Pratipakṣa-bhāvanam: Contemplating the Opposite
By Zoë Slatoff
What do you do when anger rises up inside of you, threatening to explode, when fear or jealousy eats away at you, when sadness consumes your being? The Yoga Sūtras say to contemplate the opposite.
वितर्कबाधने प्रतिपक्षभावनम् ॥ २.३३ ॥
vitarka-bādhane pratipakṣa-bhāvanam || 2.33 ||
When oppressed by negative impulses, one should contemplate the opposite. 
वितर्का हिंसादयः कृतकारितानुमोदिता लोभक्रोधमोहपूर्वका मृदुमध्याधिमात्रा दुःखज्ञानानन्तफला इति प्रतिपक्षभावनम् ॥ २.३४ ॥
vitarkā hiṃsādayaḥ kṛta-kāritānumoditā lobha-krodha-moha-pūrvakā mṛdu-madhyādhi-mātrā duḥkhājñānānanta-phalā iti pratipakṣa-bhāvanam || 2.34 ||
Negative impulses - violence and so forth - are either acted upon by oneself, or caused or permitted to be done by others and are preceded by greed, anger, or delusion in a mild, intermediate or intense manner. Because these produce the infinite fruits of suffering and ignorance, one should contemplate the opposite.
For Patañjali, the first two limbs of aṣṭāṅga yoga, the ethical practices of yama and niyama (restraints and observances), arise from the practice of pratipakṣa-bhāvanam, or contemplating the opposite. If you are having violent thoughts, he advises you to meditate on non-violence, leading to the first yama - ahiṃsā (non-violence). If you are acting untruthfully, you should contemplate truth, giving birth to satya (truthfulness), and so forth. But is this really possible? Can we simply meditate on the opposite, ignore our true emotions and hope they’ll go away? This may work temporarily but eventually these emotions will come back to haunt us, until we are willing to explore them, look them straight in the face, and ultimately to heal the wounds which lie behind them. Sometimes we are consumed by our own suffering; sometimes we feel guilty for drowning in our own sorrows when there is so much suffering in the world. But how can we hope to help others if we can’t help ourselves? And how can we help ourselves if we don’t acknowledge our own suffering (duḥkha), as well as our joy (sukha)?
The classical definition of Yoga, as tersely stated in Yoga Sūtra 1.2 is
योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ॥ १.२ ॥
yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ || 1.2 ||
Yoga is the nirodha of the fluctuating states (vṛttis) of the mind (citta). The word nirodha has usually been translated as control, suppression or dissolution. But Ian Whicher, a professor in religion at the University of Manitoba, has challenged this commonly accepted interpretation, “suggesting that any attempt to interpret Patañjali’s Yoga as a practice that seeks to annihilate or suppress the mind and its modifications for the purpose of gaining spiritual liberation distorts the intended meaning of Yoga as defined by Patañjali.” He instead proposes that nirodha “refers to the cessation of the worldly, empirical effects of the vṛttis on the yogin’s consciousness, not the complete cessation of vṛttis themselves.” In other words, it is not the vṛttis themselves that are problematic, but our identification with and attachment to them. I strongly agree with Whicher's interpretation here; I think too often yoga practitioners believe that they can just make their vṛttis disappear, thinking if they can just gain enough control, the turbulence of their minds and the trauma of their past will simply vanish. However, this suppression tends to only work temporarily, until like a pot of boiling water, our emotions come to a boil and bubble over, no longer able to contain themselves. Alternatively, perhaps we can learn to acknowledge, rather than abolish, our citta-vṛttis as we practice, and ironically, just by allowing them to exist - by not fearing them - they will no longer monopolize our minds.
