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John Wheeler

The Element

Yoga Sutra – Chapter 2 Sutra 29

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I’ve been dancing around Sutra 2.29 in two recent articles. The first was “Tapas & Relationships” and just yesterday as I was exploring Sutra 2.31. I didn’t have any intention to write about it until a recent debate began between myself and Bob Weisenberg on the comment thread of one of his Gita Talks posts. The debate broke off after I wrote a length reply that got lost in the commenting system. I will be using this post to pick up the thread. Sorry for the delay Bob.

A Table of Contents

On the face of it Sutra 2.29 seems like a straightforward list of “ashtanga” the 8 limbs of Yoga:

  1. Yama – your attitude toward your environment.
  2. Niyama – your attitude toward yourself.
  3. Asana (physical practices)
  4. Pranayama (breathing practices)
  5. Pratyahara (quieting the mind)
  6. Dharana (focusing the mind)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (integration / being present / clear perception / …)

For an overview of Yoga it seems to be in the middle of nowhere – but it’s actually strategically placed:

  • It’s not in the 1st chapter – which is about Samadhi – which, interestingly, is the last item on ashtanga list. If you can relate to and experience what is described in the first chapter – then you don’t need this list. If, like most people, you don’t then the 2nd chapter is there to help you.
  • The 2nd chapter is about practice – the things you can do to get to a point where you will be able to take on the 1st chapter.
  • The 2nd chapter starts with an explanation of why practice is required – to overcome obstacles. It explains about the different kinds of obstacles and how they effect us.
  • Only then, when we have some perspective and understanding about what it is we are trying to do, a system of tools is introduced in Sutra 2.29.

Weight of Practices

A table of contents can be, and in the case of Yoga in the west, is misleading. Let’s have a look at the number of sutras that are dedicated to the topics.

  • Yama & Niyama (external and internal attitudes) take up a better part of what remains of the 2nd chapter – 16 sutras.
  • Asana (physical practices) is mentioned in 2 sutras and in a 3rd sutra in which it shares a place with breath.
  • Pranayama (breathing practices) is mentioned in 4 sutras and shares a 5th in which it shares a place with asana.
  • Pratyahara (containment of the senses) is mentioned in the last 3 sutras of the 2nd chapter and serves as a transition into the 3rd chapter.
  • Dharana, Dhyanama & Samadhi (which make up the domain of meditation) take up the entire 3rd chapter – 55 sutras.

How does this reflect on your practice? Are you practicing asana or Yoga?

Samkhya Separates – Yoga Integrates

What set me on this path was a parallel I believe exists between this list and the philosophy of Samkhya. Samkhya is one of the ancient philosophies of India and is closely related to Yoga. Samkhya is a practical philosophy based on a number of assumptions:

  • There are two ultimate realities: Spirit (Purusa) and Matter (Prakrti).
  • The universe had a beginning – a “first movement” or “first cause”.
  • The “first movement” is beyond the intellect – so there’s no point in pursuing it intellectualy.
  • It is better to work with what is there now – a dynamic universe which arises from Spirit & Matter.

Samkhya then goes on to describe a process of evolution from which our “current universe” arises:

  1. From a meeting of Spirit & Matter evolved Gunas.
  2. From a meeting of Spirit & Matter came an Intelligent Will.
  3. From Intelligence Will evolved Separation and individuation.
  4. From Separation evolved Mind and thought.
  5. From thought evolved Sensing.
  6. From Sensing Qualities evolved the Subtle Elements of Nature.

