feelings we associate with unsatisfied wanting are the basis for so much literature, so many poems and pop songs; the motivation for political decisions, the source of familial divisions.

And let’s be clear before we go any further, there is a difference between longing and clinging. Longing is a deep throbbing of the heart for something huger than itself; longing has a musical quality. Ancient religious texts hum and sing with longing. It has a resonant, sweet tone, even when tinged with sadness.

Clinging, in its various forms, tends to feel uncomfortable. Try physically gripping on to anything for an extended period of time—the cuff of your sweater, whatever is next to your hand right now—and you quickly see its exhausting, enervating effects. And even more uncomfortable than clinging is letting go of that clinging. Letting go of a known fantasy of your own devising in favor of an unknown reality can be tough. Few of us are well equipped to deal with this. But the good news is that letting go is something that we can address with actual, tangible tools: with tried and tested techniques, as well as compassion and intelligence.

We’ll explore of the dynamics of attachment—how we do it, how it manifests physically and emotionally, and how we might begin to let go—through the lens of Yoga and Ayurveda, and then later from a Buddhist perspective.

Like so many of us, I have wrestled with grasping and the ability (or lack thereof) to let go. Raised in a loving family which fell apart when I was a child, I longed for security and developed a habit of anxious holding-on. It’s taken a committed yoga practice, therapy, and the blessing of some colorful close relationships to begin to see attachment for what it is, and see letting go as a really great option—rather than a loss. I am so happy to be able to share what I have learned, in the hope that we might all be spared a little heart wringing, and that we may instead uncover some ease and steadiness with which to welcome in joy.

And Paradise does come
Paradise comes like a breeze and like a breeze
drifts elsewhere than where we are at the time
and we have no way of following the wind
to the world’s end.
—Gavin Bantock, Joy

Learning to loosen up with Yoga

We can read about the quality of grasping in Master Patanjali’s ancient Yoga Sutras (dated between the 2nd and 3rd centuries). Yoga, meaning union, occurs with the cessation of the mind’s fluctuations. But to achieve this blissful state of oneness—of existing in non-duality, non-difference—much work is required. In the classical Raja yoga system, there are eight parts of yoga, referred to as limbs or petals: to achieve union, one must observe ethical and behavioral practices known as Yamas and Niyamas; the physical Asana practice is required to prepare the body and mind; Pranayama works with breath and prana, the body’s vital force; Pratyahara is control of the senses; Dharana is control of the mind, or concentration; Dhyana is meditation; and Samadhi is absorption, bliss.

We’re going to begin our discussion by looking at one of the five Yamas: the practice of Aparigraha, or non-clinging.

Aparigraha sthairye janmakathamta sambodhah
YS II, 39
“When one does not grasp onto things, the reason for one’s life, why one is born, and what is to become of them, becomes perfectly clear”
(Translation by Ruth Lauer-Manenti from An Offering of Leaves]

In his commentary The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Sri Swami Satchidananda defines Aparigraha as “abstention from greed or hoarding—which is a form of stealing—and not receiving gifts”. We can understand this along the lines of, the more you hoard, the less you have. The very word Grahana, from which Aparigraha is derived, sounds like what it describes, one imagines grasping fingers: “I want it!”. Swami Satchidananda’s description of the third Yama, Asteya, stealing, touches on the same principle. “We tend to imprison our possessions, whether money, property, or even people,” he says. “The moment we try to imprison money, for example, it feels, ‘What is this? I want free movement. They have made me round so I could roll. But here I am locked up. Oh, I’ve come to the wrong person. The moment I get the chance I’ll roll away.’ Some stingy people never open their vaults. The money just sits inside and prays, ‘Please, somebody release me.’”

He continues: “Instead, if we have the attitude: ‘If you want to come, come; when you want to go, go,’ everything will say, ‘Why do you push me away? Let me stay with you.’ I experience this myself. I never lock up anything. Things just come and stay. Even if I tell them to go, they beg to be with me.”

