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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pratipaksha bhavana

Meditation with Saraswati and Chitra - Sunday 1/22/12
Saraswati Andrea Lee and Chitra Jessica Sunshine
Starseed Yoga and Wellness of Montclair, NJ
Sponsered by The Yoga Life Society

Patanjali Yoga Sutra 2.33 and 2.34 - Pratipaksha bhavana
When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite (positive) ones should be thought of. 
This is pratipaksha bhavana.
When negative thoughts or acts such as violence and so on, are caused to be done, or even approved of, whether incited by greed, anger, or infatuation, whether indulged in with mild, medium, or extreme intensity, they are based on ignorance and bring certain pain.  Reflecting thus is also pratipaksha bhavana.
Everyday we are faced with negative stimuli that emerge from our internal being in the form of negative thoughts, as well as from external triggers (what people do or say, what people don't do or don't say, etc.) It can be difficult to combat these forces coming from within and without, especially when they often happen in a split second. Frequent meditation offers us a still mind that is fertile ground for deeper vision during these split seconds. We are then able to investigate what we think instead of just reacting.

With this deep awareness we are also offered the ability to change our thoughts. Sounds simple right? Often times it is not. Fortunately, knowing the mind as well as he did, Sri Patanjali prepared a strategy to remold our negative thoughts as presented in Book Two of the Yoga Sutras. This process is called pratipaksha bhavana.

Pratipaksha bhavana takes one to an "elevated" state of mind, as opposed to the state one might be in after a conflict or a bout of negative self talk. Instead of indulging in the misery of our thoughts we can change the channel and connect to something positive. If the negative thought is a withdrawal from our innate peace of mind, then the positive response is an instant deposit. For instance, I can replace feelings and thoughts of frustration with feelings and thoughts of gratitude. Or thoughts of anger with thoughts of peace. The idea is not to repress the initial feelings, but instead to override them. With practice you can zap the negative thought just as it surfaces, giving it little time to form into a feeling that them takes over. The highest practice, of course, is one of prevention, however pratipaksha bhavana adequately deals with the negative triggers as they are arising.

Often we have negative thoughts followed by negative feelings and emotions that accompany them (thought proceeds feeling). If we acknowledge our emotions directly, by saying "I'm feeling angry" or "I'm feeling disorganized," we can use pratipaksha bhavana to deal with the thoughts causing those feelings and we could do so in a matter of minutes. On the other hand, we often take the situation and construct a narrative to support it such as, "I'm feeling disorganized because I am a lazy, irresponsible, no good person. I've been like this since I was a teenager and I'll never grow out of it. Life stinks." It's no wonder how you could be stewing over the same event for months or years to come.

Pratipaksha bhavana requires that you take the more direct route to overcoming negativity by substituting positivity, even if it means "acting as if" in the beginning. You may not initially believe the positive thought you have just interjected, but with time and effort the mind believes and follows what it is told. I think it's quite empowering that we don't necessarily need a plate of food or a new shiny watch to placate our disturbed minds. We can utilize a practice that is internal, inexpensive, invaluable and in the moment.

The "negative thoughts" in the above sutra refer to acts that are in opposition to the yamas and niyamas, the first two limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.  The  yamas are a code of ethics and moral precepts that are universal to all people (non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, non-greed), and the niyamas are more pertinent for spiritual seekers who are preparing the mind for Self-realization (purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study, and surrender).  To eliminate negativity, Yoga offers us pratipaksha bhavana which provides two invaluable tools - a remedy and a preventative.  Additionally, the practice of the yamas and niyamas will help keep negative thoughts at bay. 

Patanjali Yoga Sutra 2.34 is used once the negativity has passed for self analysis to discover the motivations behind our acts.  The three main causes for negativity are greed, anger, and infatuation.  With greed, the craving to possess or achieve is not an excuse.  Anger harms the individual and ignores better motives.  The sanskrit word for infatuation is moha, or delusion, and causes us to forget the lessons of experience.  It is clear that these states of mind are not healthy for Self-realization, and with the help of Pratipaksha bhavana we become stronger with each lesson and practice.

The things we do, think, and say on a daily basis are ingrained acts which create grooves in the mind that deepen each time.  Imagine a block of clay and a needle passing through after each thought, word, or act we perform.  The things we do more frequently have deeper grooves.  The energy of the mind will always run into the deepest groove, which is perhaps why it is difficult to quit doing something we do habitually once we acknowledge it no longer serves us.  Yoga and meditation help create new grooves.  Each mantra repetition help deepen the mantra groove, instead of putting energy into a trait we wish to drop.  The resolve of daily Yoga practice is a great example.  In the beginning it may seem simple to  be enthusastic about starting a regular routine.  As a few days pass, the desire to be regular may begin to slip away as the desire to go back to old ways seems easier (as that is still the deepest groove).  Any energy to avoid, suppress, or repress an act is still sending energy into the old groove.  As new habits grow, they take the place of old habits naturally.  We can take the negativity out as we reflect and use "this is not necessary here," instead of "this is bad," which is a slip of the ego.  Use what is powerful for you, an image of peaceful Buddha or spiritual teacher or a mantra.  Cultivate what is pleasing for you and watch its' power grow with use.


  1. This is a beautiful and full description of Pratipaksha Bhavana. Thanks Jessica.

    Peace Santoshi

  2. And now Jessica I am seeing that you are a student of Rev Jaganath. I studied the Raja Yoga with him at the Integral Yoga Institute in NYC, a few years ago. I love his Yoga Sutra translation, and I love the work of Swami Satchidananda, as well as Nischala Joy Devi.

    Om Shanthi