Many years ago I got certified to teach English as a second language. Our ESL teacher shared a story I will never forget:

One year, the owners of a large indoor shopping mall in Japan, enamored by all things American, decided to erect an enormous US-style Christmas display in the mall’s center. Local Japanese artists and contractors bid on the multi-million dollar project. The chosen winner worked in secret around the clock to design and build his homage to all things Christmas. Finally, the day of the Big Reveal arrived to great fanfare. Thousands of excited shoppers flooded in to discover a fat and jolly Santa Claus…nailed to the cross.

The point of this story is that, while we can learn another country’s language, culture doesn’t always translate. Even when all the information is available, it’s easy to get confused. It’s no wonder that here in the West we often miss the point of Yoga entirely. Yoga originated in India, a slow-moving, deeply spiritual environment. Even with access to the original texts and teachings, it makes sense that our fast-moving, productivity-loving culture might get caught up in the aspects of the practice that jive with our societal values. Yoga is ultimately about letting go. The “goal” is to slowly and methodically peel away our past experiences, biases, and thoughts of the future so we can fully experience each moment as it unfolds. It’s about how to BE in the present –open and clear, free of judgment, comparisons, resistance, and fear. And it promises that this is where true peace and freedom lie. But here in the States, we are overly focused on appearances, and more importantly, we are DOERS. We love making lists and crossing things off. We thrive on setting goals and reaching them…the next degree, promotion, expected step on life’s path (graduate-find a job-get married-buy a house-have children-retire). The Next Pose. We feel the need to measure and track our productivity, and thus our basic worth, by acquiring things and accomplishments. How in the world do you gauge Release? And what are we letting go of anyway?

Physical –Yoga helps us let go of the tension we hold in our bodies. We stockpile tension through unconscious repetitive patterns. Oftentimes contraction is a protective barrier built around past bodily injury or emotional trauma. Unexplored grief lives in the lungs and upper thoracic spine. Latent fear tends to inhabit the psoas. Tight hips might simply come from too much sitting. When we use asana as a forensic tool, rather than a tally of our progress, we can not only identify and release lifelong tension patterns, but we can flesh out and finally heal the underlying causes that keep us locked up inside of our bodies.

Psychological – Our thinking minds are undeniably brilliant. They can analyze enormous amounts of information, devise thousands of possible scenarios, and instantly sort mountains of data into tidy compartments. They are loud and bossy. And studies show that a huge percentage of the thousands of thoughts our minds create everyday are repetitive. Yoga practices teach us to observe, examine, question, and ultimately quiet the incessant mental chatter. Asana, mantra, meditation, pranayama etc… help us let go of our tendency to evaluate and categorize our experiences as they occur. When we can get out of our heads, and into our hearts and bodies, every moment becomes holy.

Emotional – Do you ever feel like an unwilling slave to your emotions? What if most of our emotional responses are habitual? I once had a therapist suggest that only 40% of emotional responses are based on a current situation. The other 60% are conditioned responses to past events that, over time, have become sneaky, ingrained patterns. I think she was being conservative.  Consider your “triggers”, those innocuous comments or situations that illicit an out-sized emotional reaction. I recently had a neighbor read me the riot act when my dog vomited up some grass in the weeds by her driveway. I cried a little after, and felt rattled and scolded the rest of the day. Safe to say we both WAY overreacted to a rather minor incident. I think our wounded inner little girls were acting out. Yoga has helped me examine the situation with perspective and compassion. I practice sending forgiveness and light into her home every time I walk by…even though I’m still sometimes tempted to flip it off!

Spiritual – The Yogis believe that all of our suffering originates from a mistaken belief that we are separate from God (Spirit, Love, Creation, The Universe… or whatever term resonates with you.) Yoga works from the outside in to dismantle all that keeps us trapped in this basic misconception. As we slowly strip away the limiting patterns in our physical, mental, and emotional bodies, we become still enough to feel our connection to everyone and everything. We get quiet enough to hear the soft whispers of our souls. And we grow clear enough to see the divinity within ourselves, and everyone else.

Ultimately, when we become truly proficient at letting go, we even lose interest in the goal of “enlightenment”, and instead, find ourselves reveling in the peace and freedom available every step along the way. (PYS 1.15) Then (or Now, if you prefer), we can finally cross “Find Serenity” off of our to-do lists.