It seems that Ashtanga is a process that retraces the path set out by Samkhya:

Yoga-Ashtanga Samkhya Relationship
Yama & Niyama Subtle Elements Our external and internal attitudes are in relationship to a physical universe.
Asana & Pranayama Sensing Initial practices are designed to create an awareness of the workings of the senses.
Pratyahara Mind Until there is an awareness that can tell tell apart the workings of mind from what the sense report through it.
Dharana Separation When the mind has become aware of its inner workings it can begin to focus clearly (without distractions)
Dhyana Intelligent  Will It can experience a sense of disintermediated connection with a higher intelligence.
Samadhi Gunas Finally mind is no longer a slave the Gunas

In my experience it is rare to find such a tight, thorough & systemic coupling of philosophy and actionable practice. I have a great respect for it and for my teachers who have introduced it to me in a way that is professional, inspiring, relevant and caring.

Posted in Yoga, Yoga Philosophy, Yoga Sutra, Yoga Texts | You are welcome to read 3 comments and to add yours

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-07-11

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  • RT so wonderful, so true, so humbling @ Shuliji What we can offer one another: " … our own centredness … http://bit.ly/cmA9Ql #
  • … it is also disrespectful to assume that “I” am inadeqaute to my own experience http://bit.ly/9QYhaS – thank you @Shuliji #
  • new post at oDharma about the redesign of Feminitate – designing from a new frequency: http://bit.ly/9bQ8hH #
  • If you are technical-WordPress-oriented – here is an easy way to create themes with site sections: http://bit.ly/dc5JRK #
  • encountered a problem with Twitter – thought of contacting them for help – hand on mouse – I realized I felt there is no out there to help! #
  • Robert Pirsig & Frank Herbert – two authors with inspiring insight on love & death: http://bit.ly/cika2R #
  • short Yoga practices are a great substitute for no Yoga practices #
  • @SirKenRobinson why do you wear a suit & tie? in reply to SirKenRobinson #
  • Less talk = more touch, more presence, more communication? http://bit.ly/aFsfOl via @Shuliji cc: @mikhaill #
  • It is a bumpy ride through life that sets us on a path of disocvery that leads to Samadhi: http://bit.ly/bKYvsv – Yoga Sutra 2.31 #

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Yoga Sutra – Chapter 2 Sutra 31

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An article I recently published on Tapas & Relationships continued to reverberate within me for days after I published it. I was particularly caught up with Sutra 2.31 which seems to describes a relationship between the first two practices on the ashtanga list – Yama & Niyama.

Ashtanga: Eight Limbs of Yoga

Sutra 2.29 (second chapter, sutra 29) is a list of 8 disciplines which make up the art of Yoga:

  1. Yama – your attitude toward your environment.
  2. Niyama – your attitude toward yourself.
  3. Asana (physical practices)
  4. Pranayama (breathing practices)
  5. Pratyahara (quieting the mind)
  6. Dharana (focusing the mind)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (integration / being present / clear perception / …)

People sometimes speak of this as a “ladder” – which seems to suggests that Meditation (Dhyana) is a higher practice then Attitude towards others (Yama) or that Samadhi is the “highest achievement” of Yoga. I don’t think this is right, I think it is an incorrect interpretation, I think it blinds people from what Yoga is and I think it gives birth to incorrect views and false promises.

I believe that Sutra 2.31 offers a key to a better understanding of the relationship between the 8 practices of Yoga.

Trim Tabs: Refined Controls

This post started with an image I had from a long time ago about ship-rudders. I did some research into it and came across the idea of “Trim-tabs”:

“Trim tabs are small surfaces connected to the trailing edge of a larger control surface on a boat or aircraft, used to control the trim of the controls…”

Source: Wikipeda: Trim Tabs

My memory of it was related to ships where a smaller rudder (trim tab) is attached to the huge rudder that actually navigates the ship. Ship steering is controlled by moving the small rudder which then moves the large/main rudder. I couldn’t find a good ship-rudder image but I did find the same mechanism on airplanes. You can see how they work in this diagram. Small surfaces are used to activate and stabilize the larger surfaces. The smaller surfaces are refined controls for the larger surfaces.

