The wisdom of letting go

Yoga teaches us over and over, in many different ways, to let go. For example, yoga postures can release tension from our muscles, breathing practices can help us to calm our emotions, and meditation can shine a light on unproductive thought patterns and thereby support ultimately releasing them. Letting go is more than a way to relax: In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the foundational texts of yoga, letting go or release is described as the spiritual quality of forgiveness.

Yoga is internal work, and this understanding of forgiveness is about the self, not the other. Hurt is inevitable in the human condition. When a hurt, injustice, or violation occurs and we internalize it, holding on to anger and resentment, we add to the initial pain these negative emotions cause. Forgiveness is about letting go of these secondary, negative emotions that produce additional suffering.

Healthy forgiveness

Long-term anger has many negative health consequences. Karen Lee Swartz, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences with Johns Hopkins Medicine, says that unresolved conflict and chronic anger or resentment can put us in fight-or-flight mode (where the sympathetic nervous system dominates), changing blood pressure, heart rate, and immune response. These changes can lead to increased risk of serious health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and depression. Forgiveness does the opposite, calming stress and leading to improved health.

According to a post by Johns Hopkins Medicine

Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.

Practices for release

The very first step on the eight-fold path of yoga is ahimsa, often translated as nonharming. Releasing anger and resentment is an act of nonharming (as holding on to anger causes harm to oneself). 

And the first definition of yoga given in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, another foundational text, is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. Ruminating on past transgressions is an example of mind fluctuations. Yoga teaches us, over time, to instead live in balance. Learning practices to balance strong emotions is part of yoga, too.

The Bhagavad Gita explains forgiveness as a spiritual practice that we should be cultivating because we are in fact always harming others, intentionally or not, consciously or not. Not only should we practice releasing our anger, grudges, resentments, desires for revenge, and the like, but we should also engage in the spiritual practice of asking forgiveness for the harms we have caused and will cause in the future. Cultivating this perspective is the foundation for compassion for ourselves and for others.

Through the lens of yoga, forgiveness is about ourselves, not the other person or event. Importantly, forgiveness is not about accepting, agreeing with, condoning, or forgetting any harm done to you; it’s also not about what was done or who did it. Forgiveness is instead a transformational inner process of releasing the harmful, self-generated after-effects of a transgression. 

Yoga teaches us how to let go as an act of self-care and self-love. Here are a few practices with IAYT-certified yoga therapists to explore letting go: