Replace the negative with the positive

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Pratipaksha bhavana (Book 2 Sutra 33) is the practice of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Negative thoughts are a kind of blame game – we can use them as an excuse, a justification, a defense against letting in anything unknown, challenging, or scary. “This happened because she is a terrible person. I can’t do this because the system is evil. It’s not my fault, this culture is too unfair.”

Feeding negative thoughts feeds hatred and builds a wall against interaction and exchange. We do this with ourselves as well, focusing on what’s wrong with us and feeding those insecurities and fears.

If we feed the positive, we feed openness. By feeding our own wonderful qualities we help them grow.

It sounds so simple to stop a thought and either just let it go or replace it with an opposite thought. But in practice it’s very difficult. I don’t even realize where my mind has gone when I am in the middle of an internal rant until I am well invested in the negative emotion. If I’m lucky I realize what I’m doing and then can try to change what’s going on in my head. Then I have to be vigilant about not watering the negative seeds I planted (they will still try to survive) and try to plant positive seeds instead.

If making a 180 isn’t possible, especially in the moment, then change what you are doing or where you are. Look at or listen to something that makes you happy, peaceful, at ease. Remove yourself from the situation or person over which you are filling yourself with negativity.

Try to think of the hurt you are causing, not just in yourself, but in the energy you are putting out into the world, into the situation you are in, or toward the person you are with. These thoughts lead to actions that take the negativity from energy to something tangible. How much hurt are you causing now?

I sometimes have days where I stew in negativity.

I’m taking the subway with my son in a stroller and no one makes room on the train so we can get on, so we have to wait for the next one, or the next one. “Jerks.” Or – my son loves to watch the trains come and go so now we get to watch more than one. Or – instead of rushing, now I have a few extra minutes to breathe and chat with my son and lower my anxiety level.

I’m carrying my son up the subway stairs in a stroller because there is no elevator in the station. “Jerks.” Or – what a great opportunity to use my strength and show my son what fortitude is. Or – the New York city subway system is a monster and the MTA is doing their best to address all the issues, it is a near impossible task with the infrastructure they are working with.

I’m pushing a stroller awkwardly into a building and someone closes the door right into us. “Jerk.” Or – maybe he was just blissfully unaware and had no idea what just happened, it was an accident. Or – maybe he was overwhelmed with something difficult in his life and he didn’t have one ounce of energy left to give and I should feel compassion rather than antipathy for him.

And then my son has an irrational but completely normal toddler melt down. If I had stuck with the “jerks” all day I wouldn’t have any patience or softness left to give my son what he needs. I know this from experience. But when I really try and practice pratipaksha bhavana I feed my inner strength that allows me to keep going with a steady gaze, a calm breath, and a smile. And then I can project that positivity back into the world.

Finding your edge

As we moved from asana to asana, the teacher wove through our mats and urged us to: “find your edge”, “push to reach your limit”, “ease past your comfort zone”. This is common language in a vinyasa class.

Hearing these suggestions, I realized where I was at – I had no comfort zone. I wasn’t living in a stable place of ease and routine and comfort that I had a need to push beyond. My existence since my son was born had already been past my limit and beyond my edge. I had been struggling to get back to a sense of home, of ease – to find my down dog in the middle of the vinyasa. I had been looking for that slow deep breath of stability in the midst of persevering through effort – that moment of stillness within perpetual movement.

In class that day I wasn’t looking to push further in the effort. I was resistant to the message. I wanted slow, steady, calm, comfortable, expected. I feel at home in a yoga class because it is routine and known to me. I don’t have to think or learn; I can just do and be.

I spent much of my daily life in resistance so I decided to not resist the message, to let go and not let my thoughts about limitations block my movements. I would just do. I would accept the challenge. I would trust that pushing myself, even though I felt like I had nothing more to give, would bring more ease in the end than just going through the motions in a comfortable way, without awareness, distracted by my mind.

I found that as I focused on my body, I got out of my head and my thoughts and into my body. I forgot about the diaper delivery that didn’t come, cleaning up vomit in the middle of the night, and how I struggle to not hold onto resentments in my life and instead focused on the release of tension from my hip in eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon pose). I noticed where my imbalance was coming from in sirsasana (headstand) and how many breaths I could last before coming down. I felt my bone alignment and struggling flexibility in hanumanasa (splits).

I pushed – I wanted to feel the pain, the release of toxins from my muscles, and breathe it out of my body. I wanted to feel something that wasn’t heartache, frustration or exhaustion. I wanted to feel my own body again, not my body in relation to my child (a wonderful yet binding attachment) – just me. I felt like I needed a physical pummeling. In a good way!

The most profound moment of the class was in savasana (corpse pose) when the teacher massaged my shoulders and head. That healing touch let me know what I was missing. Baby hugs and kisses and tickles are like nothing else – the epitome of sweetness and softness and pure love. But I needed to be kneaded, I needed the tension manipulated out of my body, I needed physical help releasing all that I had been holding onto.

I needed to be challenged to push myself, to be guided out of my head, to be put into savasana and a deep level of rest, and I needed healing touch. I went beyond my beyond and it pulled me back to a place of ease.

Gently down the stream

GangaIn The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda says, “The entire world is your own projection.”  What a powerful idea. What does he mean? We choose to give meaning to things, to people, to places and we choose what particular meaning to give them. We then react in response to those meanings. I lost an inexpensive ring I had bought for myself – I had given the ring the power of being a reminder to me of the spiritual path. I loved to look at the ring and remember where I was and how I felt when I bought it. Then I lost it. I was upset, it was meaningful to me and irreplaceable.

But, did I lose the spiritual path? Was that reminder in a physical object more powerful than the practice itself? No. I had given that little piece of metal power but it in itself was just a little piece of metal. I let it go and the upset followed.

Being able to control how the world affects you is the key to peace.  Knowing the difference between your true self and your affected self is yoga.

“Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah – The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” Practicing yoga is practicing letting go. Our minds jump around and react constantly – stilling, restraining the mind, letting go of the reactions, the attachments, and just being brings peace.

How we react to the world around us is what creates the world around us. But it is such a difficult practice to become aware of our reactions, to control them, and to let them go. Peace is not easy to achieve.

My two-year old son seems to have mastered letting go in mid cry and turning his frown upside down and laughing at it all. He sang to me: “Row, row, row your boat gently on the lake. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life’s a piece of cake.” Life’s a piece of cake mommy, why are you making it so hard?

Then he changed it up to: “Row, row, row your boat on a on a mouth. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily life’s a piece of mouth.” He thought that was supremely hilarious and laughed heartily. I have to give it to him for being creative and trying to make a joke – but mostly I admire his ability to laugh. He reminds me every day to laugh. Life really can be laughable if you let yourself see it that way.

Row gently and know none of it is real. It’s amazing how hard it can be to laugh, to let go of attachments, to believe it is all just a dream. It’s all a creation of our minds. Everything we hold onto is ultimately unimportant. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have people or things in our lives but we should try to be in control of how our mind reacts, how we attach, how we project meaning and expectations onto them. It must be easier if you become a monk…

But I will row on and practice.

Quotes from Satchidananda, Swami, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali/translation and commentary by Swami Satchidananda, Integral Yoga Publications, Yogaville, 1990.