Pratipaksha Bhavanam is a practice of controlling the mind and gradually guiding it to act in accordance with our yogic goals. The “Great Vow of Yoga” is the vow to abstain from violence, dishonesty, stealing, reckless indulgence, or greed. Even once we have committed to this path, we all falter from time to time… we may make rude comments, act harshly, or covet something that belongs to a friend… just to name a few!
Pratipaksha Bhavanam is a method that helps us catch these destructive and distracting thoughts, and redirect our minds back toward the yogic path. This is done by actively cultivating thoughts of the opposite nature when a destructive thought arises. It can even be as simple as formulating the opposite thought. Sometimes I find that just thinking the opposite thought brings me instant calm and relief. It feels better to think compassionate thoughts! My load feels lightened, and I am reminded of who I want to be (or even of who I really am!). In especially difficult instances, it may be necessary not just to think the opposite response, but to reflect on the different possible responses to whatever is upsetting us – to carefully consider not only the response itself, but the consequences that response will have on us and others.
These methods remind us that other options exist! When we are feeling caught up in cycle of destructive thoughts, it is very unpleasant… Our judgment is obscured by the murkiness in the mind, and we may say or do something that we later wish we had not done. Such feelings have a “trapping” nature – both physically and mentally we feel tight, confined, and trapped in a corner. Pratipaksha Bhavana opens the doors for us. By creating the opposite thought and reflecting on the possible consequences of our thoughts, words, and deeds… we are instantly given more options for thinking, feeling, and behaving. We move from reacting to choosing. We are taken out of the cave and up to the mountain top, from where we can see in every direction; we can see every way down the mountain and so we are able to pick the best option.
The Yoga Sutra reminds us that any negative action (such as violence) will result in our own ignorance and suffering. Regardless of our motivation, regardless of whether we’ve done something directly, caused it to happen, or merely sanctioned it, the result is our own suffering and ignorance (2.34). By “ignorance” is meant that we will continue to nourish that small part of ourselves which is prone to defensive, divisive and harsh thoughts… rather than nourishing that infinite part of ourselves which is generous, free, and compassionate. Reminding ourselves that negative thoughts, utterances, and deeds will result is pain and suffering for us (as well as for the recipient!) can be a powerful tool for changing our behavior.
These disturbing thoughts that consume us at times arise from our past. They are based in fears and hurts from our past experiences. They are old. Pratipaksha Bhavana gives us a concrete methodology that we can use to begin addressing and changing these damaging patterns. Increasingly, we expose ourselves to new, uplifting options.
Naturally enough, we don’t always have the chance to catch ourselves before we think, or speak, or act. But with effort and attention, we are able to catch ourselves with increasing frequency. Initially, the process of considering opposite perspectives will sometimes feel unnatural and false. Sometimes we can really convince ourselves that negative responses are valid and even helpful! The ability to catch ourselves and consider the long-term consequences can help us stay in line with our yogic goal of not harming others. Over time, the process of slowing down thought and speech, of carefully considering our thoughts and words and deeds becomes more intuitive and arises naturally.
“Often our ideas toward others/ideas/situations may not be very clear. Thus reacting harshly could land us in situations we do not want to be in. In such circumstances, any opportunity to have second thought is worth considering.”
~TKV Desikachar, Heart of Yoga
“Through introspection comes the end of pain and ignorance.”
~ BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali