Flip the Script
written by Keith Porteous
Yoga Sutra 2.33: Vitarkabadhane pratipaksha bhavanam
When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana. – Barbara Stoler Miller
When our minds are disturbed, can we find space to look at ourselves and our situations anew? One of my favorite aspects of the yoga tradition is that it begins with an acceptance of human nature as we are, not as we should be. Then, the teachings offer practices through many paths to create peace and happiness. The whole path begins with the yamas, or restraints, which are ways we hold ourselves back when we are inclined to be hurtful. The point is not repression; the point is harnessing one’s energy towards positive action. Constructive actions of thought, word and deed will reverberate to create greater peace and happiness, just as a downward spiral in the mind is equally possible. Yoga Sutra 2.33 teaches us that we have the ability to flip the script, or “turn a negative into a positive picture,” as Lauryn Hill said, whenever we feel stuck. This sutra is an ancient reminder that we have options. We may feel stuck in fear, anger, jealousy, or just impatience in traffic, but in truth our minds are very flexible.
For many years, I practiced this Sutra by substituting gratitude when my first reaction was a sense of burden. The quick swap sounded like changing an “I have to” into an “I get to,” such as turning “I have to clean the kitchen” into “I get to clean the kitchen.” This switch reveals the obvious gift of having a kitchen in the first place. This is a helpful switch, and has saved me many times when I have missed the opportunities for gratitude that surround me always. But over the years, I have also noticed that forcing the positive in every situation can be superficial and is not always authentic. If we truly need rest, perhaps the best response is a pause to listen inwards – and then to choose the next most constructive action, which might look like asking for help. Sutra 2.33 is not saying we have to be “shiny, happy, people,” per R.E.M.’s 1991 hit, it is reminding us we have the ability to shift how we are thinking and thereby to shift the environment all around us.
Recently, I got into a situation where I forgot this sutra. Thinking it would be a great way to keep my voice in shape, I registered for a “master class” in singing. I walked in very relaxed, but after hearing aria after aria from my very talented peers, I felt smaller and smaller and wanted to disappear. Despite the evident skill and kindness of the teachers, I was so afraid of being called on to sing in that first session, I watched the clock and thought the only solution was to drop the class.
Then the teacher told a story which changed everything. She said when she was younger, she was very frightened of performing. Her teacher was successful with a big career, and she (then the student) was embarrassed about her own fear of performing. Then, her teacher said to her, “Of course you are afraid of performing. Of course. This is totally natural.” Just to hear those kind words, in the tone she shared them which showed she had known what it was to want to hide or disappear rather than step on the stage and share her voice, but that she had found ways not to be limited by fear–it began to shift everything. Her admission of her own fear was so constructive for all the nervous students in the room. She flipped the script by teaching us that we can shift the energy of fear into artistic expression.
In Shri Brahmananda Saraswati’s translation of this sutra, he describes the practice as “overcoming destructive instinctual driving forces” by cultivating “constructive driving forces.” His choice of the word “instinct” demonstrates that from the point of view of the Yoga Sutra, innate drives like aggression and reactivity are part of human nature; they are not shameful or something to be concealed. However, the energy which might feed an instinctive reaction to hurt back can be harnessed in positive ways. According to Master Patanjali (YS 2.35), we will see through new eyes as we become established in these practices. The more we are established in non-harming, the less hostility we will perceive in others.
There is an important distinction between “good/bad” actions and “constructive/ destructive” actions. The yoga teachings are not about being judged by some external authority figure, they are about self-sovereignty and reconnection with our highest nature. If our thoughts cause us pain, Master Patanjali is reminding us that we can use a wider lens through which to see ourselves and our situations. This is not about being seen as “good” by someone else, it is about getting out of our own way and creating causes for peace for ourselves and everyone in our world.
When we practice inversions in the asana practice, we have a chance to physically and mentally see from a new perspective. Handstand practice at the wall, whether in an “L-shape” or vertical, is a profound way to strengthen the body and work through fear. Handstand quickens the heart and increases energy in the body. Forearm stand is an equally beneficial, vigorous asana. If you are feeling lethargic, depressed, or disempowered, flip the script through handstand and forearm practices. If the mind is very quick and the nervous system agitated, invert for longer durations through a calming inversion like viparita karani, or legs up the wall. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes viparita karani as a mudra translated as “reversing attitude.”
Asana shows us how we can move from rigidity to flexibility. Whenever our minds cause us pain, remember that we can reverse our attitude, not through force but through acceptance and seeing the other side. If our energy is essentially neutral, and could animate divisive thoughts as well as those which foster connection, why not learn to witness our patterns and then shift our energy towards the positive? As David Hawkins writes: “In this interconnected universe, every improvement we make in our own private world improves the world at large for everyone. We all float on the collective level of consciousness of mankind so that any increment we add comes back to us. We all add to our common buoyancy by our efforts to benefit life. What we do to serve automatically benefits all of us because we’re all included in that which is life. We are life. It’s a scientific fact that what is good for you is good for me. Simple kindness to one’s self and all that lives is the most powerful transformational force of all.” – David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D., Power vs. Force. Selections from pp. 127-128.
Note: The expression “flip the script” comes from graffiti artists’ ability to recreate rivals’ tags upside down. As one online commentator writes, this practice “showcases your superior graffiti skills by demonstrating that the rival’s “script” or “tag” is so simple that you can replicate it in any orientation. It evolved to mean taking control of a situation that you initially had no control over.” For more information, Christian Acker wrote a guidebook for the art of graffiti lettering called Flip the Script.
“A Version of Inversion” by Jules Febre, Jivamukti Focus of the Month, November 2017
Yoga Sutra 2.33 has many translations. See this page for a list.
Note that this concept is not only embraced by Classical Yoga with its focus on the Yoga Sutras, but practitioners of Bhakti Yoga (note the words “bhavanam” also hold fast to this idea that we can elevate our entire atmosphere.)
According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, those who experience high blood pressure, enlarged thyroid, heart disease or who have too many toxins in the body should avoid inversions until their health improves.
Look at the Abraham-Hicks scale of emotions. Identify where you are, and if your mind is in a painful state, open to a new way of looking at your situation which would allow you to shift slightly up the scale. Just go up a few levels at a time. Pause and wait for the shift to be genuine. If we push ourselves to be more positive than we are, we will not trust the process and might end up feeling even lower in the end. Our minds are more malleable than we realize. Do what it takes to see yourself and your situation anew. Everyone around you will be buoyed by your efforts.
“The force of gravity naturally pulls all body fluids down to the lower parts. By inverting the body so that the head is down and the feet are up, all fluids flow back towards the head without undue force or pressure.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 3.79, Swami Muktibodhananda / Bihar translation.
Viparita Karani is like shoulderstand, but with a more gentle angle for the neck and shoulders. In a classic shoulderstand, the torso and legs are perpendicular to the floor. In viparita karani, there is flexion in the hips and a more gentle tuck of the chin towards the chest. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, this tuck “stimulates the thyroid and awakens vissudhi chakra”.
“Every leap has its own platform to originate from. Pain exists to promote evolution; it’s cumulative effect finally forces us in a new direction.” – David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D., Power vs. Force. Selections from pp. 127.
“In this interconnected universe, every improvement we make in our own private world improves the world at large for everyone. We all float on the collective level of consciousness of mankind so that any increment we add comes back to us. We all add to our common buoyancy by our efforts to benefit life. What we do to serve automatically benefits all of us because we’re all included in that which is life. We are life. It’s a scientific fact that what is good for you is good for me. Simple kindness to one’s self and all that lives is the most powerful transformational force of all.” – David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D., Power vs. Force. Selections from pp. 127-128.
Teacher Tools and Themes
Inversions, apana vayu, and digestion:
“Although it is counterintuitive, upside-down positions promote the downward course of apana. Inversions such as headstand and shoulderstand reverse the effects of gravity due to the way the triangular sacrum is turned “right side up”, unmooring the structures of the pelvic cavity, loosening the bowels, and helping relieve constipation. Tias Little, Yoga of the Subtle Body, p. 94
Inversions and emotional healing: going upside down helps us let go:
When we reverse the effects of gravity on the body, places in the abdomen which we have been stuck become unstuck. Imagine freeing each of your digestive organs to work optimally, uncompressed by gravity or the accumulation of toxins in the body. Emotion, too, builds in the lower abdomen. For emotional release, practice an inversion which can be held for several minutes without strain.
“Congestion in the large intestine may also result from emotional holding. Repressed emotion linked to fear, shame, grief, sadness, or condemnation interrupt the body’s capacity for regular elimination. People who are afraid to let go, either of their material belongings or of their feelings, are prone to obstruction in their lower gastrointestinal tract. It is all too common that bound emotions or squelched feelings burrow into the lower spine and pelvis causing both muscoluskeletal and visceral knots.” Tias Little, Yoga of the Subtle Body, p. 95
Relieve the shoulders of emotional burden through correct alignment:
Provide proper support for shoulders using several blankets or a bolster so that correct alignment can be achieved, or practice the alignment standing if weight-bearing is too challenging. Use a strap to open the shoulders, including a “backpack” where the strap
goes first across the posterior lower thoracic, then to the front body, over the shoulders, and cross behind the back. Hold one strap in each hand and pull down.
“People carry physical, psychological, and emotional burdens in their shoulders.” – Tias Little, Yoga of the Subtle Body, p. 172
Inversions and the lungs: “One of the best ways to foliate the lung tree is by inverting or partially inverting the body. Inversions such as headstand, shoulderstand, or supported bridge pose increase the circulation of blood and lymph through the lungs by changing the fluid pressure gradient between the abdominal cavity, diaphragm and chest. Speficially, inversions benefit the lower lobes of the lungs that perch atop the respiratory diaphragm – in our lung tree this is the top of the pleural canopy.” – Tias Little, Yoga of the Subtle Body, p. 167.
Tree of Life Teach handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) explore the idea of the Tree of Life, a downward facing tree which connects us to Source