vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam
when disturbed by negative thoughts, cultivate the opposite
patanjali yoga sutra II.33
The philosophy behind modern yoga (modern yoga meaning the physical, mental and spiritual practices that we do in classes, at home and in teacher training programs) has its roots in the writings of Sri Patanjali, who lived around 200 BCE – 200 CE. These teachings (Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) present an orderly, concise summary of techniques we can use to upgrade our thinking, be nicer to people and move closer to god. Indeed, it is Patanjali’s philosophical framework which differentiates yoga from relaxation, personal fitness, stress relief, mindfulness or community building. Yoga is a system designed to make us better human beings -- happier on the inside and kinder on the outside -- in the name of cultivating a spirit-based life. When applied consistently, with earnestness and over time, the practices Patanjali enumerates create a stable and receptive mind, one that is conducive to humility and spiritual insight.
One of the most practical techniques he introduces is “pratipaksha bhavanam,” or turning thoughts around (II.33). The full translation goes something like this: “when you are disturbed by negative or unwholesome thoughts, cultivating their opposite builds firmness in the precepts of yoga” (Stiles, 2002). So, the first question is what are negative or unwholesome thoughts? In this context he means thoughts which cause harm to ourselves or others such as anger, comparison, judgment or fear. The thing is, we don’t always know which thought causes harm until we trace its trajectory back from the feeling it produces on the surface. Developing the focus and patience to do this is an essential aspect of pratipaksha bhavanam.
As a (purely hypothetical) example, let’s say I’m feeling overburdened with household tasks and I become quietly irritated at my husband for not taking the garbage out. The surface feeling is anger or irritation -- which causes harm to both of us -- but it is the thought beneath the feeling which need to be challenged. I may be thinking, “every Wednesday night is garbage night and you should know without me reminding you that the garbage goes out to the street.” This narrative is a minefield of unwholesome thoughts, leading to all sorts of equally problematic feelings such as irritation, victimization, entitlement and disappointment (I can’t believe he didn’t read my mind and absorb through mental osmosis that I wanted help).
To apply pratipaksha bhavanam, I have to identify a problematic thought if I’m going to cultivate the opposite. So let’s use the “he should know it’s garbage night” thought. Is that even true? If I stop for a moment, I see how ridiculous this thought really is. His mind works differently than mine and he remembers things I don’t (like special dates and anniversaries) so my internal assumption that he should remember something that I do just doesn’t hold up. One way of turning that thought around would be acknowledging and cultivating gratitude that he and I remember different things, which makes us a good team. I don’t even have to be fully committed to the opposite thought, I just have to let the possibility that it’s true poke a hole in my sense of entitlement or irritation.
Another approach would be to tackle the “without me reminding you” part. I guess we are never too old for magical thinking, the lurking belief that someone who really loves and understands us can read our minds, sense our needs before we even articulate them and then execute the perfect antidote to whatever troubles us. Jostling this thought even a little bit makes the whole pattern collapse like a house of cards. Practicing pratipaksha bhavanam illuminates the logical, emotionally mature recognition that sometimes I have to ask for what I want. It’s embarrassingly obvious once it’s out in the open, but the mind can be a sneaky bastard, infiltrating our consciousness with negative thinking the moment we turn our backs.
Sri Patanjali, like all yogis, believed in self-determination and communicates that message over and over again throughout the Yoga Sutras. Our spiritual advancement is our responsibility – something no partner, teacher, professional or community of like-minded people can do for us. Having support can help . . . but the real work of yoga happens in the honest reflections of our own mind, when there is no one else to blame and no one to congratulate us.
This holiday season might just present you with an opportunity to explore pratipaksha bhavanam. I encourage you to take it on as a spiritual practice, as a conscious process to direct the energy of the mind in a way which benefits both thinker and thinkee. I’m grateful for these enduring tools and have found, with time and practice, that they really work.
I’ll be teaching a bunch next week (see schedule below), including a special 90-minute Gratitude Flow class on Thanksgiving Day, helped by my wonderful assistant Tamalyn Matney. It will be fun, so please come early to get your spot.
In Love and Opposition!