In his revelatory book on living the teachings of yoga, Light on Life, BKS Iyengar describes grasping as leading “to the bondage of sensuality and a desire through possessions to expand the ego. It is me, me, me, by means of my, my, my.” Mr. Iyengar says: “Energy needs to flow, or its source withers. By covetousness or miserly clinging on, we stop energy from flowing, from creating more energy, and eventually, by this offence against a natural law, it is we who are impoverished and poisoned by our own hoarding of life’s riches.”

These are some fundamental aspects of Aparigraha. Let’s go a little deeper now, and look at how clinging manifests itself differently from person to person, both physically and emotionally; these differences are addressed in yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda.

How Ayurveda comes in

Ayurveda tells us that the universe is made up of three states of being, or gunas: Rajas, Tamas and Sattva. Everything that is manifest in the universe (prakriti) is a combination of these three qualities, from the vase of flowers on your kitchen table to the dogs playing in the park.

In the case of human beings, the gunas exist in our physical and subtle bodies as doshas, or types. We’re born with a certain doshic blueprint, meaning we are disposed towards one physical and mental makeup, and this balance shifts during our lifetime, according to the way we live. Ayurveda teaches us how to keep our dosha—and thus our physical, mental and emotional health—in balance.

The doshic types correspond with the elements. Vata is the air or wind element; those who are predominantly vata dosha tend to be tall and lean, as if sculpted by the wind. They’re creative and/or intellectual, free-spirited sorts. Out of balance, vata presents itself as anxious, erratic and fearful.

Pitta is fire, corresponding to the digestive fire (agni) and also to the illumination of a discerning mind (good mental digestion). With a sturdy, medium build, pittas are bright and commanding and assimilate ideas well. When there’s imbalance, pitta can manifest as bossiness, jealousy and anger.

Kapha is water and earth, specifically the quality of cohesion and sticking like mud. Kaphas are a larger build, tending towards stable relationships, routine and family. Kapha out of balance may be observed as a greedy possessiveness. 

Each of these types may experience attachment a little differently. Vata as a panicked clinging; pitta as a consumptive, avaricious grasping; kapha as neediness. We’ll be dealing here with the kind of clinging that I’ve experienced first-hand, which is a mixture of vata anxiety and kapha possessiveness. At first glance, these two types of people may look pretty different physically, and indeed behave very differently—compare vata’s rushing around with kapha’s tendency to lay on the sofa eating chips. But on a more subtle level there are significant and fascinating commonalities between these doshas, so it’s no wonder the two aspects often present themselves together.

Where vata and kapha meet

In his book Yoga and Ayurveda, Vedic scholar Dr. David Frawley tells us: “Vata exists as the air that we hold in the empty spaces of the body, like in the hollow organs, joints, and bone cavities, particularly the hips and lower back. On an inner level, vata is both the life-force and the energy of thought that moves in the space of the mind.” Like the wind, Vata is cold and dry. Vata types are prone to poor circulation, and more likely to suffer from digestive disorders, such as constipation. In this case, one wants to encourage the flow of apana vayu, the body’s downward flowing energy or wind.

Vata’s primary physical site is the colon. From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), we can say that it corresponds with the kidney and bladder meridians. As with Ayurvedic understanding, in TCM when these meridians are out of balance, the emotional result can manifest as fear and anxiety. In our physical practice we can begin to open up these meridians, which run along the inner leg, so that the body’s life force, or chi in TCM, can circulate properly. Restorative yoga asana poses are helpful here, as they’re held long enough for the body to open on a deeper level, and acupuncture is an ideal way of rebalancing chi so that energy can flow freely (as per Mr. Iyengar’s earlier assertion: “Energy needs to flow, or its source withers”).

Note also that vata is not separate from the other doshas, says Frawley, rather, it is their origin: “The key to managing all the doshas is to care for vata.”

Located in the chest and upper body, kapha manifests as mucus or phlegm and is associated with emotion, caring and devotion. Its primary site is the stomach, “where mucus is produced, which then overflows into the lungs and lymphatic system.” In TCM, we associate this with the lung meridian, which in turn corresponds with the emotion of grief and runs along the upper inner arm.

