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open handsWhen they are small, you must hold tight to your children. When my son was a tiny infant, I had to be careful that my grip was sufficient or he would (often out of the clear blue) arch his entire body to literally back-flip out of my arms. When he was a toddler, I had to maintain a firm hold of his little hand – especially in parking lots and shops – as the sights and sounds around him could easily (and dangerously) lure him from my side. Even through elementary school, he would hold my hand as he marched resolutely into his new classroom or a friend’s birthday party – I suspect gaining strength and courage from being linked to someone bigger and braver than he was.

As little boys become bigger boys, though, we learn to hold our children more loosely. While we weren’t holding hands as he headed into middle school that first day, I remember we were walking so close to one another that our bodies were touching as we went through the door together. In high school, when holding hands with your mom simply cannot happen in public, we stayed “in touch.” Even though he was taller than me, he would often plop on top of me in the chair in the kitchen when he got home in the afternoons. His driver’s license required me to release my grip even more. Suddenly, I was no longer there to kiss him and send him into wherever he was going with a reminder of how much I love him. But — still — he came home to me each evening.

Earlier this week, I had to open my hands to hold him even more loosely. As we moved him into his first dorm room, every synapse in my body yearned to clench down and hold on tight. The situation felt as perilous as those long ago parking lots. Yet something deep within me – perhaps a glimmer of maturity and wisdom? – knew that to hold tight would only cause more pain. To grip and squeeze him as he positioned himself to fly would not only hamper him as he spread his wings, but it would hurt me. The way to ease the pain of our inevitable separation that day was to hold him lightly, with open hands, and allow him to go – as he is more than ready to do.

These open hands required more courage than it did for me to gradually trust that he could safely walk beside me into the mall. These open hands required more faith of me than watching him back down the driveway in the Honda that first time. These open hands asked me to trust in the “stretchiness” of our love. As we walked back to the car from his dorm, I could actually feel my heart stretch. While leaving him was hard, it wasn’t as hard as keeping him with me would have been. Leaving him was right – and letting him fly will allow our love to continue to be healthy. Holding on would have pinched and squeezed us, eventually squishing our love into a small, sad facsimile of what it’s always been.

Holding on lightly is not something we humans do naturally. I don’t know if this is because of the simple fact that we are blessed with opposable thumbs, but we are creatures who prefer to hold on rather than let go. We get glimpses of this tendency – and the ways it limits us – on our yoga mats. In my practice I have noticed myself holding tightly to a desire for a certain posture. Whatever I’m working on, the moment I grip onto the need to “get it” is almost always the moment the posture slips further out of reach. Growth and change happen more willingly when I’m not overly caught up in measuring my progress or fixated on success. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve flung up my hands in surrender only to find myself nailing the posture the very next week. Even when success isn’t that sudden, letting go allows my practice to shift from the frustrated energy my desire has created back to the centering, calming and fruitful energy that keeps me coming back to my mat day after day.

Similarly, I’ve caught myself holding on to my successes with a death grip. Over and over again I’ve figured out a posture only for it to suddenly disappear. The resulting emotional tsunami typically causes me to tighten my grip even more. I catch myself gritting my teeth as I approach the posture. If you don’t tell anyone, I’ll confess to letting a few choice words fly as I try again and again to do something I was once able to do. My frustration, tension and tight desire obviously are not helping me. It’s only when I finally surrender to the fact that the posture clearly had more to teach me, that I can relax enough to learn again. And each time, the lessons I learn are exactly the ones I need to not only bring me back to the “lost” posture, but to help my practice move to a whole new level.

These experiences on my mat have helped me develop a lighter hold on the things I care about. Becoming comfortable being open-handed has allowed me to grow and stretch in ways I could never have imagined. Releasing my grip has allowed me relief and freedom – relief from pain I didn’t even know my tight grip was causing and the freedom to receive gifts that my previously clenched-closed grip had prevented me from receiving. Becoming comfortable being open-handed in the safety of my yoga mat has helped me develop a solid trust that an open-handed grip is not a guarantee that I will lose something. To the contrary, holding something lightly often brings it back to me in a whole new form.

And this is exactly what I have faith will happen with my son as he stretches his wings and learns to fly in college. I trust that, over the last 18 years, I’ve held him enough, told him I’ve loved him enough, and taught him enough about what it is to be a good man in a complicated world that, though he will indeed soar to great heights, he will feel the same stretchy pull that I feel in my heart. Because I’ve kept a loose grip on our love, I trust that he will fly back to me over and over again as he grows into a man. Best yet, each time he does, because I haven’t clenched down on the boy he was, I have faith that I will be open-handed to receive the man he is becoming.