The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali is widely considered to be one of the foundational texts of classical yoga philosophy. It consists of nearly 200 rules and aphorisms (general truths) that are referred to as “sutras” and that are used to guide people in their yoga journeys, on and off of the mat. Sutra 2.33 introduces the concept of pratipaksha bhavanam, which is loosely translated from Sanskrit as “cultivation of opposites” and offers a path for shifting perspective and behaviors by responding to negative thoughts and patterns with thinking and doing the opposite. The idea is to choose a response that differs from the dysfunctional default reactions we have to various experiences and interactions in life in order to find new ways of seeing the world as well as thinking and behaving within it.
Pratipaksha bhavanan is quite similar to the psychological concept of cognitive reframing or reappraisal, which is an effective aspect of therapeutic approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Both approaches seek to address and change long-held patterns of thought and behavior by encouraging us to pause, provide space to critically think and evaluate, and be more deliberate and intentional about choosing how we want to respond. The goal is to avoid doing harm to ourselves and others by broadening our views, increasing our field of awareness, and shifting the way we think and behave.
Engaging in pratipaksha bhavanam involves challenging ourselves to respond differently and with enhanced intentionality, kindness, and patience; to move from mindlessly reacting to our surroundings to calmly choosing our responses in ways that align with our values and our true selves. It means working towards compassion over violence, courage over fear, and contentment over worry, both in our minds and in our actions. As a practice, it begins with noticing thoughts and actions that are not in alignment with who we really are and what we truly value.
When difficult or destructive thoughts or behaviors arise, notice them, then ask yourself, what would be the opposite response here? Perhaps you have a tendency to be harsh and beat yourself up when you make a mistake. Could you make a conscious decision to meet your mistake with compassion and understanding? What might change if you gave yourself a hug rather than a (silent) verbal beating? Does it feel different when put into perspective and compared to the number of things you did right that day? Would you speak this way to your best friend?
Or, maybe you’ve been feeling angry and resentful lately because everyone seems to be getting ahead in life except you. Could you cultivate more gratitude and appreciation for the gifts in your life rather than spiraling down the jealousy drain? How might your perspective be affected by listing 3 things each day that went well or that you are grateful for? Instead of wasting energy on toxic emotions, is there something productive you could do to help increase your chances of success? Doing the opposite might also involve thinking of those less fortunate than you. Volunteering can be a great way of reminding ourselves of the many gifts we frequently take for granted.
One thing is for sure, engaging in pratipaksha bhavanam takes hard work and dedication. It’s not easy to go against the grain of our default tendencies or to respond differently to our intrusive thoughts and whims. The good news is that this practice will help widen your perspective, create space between input and response, and support you in overcoming dysfunctional habits and damaging patterns. It’s one of many approaches that can be used to encourage a life of emotional stability, insight, and integrity. Yogi and therapist approved!