“Kapha depends on vata for its stimulation and movement,” Frawley says. “It requires pitta for warmth. The body, though primarily composed of water (kapha), is a special form of water in which heat (pitta) and vital energy (vata) are contained. Water that is cold or does not move cannot sustain life.”

And here is the key: Vata and kapha’s shared quality is coldness. Vata is cold and dry, Kapha is cold and wet. In terms of clinging, both doshas have a tendency towards freezing, whether that’s vata’s frozen grip of fear, or kapha’s icey stuck-ness. Frawley notes: “Kapha is like a frozen river. Its movement is inhibited by cold. As heat is applied through exercise and deep breathing, the ice begins to melt. It then breaks off in chunks and flows downstream. Such kapha, as it moves out of areas of stagnation, can cause problems elsewhere if pushed out too forcefully.”

To function optimally, both vata and kapha require warmth and movement. So, how can we practice asana in a way which addresses clinging in both doshas? Our aim is to reduce tension and allow the body to gently open, like a flower.

General tips for vata asana practice

Vata types, and those experiencing an imbalance of vata, need to begin asana practice in the most calm, unrushed manner possible. Fear and stress cause the body to tense and tighten, and vata joints tend to be stiff from the get-go. Starting with a seated posture is recommended, as is deep breathing, and a gradual warming up of the body followed by flowing, gentle movements—so a vinyasa practice will be effective. Frawley suggests focussing on the pelvic region and colon, and practicing slow, mild backbends with an emphasis on staying centered. It’s important for vatas to keep the spine flexible. Meditative, steady standing postures will be helpful, and incorporating pranayama and meditation into the poses will address the vata tendency towards squirming when asked to remain still.

General tips for kapha asana practice

More vigorous movement is suggested for kapha types with their tendency towards inertia, including heating pranayama—though any kind of forcefulness is discouraged. The warrior poses are beneficial to kaphas because these asanas open up the chest and increase circulation to the head, which can be stuffy. Forward bends should be kept to a minimum as these poses may contract the chest. Those experiencing a kapha imbalance are encouraged to use warming movement, poses which create a feeling of lightness and release.

Before we move on to our therapeutic asana sequence, we’ll explore some other yogic techniques that alleviate clinging and help us to let go of what doesn’t serve us.

Eating well for balance and peace of mind

Food is such an integral part of living well in Ayurveda; what we eat every day can be considered as medicine. In general, when vata is out of balance, steer clear of cold, raw foods and opt instead for warm, cooked foods; a little oiliness is helpful, too, and ghee is highly recommended. From the TCM perspective, the dryness that’s common to vata can be addressed with moist foods such as soybean products, spinach, barley, dairy products and eggs. Kapha benefits from warm foods also, and crunchy, exciting textures stimulates this dosha when sluggish. Sesame oil has heating properties, so can be used to cook with, or you can give yourself abhyanga, oil massage, which boosts circulation, soothes the system, nourishes the skin—and of course, makes you feel looked after and cared for.

Opening the hands and heart with Mudra

The practice of holding a mudra position with ones hands can be applied to all kinds of physical and emotional conditions to bring the body and mind into balance, but it seems especially appropriate in this instance. When we think of grasping, we immediately think of the hands. A tense person can look fairly relaxed at first glance, but often if you look down, the hands may be in tight fists.

One mudra that works particularly well for those experiencing clinging is the Matangi mudra, named for the Hindu god of inner harmony, as detailed in Gertrude Hersch’s comprehensive book, Mudras: Yoga in Your Hands. The hands are folded at the solar plexus, with both middle fingers steepled upwards; you breathe deeply into the stomach area for four minutes, three times a day is recommended. The breathing impulse is strengthened in the belly, and this mudra benefits the heart, stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas and kidneys. Hersch notes: “An excited heart becomes noticeably more calm, and inner tensions that hamper digestion are resolved. According to Kim da Silva, [it] also relieves vague pain and tension in the jaw”. Hersch recommends partnering the herbs lavender and verbena with this peaceful mudra. Essential oils to compliment mudra and meditation practice include sandlewood and geranium, both of which are conducive to a feeling of centeredness; the act of clinging usually involves moving out of and away from the abiding self.

