Pratipaksha bhavanam


A friend often suggests “cultivate the opposite” as a way to approach growth or problem-solving. I believe she picked it up from her teacher; like a lot of this kind of wisdom, it actually comes from the Yoga Sutras. In this case II.33, Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam. In the face of negativity, cultivate the opposite, or in the translation, uncertainty concerning implementation can be overcome via orientation with the reverse. But the way my friend uses it is more like behavioural resistance training. You like to talk? Try being silent more often. Like to lounge? Take more walks. Tend to be busy? Plan a simpler schedule. It works for all things, good and bad. Any opposite can be cultivated. It’s also kind of an ear-worm; since she introduced it, I have started thinking of it all the time. How can I embrace the opposite of what I am doing?

(In my case, I tend to be susceptible to catchphrases, or to cognitive gimmicks with potential to sweep all my cognitive mess under the rug. This blog post is just one more bit of evidence for that, and in the spirit of cultivating the opposite I will work on a balancing contribution another time. But for now, I’ll follow this thread).

I like this one because it is layered – just identifying an opposite takes a lot of research. Knee-jerk reactions like immediately pouncing on whatever you usually do and ceasing to do that thing are probably a kind of level one engagement. For example, I love peanut butter and always crave peanut butter and am an immoderate consumer of peanut butter so what is a good exercise for me? Eliminating peanut butter. Or, I tend to avoid eating anywhere other than my house when I am alone, so I could try to enjoy a solo meal at a restaurant, or at the dining hall at university, or someplace that is not my couch.

But these level one challenges change behaviours, not mindsets. (See this genius column on the similarities between training marine mammals and getting your husband to keep track of his keys for a hilarious meditation on this truth). There’s always several higher orders of change available. Instead of eliminating peanut butter, I could try training myself to use it moderately. Maybe that could be having it only at breakfast, or only on weekends, or only when baked into other things, or whatever; the real opposite would be to go from thinking about peanut butter a lot to thinking about peanut butter no more than I think about any other food item. I have no problem consuming porridge oats or lentil soup moderately, so why should peanut butter be an issue? But to do this I have to get into the inner workings a bit more.

I do not think that Patanjali was thinking of nut butters when he composed this sutra. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when we get serious about yoga we often experiment with food. The daily process of choosing what to put into our bodies and what to refuse makes for a beautiful experimentation process with recognising, modifying, and eventually earning the ability to play with our tastes and tendencies as a means toward eventually freeing ourselves from them. Hamish Hendry put it bluntly at a workshop once: “Who’s the boss, chocolate or me?” Identifying the tendency, and then putting in the work to cultivate its opposite, starts loosening the grip of habit or expectation or samskara on us. It does this at first by bringing the samskara into view by giving it a name and letting us see just how deep a groove it has carved out through our letting it repeat.

Food, then, is probably not a very advanced samskara to work with. I’m imagining for myself a much greater challenge, attempting to adopt, deliberately, personality traits that I find repellent. I struggle with sanctimony, in that I find it objectionable when people praise their own moral stances as if they are the only conceivable choice for a thinking individual. If they do so without humour, all the worse, as far as I am concerned. In fact I attempt to cultivate the opposite, to approach my own stances and choices with levity and skepticism. Jokes at my own expense always make me laugh. But I cannot even be sanctimonious about my aversion to sanctimony: as I write this, I am haunted by the image of my junior-year high school English teacher, who once scolded me over a self-deprecating joke. “Stop!” she said. “Take yourself seriously.”

Now, more than a decade later, I would like to take her advice. And I will, I am sure, as soon as I can find a way to describe it in a metaphor involving peanut butter.

Knowledge and your body, asana and personality, why we all look different in adho mukha savasana

Asking for advice is difficult because we don’t always want to hear it. Listening to people comment on our choices can be difficult because we sometimes prefer to ignore what’s apparent to any casual observer. I sometimes think the deepest, most aggressively suppressed insecurities appear more clearly in my consciousness than the more subtle stuff. The formatting that makes you the kind of person to take the last cookie from the plate or makes it impossible for you to breathe on another person without apologising is harder to access than the stuff that makes you cry or lose your temper or indulge in retail therapy.

Most people don’t get access to our deep-down selves. Why would they? The majority of the time, we are engaged in low-stakes interactions, ordering coffee or making plans to meet or negotiating some kind of deadline. Even if you have a childhood fear of abandonment that haunts you from the moment you wake up to when you fall asleep, it isn’t relevant or appropriate to make it part of your conversation with your hairdresser about whether you want to trim your bangs or let them grow out.

Experimenting with asana myself, and hearing about others’ experiences with it, makes me think that there might be a little more wiggle room in those categories. Or that we might be worse at keeping things secret than we think we are. Spending time in the Mysore room (or waiting outside the Mysore room) makes it apparent that every practitioner has a personality. Not just strengths and weaknesses, it isn’t just that some of us have strong shoulder girdles or open backs or whatever it is. Every person’s body is sending messages about their attitude, emotions, past trauma, future potential, eating habits, and so on ad infinitum. All yoga asana showcases this mess of factors, and the daily ashtanga practice uses repetition to make it appear clearly to the practitioner and his or her teacher.