This is what it looks like on an actual airplane:

Sutra 2.31: Gradual Change

What caught my attention about this Sutra was not the text itself but a commentary on it by TKV Desikachar:

“We cannot begin with such attitudes. If we adopt them abruptly we cannot sustain them. We can always find excuses for not maintaining them. But if we seek to identify the reasons why we hold contrary views, isolate the obstacles that permit such views and our attitudes will gradually change. The obstacles will give way and our behavior toward others and our environment will change for the better”.

Life demands engagement, it creates friction (Tapas) with many people. That is where the practice of Yama comes into play. It’s easier to take on a pleasant facade when you are on Yoga retreat with like-hearted people in a supportive environment then it is in a traffic jam when you are late for a meeting at work with people who annoy you. Yet being stuck in traffic on your way to somewhere you don’t want to be with people you don’t want to see is the more typical state of of life – and that is where Yama is practiced.

Yama is a practice of living an engaged life – it is about navigating truthfully, honestly, moderately, considerably and appropriately when it seems least possible. It’s like trying to fly a plane through hammering cross-winds and the stick is shaking in your hand violently. You may be able to keep a steady course for a while – but eventually you will tire out. The alternative is a refined system of steering – a trim tab to stabilize your flight.

This is what Sutra 2.31 suggests. If you are having trouble navigating in Yama (your relationship to others) examine your relationship towards yourself. Your attitudes towards yourself can stabilize your attitudes towards others. You can never really stop “navigating through life” – but the ride doesn’t have to be so bumpy. Use your attitudes towards yourself to stabilize your flight and to do so with less effort.

Trim Tabs for Trim Tabs

The Yoga Sutra is known for it’s conciseness and sparing use of words. It is an “economically efficient” text – it packs a lot into as little as words as possible. What if Sutra 2.31 is not just about the relationship between Yama and Niyama? What it is a formula that applies to all 8 limbs:

  • Yama – Niyama: If you experience friction with the world around around you, take a look inside – that may make it easier for you to navigate your relationships.
  • Niyama – Asana: If you find your own attitudes difficult to contain you may want to take on a physical practice.
  • Asana – Pranayama: If your physical practices seems limited or stuck – try breathing practices.
  • Pranayama – Pratyahara: If your breathing seems constricted – try practicing where there are less distractions.
  • Pratyahara – Dharana: If you have no distractions and yet you find your thoughts are disturbed – try steadying your mind.
  • Dharana – Dhyana: If you find it hard to steady the mind – try meditating on an image, thought or metaphor.
  • Dhyana – Samadhi: If you find it difficult to meditate – wait.

It’s easy to misread this list and to conclude that one should start with, for example, a subtle practice like meditation. This is not true. To use a refined control you must first experience the limitations of the gross controls. You cannot, for example, experience or appreciate the subtle qualities of Pranayama without first practicing Asana. At some point you may feel that asana has become repetitive and boring and not really affecting you. That is when you may find motivation and appreciation for breathing practices.

Ashtanga seems to describe a system of trim-tabs. As you advance in your practices you gain access and learn to appreciate subtler qualities. As you master subtle qualities you may call upon them to make your passage through life smoother and easier.

It would seem that the “highest achievement” of Yoga is not Samadhi (some theoretical state of bliss) but Yama (traffic on the way to work). Samadhi is merely a subtle tool for steering through life. It is a bumpy ride through life that sets us on a path of disocvery that leads to Samadhi. It is a smoother ride through life that makes it possible for us to appreciate it’s quality.

Buckminster Fuller

The term “trim-tab” was coined by one Buckminster Fuller:

“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab.

It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.”

So I said, call me Trim Tab.

Posted in Yoga, Yoga & Life, Yoga Sutra, Yoga Texts | You are welcome to read 1 comment and to add yours

Two Authors on Love and Death

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Frank Herbert

This morning I finished reading (for the n-th time) the last book Frank Herbert wrote in the Dune series – “Chapterhouse: Dune“. I then (again) encountered an intimate and moving afterword by the author:

Frank Herbert

“One of the best things I can say about Bev is there was nothing in our life together I need forget, not even the graceful moment of her death. She gave me then the ultimate gift of her love, a peacefull passing she had spoken of without fear or tears, allaying thereby my own fears. What greater gift is there than to demonstrate you need not fear death?”

