In 8th grade, my friend used to call me Pessie, short for pessimist. Looking back, she was right. I tended to always see the glass half empty, envision the worst case scenario, opt out rather than fail, or worse yet, look like a fool.
We can convince ourselves of almost anything. We hear what we want to hear, we see what we want to see, and we believe what we want to believe. Our mind gravitates toward what we choose. We often do this unconsciously, and as humans, find ourselves habitually drawn to negative thoughts.
Whether it’s general negative thinking, focusing on what could go wrong, or rehashing a moment or situation that was frustrating or infuriating, really sad or even scary, we cling to it like slime. By remembering it over and over, it feeds our memory in effect, and the negativity often grows and becomes a recurring theme in your life. So much so that your stories often become a part of you and eventually define you in your own mind.
For most of us, the practice of yoga begins as a physical one. We almost immediately gain increased awareness of our physical being through the practice. After only a short time of dedicated practice, we begin to notice our right hip is tight, or our left knee is stiff or the right side of our neck is always sore. The next question becomes why? What is that we do that causes these tweaks and imbalances? Maybe it was carrying the laundry up from the basement, or shoveling the drive or sitting at my desk too long? Through observation of the patterns of our life, we can often narrow down the cause, if not pinpoint it. And fortunately, many times we can begin to heal and rebalance our body through the practice of yoga.
In the process of learning how to strengthen and rebalance our bodies through the physical practice, we gain more awareness of the patterns of not only our life, but our thoughts. For instance, you start to realize, when I spend time with this person I get frustrated and angry, or when I do this activity I end up feeling tired and stressed, or when I’m with that family member, I usually react like a 12-year-old. While these realizations may seem pointless on a case by case basis, when looking at the bigger picture, if you’re honest with yourself (satya), it can provide great insight into yourself.
One of the sutras, or threads, that can help you through this is pratipaksa bhavanam, which basically says if something doesn’t work, do the opposite. So if this particular person bums you out or makes you crazy, don’t hang out with them. Or if that activity hurts your back or puts you into a mental tailspin, don’t do it. This can help, for sure. But as much as we might dream about it, completely removing yourself from the causes of your suffering, certain people or specific activities, is not always realistic.
So even more helpful is turning the mirror back on yourself (svadhyaya). Why does this person make me crazy? Why do I react like that when I’m with her/him? What is the lesson here? What can I do differently so I don’t feel this way? Granted, this looking inward business isn’t always easy. It’s way easier to look at the person who’s triggering your emotions and say they’re crazy. While that might very well be the case, you’re not going to make that crazy person un-crazy, no matter how hard you try or wish for it. But you do have the power to change your reaction to that person, and not let that crazy become contagious and affect you.
While this is again easier said than done, with awareness and attention, it can be. Through the practice of yoga, we can learn to change these reactionary patterns, or samskaras, which can turn into mounds of negativity and result in pain or illness in our body and mind. By quieting the mind and body enough to see ourselves clearly and recognize our patterns, we can actually make the conscious choice to reduce and eventually maybe even remove them.
For me, this is the ongoing, lifetime practice of yoga. What we think is what we believe. And while my old friend Pessie still resurfaces on occasion, now I have the tools to nip her in the bud. By choosing to undo and diminish unproductive thoughts that can often be self-defeating and destructive, it makes space for constructive thought, creativity, productivity and ultimately a more peaceful existence.