It’s funny, this seems like a real dig-deep-over-many-years exercise, and it is, but I think that might just be true the first time you do it. As in, learning to recognise that this is the case probably takes years of preparing your mind for this possibility. The idea that people’s internal lives somehow appear in their gestures or breathing or how they hold their spinal column is pretty disruptive, because it means you can’t keep things to yourself. Privacy, discretion, secrecy all get a little destabilised if you are willing to think about the body and the physical practice in this way. But if you accept that principle, it could be that a whole world of information opens up to you, and you can learn this language of embodied communication that we are all unconsciously speaking all the time.

In the best cases, getting stuck on a pose might force this language into view. It pushes us to direct all your concentration and strength and flexibility to successfully performing one asana, and to review the catalogue of obstacles to doing that asana well (or well enough for our teacher to advance us!). We start to see the muscles that we are tensing unnecessarily, the moments where we are forgetting to breath or breathing fast and shallow. The bigger challenges take shape slowly, and we find we have always slouched or struggled with tight hips or avoided opening the front body too much. This the the bit that reminds me most of learning a new language. Once you see this new thing clearly, once you have this new tool, it becomes useful for everything and you see everyone doing it. It’s like when I learned the word discourse, or sacrum, or the Arabic word for skipping an appointment – I had never needed any of them before, but once I had them, I could see these concepts at work in a way that I couldn’t when I had no name for them.

I would not advocate watching other people doing their practices while you are doing yours. But, when your gaze wanders and you see someone else, it’s likely that other person’s practice will make an impression. Their practice might be “strong”, or they might be “flexible”, “calm”, have a “beautiful” practice. It could be “distracted” or “aggressive” or “angry”. Our brains being what they are, it’s likely some adjective will show up to describe it before we can retrieve our focus. But maybe we can turn the ability to receive these kinds of impressions inward, and see what information we get then. Or just try to look at your nose, like you are supposed to.

Progress, and thinking about bowel movements (and naps, and oil baths, and diets …)

In Mysore, it seems like your whole life revolves around your body. Its needs dictate your schedule, and resting it and feeding it and lubricating it properly fill the day so effectively that, by the time comes for you to put your body to bed, you are exhausted. The asana is physical, of course, but that is done quietly so it is a different thing. What comes after the asana, though, are pains and hunger and fever and what Sharath called “asana diarrhoea”. (It’s cleansing, he reassured us). Ministering to these needs, and discussing how to best minister to those needs, is what we do when we are meant to be practicing the other seven limbs of ashtanga yoga.

Of course, talking about these things doesn’t seem to bring us any closer to any sort of solution. Despite the talking, people are still seeking out panchakarma, ayurvedic consultations, massage. They are still eliminating dairy or wheat or cold foods or cooked foods from their already superclean diets. They have not figured out a way to surpass the pain, the fatigue, the hunger and transcend the bodies that they spend so much time caring for.

Ashtanga practitioners in their real lives talk about their bodies a lot, but those who come to Mysore find a whole community of people with the exact same concerns about keeping joints lubricated with fat, observing ahimsa with vegetarianism/veganism/pescetarianism/ethical meet consumption, and satisfying the overwhelming hunger that follows a two hour practice that leaves your clothes soaked with sweat. All of a sudden, they don’t have to worry that their particular concerns are bizarre or that telling the truth about what the yoga is doing to your body will make friends and family worry that your spiritual journey is starting to look more like self-destruction than introspection. So it isn’t surprising we spend a lot of time talking about our bodies.

A friend who is particularly devout about her practice asked me this week if it had ever occurred to me that there would be an end to the asana practice. Would we ever advance, spiritually, to the point where we don’t need it anymore? I told her it hadn’t occurred to me, that it wasn’t something I was thinking of for the future. But the question followed me, I kept revisiting it, thinking about what it would look like to move beyond the practice. I found I couldn’t visualise that point, couldn’t visualise this particular commitment working without the body bit. I am certain some people move on from asana practice, find that they are no longer served by the daily routine of exertion and sweat and coconut water rehydration. I am also certain others get tired of it, find that their body can no longer sustain it, or find other commitments that demand enough of them to make daily asana practice an unsustainable drain on their energy. There are loads of reasons to give up asana. We can call them all progress, really – none of us is moving backward in time, we’re all moving toward more information if not more consciousness.

Personally, though, I think there is something spiritual in the physicality of asana. The fact of choosing a road to a higher quality existence that goes through your diet, sleep, and body motion seems like a really excellent cosmic framing. Making mula bandha the root of the whole thing is the elegant final touch. If you want to do this life properly, your first step is eating in a way that doesn’t resemble farm animals at a trough, sleeping on a predictable schedule, and spending a couple of hours every morning making sure all the bits of your body are moving together in working order. Once you have that down, you graduate to being compassionate, telling the truth, not being greedy, exercising restraint, and quitting constantly comparing what you have to what you wish you had. Keep your mind and your body clean, be happy, learn some discipline, gain some knowledge through your own efforts, and think about what is divine in the world. Plenty to work on there for the moment, and if you start to think you’re beyond it, see what you are like when you have to speak to a customer service representative.

I had an exchange with PayPal this week that reminded me just how academic the question of moving beyond asana is for me at this point, so I think that for now I will try to forgive myself and everyone else for failing to be enlightened and being just a human being who cares about things like eating and sleeping.