And the slow
is born from
- David Whyte
The Winter of Listening
Another interpretation of pratipakṣa-bhāvanam, suggested by B.K.S. Iyengar, encourages this approach. He explains that we should simultaneously contemplate our true emotion, along with its opposite, in an attempt to find a balance between the two. Exploring both extremes can be a tool to help us understand and make peace with our feelings. We cannot begin solely with non-violence because we live in a violent world and violence exists within our human nature. Perhaps if we learned how to recognize and deal with our anger, rather than repressing it, we would not be living in a world so full of rage. According to Iyengar, one must contemplate both anger and non-violence, in order to understand this duality. “If a person is violent, he is violent. If he is angry, he is angry. The state is not different from the fact; but instead of trying to cultivate the opposite condition, he should go deep into the cause of his anger or violence. One should also study the opposite forces with calmness and patience. Then one develops equipoise.” By taking this approach, our pendulum is not just wildly swinging from one polarity to the other; rather, we are proactively exploring both sides, as well as the subtle space in between. Speaking as one prone to extremes myself, I can attest that contemplating only one “opposite”, even if it is the so-called positive pole, can only lead to further imbalance and confusion. Balance is only found - and I think it is a lifelong endeavor - by attempting to find a middle path between the two.
The first yama, as already mentioned, is ahiṃsā (non-violence). This is the opposite of violence, the cause of all other negative impulses, and the first to be addressed. According to Patañjali, when someone is established in non-violence, all hostility is abandoned in his/her presence. Thus, from contemplating our own anger and the violence in the world, as well as the means to peaceful resolution, by becoming more compassionate towards others and ourselves, perhaps we can achieve a small sphere of peacefulness, which can resonate to those around us, having a ripple effect. Each seed of ahiṃsā that we plant - a smile to a stranger, patience and kindness with our family and friends - if cultivated, has the potential to grow, branch out, and touch so many. The place to begin is with our own thoughts and actions. Āsana practice can give us an opportunity to truly see our own violent thoughts, to understand them and work through them, by learning to practice ahiṃsā towards ourselves.
Next is satya, or truthfulness, which is truth of speech and mind. Not only should our actions be honest, but our thoughts as well - in other words, we must be truthful with ourselves. Honesty should be non-violent, which means that certain truths do not need to be spoken. This, however, does not mean that the truth is always pleasant. Sometimes the truth can be painful, but as my teacher, Śrī K. Pattabhi Jois, so succinctly said, “Pain is real,” and part of yoga practice is learning to deal with this pain with strength and grace. According to Patañjali, from the practice of truth, one receives the fruits or benefits of actions, even if one does not actually physically perform them. Traditionally this refers to sacrifices to the gods and their resultant rewards; however, we can think of it as meaning that our thoughts and intentions are just as important as our actions.
Asteya is non-stealing, which is not taking or coveting the property of others. In the absence of this, it is said that divine jewels approach from all directions. Although I like the image of flying gemstones, I think we can interpret it to mean that if you are not envious of others, you receive all that you need and more. In āsana practice, as in life, there is often the temptation to look at others, to be envious of someone else’s flexibility or strength, or a host of other qualities, rather than appreciating what we already have. If we can learn to contemplate the opposite here, to explore our jealousy but simultaneously be happy for others and to have faith that we are exactly where we personally need to be, all that we desire for ourselves, and more, will naturally arrive.
Brahmacarya is usually translated as chastity or abstinence. Some students, as they start practicing yoga, think they must take it to the extreme of celibacy; however, this is just another form of absolutism and is not advocated by most contemporary yoga teachers. Traditionally in India, there are four āśramas or phases of life - brahmacarya, gṛhastha, vanaprastha and saṃnyāsa. These are the student, householder, “forest-dweller” (semi-renunciate) and renunciate stages, respectively. The householder phase entails marriage, children, and contributing to the world in some way. Even historically, brahmacarya is not recommended for most people as a permanent way of life. Although most of us no longer have marriages arranged and the preponderance of choice in all areas of our lives leaves many of us floundering from one relationship to another, brahmacarya, for the modern householder yogi, does mean being committed to one partner. This implies mindfulness in our sexuality, which entails non-violence, truthfulness, and the absence of envy. The traditional fruits of this practice are an increase in strength and vigor in the body, senses and mind.
The fifth and final yama is aparigraha, literally translated as not grasping around us. Grasping is attachment to people, places, objects, and thoughts. We all do it constantly, both consciously and unconsciously, and it keeps us from being present where we truly are. So often we want to hold onto the past or onto the present, in a desperate attempt to hide from our fear of the future, or conversely, we hold onto an idea of the future in order to escape the past or present. Non-grasping does not mean running away from relationships, situations, history or ideas, it just means not becoming stuck in them. Traditionally the fruit of non-grasping is the knowledge of other births; but, first of all, and perhaps enough for most of us, it is true knowledge of this existence. For example, if you decide to look at a person, be it friend or enemy, without grasping onto a concept of who you think they are, based on previous interactions, then perhaps you can really have true knowledge of the situation at hand.
