On our yoga mats, we work hard to cultivate proper alignment. Practicing alignment in asana is like eating your vegetables everyday: If you commit to it, you’ll have a healthier practice and a healthier body. We do these things in the spirit of ahimsa, of non-violence and non-injury. Ahimsa encompasses not just physical injury and violence, but also the pain we could potentially cause with our thoughts and attitudes. Being respectful toward every mind, body, and spirit, including our own, is the foundation of ahimsa, which creates proper alignment for all of our thoughts.
This is so because the way we think and perceive things can be harmful and cause pain to ourselves and our loved ones, our communities, and even to our planet. These mental misalignments influence our behavior and color our perceptions, which are the lens through which we see the world. They also have an enormous influence how we ourselves are, in turn, perceived. Whether it’s true or not, other people will often see in us what we choose to see in them, thus perpetuating a cycle of harmful misperception.
To realign our thoughts and habits in keeping with ahimsa, the yoga sutras state that, when negative thoughts or situations arise, we should instead bring opposite ideas to mind. This practice is called pratipaksha bhavanam.
Cultivating an opposite thought requires first acknowledging what is negative or potentially harmful, then stepping back from it. From this different perspective, we can observe the situation with more clarity and examine it from all sides. From there, we can ponder how to move our thoughts back in the direction of ahimsa, ideally before we respond or react in a way that could potentially harm ourselves or others.
Obviously, this is hardest to do when it’s most needed. When our emotions become intense, we often let them call the shots in all aspects of our lives. They pop up at irrelevant, inappropriate times, much like garden weeds stealing vital energy from vegetable seedlings. If left untended, these emotions will crowd out the roots of our mental bounty, our ahimsa, and life will become unnecessarily tedious and stressful. Pratipaksha bhavanam, in this regard, is like mental weed killer. It gives our positive ideas and attitudes space to flourish by wilting our reflexive affectations.
This practice came into my life four years ago, though, at the time, I didn’t know its name or its place in yogic philosophy. My older daughter, then eight years old, had fallen from the monkey bars and fractured three vertebrae. The worry and stress in the days following her accident was blindingly intense. I literally could not, would not see anything else. Over time, as her recovery progressed and my stress blinders came off, waves of emotion would continue to hit me randomly, like a static shock or a truck on the sidewalk. They ran the gamut – relief that she’d be fine, amazement at her luck, worry that one of the fractures would become unstable and claim a portion of her mobility, and a fierce, primal sense of protectiveness. I’d get teary on a whim. I’d check on her constantly and ask her to wiggle her toes, which she grew to barely tolerate. I didn’t want to annoy her or inadvertently cause her more stress, so I used every bit of willpower I could muster to dial my external worry down a notch. In doing that, I inadvertently became more mindful about the trajectory of my thoughts. Those random flashes of relief and amazement eventually morphed into bottomless gratitude, which I channeled whenever overwhelming thoughts surfaced. My anxiety and worry were still present, but didn’t feel as heavy when counterbalanced by purposeful, positive ideas. This practice saved my sanity during an extremely difficult time. It allowed me to experience moments of clarity when I could have been pulled into a vortex of worry and suffering. More importantly, it also allowed me to be fully present for my daughter. Being able to see her as herself and not through the lens of her injury helped me realize that sometimes our emotions, even when they’re justified, can prevent us from thinking clearly, living authentically, and allowing others to do the same.
More recently, I’ve used this practice to help remain calm during a very sudden, extremely stressful move. We had been complaining to our landlords about the saggy attic door, the drafty windows, the outdated kitchen, and cracks in the walls for years to no avail. Early this Fall, the mice took advantage of the structural weaknesses and moved in, causing my son’s asthma to flare up significantly and rendering the pantry and kitchen pretty much unusable.
We complained again, much more insistently this time, and had a health inspection done to determine the extent of the problems. It revealed many mice in virtually every room, yes, but also mold and structural damage from termites. In response to our efforts to make our home livable and after eight years of uneventful tenancy, our landlords retaliated with a 30-day notice to vacate. Not only is this illegal, but for a family of five just before Winter, it’s potentially disastrous. We faced the possibility of couch surfing indefinitely, the reality of having to put our personal belongings in storage for an extended period of time, and the horrifying chance that we wouldn’t find a new place in our current school district and/or not find a new place in a timely manner at all.
But…even though the stress was overwhelming, I tried to keep focusing on the fact that we were no longer living in such a poorly maintained place. When my 9 year old cried everyday, grieving the only home she’s known, I honored her emotions and gave her extra love, but also took the opportunity to be mindfully, quietly relieved that she’d no longer have to deal with mice nibbling through her dress-up clothes or a too-chilly room during the Winter. When my older daughter became ill from the stress of being untethered and missed a week of school, she and I were both grateful that she was able to convalesce in my mother-in-law’s comfy, cozy apartment instead of a home that could potentially make her even sicker – even if that home still felt very much like home.
My son, who is in high school, said, “You know, I know we’ll definitely end up somewhere nicer and better, but wherever we end up next will probably never really feel like home to me.” This shattered my heart and caused me to feel blinding rage toward my landlords. Yet, how could he spend his last couple years of childhood in a home where he couldn’t even breathe? Where we end up might not ever feel like home for him, that’s heartbreakingly true, but at least he’ll be able to be there and stay healthy. At least he’ll be able to put his trust in the promise of a healthy home. I’ve been working hard to remember that when anger bubbles up.
I kept talking, too. I talked to anyone who’d listen because it forced me to verbalize my emotions – positive and negative – and accept comfort and support. In doing so, our community was mobilized. People have helped, fed, hugged, sheltered, then they spread the word and recruited more help. It was astounding! With so much to be grateful for, it became easier to starve the infuriating and stressful aspects of the situation and feed the good parts – the love, the support, the fact that this move is ultimately for the best, especially in terms of our health.
My biggest hope in this situation, practically speaking, is that we’ll now have the opportunity to save enough to buy a place of our own and never deal with any apathetic, soulless landlords again. Emotionally, I hope that the response from our community is what my children remember when they eventually look back on this. And that, when they do, the true goodness that emerged when we most needed it is a memory strong enough to permanently fade the dark, crude aspects of this story. That can be the beginning of their own pratipaksha bhavanam practices. I hope.
Ultimately, it takes effort, a great deal of it sometimes, but when pratipaksha bhavanam becomes a part of life, the mind eventually reconditions itself to work creatively, not reactively, during times of stress. Difficult circumstances become an exercise in keeping the mind and heart open to different perspectives so that we might redirect our thoughts and cultivate a semblance of calm. Those calming ideas, when allowed to thrive, are what align our thoughts back toward ahimsa like flowers toward the sunlight, then allow us to live happier, more fulfilling lives.