october spotlight on: pratipaksa bhavanam (cultivating opposite thoughts)

Twice a week I teach yoga in an after-school program to a group of 20 high schoolers in the South Bronx. You can imagine from that sentence alone the numerous challenges this presents. But it’s not the chaos of trying to navigate through crazy teenage energies that range from manic to lethargic, or trying to get them to stay on their own mats long enough to do just one Sun Salutation, or concentrate long enough to hold Warrior II for just 3 breaths, or even explaining that yes, yoga is hard (and at times weird and uncomfortable and stupid and seemingly pointless). Mostly, I’m not much to them other than the crazy lady who somehow made teaching yoga her life and wound up in their school, enthusiastically pushing desks and chairs aside and setting up mats and chattering endlessly about ahimsa. Some days I leave the Bronx breathless and exhausted, feeling like I’ve been beat to the bone, but because no one broke anything or hit a classmate, I’ve done my job for the day.

For me, the most difficult part of this bi-weekly task is remembering what it was like to be a teenager and dealing with all the stuff that gets dredged up from somewhere deep inside. Sure, there’s fear, confusion, anger, but also elation, passion, heat. I remember the insecurity of knowing the bigness of the world around me, but feeling obsessed with the drama of my own little world. Every Tuesday and Thursday on my train ride back to Manhattan after spending 90 minutes with these kids, I get to re-feel everything I felt as a 16-year-old trying to make sense out of the mess of life.

The Yoga Sutras mention the practice of Pratipaksa Bhavanam, taking a destructive thought and thinking its exact opposite, as the beginning to the end of our ignorance and suffering. Pulling ourselves out of the cycle of destructive and distracting thoughts pulls us out of the murkiness of the mind and brings us closer to our true selves. Over time and with practice, Pratipaksa Bhavanam becomes easier as our murky thoughts gravitate toward more uplifting, lighter ones, we become less reactive and more thoughtful, and we free ourselves from endless self-poisoning. A wise and honest friend recently blogged that this sentence will be written on her mirror as a daily suggestion: “Don’t be ferocious with yourself.” A lovely reminder for a grown-up sometimes annexed in her teenaged mind.

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