The niyamas are observances - positive actions as opposed to the negations of negative impulses, as in the case of the yamas, but they can still be thought of as arising from their opposites. The first niyama is śauca or purity, which is two-fold. External purity, according to Bhoja (an 11th century king and prolific writer), consists of cleansing the body with substances such as earth and water. Internal purification comes from cleansing the impurities of the mind through friendship, and other such means. This refers back to sūtra 1.33, which says that from the cultivation of friendship with happy people, compassion towards those who are suffering, joy towards the virtuous, and indifference towards the non-virtuous, the mind is purified. So, a yogi can only come to know him/herself, learn to make peace with his/her vṛttis and eventually change negative patterns, through interacting with others. This is one of the reasons why it is essential to have a teacher. Although the ultimate goal of yoga may be discovering ourselves, we can only do this with the help of someone else. From the external practice, one begins to transcend the identification with one’s own body and to see past the external forms of other people. From the internal practice of śauca comes purity of sattva (the guṇa, or quality, of light and equanimity), cheerfulness of mind, one-pointed concentration and victory over the senses, which leads to the capacity to see the Self.
The second niyama is contentment, which leads to the attainment of unsurpassed happiness. This is an internal satisfaction, one that is independent of the external environment, a feeling of calm within oneself. This is not the happiness you feel upon receiving a present or from external achievement, but the happiness you manifest inside. Contentment does not mean that we are happy to be complacent and stay wherever we are; contentment means that we can find joy and peace in the journey, in our every action and inaction.
Next is tapas, from the verb tap, to burn or to heat. It is a flaming devotion, an intense self-discipline, which the practice of yoga can represent. This discipline destroys the afflictions of the mind and makes the body and senses strong. For the modern householder yogi, tapas does not mean excessive deprivation; it means finding an appropriate level of discipline, the middle path. It means learning to draw boundaries that are appropriate to our lives. We need our bodies to function well in order to support our daily activities, our jobs, and our families. If our yoga practice isn’t doing that then we are doing something wrong; we must re-examine the intention behind our discipline. This can be done in conjunction with the next niyama, svādhyāya.
Svādhyāya is self-study, which is usually taken to mean the study of scriptures or the chanting of OM or mantras to a particular deity. The result is union with this god and the qualities he/she represents. One of my Sanskrit teachers always said svādhyāya was repetition of our lessons. I think it can also represent the study of history, both our own personal story, perhaps in the form of therapy, as well as the world’s history, which is much too easily forgotten, mistakes repeated over and over again. Svādhyāya is self-reflection, individual and global, the willingness to look at ourselves and our patterns, even if it is not always pleasant. This of course involves satya, being truthful with ourselves.
The last discipline is īśvara praṇidhāna, or surrender to the Divine. This is self-less action - the offering of all effort without attachment to the fruits, as Kṛṣṇa explains in the Bhagavad Gītā. This is difficult for many of us born in the West. We are brought up to be independent and ego-driven, to fight our own battles. The thought of surrendering our actions, of complete faith and devotion, is hard for us to understand. In India, faith is everywhere, implicit and explicit; every home and every shop has a little altar, whose deities are honored before the day begins. We don’t have to believe in God, but we can believe in life, in love, in nature, and in change - whatever our hearts are drawn to. Then how do we surrender? Once again, by pratipakaṣa-bhāvanam, by exploring both our resistance and the possibility of surrender. From this altruistic action of offering up our efforts, one attains perfection in samādhi. In other words, by doing actions for others, without any expectations, we may end up becoming happy and peaceful ourselves.
For each of these yamas and niyamas it is possible to contemplate both the positive and negative aspects of the discipline. Āsana practice, as Iyengar suggests, can be a tool to explore these dualities - inhalation and exhalation, up and down, love and hate, joy and suffering, anger and non-violence, and so forth - rather than a means of suppression. It can become a true means to enlightened living, a means to living peacefully and honestly.
