I love it when yoga philosophy makes a real difference in daily life. As yogis, we all have moments of transformation in the studio when an instruction will magically open the door to a deeper understanding of our bodies.
As students of yoga, we learn about concepts like openness, practice, and surrender – but then all too often we go home and slip back into the kinds of ineffective patterns we’ve committed to move beyond. I mean, mastering headstand is great, but if I then turn around and go through my life with my head up my ass, what’s the point?
This has been the focus of my practice over the past few years—walking the talk, in my own way—and I measure my own personal growth in those moments when I’m able to actually apply the principles of yoga to create positive change. I’m practicing yoga in order to better practice my yoga, if that makes sense. When I focus on actions that help me to see myself clearly, with compassion and patience, I feel like I get that much closer to an authentic connection with the real me.
So you know, this was originally going to be a simple post about a floral arrangement, but the act of making said arrangement meant so much more to me than just the creation of a pretty bouquet; it was about taking positive action in a place of suffering.
A couple of weeks ago, the twists and turns of life brought me to a place of great sadness. I was knocked down and left breathless. The intensity offered me no relief, and it became clear very early on that this would be the kind of show where I couldn’t just get up and leave the theatre.
It’s only now, on the other side of the intensity, that I can identify all of the little steps I took to endure the suffering. One such example is this flower arrangement. I trekked into the city on my day off so I could go to the one place where I felt I might be able to cheer up: the flower market in Chelsea. I walked up and down 28th Street taking in the first blooms of spring. I spent a fortune on flowers knowing full well that they would only last a week, because I wanted to create something that would make me smile.
For me, this is pratipaksha bhavanam—replacing negativity with a positive action—and it was a great example of using yoga to practice my yoga in a challenging place. I honestly didn’t care what the finished product would look like, I just knew how I wanted to feel when I was done.
Pratipaksha bhavanam is such an ingenious little tool because positive action is unique to each individual, and indeed to each moment at hand. While I loved making this arrangement and was able to enjoy it for a few days, I felt equally supported by Ben and Jerry’s Mint Chocolate Cookie, my dearest friends who held the space for me to just be, and the healthy amount of tequila I imbibed.
Did I practice any pranayama? If you count the long exhales I took to summon the energy to inhale, then yes. Did I practice any asana? No. Frankly that was the last thing I wanted to do, because I knew it would bring me uncomfortably close to my experience. And so I just drank margaritas and made floral arrangements and here I am today, out of the storm and better for it.
While pratipaksha bhavanam seems like a simple tool, it doesn’t always feel obvious or accessible in a place of suffering. I find it much easier to either wallow in my pain or beat myself up for not feeling better. Taking action means taking responsibility for oneself—for one’s well being. To take care of myself, especially when the tide is against me, is an act of love and the greatest thing my yoga practice has ever taught me.
My friend Anna told me a story once told by Patricia Walden about a difficult time she went through and how her teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, helped her to take positive action. She told him that she found it difficult to get up out of her chair. He responded by encouraging her to try and move to a different chair.
I love this story because it shows how even the simplest action can change our perspective. Sometimes all we need is to see ourselves, our suffering, and our impossible obstacles from a different angle. The more we can see and understand, the less permanent our pain feels. All of my attempts at taking positive action helped me to see my challenge as less of an obstacle to my life’s story and more as an important part of my life’s story. I read somewhere recently that life doesn’t happen to us, it happens for us. And unlike yoga class, where you can just get up and go the bathroom if the pose gets too intense, much of the intensity dished out by life is inescapable. You’re literally forced to bear it, and this is where pratipaksha bhavanam becomes a practical tool, encouraging us to be kind to ourselves when the only way out is through.
So whether your idea of pratipaksha bhavanam is a ridiculous feat of domestic art, or a dirty martini, or a headstand, all that matters is that it elevates and softens you when you might otherwise be tempted to sink and harden. You will know what the right action is for you. I think it’s important to trust that, at the very least, our yoga practice has given us the tools to better know ourselves and the wisdom to trust the Self we’ve come to know. For me, this little spring arrangement was the perfect reminder that taking positive action is life’s best medicine.