The concept of letting go is a fundamental principle in the practice of yoga. I know, I know — I say that all the time. I’m your yoga teacher (if not literally than figuratively) and I ask you to just “let go” in almost every practice — not only when you’re chilling out in Supported Fish Pose but also when you’re working hard in Warrior 2. Why am I asking you to do it? What does “letting go” even really mean? Buckle your seat belts, I’m about to get really personal.
I didn’t know it at the time but I gained a firm understanding of the concept (1) of letting go when I was still quite young — long before I knew what yoga was or how the practice of yoga would change my life. I learned it from listening, with completely open ears and a receptive attitude, to the words of my Grandma, Irma; I was listening to the words of my most trusted and respected mentor and knew her words were wise so my soul fully absorbed them without resistance. My Grandma was one of the most important people in my life. When I was twenty four years old, she died after nearly a decade long struggle with Alzheimers disease. I was roughly twenty-one years old when she last really and consistently recognized who I was, what my relation to her was. I had spent years dreading that moment, knowing it would come — as the disease progressed, the inevitable moment she wouldn’t remember who I was would eventually arrive.
I had been her favourite — not just her favourite grandchild (sorry, not sorry, Glyn & Rachel) but just her favourite person in life in general (or at least she made me feel like it). My Grandma made my childhood absolutely magical. She loved me unconditionally; I can’t honestly remember an instance when she wasn’t patient, kind and warm towards me — even when I was up at 3:00am crying about how I felt homesick on the sleepover I demanded, or when I would sneak upstairs to eat entire cans of whip cream only to later deny it outright in a fit of unnecessary crocodile tears. Even when I was genuinely in the wrong, my Grandma was still on my side when I found myself in trouble with my parents; if she couldn’t get me off the hook entirely, she would at least advocate for a lesser punishment and negotiate the terms on my behalf. She cooked for me a never ending plethora of delicious German food, always tasting like it had been made with love and care; she planted vegetable and rose gardens with me, teaching me how to love the feel of soil between my fingers; she took me on rescue missions disguised as dog walks to save sparrows from chain link cages built by hydro, embedding within me a deep sense of empathy for animals as sentient beings worthy of our respect, love and compassion; she taught me that true spirituality does not require a church and that authentic worship happens when one communes with nature in solitude (or perhaps in the company of a dog) and sits to just listen to the sounds. There was something special about her backyard: it was her sanctuary, her very own little piece of the great outdoors. My Grandma’s backyard provided her with the space she had always wanted, it was kept exactly how she liked it and, most importantly, there was no one there to tell her differently. It was a rather tiny backyard but every square foot was spotlessly maintained and screamed German efficiency. I remember an array of blossoms, bees, birds, brooms, berries… and bacon cheddar potato perogies.
My Grandma bravely escaped Nazi Germany on her own as a young girl and, when she had made it to Canada, she survived for years in a brutally abusive marriage in almost complete isolation (remember, Women’s Shelters weren’t really a thing back then — they barely are now). Somehow she managed to raise four wonderful people, my father included, despite all the odds being stacked against her. My Grandma was known for her sharp mind and her even sharper tongue. She was outspokenly opinionated but my Grandma was an open minded conversationalist who wasn’t offended by alternative perspectives. My Mother often fondly recalls their lively discussions about their points of ideological differences. Irma had personal fortitude, stamina and dogged determination. She was the embodiment of strong willed independence. As her Grandchild, I was doted upon (so much so it made my sister’s eyes roll and my Mom kind of want to puke) and showered with praise and affection. She loved me deeply and defended me always. My Grandma was a survivor through and through. True, she was human, not perfect; sometimes those who were not lucky enough to be her Grandchild were subject to harsh criticism and judgment on the part of her strong opinions and ideals.
When the Alzheimers was in its earliest stages, my family noticed something was “off” about my Grandma, but no one thought much of it. She just seemed a bit weird, we thought; it was mostly dismissed as the stubbornness and oddness that is often associated with the aging process. (*shrug* People get quirky, right?) Of course, my Mom often says the signs of her mental deterioration are incredibly obvious in hindsight. I was just sixteen years old when my auntie was on her deathbed, loosing her long battle with diabetes. My Grandma refused to visit because she hadn’t been able to make it to the hair salon that week; my auntie died without saying goodbye to her mother. My Grandma had been a loving and devoted mother so her behaviour baffled my Mother and Father… but they didn’t recognize that Alzheimer’s was already well at work, beginning to steadily chip away at my Grandma’s grasp on reality as well as destroy her memory. Her response to my auntie’s request to see her in her final hours was so wildly out of character…. and those “out of character moments” began to to happen with increasing regularity.
