Mindbodybrew is ultimately about providing a space for written reflection at every step along the yoga path. We hope that by sharing assignments from our Teacher Trainees, we can expand their deep investigation into community-wide dialogue. The following was written by Frankie Fernandes, in response to her studies in class theme and development. This assignment excerpt details her consideration of one of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as a class theme.
II.33 vitarka badhane pratipaksa bhavanam
To counter negative thoughts, cultivate their opposites.
This sutra is an important one to teach for several reasons, the most obvious being its emphasis on countering negativity. But I think this sutra actually poses a question. Throughout my own practice, I have always been instructed to avoid labeling emotions and thoughts as good or bad, so Iyengar’s translation of the sutra into the words negative and opposites seemingly contradicts what so many of us strive for in our practice on and off the mat. That being said, I believe the question posed in this sutra regards our definition of positive and negative, with the two words really representing “what is serving me in this moment” and “what is not serving me in this pursuit.”
This concept can be particularly difficult for us to grasp; the sutra presents us with a lens through which we can view and constructively question and analyze our innate binary thought. Our minds are wired to view things in opposition so that we can more easily and quickly categorize and process information. This tendency clearly serves us in early childhood education when we learn when it is or is not safe to cross the street or touch the stove. We can also see how this quick processing and response proves to be helpful in evolution when deciding whether to approach a particular animal or food source. As a species, we are beginning to struggle in a world that has developed into an environment composed almost entirely of “gray area.” In response, we aim to categorize our lives even more strictly into Republican or Democrat, Male or Female, True or False, Right or Wrong, etc.
In this same way, we also struggle when our emotions fail to fall completely under the categories of happy, sad, or angry, as we apply this polarity from our external world to our own internal thoughts. I’ve spent the last few months grappling with this idea in relation to human sexuality through a course at NYU, exploring the social constructs of gender and sexuality in contrast with scientific analysis. Though there exists a spectrum of human sexuality and gender expression, our human brains have conditioned our world in such a way that it does not accommodate such in-between identities. The very foundation of our lives, from the structure of public buildings to our language, allows no space for a spectrum, as it relies on constructed dichotomies to function. With all of these examples of politics, race, sexuality, and even simple social constructs, it’s easy to see how we can grow frustrated and stressed as our circumstances outgrow our environment. This sutra provides us with a guideline for dealing with both internal struggles and the conflicts that arise with our external environment. So though Iyengar’s translation (along with several others) presents the idea of opposition and polarity, upon further analysis we find that the binary is not at all what we expect.
As a practitioner, I find it exciting and frightening to push myself into the gray areas and try to find a new sense of familiarity and comfort in the unknown. As a teacher, I would definitely teach this sutra as a class theme to provide my students with a safe environment in which to begin exploring the space between our “positive” and “negative” expectations.
- Frankie Fernandes