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Yoga for Calm

What Does ‘Letting Go’ in Yoga Really Mean?

Sarah Clark explains and offers poses to help you stop grasping—and start accepting.

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How many times have you been in a yoga class and heard a teacher say, “Just let go”?

Let go of what, though? It’s not as if you can instantly be rid of the frustration of a bad day, the pain of an injured knee, the sadness of a soured relationship, or the tension you feel in the heart as the past suddenly gets stirred up in the present.

You cannot make these situations disappear, which makes the instruction to “let go” without further explanation confusing and frustrating. It can also easily slip into the space of spiritual bypassing, where it can seem that you are being asked to sidestep the hard work of facing unpleasant realities rather than turning toward them with honesty and a willingness to learn.

See also: Everything Will Not Be OK. And That’s Perfectly Fine.

How yoga can help you let go of reactivity

In many cases, you cannot let go of a situation. But you can learn to let go of what might transpire in your mind and heart as a result. There, in the realm of thoughts and feelings, you can choose to let go of your reactivity. This encourages you to notice how you are talking to yourself about the situation. It can also challenge you to observe if you’re mentally framing the situation in a constrictive way by clinging to only one perspective of it.

When you let go of reactivity, you start to transform your suffering. Then the situation becomes an opportunity to consciously choose an alternative way forward that is more compassionate and creative.

How can you develop this skill for letting go of grasping? Cultivate equanimity (upeksanam). Equanimity is a state in which you “feel all the feels” while simultaneously inviting any urge you may have to react to drop away. This means to quietly observe your emotional and mental reactivity to your emotions or your circumstances. A key premise is that first, you must allow “the feels” to happen. They can manifest as sensations in your body, such as tension in the jaw or flutters in the tummy; as cognitive states such as ruminating, worrying, or laser-focused attention; and as emotional tones of the heart, whether sadness, anger, or exuberance.

Your yoga practice can become a laboratory where you learn how to be present with your feelings while also letting go of your reactivity to them. Yoga—including asana (physical poses), pranayama (breath), and meditation—can help you cultivate equanimity. During your practice, you are challenged with various bodily sensations, states of mind, and emotional fluctuations. When you remain curious during your practice, you can see how these realms of body, mind, and heart are all interrelated and constantly changing from moment to moment.

As you learn to make peace with this fact, you might also recognize that all these “feels” immediately register as pleasant or unpleasant. Over time, through practice, you can explore how to be more fully present with a broader spectrum of experiences—from the most delightful to the most unsatisfying—with a mind that grasps less and less. With less clinging running the show, you can act from a place that is less bullied by habitual grasping and more aligned with your deeper intentions and values.

See also: 3 Practices for Cultivating Self-Acceptance

Yoga poses for letting go

The following yoga sequence is designed to help you explore opportunities for letting go of grasping through a series of postures that offer many different sensations. As you move through these yoga poses for letting go, take your time, and work with this inquiry: When pleasantness shows up, like muscular relaxation or a focused mind, how can you enjoy it without trying to fixate it into permanence or make it stay? And when something unpleasant arises, like muscular fatigue in the body or emotional ache in the heart, how can you breathe with it and offer it an open presence without trying to mentally skirt away from its truth? Can you take the time to weave patience and kindness toward yourself—highly supportive conditions for letting go—into this practice?

(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

Marjaryasana and Bitilasana (Cat and Cow)

Start on your hands and knees with your wrists directly beneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips. Lengthen your fingers. Inhale, arch your back, and come into Cow. You want to lift your head and your sitting bones and broaden through your chest.

Cat pose
(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

Exhale and round your spine into Cat. Feel your back body open. After several rounds, start to explore by adding a wiggle, circle, or curving your body within or between postures. Truly notice any sensations. Invite your curious side to play.

All fours with a Twist
(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

All Fours with twist

Come back to hands and knees with a neutral spine. Extend your right leg straight back with the ball of your right foot on the ground. Keep your right leg engaged. Inhale and widen your chest. Exhale and strongly reach your left arm upward as you twist from your waist and above. Press firmly through your bottom hand as you reach your left hand strongly up, pumping it open and closing it into a fist several times for 5 deep breaths. Release your hand to the mat and pause here with the right leg still extended behind you.

Gate Pose
(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

Parighasana (Gate Pose), variation

Sweep your right leg out to the right and in line with your left knee. Ground the outer edge of your right foot flat on the mat and point your toes forward. Bring your entire torso upright and draw your tail downward toward the earth. Float your arms upward alongside your ears and side bend to your right, lightly resting your right hand on your leg. Bend your left elbow to let your left hand hold the back of your head, continuing to reach the elbow upward and to the left. Stay here for 5–7 smooth breaths. Inhale and come back upright and reach your fingertips to the sky. Exhale and release mindfully to hands and knees. Repeat All Fours and Parighasana on the other side.