The eight years between my auntie’s death and that of my Grandma is a period that stand in my memory marked with the hardship of family strife, especially for my parents. They were struggling with not only how to deal with an aging parent in need of assisted living but one who was bitterly resistant to any perceived notion of relinquishing any aspect of her hard earned independence. For the most part, I kept quiet and watched from the side lines. I was a young person just coming into adulthood and embarking upon secondary education and employment for the first time. I was in the midst of an experimental period of new experiences prompting profound personal, transformation and growth. Truth be told, I just didn’t know how to handle the decline of my Grandma’s mental health and I let my Father take full reign of the process. I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to cope with the painfully slow process of the this confusing loss. He struggled intensely for years, trying to make sure my Grandma was able to safely stay in her own home for as long as possible, that she received quality care and that she was well kept; as her son, he tried to adhere to and respect what he knew were her meticulous personal standards. She eventually forgot who he was too and I know that devastated him as much as it did me. He provided her with exceptionally committed care until the day she died.
It was many years before my Grandma was reluctantly moved into a personal care home, long before she had begun forgetting who her loved ones were, that she spoke to me about what she believed was the cause of her demise. I was in my somewhere in my late teens when my Grandma told me she knew she was getting sick and she believed she knew why. I was very aware that some of the things my Grandma had been through in her lifetime are among some of the hardest and most devastating in the spectrum of human experience. She told me that she had held onto her anger for the very real things she had suffered, she buried it deep down inside her and carried her burdens of rage on a daily basis — using its flames to fuel herself and form her relatively cynical perspective, to justify her self imposed isolationism, for literally decades. She avoided friendship in favour of the solitude of her basement (winter) or backyard (summer) — understandably, for the sweet recluse, finally, from a world in which she had endured such hardships. My Grandma told me she believed it was her rage and her grudges, it was how she had shut herself off from the world, that caused her sickness. “Let go of your anger, Nicole,” she told me, “otherwise it will only make you sick. I carried my anger with me everyday. It has eaten me alive and now parts of me have gone missing.”
Let go. Because if you don’t, it will eat you alive. You. Not the ones you’re angry with, not the ones who have hurt you, not the ones who you perceived to have judged you. It will consume you. The one who carries the anger, the one who carries the grudge, the one who carries the worry. It doesn’t have to be anger, necessarily, that needs to be let go — it’s anything that no longer serves your well being. Let go or be dragged — a Zen proverb I have tattooed on my body as a daily reminder of my Grandma’s lessons to me. My Grandma suffered for years and then suffered again at the hands of her inability to let go of the tortured emotions she carried within herself. She wasn’t wrong for being angry. She was justified. Nevertheless, she paid again, she was dragged - for eight years - because she hadn’t allowed herself to let go. (2)
As I watched the Alzheimer’s steadily progress, taking my Grandma away from me, the weight of her words sunk in deeper and deeper into the core of my principles, my understanding of life. I understand the concept of letting go, but I am still learning how it works, how to unlock that freedom in my heart. I am still working to cultivate the truly profound strength it takes to let go. I know that sometimes we refuse to let go because, honestly, it’s not always fair. We do suffer hardships, traumas, injustices, of all sorts. We feel pain, hurt and sadness. We want it to be acknowledged and amended; we want things to be made right. We want atonement. We want justice. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work like that and, even though its often deserved, the apology we want often never comes and, even if it does, we are disappointed that it just doesn’t provide the sense of relief we thought it would. We must learn to forgive and to accept — for our own benefit, for our own reprieve, for our own freedom. We must be strong enough to unburden and unbind ourselves, to stop waiting for what may never arrive, to stop insisting our freedom is dependent upon the words or actions of someone else. We can set ourselves free — if we just let go.
Mindfulness meditation provides a safe space to learn how to sit with uncomfortable emotions so we can learn how to access that skill set later on in less ideal circumstances. In the same way, the practice of yoga asana provides a safe space in which to learn how to let go. When you allow yourself to soften into your edges in Pigeon Pose, when you stop resisting what feels perhaps mildly uncomfortable in Reverse Table Top, when you finally let yourself truly rest — without fidgeting or sorting out your errand lists — in Savasana, you are actively engaging with the vital concept of letting go. Every time you step on your mat, you can perceive your practice as an opportunity to practice letting go. Learn how to do it in baby steps on your mat so you can take it off your mat and integrate this profoundly liberating lesson into your daily life and perspective.
In Loving Memory. I miss you everyday, Grandma.
(1) I want to be sure to clarify that a firm understanding of a concept should not be necessarily equated with specific mastery of said concept in practice. I am still a student of the practice of letting go and I absolutely still struggle at times.
(2) I’m not suggesting that there are not other reasonable and unrelated explanations for the onset of Alzheimers. I am not a doctor and do not claim to be. I am only providing a narration and perspective on a major life event, based on my own memories and interpretations of life from an emotional perspective.