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 is a piece written by one of our newest, current trainees, Brianna Goodman, regarding one of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.
“To counter negative thoughts, cultivate their opposites.” II.33
Don’t gossip. Don’t eat sweets. Stop spending so much money. Stop using Netflix like you’re paid to do so. I’m probably not alone in admitting that commands like these have served as New Year’s Resolutions, half-hearted Lenten promises, and future goals inspired by rigorous days of spring cleaning. Each year I set out with a list of don’ts and won’ts and stops and limits—and each year I notice that I’m not successful. As a thinking and feeling and moving being, it’s hard to respond to anti-actions. We’re wired to move, we’re built to execute actions—we’re not meant to stay still, to not think, to not do. It’s only natural then, that the best way to bring about change isn’t to stop acting a certain way, it’s to start acting in a new way.
There is a yoga sutra that reads: “To counter negative thoughts, cultivate their opposites.” When I first came across this sutra, I was struck by how empowering it was to read. How exciting, that the ability to counter our fears, our insecurities, our ill-wishes, our negative thoughts that hold us back, is within us! We can dig into the garden that is our mind, cultivate its soil, and grow a whole new set of flowers that overtake the undesired weeds. Rather than yank away at our fears, we can cultivate our bravery. Rather than distract ourselves with our insecurities, we can remind ourselves of our strengths. Rather than shove the ragweed of our resentment into the nearest plastic bag, we can nurture the seeds of our kindness and well-wishes towards our colleagues, acquaintances, and friends. If we were a painting hung crooked on the wall, it wouldn’t be our goal to stop tilting further left—our goal would be to tilt back towards the right.
When I was a student at the Joffrey Ballet School, a nutrition teacher taught us that telling ourselves not to eat certain foods wasn’t the way to maintain a lasting, healthy lifestyle. Eating well isn’t about eliminating foods, she told us, it is about introducing new ones. By introducing dark leafy greens, hearty squashes, new sources of proteins, and other foods that provide the vitamins and minerals that we need as dancers, we may find that we’ve crowded out the cookies and the 99 cent slices of pizza that we were so keen on banishing before. To counter undesirable habits, we needn’t focus all of our attention on stopping them dead in their tracks—we can focus instead on cultivating new habits to replace the old.
As a yoga teacher, it is critical to remember that students cannot actively ‘not’. Telling a student to ‘not arch’ isn’t nearly as effective as telling them to send their tailbone towards the earth, an action that they can execute, paired with an image that they’re likely to remember. In our last training session, we discussed the danger of saying things like “don’t bend the front knee so far forward in high lunge”. Students are so busy with work or school or paying bills or raising children that by the time they’ve come into class the next week, the memory of “don’t bend the front knee” could have become “I remember she said something about bending my front knee…” This could result in the knee tracking even further beyond the ankle than before, posing a danger to the student’s stability, and joint health. Rather than telling students what not to do, we have the ability to tell them what they can do. We can help to cultivate their anatomical understandings, plant new images and perspectives, and weed out old habits by introducing an abundance of new ones.
I find this sort of work to be immensely helpful in my own yoga practice. Still struggling with a childhood fear of being upside down, my handstand practice is often accompanied with an unforgiving internal monologue starring the phrases “stop,” “don’t,” and “please just get over it already”. Rather than allowing the negative thoughts surrounding my inversion practice to spread like tumbleweed throughout my mind and body, I can instead cultivate a positive outlook on my practice by reminding myself of the strength that I have, and how this strength will eventually propel me into my handstand.
All of the tools we need to alter our negative thoughts, feelings, and actions are within us. We are able to cultivate the positive qualities that will crowd out what we desire to be rid of. We don’t need to punish ourselves for failing to not act; instead, we can reward ourselves for succeeding to act. And how comforting is it to know that all we need to do to deemphasize the bad is to emphasize the good?
- Brianna Goodman