Forgiveness and yoga require consistent practice. As we engage in each, healing unfolds in the body, mind, and soul. Forgiveness and yoga exist in a symbiotic relationship: forgiveness allows us to release emotional blockages that affect the body/mind, and yoga delivers us to more empowered and peaceful states within the body/mind that encourage the release. Yoga and forgiveness illuminate the body-mind connection.
All world religions and spiritual traditions emphasize the practice of forgiveness. Sages, prophets, rishis, shamans, medicine women—figures who have helped shape religion and spirituality—understood that resentment and anger depress the body and mind, which hinders our connection to the soul and Divine.
Being angry diminishes the quality of life and can incite violence against our self and others. Forgiveness helps us function at fuller capacity from a healthy internal state.
Just as forgiveness promotes healing in the body/mind, yoga accomplishes the same effect. Scientific studies from Harvard show that yoga increases body awareness, relieves stress, improves mood and behavior, and calms and centers the nervous system. Since yoga decreases the stress response in the body, it creates space in the psyche to journey into the practice of forgiveness.
Once we are no longer in fight-or-flight mode, we can begin to embrace healing practices because we feel safe enough to do so.
How does one forgive? What are the guidelines to help us let go of resentments towards self and others? How can yoga enhance our dance with forgiveness?
Before we answer these questions, it is imperative to note that forgiveness is not condoning the behavior of the offender. It is the willingness—and process—of letting go of resentments for your own benefit, as resentments, anger, and constant rumination about whatever transpired only harms YOU. It also entails reaching a place of empathy and understanding towards the offender, primarily recognizing that he/she is wounded and is acting out from that wound.
If you believe that it is hard to forgive (and it is), research the stories of Immaculée Ilibagiza and Scarlett Lewis. Immaculée survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide and forgave the man who murdered her family with the help of her Catholic faith, particularly her connection with Mother Mary. Scarlett’s son was killed in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary. She affirms forgiveness of the gunman is central to her resilience. If these women can forgive those atrocities, we certainly stand a chance in our own lives.
As the American Psychological Association asserts, “Forgiveness is not the same as justice, nor does it require reconciliation. A former victim of abuse shouldn’t reconcile with an abuser who remains potentially dangerous, but the victim can still come to a place of empathy and understanding.” One psychologist noted, “Whether I forgive or don’t forgive isn’t going to affect whether justice is done; forgiveness happens inside my skin.”
Research from John Hopkins Medical School indicates that forgiveness is a choice. There are multiple paths to make that choice. Invoking spiritual/religious beliefs can help you with that process.
For self-forgiveness, the Western religions require desisting from the action that is harmful in your Life. Calling on Yahweh/God/Allah through prayer and humbling yourself before Yahweh/God/Allah will help you with abstaining and redirecting your behaviors.
For forgiveness of others, the Western faiths emphasize empathy and prayer for the offenders. The central idea here is: just as God forgives us for our trespasses, let us forgive those who trespass against us.
The Eastern traditions highlight the Law of Karma when it comes to matters of forgiveness. Karma is the notion that “as you sow, so shall you reap.” While Karma oversees the balancing act of transgressions, the Mahabharata states, “Forgiveness is Brahma [God]; Forgiveness is truth; and by Forgiveness the universe is held together.”
The Buddha claimed that anger is poisonous to the body and psyche. To soften anger, the Buddha proposed sending metta, which means “loving-kindness,” to those with whom you are annoyed. No, this is not easy, but as scientific data reveals, unforgiveness can produce chronic stress, mental instability, and depression.
Women’s Spirituality encourages acknowledgment of the transgression and pursuit of diverse actions that restore balance, justice, awareness, and harmony in the interconnected web of Life.
Like many women, I use forgiveness as part of my recovery from trauma in patriarchal culture. The wounds that women endure need sacred space for healing. For me, yoga is that space. Within it is my relationship with the Goddess through my body. To feel and release anger in poses, I call on the fierce aspect of Her. For softness and compassion, I call on Her as nurturer. My yoga practice is embodied spirituality that leads me into deeper, sweeter layers of healing, forgiveness, and empowerment.
Where does yoga fit into all of this?
Yoga ultimately triggers a deep state of physiological relaxation. This state calms the sympathetic nervous system (stress & emergency response) and boosts the parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest response). Yoga amplifies the level of GABA, a chemical in the brain that aids regulation of nerve activity, which helps to control fear and anxiety when neurons become overexcited.
Given that yoga decreases stress, fear, depression, and anxiety, we are delivered to more serene and affirmative states within. We have accessed a relaxed—therefore, much Wiser—energy inside.
If we allow it, yoga can be the doorway into the practice of forgiveness. We can use the positive mental state yoga engenders and incorporate any number of forgiveness practices that suit us. We can pray for help during yoga; after practice, we may feel impelled to contact someone and make amends, or schedule an appointment with a therapist; we can perform a ritual of self-forgiveness.
We can use asanas as a method to release the charge of emotional memories. Use Warrior Two as a stance to send metta to yourself and others. Use backbends to ask God/dess to the release the samskaras (karmic emotional imprints) from your heart. Cry in shavasana. Don’t suppress. Suppression leads to depression. Use your yoga as an entrance into forgiveness and healing.
Vanessa Soriano, Ph.D., is a yoga teacher (with an 8-5 job) who completed her Ph.D. in Religion and Philosophy with an emphasis in Women’s Spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies. After enduring some traumatic events, she was inspired to study religion and spirituality from every angle possible. Somewhere along that journey, she encountered the feminine face of the Divine and fell madly in love with the Goddess. When the Divine became a woman for Vanessa, she could feel empowerment and healing in a way that was not accessible when the Divine was portrayed in strictly male terms. Ultimately, Vanessa thinks the true nature of the Divine transcends gendered terms like “Divine Feminine” and “Divine Masculine,” and Its’ core is a presence of unconditional, infinite Love. Yet, she feels this presence of unconditional, infinite Love takes on innumerable forms to be understood and recognized by the diverse peoples of the world. Studying the various forms of the Divine is Vanessa’s passion. She believes the images and narratives of the Divine can be used to oppress or liberate people, and she seeks information that uplifts, inspires, and honors all walks of Life.