Warrior I
(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I)

From hands and knees, walk your hands a few inches forward, tuck your toes, and lift the hips up and back into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog). On an exhale, step your right foot forward behind your right hand. Move your back foot forward by an inch or two, spin your left heel down, and press your foot firmly into the ground with your left toes pointing toward the front left corner of the mat. Ensure your feet are aligned heel to heel, or if stability is challenging, take your stance even wider. Root through both feet to slowly rise to Warrior I with your torso upright. Square your chest forward and sweep your arms up. Take 5–7 steady breaths.

(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

Remain still or exhale and slowly float your fingertips to the ground, rounding your spine. Inhale and reach back up to Warrior I. Repeat several times.

Bring both hands to the mat and return to Downward-Facing Dog. Repeat Warrior I on the other side.

(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

Dolphin Pose to Forearm Plank flow

From Downward-Facing Dog, lower your knees to all fours. Then lower your forearms to the floor, elbows shoulder-width apart, fingers interlaced at the center of the mat. Tuck your toes and lift your hips up and strongly back to create a V-shape at your hip creases, sitting bones lifting and forearms pressing into the mat in Dolphin Pose. Breathe.

(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

Step your feet slightly back and slowly lower into forearm plank to create one long line from your head to heels. Your shoulders may move in front of your elbows here. Take one long breath to feel clear organization, then on an exhale, hinge back to Dolphin with control. Move back and forth between the poses smoothly, with your feet and forearms grounded and still, inhaling to Forearm Plank and exhaling to Dolphin 3–10 times.

(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

Balasana (Child’s Pose)

From Dolphin, lower your knees to the floor and separate them slightly wider than your hips and torso. Untuck your toes and bring them together to touch. Sink your tail bone back toward your heels as much as is comfortable. Rest your forehead on the floor or, if your head cannot reach the ground, rest it on a folded blanket or a block. Gently lengthen your spine. Completely relax your arms. Breathe for 2 minutes. Experience the symphony of changing sensations in this relatively still pose.

Fish Pose
(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

Fish Pose (Matsyasana)

From Child’s Pose, lie on your back. Straighten your arms down by your side and slightly tuck just your inner forearms and thumbs under your body, palms down. Straighten your legs, bring them together, and strongly flex your feet. Press your palms and elbows down, lift your chest brightly to the sky, and rest lightly on the crown of your head. Draw your shoulder blades together, elevating your heart. Keep your legs fully engaged and explore 5–10 lengthened breaths here as you feel. With care, gently slide the back of your head onto the floor and release your entire body to the mat, elongating your spine so it comes back to neutral.

Rest in a simple Savasana shape, with your arms and legs gently lengthened and opened away from your body, for 1 minute. Can you keep your attention connected to the sensations of Fish Pose as they reverberate through the body here?

Bend your knees and place your feet mat width apart and open your arms out to shoulder height on the floor. Slowly windshield wiper your knees right and left a few times, moving through gentle twists to neutralize the spine. Then roll completely to one side and come up to sitting.

Cow-Faced Pose
(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), variation

From sitting, shift to hands and knees and bring your knees together to touch. Keep your right knee in place, then tuck your left knee just behind the right knee, crossing the upper thighs deeply. Separate your feet wider than your hips and sit back between your feet on the floor or, if both sitting bones are not fully grounded, sit back instead on a block or on the edge of folded blankets. Stack your knees as much as is available to you. Flex your feet to activate the legs. Inhale your arms up, exhale, and side bend to the right. After several breaths, sweep the left arm down past the face and forward fold over your knees any amount, centering your trunk with your legs. Breathe here for 3–5 slow, complete breaths.

(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

Slowly rise up to sit vertically. With care, shift back to hands and “crossed” knees. Uncross your legs and repeat the pose on the other side, setting up so your left knee is on top.

Savasana (Corpse Pose)
(Photo: Jordan and Dani)

Corpse Pose (Savasana)

Unwind your legs from Gomukhasana and make your way to lie on your back in Savasana with your legs long and separated, your arms out at your sides, below heart level, palms up. If you need more support for your head and neck, place a blanket beneath your head. If your low back feels tender, place a rolled-up blanket behind your knees. Take 2 long, full breaths and then let your breath return to a natural, unmanipulated state. Be patient with that process. Invite your entire body to rest here for 10–20 minutes, completely supported by the earth, gradually melting more fully into the ground, like a puddle spreading out.

Bring a meditative intention to this Savasana as you actively observe how pleasant and unpleasant sensations, thoughts, or emotions can move through wide-open awareness. Explore letting go of reactivity or grasping. Feel equanimity emerge.

See also: How Transformational Breath Helped Me Learn to Let Go

About our contributor

Sarah Clark‘s passion for engaged, committed yoga and Buddhist practices guide her as a mother, wife, artist, and human citizen. Based in San Diego, Sarah teaches yoga, meditation, and continuing education.