The past year has been a challenge for everyone. Even the most dedicated yoga teachers and practitioners are no exception. From adjusting to home practice and online teaching to the uncertainty of what’s to come, we’ve all been forced to adapt to a new way of life.
Learning to adjust, accept, and make the most out of this new way of life is part of my yoga practice. It’s this mental aspect of the practice I aim to share with you today as it’s been one of my most used tools over the last year and a true gem.
As a teacher with Alpha Yoga and a US citizen barred from Europe for almost a year now due to pandemic restrictions, I have been forced to pause my nomadic lifestyle and settle down for a bit. Now learning to adapt to the extreme winter of Vermont after years of thriving off tropical destinations and the pleasures of the beach, my life has taken a complete 180.
The nature of the mind is drawn to the negative
What do you see when you look at this image? Take a moment.
Chances are your answer will be some sort of black shape in the center of a white background. But what if that’s not what it is? It could very well be a black canvas covered in white except for that one spot. Either way, you will notice that the mind's natural inclination is to be drawn to the blemish first. The same way we notice a stain on a shirt before we notice its appeal, the mind by nature, is drawn to the negative. In fact, according to the National Science Foundation 80% of your thoughts in a day will most likely be negative and about 90-95% of them you have had before; that’s right, they’re repetitive.
Consider the impact those consistently spinning negative thoughts have on you over time. Fears, insecurities, and doubts digging a deeper groove into your psyche every day, holding you back from living your life to its fullest potential.
But while negative attraction may be the current natural inclination of the human mind, we can change it! The ability to change our thoughts has helped humanity evolve and continues to do so.
So now, take a moment to imagine if you could make your thoughts just 1% more positive, 5%, or even 10%. How much brighter life might be! More confidence, strength, and grounding not only to get you through tough times but propel you forward as well.
Guess what? It is possible! Here’s how…
Yoga for the Mind
Negative thoughts can be recognized and changed with some intentional focus and practice. How? Well, first you need to realize that you are not your thoughts – positive or negative, you are the awareness of the thoughts. If you can observe a thought, feeling, or emotion, you are obviously not them – you are something greater. You are the awareness of them. The same way the clouds are not the sky and only pass through as its by-product, we are not our thoughts. Thoughts are simply a by-product of our environment, past conditioning, and current molecular makeup. What’s more, we have the power to change these thoughts. We can change a negative thought into a positive and vice versa. Thoughts are interchangeable and the ability to do so is a healthy step in harnessing the power of the mind.
Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to give this a try. Take a minute and close your eyes. Observe and label any thoughts that come up. When you open your eyes, write down the thoughts you just had. For example, you may have thought, “this is silly, this will never work,” or you may have noticed a noise in the room, felt a body ache, etc. For each negative thought, cross it out and replace it with a positive. Doubt, replace with faith, boredom replace with interest, irritability replace with acceptance, and so on. Now try to do this mentally. Every time a negative thought comes up, switch it to a positive.
This simple practice is outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and was developed more than 1800 years ago. It is also the premise behind modern success practices such as The Secret, as well as scientific studies around happiness. It all comes down to perspective. Change your perspective and remove the things that mentally don’t make you happy and voila, you’ve found the recipe for happiness. For happiness is nothing more than the absence of unhappiness. Much like Buddhism also says, you need only change your perspective, not the circumstance to remove suffering.
Check out the below video for a quick story on perspective 😀
Yoga Sutra 2.33 says:
“When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite (positive) ones should be thought of. This is pratiprakṣa bhāvanam.”
Pratiprakṣa bhāvanam asks us to cultivate opposite thoughts when negative ones arise. As our thoughts ultimately create our actions, in thinking positive thoughts, we take the first step toward creating positive results. If you think you are weak, you will remain weak. If you think you are strong, you will grow strong. To quote Swami Vivekananda, “We are what our thoughts have made us.”
Through the process of yoga, we recondition the body and mind, returning it to a place of awareness. We do this first through awareness of our bodies and then through awareness of our thoughts, emotions, words, and actions. Through awareness of our thoughts, noticing negative ones when they arise, and replacing them with positive ones, a reconditioning of past thoughts and habits takes place. We are able to move past traumas and mend old wounds we might not have even known existed.
As you can see, yoga is considered the Vedic school of psychology for a good reason. Alexis Cabrera LPCC, psychotherapist, dedicated yoga teacher and student elaborates:
“Yogic science and psychoanalytic theories have a lot of overlap. … Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT… exercises this specific belief as a foundation of the ways to improve mental health. …The therapist will work with the client to discover the thoughts that are disturbing the individual, and then invite the individual to release these toxic mindsets and replace them with alternatives, or even our natural inclination towards pure presence.”
This doesn’t mean ignoring negative thoughts and emotions – they are real when experienced and an inevitable part of the cycle of creation. Rather than condemn ourselves for an inevitable happening, yoga suggests we see it as just that; a happening that can be observed and balanced. As the below excerpt from Let’s Talk About It: A Graphic Guide to Mental Health, by Cara Bean (www.cartoonstudies.org) demonstrates, it’s about making the most of a bad situation. In the realization that seemingly “bad” situations are temporary, we rise above them.
Why try this?
(Because it’s good for you.)
Still not convinced? Let’s take a minute to consider some of the research behind a positive mental attitude:
Reduces risk of cardiovascular disease
Increases immunity (Swap sick days & doctors’ visits for more strength & energy 😀 )
Increases life expectancy
Decreases stress, anxiety, and depression
Increases learning capacity
Increases overall mental well-being (You’ll be happier! 😀)
Positivity is proven to improve health both physically and mentally. In a study by John Hopkins (1), people with a family history of heart disease who maintain a positive life outlook are 1/3 less likely to experience heart problems themselves. It is also proven to strengthen our immune system, ward off stress, and expand life expectancy.
Positive thinking can even increase our learning capacity! In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie cites a study by psychologist B.F Skinner who found that animals rewarded for good behavior learn more rapidly and retain information more efficiently than those punished for bad behavior. If we reward ourselves and others with positive thoughts, words, and actions, we will reap far more benefits.
According to polyvagal theory, in mental states where we feel safe and secure, we can access higher cortical functions such as language, vision, and awareness. When we’re constantly stressed or in survival mode, however, those systems shut down and are harder to access. We’re more likely to misread the social and emotional cues of others. For example, you may read a neutral face as an aggressive one. By cultivating positive thoughts towards others, no matter what cue our nervous system is interpreting, we can neutralize our response.
Additionally, smiling releases “good” neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin that collectively lower aggression, impulsivity and increase empathy. And not just in ourselves, but in others too! The recipient of a smile benefits with “good” chemical releases as well. 😀
What’s more, the practice of cultivating a positive mental attitude or, pratiprakṣa bhāvanam, as outlined in the Yoga Sutras, is also a versatile tool that can be practiced anywhere and at any time – no mat required. As Eddie Stern says in One Simple Thing, “The development of a positive mental trait is much more enduring than fleeting states and can be practiced (daily).”
Want to learn more about the mental aspect of yoga? On all of our courses (200-Hour Online TTC, 200-Hour In-Person TTC, 300-Hour TTC) we explore the power of the mind, positivity, and cultivating healthy mental states.