Pratipakṣa Bhāvana: Cultivating the Opposite as a Celebration of Our Humanity

credit- Ardian Lumi

A yoga student of mine recently lost a parent. She’s been navigating the situation with remarkable grace and presence. However, the other day when I checked on her after class, she admitted somewhat sheepishly that she was feeling a bit guilty because she was having a really joyful day.

It is a truly remarkable part of the human condition that we can feel the deep soul-shaking sadness of gut-wrenching grief that comes with losing a loved one, and also feel truly joyful, delighted by the shining sun, a warm house, and the dog who greets us with a wildly wagging tail when we arrive, even if we’ve just stepped out for a moment to get the mail from the mailbox.

One of my favorite quotes from Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself, 51 captures this phenomenon perfectly and succinctly:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

While it might be tempting to demand only one static expression of a single sentiment in any given circumstance, we do ourselves – and humanity at large! – a disservice to expect this. It is certainly more palatable to meet and manage one emotional state at a time but we are simply more complex than that.

Imagine a sound engineer at the mixing board during a recording session. As the band plays the song, the engineer is manipulating the sounds, constantly working to find the right balance in order to produce a particular mood from the music. She might be increasing the volume on the keys at a certain part of the song or emphasizing the vocals in another. 

We are like this too. All of the instruments of our song are always playing but sometimes a situation requires us to mix those sounds in a different way. Lots of times this is dictated by social situations and etiquette. We choose to filter in certain ways based on the audience. But other times, we don’t feel quite so in charge of the song. Maybe that mournful violin solo is taking center stage, prompting unwelcome tears in the grocery store aisle. We might prefer a bouncy synth vibe but turning up the volume on that particular sound can be difficult when we are swept up in the moment.

Similarly, we can be caught off guard when the sounds we hear are in contrast to what we expect. My student, who was feeling the profound sadness of grief and loss, was totally prepared for Coldplay’s song “Fix You”, and instead she unexpectedly heard Pharrell Williams’ song’ “Happy”. When we can recognize that we contain multitudes, to borrow Mr. Whitman’s phrase, we start to be less surprised by the moments when we hear Pharrell instead of Coldplay. 

In the Bhakti Yoga tradition, our emotions are known as rasas, sometimes translated literally as the flavors. The invitation here is to consider how our emotional responses add spice and a necessary variety to our life. When we experience and allow the variety of emotional responses to happen simultaneously without disregarding or casting off the unwanted responses too quickly we are fully immersed in the Divine play called lila. Often described as a dance, lila is an epic game of hide and seek, conceal and reveal. We have moments where we feel so confidently stuck in our dark spaces that it can seem that our access to the Divine is gone forever. However, lila promises us that time will prevail and our Divine self will soon be revealed once again.

Yoga Sutra 2.33 invites us to take this even one step farther beyond simply recognizing and allowing the full range of our emotional selves to purposefully cultivating seemingly opposite feelings. In Sanskrit, the line is:

vitarka-bādhane pratipakṣa-bhāvanam

Alastair Shearer translates this as:

“When negative feelings restrict us, the opposite should be cultivated.” 

I want to be super clear that this is not the same thing as spiritual bypassing. We are not meant to use glib platitudes to side-step trauma or to shove down or drive away unpleasant and difficult things. Imagine a pushy salesperson, trying to get you to buy into the notion that your suffering can be alleviated with a quick fix, saying something like: “You feel sad? Angry? Are you anxious or depressed? Forget all that! Peace, love, and light are the only truth!” 

I’ve certainly spent a fair bit of time in yoga communities that espoused those sorts of attitudes. However, instead of pushing away the negative feelings, we are meant to give them some space. Shearer’s word choices here suggest that we first need a moment to come up against the restriction of our negative inclinations before we take action.

I also want to clarify that pratipakṣa bhāvana is not simply telling us to find happiness in times of sadness, though many translations, including Alastair Sherear’s, may seem to recommend that. 

Four Chapters on Freedom, Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s translation and commentary on the Yoga Sutras, offers a slightly different perspective for us: 

“When the mind is disturbed by passions one should practice pondering over their opposites.”

In other words, pratipakṣa bhāvana isn’t just about cultivating joy in times of sadness. 

The Oxford Dictionary defines passion as a strong and barely controllable emotion. Many so-called positive emotions fit that bill. So what happens if we experiment with touching sorrow in times when we feel the most euphoric of highs? Cultivating the opposite in all situations, even in times of elation, prepares us for the inevitability that we will at some point feel the lowest of lows. 

This all points to the concept that belies the technique of pratipakṣa bhāvana. Impermanence, known by the Pali word anicca and the Sanskrit word anitya, posits that a huge cause for our tribulations is the delusion that something is permanent and unvaried. Buddhism offers the idea that our thoughts, emotions, circumstances, and even physical objects are part of a constant cycle of arising, abiding, and dissolving. The timeline for that cycle varies widely but gripping too tightly to anything will always cause more suffering.

Pratipakṣa bhāvana is the antidote to grasping. It is a technique that allows us to fully accept and embody the ephemeral. It is a celebration of our comprehensive nature and an expression of the notion that we are complex and necessarily inconsistent. 

A huge part of yoga practice is doing work to inhabit these contradictions fully. While the word yoga is often defined as union, it is far less about a single moment of connection and more of a constant awakening to concurrent and often conflicted internal and external happenings. Yoga constantly encourages us to perceive ourselves as big enough to accommodate the whole breadth of our humanity, physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. As my grieving student noticed, this could mean feeling both delighted and heartbroken at the exact same time. Nothing is more yogic or more human than that.