However, although āsana practice often brings emotions to the surface, it does not necessarily give us the psychological tools to deal with these emotions. We cannot find steadiness and happiness in posture through physical practice alone and, if we do, it is generally superficial. Āsana may be where we must start, because we are more familiar with our bodies than our minds; however, as we practice we begin to know ourselves better, and as yoga is truly a science of the mind, we must develop the other limbs of yoga.
As Jois explains in Yoga Mālā, “yoga signifies the means to the realization of one’s true nature” and thus the path for each of us will be different. If we deny or try to suppress a piece of who we are then we are not practicing yoga, we are not fulfilling our dharma (duty). Many Westerners misunderstand yoga - we think it is about withdrawal from the world, about abstinence, when in fact it should be a means to living more fully in the world, in all of our various individual capacities. The practice of yama and niyama is what situates a yoga practitioner in the world. We must acknowledge the violence in the world, as well as in our own hearts - and trust that the practice of yoga, our inner work, and our actions in the world, can address and help to heal this violence - in order to truly begin the practice of yoga. Pratipakṣa-bhāvaṇam can be a tool to help us do this.
Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Yoga. London: Allen & Unwin, 1965.
Jois, Śrī K. Pattābhi. Yoga Mālā. New York: Patanjali Yoga Shala, 2000.
Pātañjalayogasūtram, with the Rājamārtaṇḍa of Bhoja Rāja. Vārāṇasī: Bhāratīya Vidyā Prakāśana, 1963.
Whicher, Ian. “Yoga and Freedom: A Reconsideration of Patañjali’s Classical Yoga,” Philosophy East and West 48.2 (Apr., 1998): 272-322.
Whyte, David. The House of Belonging. Langley, Washington: Many Rivers Press, 2010.
 All translations are my own unless otherwise specified.
 ahiṃsā-satyāsteya-brahmacaryāparigraha-yamāḥ ||YS 2.30||
The restraints are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual fidelity and non-grasping.
śauca-santoṣa-tapaḥ-svādhyāyeśvara-praṇidhānāni niyamāḥ ||YS 2.32||
The observances are purity, contentment, discipline, self-study and surrender to the Divine.
 Ian Whicher, “Yoga and Freedom: A Reconsideration of Patañjali’s Classical Yoga,” Philosophy East and West 48.2 (Apr., 1998), 273.
 B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga, London: Allen & Unwin, 1965, 146.
 ahiṃsā-pratiṣṭhāyāṃ tat-sannidhau vaira-tyāgaḥ ||YS 2.35||
 satya-pratiṣṭhāyāṃ kriyā-phalāśrayatvam ||YS 2.36||
 asteya-pratiṣṭhāyāṃ sarva-ratnopasthānam ||YS 2.37||
 brahmacarya-pratiṣṭhāyāṃ vīrya-lābhaḥ ||YS 2.38||
 aparigraha-sthairye janma-kathantā-saṃbodhaḥ ||YS 2.39||
 śaucaṃ dvividhaṃ - bāhyam ābhyantarañca | bāhyaṃ mṛjjalādibhiḥ kāyādiprakṣālanam | ābhyantaraṃ maitryādibhiś citta-malānāṃ prakṣālanam | Bhoja’s comm. on YS 2.32
 maitrī-karuṇā-muditopekṣāṇāṃ sukha-duḥkha-puṇyāpuṇya-viṣayāṇāṃ bhāvanātaś citta-prasādanam ||YS 1.33||
 śaucāt svāṅga-jugupsā parair asaṃsargaḥ ||YS 2.40||
 sattva-śuddhi-saumanasyaikāgryendriya-jayātma-darśana-yogyatvāni ca ||YS 2. 41||
 santoṣād anuttamaḥ sukha-lābhaḥ ||YS 2.42||
 kāyendriya-siddhir aśuddhikṣayāt tapasaḥ ||YS 2.43||
 svādhyāyād iṣṭa-devatā-samprayogaḥ ||YS 2.44||
 karmaṇyevādhikāras te mā phaleṣu kadācana | mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te saṅgo 'stvakarmaṇi ||BhG 2.47||
 samādhi-siddhir īśvara-praṇidhānāt ||YS 2.45||
 Śrī K. Pattābhi Jois, Yoga Mālā, New York: Patanjali Yoga Shala, 2000, 17.