The Yoga Sutras are comprised of 196 aphorisms whose essential meaning speaks to the nature of the mind, our lifestyle, values, use of the body, prana and our senses. The goal of the sutras is self-realization. They were compiled by the sage Patangali in the second century BCE. Over the ages, there have been many outstanding translations.
For this post, I’m using Edwin F. Bryant’s 2009 translation, and the sutra I’m discussing is 2.33. It’s called Pratipaksha Bhavana, and whenever I say that at home, my husband says, “Bless you!” It’s tricky to pronounce, so let’s call it “PB” for short.
2.33 Upon being harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate counteracting thoughts.
On first reading, this seems like an obvious bit of advice. Yet I’m sure we all recognize how easy it is get stuck in negativity. Frankly, with the challenges in today’s world, even the most balanced and mindful person will face challenges and negative thoughts.
Fact: What we think day-to-day literally creates grooves in our brain. More on that later.
PB teaches that the key to minimizing negative thoughts is to recognize them as they arise, whether they be critical, self-deprecating, violent, angry or any combination of the above. Then, with awareness, counteract those thoughts by inviting their opposite into your consciousness. In this way, you begin to replace negative habits with healthier ones.
An apt analogy that Bryant uses for this process is “weeding a garden” because, as one practices PB, uninvited thoughts (weeds) are less likely to grow or take root in our consciousness.
In fact, modern science is proving just this. In the 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself, UCLA psychiatrist Jeffrey M. Schwartz has successfully developed a plasticity- based treatment that helps people overcome not only everyday worries but compulsive behaviors, jealousy and issues of self-esteem. The key components of his talk therapy include:
- Recognizing first the negative thoughts, behaviors, and feelings, and,
- Refocusing energy onto more positive thoughts, activities or emotions.
Schwartz has proven through brain scans that this approach “grows” new brain circuits. Change isn’t instantaneous, but eventually, the new circuit becomes more dominant than the old and unhealthy patterns are weakened. Schwartz reports that “with this treatment, we don’t so much ‘break’ bad habits as replace bad behaviors with better ones.”
Sounds a lot like pratipaksha bhavanah, doesn’t it?
Another important aspect of PB is not only awareness of negative thoughts as they arise but also examining the effects of negative actions. This is useful and powerful, and is relevant to all aspects of our lives. A few practical examples of PB at work:
- Understanding that a diet high in saturated fat, sugar and/or processed products often leads to allergies, diabetes, arthritis and other diseases, we consciously choose healthy, whole and nutritious foods.
- Feeling frazzled in a world which seems to be moving faster and faster, we choose to unplug from technology for a period of time each day, or one day a week, and use that time to deepen our connections to people, animals or nature.
- Recognizing that violence and fear exist in the world, we choose to cultivate the opposite qualities of peace and courage and know that by choosing to do so, we can counter the negative consequences of hatred and hostility.
It takes time to change habits because they are literally etched into the brain! So start small and set yourself up for success.
Image by hey mr glenn, via Flickr