Stockholm is, just like any city, full of paradoxes and co-existing contradictions. It is for instance, a city that is both very beautiful, with many wonderful places – but it also a city that is quite hard and filled with stress and an upbeat restlessness. Many of the people I know that are from Stockholm are also filled with this paradox: they are tough and cool on the outside, often more so than most, but also highly sensitive and tender on the inside – also that, often more so than most. This blog post will be about one of the first things that attracted me with yoga: the learning of a sound ability to combine sensitivity with robustness – the ability to be sensitive without having a tough outer shell to protect you.

Picture taken by me yesterday, on my last evening in Sweden for almost 4 weeks.


There are many polarities in life. One of them, and the perhaps most important one, is certainly that of love vs fear. There are also many other polarities that maps on to this one. In my understanding, many of those have to do with movements. Where fear makes you run and hide, in love you stay and shine. Where fear moves away from things it does not want, fear moves towards things it does want. Where fear shrinks, love expands, and where fear holds near, love holds dear. (I actually wrote a poem on this) This equivalence of essense in many polarities is probably what lies behind the classical concept of yin and yang.

However, unlike certain philosophies, I do not believe that all polarities map onto each other. I for instance do not think that up and down, right and left – and such divisions among essentially identical parts – can be mapped onto the love/fear polarity in a meaningful way. Most importantly, I do not think that the male/female polarity maps onto the love/fear polarity, and I therefore think that most discussions that have to do with what is truly male and truly female easily lead you astray from the most important question you can ask yourself in life: “What would Love do, if Love was standing in my shows?”. However, there is one final important class of polarities in life: those that aren’t really polarities at all, but only appears to be, due to lack of development. One such polarity is that between psychological sensitivity and psychological robustness.

Before I expand on this, I just want to say that sensitivity and robustness can be defined in a way that makes them true opposites. One of my colleagues, and one of the founders of my research field “systems biology”, is called Hiroaki Kitano, and he has spent quite a lot of papers to defining these concepts in a meaningful way, which also allows you to understand life in a better way. The short story of this is that a property X is robust with respect to certain disturbances if those perturbations (called P) only lead to small changes in this property (i.e. if dX/dP is small). Otherwise the property is sensitive to those same disturbances (if dX/dp is big). An interesting property of such robustness, is that a system that designs itself to be robust towards a certain class of perturbations often does this at the price of being more sensitive to other perturbations. For instance, the disease that I have studied the most, type 2 diabetes, is the consequence of nature optimizing the system to be robust with respect to the historically most common perturbation, lack of food, and have therefore become sensitive to the opposite perturbation, long-term abundance of food (paper on this).

Now, however, I want to speak about sensitivity vs robustness from a psychological, or perhaps even a spiritual, perspective. In this setting, sensitivity is a common personality trait, and there is even a concept called highly sensitivity persons. Such persons are often spiritual seekers since they can be completely awed and profoundly inspired by seemingly normal things, like a beautiful flower or a the flight of bird. This ability to sense and be in ligth-filled and awe-filled states, the ability to respond to beauty in a profound way, is what I would call sensitivity. However, such highly sensitivity persons are often also bordering on being bi-stable, since they easily become out-of-balance when what they observe is unpleasing. This is because they lack robustness.

Now the key message of this blog post is that if psychological sensitivity and robustness would be like the scientific sensitivity and robustness, these highly sensitivity persons would be in an unstable situation that they would either i) simply have to accept or ii) they would have to “de-evolve” and descrease their sensitivity and become more mundane. However, with yoga this choice is not necessary. It is possible to be both robust and sensitivity at the same time. In fact, this could almost be defined as the goal with yoga.

The trick to learning this “sensitive-and-robust” state is to become aware of your thoughts, and to become an independent agent with respect to them. There are many approaches to this, but one of them is to learn to observe and change your thoughts. In this approach one takes the Hicks/Abraham approach of emotional bridging, and this means that one all the time picks a thought that is just a little bit better-feeling than the previous one. Then one can from any situation come to a good-feeling place (because your feeling is always the response to the thought, not to the circumstance). And then the high sensitivity is a constant blessing. Or as Hicks/Abraham says: “a high sensitivity with thought control is a wonderful thing, but a high sensitivity without thought control leads to trouble”.

The other approach is to learn to become the observer of the thoughts. To say – and feel – that I am not this thought, I am the one observing it. If you can learn this technique, you can become robust to any thought, to any experience, that may happen, in meditation or in waking life – without loosing any of the sensitivity. This yoga goal is sometimes described as being both in the being and in the becoming at the same time. Or to be both the observer and the observed, rolled into one. Finally, to learn this observing aspect is the principle behind the Antar Mouna meditation, which I am teaching at the intensive summer courses, and also at this semester’s advanced/intermediate course. I will, however, also outline the basic principles and the first steps here at this blog. So look forward to that! 🙂

Forgetmenots, one of my favourite flowers. Picture from Wikipedia.