To learn something new you must first put aside what you already know.
Wee Kee Jin
In western society we tend to live in an anxious state most of the time without realising it. The stresses and strains of jobs, relationships, health, finances etc puts the body in a state of permanent alarm. It is ready to fight or flee at any moment.
Until we begin to let go of excess tension, we often don’t even realise it was there.
To effect a change you have to become aware of the ‘bad’ tension and replace it with ’good’ tension. We are not talking about ‘relaxing’ here; if you relaxed when riding you’d bounce along the horse’s back and fall off over his tail!
Sally Tottle (riding instructor, Alexander teacher and author) says:
"Simply thinking about an activity triggers a muscular response. If you take time to observe yourself before doing a familiar activity, you may notice that you tense your neck muscles or hold your breath, yet are not normally aware of doing so. Muscles often become set or programmed into a habitual ways of responding".
What follows is the story of one person’s journey into Letting Go.
Given enough time to practice, and with the right teacher by your side, you think you can turn your mind and body to most things that are asked of you, and be able to make at least a rough imitation within a short period of time. But then one day you meet someone who asks you to do something that sounds effortless and simple, yet it leaves you baffled as you just cannot make your body do it; not even slightly! The word ‘relaxed’ perhaps has the wrong connotations for me, in that it implies ceasing activity and a lack of mental engagement, whereas I needed to create a new habit of letting go of unnecessary muscular tension.
So it was for me when I was tapped on the chest and told, ‘let go from the inside’, meaning that I held unnecessary tension in the body.
I gradually came to realise that what I regarded as ’relaxed’ was not relaxed at all, and was merely ’a bit less tense’ than when I consciously tighten a muscle. At the time this was an important breakthrough in my understanding, so I had to let go of my current understanding of what ‘relaxed’ is, and then try to develop a different one. The word ’relaxed’ perhaps has the wrong connotations for me, in that it implies ceasing activity and a lack of mental engagement, whereas I needed to create a new habit of letting go of unnecessary muscular tension.
Intellectually, superficially, I understood, agreed and accepted that I should let go; to use the mind and not physical strength but, despite willing my body to comply, the old habits were ingrained too deeply to be washed away overnight. This was getting more difficult and more interesting, and although I knew I needed to internalise the principle until it became a habit, my mind was filled with questions:
If I tried too hard to let go, I was advised it might actually create more tension as it would be too wilful, but then if I didn’t try hard enough then I would never achieve it.
Letting go is neither collapsing, nor holding on. It is to let go of unnecessary tension. Unnecessary tension is anything more than the minimum required to maintain the structure, or to support movement. Letting go is also not losing all muscular tension because without at least some we would just be a pile of flesh and bones on the floor. It is a controlled process, not an abdication of responsibility for our limbs.
Trying to accomplish letting go in terms of not doing my current habits, or using any concept that derived from my current knowledge simply held me back in the old mindset.
It is only possible to let go if we can first recognise what we are holding on to. Initially we must cultivate an awareness of the body, and be able to feel the individual parts, but then gradually the awareness of holding on begins to develop and we can instruct the body to let go. As one thing is uncovered and rectified, then after a while it reveals another that requires even more subtlety to notice. So for me letting go is a long-term process of iteration with small incremental improvements, not an overnight transformation, and I expect I will spend the rest of my life working on it as there is always scope for improvement. The more we are already holding, the more we have to eventually let go, and the harder we hold onto things, or the more attached we are to them, the more difficult it will be to let them go.
The advice to let go from the inside meant more than just letting go of the muscles in the body. It encompasses a whole raft of habits, preconceptions and ego-related baggage, which must be dealt with using the mind. Even thinking is nothing more than planning what to do, so I would somehow have to let go of that too, and engage with a physical feeling instead of my rather cumbersome and cluttered intellect. Well, even if the mind was willing the body still required a lot more persuading. After a time I found I could create a facsimile of softening in the chest by breathing out and relaxing, but this was far from adequate, and it was explained that letting go must not be dependent on, or adversely affected, by the breath. So, it was back to the drawing board for me!
