In this article, Eyal will discuss the phrase Pratipaksha Bhavanam which appears in sutra no. II.33.
Table of contents
Introduction to Pratipaksha Bhavanam
One can distinguish between two aspects or types of efforts in our yogic Sadhana. The first aspect is concerned with observation and investigation. This is basically a study of reality as it is, especially the reality of our own Chitta (consciousness). It is a more passive activity in the sense that one doesn’t seek to change things, but rather to observe them as they are.
The other type of effort is cultivating and fostering beautiful wholesome qualities. Generosity (Dana), loving-kindness (Maitri), compassion (Karuna), sympathetic joy (Mudita), and equanimity (Upeksha). (The last 4 are the emotional qualities and conducts prescribed in Sutra I.33). The Yamas (Sutra II.30) are also practiced in order to develop and foster wholesome, ethical social behavior. While the Niyamas (Sutra II.32) are guidelines for developing a stable and calm mentality.
This more active effort is a must if we aim at becoming fit for the mental transformation required to calm our Chitta (Nirodha) and overcome Dukkha (dissatisfaction, pain, affliction, and existential suffering). The principal rationale for the second, more active effort is provided by Patanjali in Sutras II.33 and II.34. In these sutras he introduces the concept of Pratipaksha Bhavanam.
What is Pratipaksha Bhavanam?
Following the presentation of the Yamas and Niyamas, Patanjali provides what may appear as a ‘justification’ for observing the Yamas & Niyamas, but in fact, should be regarded as a technique to help us foster these conducts (or Maha-Vratam – the great vows – a term he uses to describe the Yamas). In Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, B.K.S. Iyengar explains Pratipaksha as follows:
“Paksa means to take one side (in an argument), to espouse one view; while Pratipaksa conveys the idea of taking the opposite position.”
Patanjali states that:
II.33 vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam
This is translated by Edwin Bryant as follows:
Upon being harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate counteracting thoughts.
And by Ravi Ravindra:
When negative thoughts and feelings arise, the opposite should be cultivated.
We are all familiar with these types of negative thoughts and feelings that can spiral out of control into obsessive thoughts: when we envy the achievements or good fortune of others, or when we are angry and blame others for their demeanor when we feel guilty or regret something we did, and even when we fall in love. The Pali term for such circular, proliferating thinking is prapañca (Sanskrit: prapañca – see Wikipedia on that) – the almost instantaneous snowballing of thoughts and associations that gets rolling when we take leave of our mindfulness.
Sometimes these prapañcas can occupy our minds for days. This has no positive value; it doesn’t do good, neither to us nor to anyone else. Envy, lust, jealousy, anger, hatred, guilt, and delusion are considered in yoga as ‘enemies’ (Ripus). They do not contribute to our well-being nor to the well-being of others, nor to our relationships with other people.
So, Patanjali advises us to foster and cultivate the opposite. Example: to counter stinginess – develop generosity; to overcome anger – cultivate friendliness, brotherhood, sisterhood, and goodwill; to counter envy, practice sympathetic joy – being happy with the good qualities and success of others; to overcome hatred, foster loving kindness, and compassion; when you feel dismal or depressed, practice gratitude and appreciation of all the good things you have.
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Can we Change our Thinking Patterns?
You may think that we can’t really control our thoughts. True, we don’t have complete control, but we do have some degree of influence. We can use our intelligence and discernment to change our thinking patterns. If such a change wouldn’t have been possible, then there would be no sense in practicing yoga. True, this isn’t easy, but practice means repeating over and over again, and then again. By repetition, one can gradually replace negative habits and patterns with positive ones. This is known to anyone who practices any skill or art. The adage “practice makes perfect”, may be overstated, but it’s not without truth. We can improve in anything that we put our mind to, provided that we have a clear intention, strong motivation and we are ready to invest effort and overcome difficulties.
This is also proven by modern neuro-science. It is empirically established that using certain nerve paths in the brain strengthens them. Those that are not being used often gradually weaken.
Yet this is not easy and the effects may only be felt or seen in the long term. Therefore, Patanjali provides us with techniques that can motivate us and help us overcome obstacles.
How to Tackle Disturbing thoughts
On the basic level, Pratipaksha Bhavanam can be interpreted as follows: ‘when your mind is occupied by disturbing thoughts (papanca), think about something else. Occupy yourself with a different thought, or with a different object. It can also mean simply: ‘do the opposite’; if you are inside your home – take a walk, if you are meditating with closed eyes – open your eyes; if you are alone – seek positive company, and so on. These strategies do not always work when the papancas stem from deeply rooted emotions.
Therefore, Patanjali also provides a more fundamental technique in Sutra II.34, where he explains why Pratipaksha Bhavanam is so essential:
vitarkah himsadayah krita karita anumoditah lobha krodha moha purvakah mridu madhya adhimatrah dukha ajnana ananta phala iti pratipaksha bhavanam
This was translated by B.K.S. Iyengar as follows:
Uncertain knowledge giving rise to violence, whether done directly or indirectly or condoned, is caused by greed, anger or delusion in mild, moderate or intense degree. It results in endless pain and ignorance. Through introspection comes the end of pain and ignorance.
