I recently listened to a recording of a lecture titled “Clinging & Letting Go” that speaks to a powerful benefit of a consistent yoga practice: learning to relax into our feelings and experiences without reacting. We practice this while we’re on the yoga mat and we benefit from it throughout our lives.
“Clinging & Letting Go” was a talk given last year by Matthew Brensilver at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City and his subjects were actually buddhism and meditation. He speaks, unsurprisingly, about clinging as a barrier to freedom from suffering and letting go as the key.
About 30 minutes into his talk he says, “For me, maybe the most important dimension of practice has been to learn to be able to absorb the impact of feeling on the body.” He’s talking about Vipassana meditation, but he might as well be talking about yoga.
I’ll let him elaborate:
“We have a kind of body that’s emotionally responsive. So if we heard a loud noise now, many of us would have some kind of fear-reaction. We would probably feel it in our bodies. It would alert us to something, right? And it’s, I think, the same way with all emotional states. That there’s a fingerprint in the body and to shortcircuit clinging, to let go, requires having equanimity with feeling in the body.
“And this is tricky because it’s intense. Feeling is intense. It’s like evolutionarily designed to get our attention and get us to do something. And to develop a very open hearted, flexible relationship to it, to allow it, to tolerate it, to accept it, to not manipulate it, is a practice to be developed.
“And being in the midst of intense feeling is like being buffeted with very strong winds. But what we’re trying to learn is that nothing can be blown over. The winds of feeling, they appear like they’re going to break something inside of us. Like something is going to get blown over. But what we’re learning with this practice of equanimity with feeling is to see, to know, to develop confidence in our own heart that nothing can be blown over. That mindfulness can keep us safe in the midst of these winds of feeling. That it will hurt but it will not break something.”
Being able to absorb the impact of feeling on the body is something that we develop, either purposefully or accidentally, in our yoga practice.
Many of us experience improved emotional control when we start doing yoga. This is one of the biggest benefits that people of all ages, levels and abilities can experience, often quite quickly. Yoga is full of breathing and movement techniques that can be used to help us manage our feelings. For example, someone who has difficulty managing their anger can learn to use their breath to calm down. Someone with low self esteem can change their posture and use certain poses to improve confidence.
After some time (sometimes a long time), a deeper benefit of yoga starts to develop. We begin to learn how to sit with whatever we’re feeling without reacting at all. To simply observe a feeling without trying to “manipulate it,” as Brensilver says, even if the feeling is unpleasant. We practice this in yoga by putting ourselves in uncomfortable and challenging physical positions and practicing slow, deep breathing and mindfulness.
By doing this, we train ourselves how to relax into difficulty and we gain confidence that we will make it through to the other side unharmed. As Brensilver beautifully puts it, “what we’re learning with this practice of equanimity with feeling is to see, to know, to develop confidence in our own heart that nothing can be blown over.” This understanding has an overwhelmingly positive effect on how gracefully we are able to handle conflicts and adversity throughout our lives.
*Note that when working with the body, we do need to recognize our physical limitations to avoid injury. There’s a difference between discomfort and pain that we each need to learn for ourselves. If you are new to yoga, err on the side of caution until you learn what that difference feels like in your body. This is actually another great quality we develop in yoga — learning how to listen to our bodies and take care of ourselves.
*If you’re interested in hearing more of Matthew Brensilver’s talk, you can find the recording on his page on AudioDharma.org.
*If you don’t know of AudioDharma.org already, it is the online home of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. There they publish, for free, audio recordings of most of the talks given at the meditation center. The recordings date back to 1995 — the oldest are re-recorded from cassette. Awesome. And generous. If you become a frequent listener, consider donating on their site.