I expected learning to be difficult, although I never imagined that something so apparently simple as letting go would be quite so elusive or so painful! I can vividly remember the day I first felt my insides moving and the skin around my back and ribs gliding down against the material of my shirt. It was small and uneven, but for the first time I really felt that something inside me had changed and I had made a small but significant breakthrough. Armed with this small piece of experience, I began to work systematically through the major areas of the body and to cultivate the same feeling. It became apparent that the amount of muscular discomfort I experienced was in some way proportional to the habitual tensions I carried around within me. The process of using my (not yet adequate) body awareness to sense the tension and then feel it to let go had taken a long time to begin to take effect.
Up to now the standing postures made my shoulders and upper back very sore, but things were slowly beginning to change. Different and more specific parts of my body seemed to be getting sore and the sensations varied from numbness, to tingling and aching, or even intense burning. The degree of discomfort in one part seemed to relate to another part letting go, almost as if the loosened parts now hung freely letting their full weight draw on their neighbours. The natural reaction is to stop letting go, so the [discomfort] disappears, but it felt necessary to endure it and allow my body to continue letting go whilst being mindful of maintaining a correct structure and checking that I didn’t tense up elsewhere in reaction to it.
The [discomfort] is a sign that things are changing, and for a time I needed to seek it to know that I was practicing properly. However, it is important to not get too attached to it as a sign of progress, because it gradually subsides over months and years as the body learns to relax and loosen. Beyond this, it is necessary to seek and cultivate different sensations, so it was also necessary to let go of the need to feel pain as it might only hold me back, and in its place seek what happens after it subsides.
In 2005 I suffered a broken leg in a skiing accident, my own fault of course, which left me on crutches for several weeks. I was aware that walking two or three miles and tackling dozens of stairs every day on one leg, with crutches, was causing my upper body muscles to grow and my lower back to become tilted, tense and unbalanced despite my best efforts to keep straight.
I noticed that when I was trying to let go inside my upper body, there was movement in the front of my chest but very little change in my back. I asked about it and was reminded me that the letting go must come from within otherwise it will be uneven. Now at the time I really thought I was letting go from the middle of the body, but the evidence clearly showed I was not. The inaccurate awareness of my central axis and the lack of looseness in my back were clearly limiting factors. I schemed that if my mind awareness was actually further forward than I thought it was, then perhaps if I brought it further back then maybe in reality it would end up in my centre. So, I began work on letting go in the back specifically by moving the awareness through the muscles around the spine and feeling each part. There were large blank areas that needed to be explored, but gradually I learned to feel them and then one day I actually noticed some small muscles holding on in my lower back. I felt them and then gently let them go as I moved the awareness through to the sacrum and coccyx, and was then startled as the tailbone and hips dropped and l felt my spine stretch.
That felt weird!
I was fascinated that I now had a significant movement in the full length of the spine and, although it was uneven and embryonic, it transformed my understanding and my practice overnight.
Although freeing my back was an important breakthrough, it was only a beginning because I still had to establish with my awareness precisely where the centre of my body is, and only then can I actually begin to let go from the inside in a meaningful way. If the letting go does not come from the exact centre within the structure it will be uneven, and thus in turn will affect the central equilibrium. ‘Understanding’ is not only an intellectual exercise, and we must let go of our expectation of being able to reason and deduce superior knowledge without first putting in the practical effort. An intellectual grasp of concepts or facts is not the same as knowledge or skill, and it is merely a fortunate place from which to start. True understanding results only from creative practice, experimentation, investing in loss, sensing, feeling and most of all developing an upright character. Proof of understanding lies in the ability to demonstrate, and if we cannot demonstrate then we do not yet understand.
By requiring us to first recognise and then let go of our habitual tensions, grasping and ego-related maladies, Taiji is a process that can provide benefit and enjoyment for our entire lives.
Right up until that last sentence you probably accepted that all of the above is talking about Letting Go as it relates to riding. In a sense it is, and I believe it applies to life in general as well, but it was originally written about the need to let go in the practice of martial arts, specifically in this case, Taijiquan (Tai Chi). (My thanks go to Paul Fretter for allowing me to condense his original article for clarity purposes in regards to riding.)
To better appreciate what Paul is writing about in terms of the exercises/postures and the discomfort that goes along with Letting Go, take a look at these pages: Breathing & Standing Meditation Awareness Zen Dressage
If your browser doesn’t open your email client, click here)
Classical Dressage Notebook