Yoga and the Art of Letting Go
In 2006, about a month before the end of my first semester of grad school, I got into a car accident. The other driver made a left turn against the light and broadsided me. The collision was so hard that it turned my car around, breaking my front axle. In that moment, perhaps due to the adrenaline, I felt fine. Over the next day, my back began to tell another story. After a sleepless night of excruciating pain, I skipped my morning classes to go to the emergency room and get checked out. Unfortunately, the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with my back, and he just sent me home with a prescription for pain meds. The pills worked. Kinda. They didn’t make the pain go away, but they make me high enough not to care. After a month that was pretty much a blur, I decided that instead of refilling the prescription and running the risk of becoming addicted, I would just learn to live with the pain.
Which is what I did, until I was talking about my back pain with a friend, and she suggested that I try hot yoga. Suggested isn’t quite the right word. In reality, she insisted that I try it and wouldn’t leave me alone until I agreed to go to a class with her, and I am so grateful for her tenacity. Even though that first class soundly kicked my ass (seriously, about halfway through the standing series, the room started spinning, and I had to sit down for about twenty minutes), I loved the way I felt when the class was over. That first yoga high was like nothing I have experienced before or since. I was more awake and alert than if I had drunk a whole pot of coffee, but at the same time I was super chill and calm. I felt like I was floating on a cloud for the rest of the day.
I was immediately hooked. I had to go back for more. At first, I was going every other day, but soon I started doing challenges, where I would practice daily for thirty days or more at a time- I think 135 is my record. Over time, I became stronger and more flexible. I also lost a lot of weight. One day it dawned on me that my back didn’t hurt anymore. I was in shock. When my friend initially told me about the healing powers of hot yoga, I didn’t believe her, but my own experience showed me that she spoke the truth.
But I was even more surprised by the benefits that she hadn’t mentioned. I have struggled with anxiety and depression since I was a teenager. As my yoga practice progressed, I noticed that I didn’t have that scary, anxious gnawing in the pit of my stomach before every audition. I realized that I was calmer in social situations, and a lot of the everyday frustrations of life didn’t really bother me the way that they used to. I asked myself how yoga could do all this, and I was surprised by the answer: While I had started my yoga practice with the intent of training my body, the practice was actually training my mind.
Let me explain. See, hot yoga is not your grandma’s yoga. It is one of the more aggressive practices out there. It takes place in a room that is heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, with 40% humidity. As you can imagine, this in not comfortable at all, and that’s the point. As one of my teachers used to always say, if you can find inner peace in this hostile environment, you can find it anywhere. And this is exactly what the practice trains you to do. Every 90 minute class is a non-stop battle between you and yourself.
For me, that battle started immediately. I sweat a lot in normal situations, but in the hot room, I discovered a phenomenon that I call projectile sweating. After every class, my mat and towel would be ten pounds heavier, and the mirror in front of my spot looked like it had just been through a monsoon. My first battle was with the urge to wipe away my sweat. At first, I was constantly swiping at myself, partly because it burned when I would get sweat in my eyes, and partly because I simply hated the way the sweat felt, constantly dripping down my body.
Another part of the battle was the fight to resist the water bottle. Given the amount that I sweat, I constantly wanted water during class. But that’s not the way it works in the hot room. In the hot room, there are rules for drinking water. You can’t drink at all for the first twenty minutes of class. After that, it’s only allowed between postures, to avoid distracting others. Drinking is also strongly discouraged after Camel Pose. This was almost impossible for me in the beginning. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the posture, you have to do a full back bend while standing on your knees and grab your heels behind you. This posture often evokes a very strong emotional reaction, and as my teacher (repeatedly) explained to me, when you drink water directly after that, you’re swallowing those emotions back down. In this moment, you’re reaching for the water as a distraction from what you’re feeling. Rather than drinking, she (repeatedly) urged me to go straight into Sav Asana, also known as Dead Body Pose.
Yet another facet of the battle was my struggle with my own body. Even at your most uncomfortable, your body should be a picture of peace and stillness. Between postures in the standing series, you should stand still and tall with your hands at your sides. This was almost impossible for me at the beginning. If I wasn’t reaching for my water or hopelessly dabbing at the seemingly endless rivers of sweat that constantly sprang from my body, I would stand with my hands on my hips, waiting for the next instructions. In those moments, my teacher would inform me that this was how we stand when we’re waiting on the subway, not how we stand in a yoga class.
When you get dizzy or can’t do a posture, you just kneel on your mat until you’re ready to continue. I had a very hard time with this at first, because my mind would panic when I got dizzy. This led to constant fidgeting on my mat, be it reaching for water or wiping away sweat. In these moments, my teacher would admonish me to be still. Between sets in the floor series, you should lie still in Sav Asana. For me, this was physically the easiest part, because after 45 minutes of sweating balls, the prospect laying down was like a dream come true. Mentally, it was the most challenging, because that moment of physical stillness allowed my mind to run free, and it was my job to make it be as still as my body. This was the last and most important part of the battle: The fight to calm my mind. This part of the battle is easier during the postures. When you are upside down, trying to press your forehead to your knee, I guarantee you that it is impossible to think about your bank balance. It’s in the moments in between that your mind begins to wander.
Those are the moments when distractions come in. At their core, that’s what all the fidgeting, sweat wiping, and water drinking are, just distractions. They distract you from focusing on the present moment, on what is. We use these distractions because the present moment is uncomfortable, and we don’t want to face it. That’s why the hot room is intentionally uncomfortable. It forces you to sit with your discomfort, to embrace it, to breathe through it, and finally, to release it. And that’s what I did, day after day, week after week, month after month. I kept coming back to the hot room, sweating and breathing and sweating some more.
In time, I let go of the need to constantly wipe away my sweat. When sweat would get in my eyes, I would quickly wipe my face and return to stillness. I let go of the need to drink after every posture. If I was thirsty, I would drink between postures. If not, I stood still and waited for the next posture to begin. I let go of the need to deflect my discomfort. I let go.
That’s when I realized the true gift of my yoga practice was the ability to let go. We live in a world of attachment. We are constantly weighed down by it. We cling to things, habits, relationships, and ideas, even after they stop serving us. We tell ourselves that we can’t live without them, but that’s not true. We hold on to outdated images of ourselves, even though they keep us from growing.
Over the years, I have let go of many things. I let go of an unhealthy relationship, when it became clear that he had no intention of changing. When my acting career wasn’t taking the direction that I wanted, I let go of the idea that my work should be a measure of my self-worth. When my employer wasn’t adequately compensating me for my time and effort, I let go of that job. With each thing that I let go of, I opened myself up to new possibilities.
Ironically, I had to let go of the yoga practice that had led me to this precious gift. When I moved to Berlin, I was living off my savings for the better part of the first year, and tough financial decisions had to be made. Eventually, I sacrificed my yoga classes in favor of German classes. Over time, I lost a lot of the physical benefits that I had gotten from my practice, but luckily, my back pain never returned. I did, however, gain all the weight back that I had lost over the years and then some.
On the other hand, most of the mental benefits of my yoga practice have stayed with me for the most part. When the first shutdown happened and all my plans for the spring and summer evaporated, I kept breathing, let go of my plans, and accepted the moment as it was. From that moment, 2020 has felt like a nonstop barrage of assaults, both personally and on a global scale. For the most part, I have rolled with the punches, but I have also had some hard times. We are eight months into a global pandemic, with no end in sight. There is no practice, spiritual, mental, or otherwise, that could make you 100% okay in the face of all that. That said, what I have learned through yoga has seriously helped me navigate this unprecedented year, and for that, I am forever grateful.
In fact, I recently restarted my practice. I got a monthly membership at a local hot yoga studio. Even though they made some adjustments due to COVID safety guidelines, it felt so good and so right to be back in the hot room. I quickly learned that the studio wasn’t the only one that had changed in since my last class. I was not the fit, flexible yogi that I was a couple years ago. I struggled in a lot of the postures. Some of them I could adjust, but some were simply impossible. This was an incredibly humbling moment, and I decided it was also an excellent opportunity for me to use my mental yoga practice and let go of my ego and my expectations for myself. That is exactly what I did. When I couldn’t grab my left leg during Standing Bow Pose, I just stood still, with my hands at my side, waiting patiently for the next instruction.
About a week after I bought my monthly yoga membership, the second lockdown was announced. Once again, I took a deep breath, let go of my plans, and accepted what was. When the lockdown starts in the morning, I will still be able to attend classes online. Even though it won’t be the same as in person classes, it’s still better than nothing. They say the lockdown will last a month, but who knows what they will say tomorrow or next week or the week after that? Personally, I’m not going to worry about that. I’m going to practice my yoga, breathe, let go of my expectations, and embrace each moment as it comes. It’s gotten me this far, so why mess with what works?