Just Let it Go (But Not Really)
Updated: May 8
A few years ago I was at a trauma-informed yoga workshop with about 15 other yoga teachers. One woman opened up to the rest of the group about her past experience of being in an abusive relationship and her continued struggles to find healing. Another woman, very well intentioned I'm sure, responded to her that she just needs to "let it go." She proceeded to monologue about how we cause ourselves unnecessary suffering by holding onto past experiences, and we just need to let go of all that toxicity. As you can probably guess, the woman who courageously opened up about her struggles with trauma did not feel comforted or encouraged by the "let it go" lecture. I'm quite confident that if it were really as simple as just deciding to free herself from her trauma, the woman would have done that a long time ago.
The phrase "let it go," commonplace in many (mostly white) yoga and wellness spaces, has understandably gotten a lot of criticism lately. When directed at experiences of trauma and profound suffering, it oversimplifies the healing process which for most people is complicated, lengthy, and full of all kinds of ups and downs. It also implies that someone shouldn't be feeling what they're feeling, in effect telling them that their struggle isn't valid. It is particularly harmful when people with privilege use it (either intentionally or unintentionally) as a weapon to bypass or minimize experiences of oppression.
Bottom line: the "just let it go" message often causes harm, AND it doesn't matter if the person saying it has stellar intentions or sugarcoats it in love and light.
So, is the idea of letting go total trash or does it have any value?
When I've had a really stressful day, it can go one of two ways. Either I bring all the stress home with me and feel lethargic, fatigued, and bitter. Or, I can do something to clear out some of the stress, like go for a run or do some restorative yoga. With the latter, I might still feel some stress but it likely won't weigh me down quite as much.
A few minutes of pranayama (yogic breathing) may not release me from all my traumas, but I believe that it CAN release me from a lot of the stress-inducing energies I've absorbed throughout the day. Both my personal and clinical experience tells me that as long as we're careful not to oversimplify or invalidate, practicing letting go does have its place and can be a wonderful thing. We will be much better off if we can mindfully and intentionally move energy through us rather than having it stay stuck. Due to all the harm associated, I've found it helpful to ditch the phrase "letting go" and instead use words like release, surrender, cleanse, or clear.
I believe that in order to release an unwanted feeling, thought, or energy in a healthy way, a few things have to be in place:
We choose to first mindfully honor and acknowledge our distress. Distress needs to feel like it's been seen, heard, and validated before it will be ready to shift. If we skip this part, we're most likely just attempting to suppress our experience.
We avoid forcing outcomes. Rather than forcing a difficult feeling to go away, I can invite it to soften and set the stage for it to diminish. If it softens that's great, if it doesn't, that's okay too. If it goes away for a few hours and then comes back, that's perfectly fine. We're not robots who can program and command our every response.
We honor that experiences of trauma and profound suffering often take a very long time to heal. We may have to spend years sitting with, processing, and breathing compassion into our pain. Even then, some things will never fully be released. But that doesn't mean we can't grow in our ability to hold our experience in a way that allows us to live the life we want.
Some more ramblings on letting go...
Things most people can't simply let go of:
things that threaten your physical/emotional safety
any emotion or experience that doesn't want to or isn't ready to be let go of
Things you might be able to release, surrender, cleanse, or let go of (maybe permanently, maybe temporarily):
a bit of tension that you're holding in your body
energy that you've absorbed from people or places around you
that annoying or stressful thing that you keep ruminating about
some negative energy lingering in your apartment
any emotion or experience that wants to and is ready to be let go of
Practices to release, surrender, and cleanse:
surya namaskar/sun salutations
pranayama with particular attention to exhales
any visualization that feels helpful
a really good laugh
a really good cry
using essential oils that feel clearing
using crystals that feel clearing
rearranging furniture or physical space
dancing, jumping, or shaking arms and legs
mindfully taking a shower, washing your face, or washing your hands
EFT/tapping meridian points
listening to or playing music (i.e. singing bowl)
cleansing chant, mantra, or prayer
spending time in nature
just about anything done with an intention to release or cleanse