Devotional practices for openness

Consider gripping and tightness, and then consider the last time you had a profound experience—whether at a family gathering, in a church, or with a loved one. The chances are your heart felt a bit larger, and more open. For this reason, devotional yoga, or bhakti yoga, is encouraged for healing of all kinds. Bhakti yoga is the expressive, poetic, heartfelt aspect of yoga, and includes chanting and worship. With their emotional tendencies, kaphas are drawn to these practices, and certainly the singing aspect is beneficial to the head and lungs. Fearful vata types can find bhakti yoga very soothing, and the vibrational aspect of chanting deeply grounding.


The practice of sitting in meditation for a set period of time (be it five minutes or 50) can be enormously helpful for anyone feeling physically or mentally agitated, particularly those meditation practices which have the sitter focussing on a single point such as the breath—this has the effect of drawing in a scattered and jumpy mind. The idea is not to take “a vacation from irritation”, but rather to observe the thoughts and the procession of feelings which tend to accompany them, and let them pass.


Mantra protects the mind—and when the busy motor of anxiety gets to work, the steady hum of mantra practice can be most effective. Its gently buzzing quality in the body has a grounding, spacious effect, which will be enhanced by the practitioner’s choice of mantra. In my experience, chants to the compassionate aspect of the divine are very powerful. In Buddhism, one might chant to Green Tara, a great protector and figure of abundance who specifically delivers those who call on her from fear; her mantra is “Om tare tuttare ture so hum.” Avalokitesvara is the boddhisatva who embodies the compassion of all the buddhas; all Dalai Lamas are thought to be incarnations of Avalokitesvara, and the mantra here is “Om mani padme hum”.

Among the most appropriate mantras for those experiencing gripping or clinging is a passage from the Heart Sutra, one of the best known sūtras in Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
गते गते पारगते पारसंगते बोधि स्वाहा

Gate can be translated from the Sanskrit as “beyond”. The yoga teacher and scholar Ruth Lauer-Manenti understands this most mystical sutra as meaning “Far away and even further, passed and gone, I find myself.” In a way, it is the ultimate surrender to not knowing, and giving up one’s grip to be part of something far larger than the concerns of the small self. The effect of chanting this mantra can be transporting.

Buddhist teachings on letting go

Whether we’re Buddhist practitioners or not, most of us are familiar with the basic principle of non-attachment that is such a guiding principle of Buddhist teaching. We’re familiar with jokes like, “Why couldn’t the Buddhist monk vacuum under the sofa? Because he had no attachments”. We laugh, but I sometimes suspect it’s not so much the satisfying pun, as a horror at the idea of actually letting go of the ties we create.

For indeed, why would we want to do such a thing? Why would we want to let go of what we see as the bond between us and our loved ones? Or dismiss the value of a car we had saved up to buy? Why would we want to dissolve attachment to something we had invested ourselves in?

There are of course, tomes to fill a huge library and then some, written on this very question. But some basic points come up time and again. The idea of impermanence is a good place to start. The notion that everything changes, nothing stays the same; from the buzzing molecules that are cohering right now to form a cup of tea on the table, to the thoughts that flit through the mind. Trying to effectively attach to anything is like trying to lasso a horse made of jello, using a lasso made of jello, when we ourselves are made of jello. The chances of success are minimal. Yet still we try, in the hope of gaining some kind of sense of security, a confirmation that everything is okay.

The Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön is something of a beacon in terms of spreading light—and love, actually—on this unsettling topic. Chödrön studied under Chögyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist monk who fled from his native country to England and then America in the sixties, and became something of a revolutionary in the ways he explained ancient Buddhist dharma to modern western minds.

“Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time—that is the basic message.”
—Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

And the message doesn’t have to be bleak. What we find in a Buddhist approach is that by accepting impermanence, we move into the present moment. And when we find ourselves in the present—even if it is for just a second—we are truly open to its wonders. “All over the world,” writes Chödrön, “people are so caught in running that they forget to take advantage of the beauty around them. We become so accustomed in speeding ahead that we rob ourselves of joy.”

The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches with equal parts seriousness and gentle delight about living in the now. Imagine, he’ll say, what a thing it is that your eyes work properly. How amazing it is that every time we open our eyes we are able to see, in his words, “a paradise of color.” What a thing! The practice of mindfulness and meditation becomes a gift beyond measure; non-attachment is anything but a lost vacuum cleaner nozzle. Non-attachment can be freedom, not lack.

But still, we worry, we obsess, and we cling—to hope that things will get better, and fear that they won’t.

“The spiritual journey involves going beyond hope and fear, stepping into unknown territory, continually moving forward. The most important aspect of being on the spiritual path may just be to keep moving. Usually when we reach our limit, we… freeze in terror. Our bodies freeze and so do our minds. How do we work with our minds when we meet our match? Rather than indulge or reject our experience, we can somehow let the energy of the emotion, the quality of what we’re feeling, pierce us to the heart.”

Putting dharma into practice

I had just such an experience of being pierced to the heart last year; my ability to stay open to the pain I was in meant that it became a profound and welcome teaching.

I had broken up with my boyfriend of some years at the same time as beginning a juice cleanse at the new moon. On the third day of the cleanse, I had something of a revelation. I had been thinking about Aparigraha the preceding months, in terms of not grabbing for my partner and having open hands rather than grasping ones. With the cleanse, I found that I simply couldn’t fill in the gaps—I couldn’t go and have brunch, or reach for the things I would have found reassuring in this stricken situation. All I had was what was actually there in front of me. Here I am. Here it is. I accepted it for what it was. I didn’t try to like it. I thought, “I want food, I can’t have food. I will have food. I won’t die of wanting food. I just can’t have it now. I want this relationship, and I can’t have it.” There was a peace to it. Nothing to do; just be in that moment.

When we let go, we meet ourselves where we actually are. Crucial to this practice is meeting ourselves with love and compassion. Grand gestures are not required; just the calm, wordless, abiding kindness we might offer a crying baby. This is when the hands fall open, pain is released, and a new space for possibilities opens up.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.
—Rumi, from Great Wagon.

A year later, with my heart now mended and renewed like a full moon, I find myself experiencing romantic excitement once again. Delightful, yes, but also a prime opportunity for clinging to occur; the hoarding hands of Grahana, the mechanics of attachment motivated by hope and fear. What I’m able to do now is observe it in myself as it happens (and it does), as uncomfortable as that is. And then—thanks to the generosity of my teachers, and their teachers, and theirs before them—use the many tools that have been handed down over thousands of years, to address this most human condition. Clinging—and letting go.

Good luck, each and every one of us! Keep your heart and your hands warm, and use both to support each other.

“Whether we follow a religious path or not, as human beings we all need affection. Warm-heartedness gives rise to the self-confidence and inner strength that supports a calm mind. Peace of mind in turn contributes to our physical health. This is based on the fostering of the basic human values that I promote as secular ethics.”
—The Dalai Lama, Facebook update.
लोकाः समस्ताः सुखिनो भवंतु
Loka samasta sukhino bhavantu

Sequence for letting go

Open in Sukhasana easy seated position.
Chant: Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
Mudra: Matangi mudra.

Balasana (child’s pose)
-Rooting the body and spirit by connecting with the ground. Quiets the mind.
Make a humming sound.
Take “open the book” variation
-Begins to open the shoulders. Also emphasizes devotional, surrendering nature of the practice.
All fours, “Thread the needle” with hand tucked in opposite thigh crease.
-Opens shoulders, gentle twist to relieve vata and open the chest.