And by Ravi Ravindra in this way:
Cultivating the opposite is realizing that negative feelings, such as that of violence, result in endless suffering and ignorance – whether these feelings are acted out, instigated or condoned, whether motivated by greed, anger, or delusion, whether these are mild, medium, or extreme.
Pratipaksha Bhavanam or cultivating the opposites doesn’t mean that we should suppress negative feelings, this isn’t what Patanjali suggests. B.K.S. Iyengar puts it like that (I added the underline to emphasize the main points):
“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. This is Paksabhava. One should also study the opposite forces with calmness and patience. Then one develops equipoise.” (ibid)
One of the tools that can stir us away from the ‘story’ we built up. The papanca, is observing our body’s sensations during such ruminations. Once you observe sensations, such as, for example – your rising body temperature, your accelerated heart rate, or the contraction in your chest or throat – you already detach from the narrative you inhabit. This enables the creation of some space to ‘go deep into the cause of anger or violence‘ – as Iyengar had put it.
One more tool that Patanjali provides in II.34 is contemplating the results of acting out of anger, violence, etc. Before acting, contemplate the outcomes of the action. Consider whether the action you are about to do will bring hostility and suffering. If it becomes obvious that the action will bring “endless suffering and ignorance” as Patanjali states, then you will be strongly motivated to cultivate the opposite tendencies (Pratipaksha), i.e., actions that bestow joy, peace, and harmony
Instead of suppressing and ignoring existing negative emotions, Patanjali suggests we follow these two steps:
- Deeply study the causes and conditions that give rise to negative emotions, like anger and violence.
- Contemplate the results (or fruits – phala, in Patanjali’s language) of acting out of these negative emotions
B.K.S Iyengar further explains:
“The principles that prevent Yama and Niyama are to be countered with right knowledge and awareness. When the mind is caught up in dubious ideas and actions, right perception is obstructed. The Sadhaka has to analyse and investigate these ideas and actions and their opposites; then he learns to balance his thoughts by repeated experimentation.” (ibid)
(A sadhaka is a spiritual seeker who is actively engaged in a sadhana – a spiritual practice)
Studying Paksha and Pratipaksha in Practice
I find that, from all the families of asanas, the inversions, and especially Sirsasana, express Pratipaksha Bhavanam. First, the mere action of getting upside-down, is opposite to our customary posture (when standing or walking). But, on a deaper level, Sirsasana often allows us to view things from a different angle, not only physically, but to really change our views about ourselves and our mood. Often when I feel confused or dejected, I know I need to practice Sirsasana. Once I do so, I see things with more clarity and I know how to continue the practice, and also how to respond better to challenges I face at the moment.
B.K.S. Iyengar is unique among the interpreters of the Yoga Sutras in that, as a man of practice, he always suggested incorporating practical methods and provided applicable guidelines within the practice of asana and Pranayama:
“While practising the Asana, the sadhaka must carefully and minutely observe and adjust the position of the muscles, muscle fibers and cells, measuring lightness or heaviness, paksa or pratipaksa, as required for the performance of a healthy and well-balanced Asana. He adjusts harmoniously the right and left sides of the body, the front and the back. Learning to interchange or counterbalance the weaker with the intelligent side brings about changes in the sadhaka: he grows, able to observe equipoise in the body cells and the lobes of the brain; and calmness and sobriety in the mind. Thus, the qualities of both paksa and pratipaksa are attended to. By raising the weak or dull to the level of the intelligent or strong, the sadhaka learns compassion in action….”
And he concluded in these beautiful words:
“The internal measuring and balancing process which we call paksa pratipaksa is in some respects the key to why yoga practice actually works, why it has the mechanical power to revolutionize our whole being. It is why Asana is not gymnastics, why pranayama is not deep breathing, why dhyana is not self-induced trance, why yama is not just morality.”
Vyasa (the first and foremost commentator of Patanjali, so much that some researchers even think that Patanjali and Vyasa are actually the same person) wrote a picturesque commentary on Sutra II.33, in which he compares acting on perverse thoughts (those that run contrary to the yamas) to a dog licking his own vomit:
“When the knower of Brahman experiences feelings of hatred etc. and is tortured by the agonizing fiery passions which lead to wrong course of conduct, such as ‘I shall kill him who hurts me, I shall speak untruth, I shall take things belonging to others, I shall commit adultery with his wife, I shall take things belonging to others,’ he should encourage contrary thoughts. He should contemplate: ‘roasted on the pitiless burning coal of the cycle of births, I took refuge in the virtues of Yoga by promising security to all living beings. After having abjured such perverse thoughts, I am behaving like a dog in betaking myself to them. As a dog licks hos vomits, so it is for me to take up thoughts and lines of action discarded by me as evil.’ …”
(From: Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali by Swami Hariharananda Aranya, 1981)
Thus, Vyasa concludes his commentary on Sutra II.34:
“Thinking thus of the inevitable evil effects of perverse thoughts and deeds, the mind should never again be engaged in them. Perverse thoughts are to be forsaken through their contrary thoughts.”
I find this both very useful and very inspiring!
 In the Buddhist teachings, there are many discussions of prapañca, and how to handle it. See for example https://encyclopediaofbuddhism.org/wiki/Prapa%C3%B1ca
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