-Warms up the spine, focus on breath.

Adho muka svanasana (downward facing dog)
-Grounding for the legs, quieting for the mind.
Spread the fingers, open the hands
Lift right leg, stack and open the hip, make space in the side body to allow breath to circulate more easily. Step to outside right hand.

Gentle Utthan Pristhasana (lizard pose), with long flat back, arms straight (rather than forearms down)
-Begins to open hips, vata-relieving. Focus on keeping spine straight and breath full.

Vinyasa to Ardha Salambasana
-Grounding action via feet pressing down, tuck pelvis under, make space in low spine, then peel chest and head up, find length. Gentle backbends benefit vata by opening the chest. Digestion is stimulated. [Repeat other side then step to low squat]

Low squat
-Opens hips and groin, eases tension in the lower back.
-Stimulates apana vayu, the energy of letting go and releasing.
-Hold Matangi mudra here, deepen the breath.

With bent knees, supported spine, soft neck, release.
-Soothing for the mind, mild inversion effect of bloodflow. Opens backs of legs which corresponds to kidney/bladder meridian.

Classic Surya Namaskar (sun salutations)
-Careful, flowing movement warms up the body and relieves vata and kapha coldness, as well as focussing the mind away from anxious thoughts. Corresponds with BKS Iyengar’s comments on Aparigraha, viz allowing energy to flow.

Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1)
Draw hips square, one hand on belly, the other on tail. Raise arms, open chest.
-Attention and warmth on vata-sensitive area (belly). Mild backbend action and opening the chest, encouraging expansion in the lungs (relieves kapha).

Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior 2)
Stabilize front knee with hand as pelvis opens.
-Hip-opening beneficial to vata, chest-opening beneficial to vata and kapha.
Palms face up. Take high prayer flow, creating an energetic arc with the palms. Then find stillness. Close eyes, with palms facing up. Notice grounding in feet, expansiveness in upper body.

-Emphasis on rooting action in the feet to encourage stability.
-Chest opens, breath deepens

-Beneficial for low back ache and constipation, stimulates abdominal organs, stretches groin and spine.

Low lunge into Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon)
-Opens groins and hips, stimulates abdominal organs, beneficial for urinary problems. -Encourages length in spine and neck.
Take forward fold variation, close eyes, begin to move inside for a more profound experience of letting go. Engage with second chakra, center of creativity and sexuality, relieve vata tension here.

Ardha Matsyendrasana (Seated spinal twist, low belly first)
Stimulates liver and kidneys and digestive fire. Stretches spine and can relieve backache.

Agnistambhasana [Fire log/ankle to knee pose]
-Focus on hips. Stress relieving.

[repeat on other side]

Adho muka svanasana, Dolphin pose.

Salamba Sirsasana with badakonasana variation, stay for 10 breaths or longer.
-Calms the mind, soothes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
-Strengthens the lungs (beneficial for kapha)
-Improves digestion and stimulates abdominal organs
-Creates a little heat, beneficial to kapha.

Balasana with rabbit variation to relieve any shoulder-stress.

Restorative Matsyasana
Stay here for 3-5 minutes.
-Opens chest/lungs, good for respiratory issues (kapha)
-Aids constipation (vata)
-Relieves mild backache (vata)
-Soothes anxiety and fatigue

-Stimulates digestion, encourages apana vayu
-Lengthens spine

Savasana with Brahmari pranayama.
-This hummed exhalation of “bee breath” is uniquely soothing to the mind and body and can be used to address insomnia. Here, it’s a final way to let go before relaxation. Keep savasana for at least ten minutes if possible.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart. Harper Collins, 1997

David Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda. Lotus Press, 1999

Gertrud Hirsch, Mudras. Weiser Books, 2000

BKS Iyengar, Light on Life. Rodale, 2006

Ruth Lauer-Manenti, An Offering of Leaves. Lantern 2009

Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods. North Atlantic Books, 1993

Sri Swami Satchidananda [translation and commentary], The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Integral Yoga Publications, 1978

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