Robert Pirsig

I then remembered Robert Pirsig’s afterword in the edition I have of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance“:

“Chris is dead. He was murdered … I go on living, more from force of habit than anything else … Where did Chris go?  … What was it I was so attached to? .. Do real things just disappear like that? … What is the ‘he’ that is gone? … What had to be seen was that the Chris that I missed so badly was not an object but a pattern, and that although the pattern included the flesh and blood of Chris, that was not all there was to it … Now, Chris’s body, which was a part of that larger pattern, was gone. But the larger pattern remained. A huge hole had been torn out of the center ot if, and that was what caused all the heart-ache … If you take that part of the pattern that is not the flesh of Chris and call if the “spirit” of Chris or the “ghost” of Chris, they you can say without further translation that the spirit or ghost of Chris is looking for a new body to enter … it was not many months later that my wife conceived, unexpectedly.”

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Yoga Sutra – Chapter 4 Sutra 34

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A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a caring relative who was worried about me / for me. She was referring to an unpleasant period I had gone through recently. She asked if I considered seeking professional/medical help and suggested that medication may be helpful. I replied that I did not consider that an option. I believe that the widely available medical view subscribes to a value system that is different then mine – it seeks and sees illness, it applies analytical understanding, it isolates and then it fixes. I suppose that these values may be useful in extreme life-threatening situations. But these values are blind and useless (at best) when it comes to well being. At any rate – these are qualities that I do not want in my life.

Today I came across this wonderful quote posted by Shulamit which expressed my feelings about what professional care could be (and usually isn’t):

“The only thing I think we have to offer someone else is our own centredness, our own being all right, and knowing beyond a doubt that they’re all right. If I know that about myself in a way that lets me know that about everyone, I speak with true authority, in the sense of knowing what is so. But if I don’t have that experience of being all right, if I am afraid for you because I am afraid for me, all I have to offer you is my fear. “Maybe if you quit drinking…” or “Why don’t you try such-and-such?” That all comes from my own fear.

I think it’s disrespectful of someone else’s life process to assume that they are inadequate to their experience. It would be good to follow that back and see how I am simply projecting my own fear of inadequacy onto them. I simply cannot know about someone else’s life… The contribution I can make is to clean up what’s mine… I can’t remove the obstacles to your path, but I can avoid putting things in your way… I this way to do I most deeply vow to train myself.”

Cheri Huber, Good Life: A Zen precepts retreat

The quote is so complete I do not care to make any commentary on it. I do wish to suggest that it applies inside (self-help) as well as it does outside (for lack of a better term – “helping” others).

One of the early teachings I was given and carry with me is of the relationship between Cit and Citta – the idea that there is something (Cit) that comes before mind (Citta), something that is eternal, something that can “see” mind – a “see-er”. I looked this up in the Yoga Sutra – and I found many references to Citta (mind) – but I was surprised that I could not find a clear instance of Cit (that which is eternal and “knows” mind). There are however numerous instances of the word “Purusa” which Desikachar translates as the “Perceiver”.

Of all the instances I would like to relate to one – the last sutra in the Yoga Sutra – chapter  4 sutra 34:

“When the highest purpose of life is achieved the three basic qualities do not excite responses in the mind. That is freedom. In other words, the Perceiver is no longer colored by the mind.”

(Translation by TKV Desikachar from “Heart of Yoga”)

The three basic qualities refers to the three Gunas (Tamas, Rajas & Sattva). They are like waves which we ride-out in life. Our senses tell mind that we are “happy” or “depressed”. When our perception is bound to mind we take what the senses report as real and true.

But inside us there is a “Perceiver” that is seeing a bigger picture. It is sitting high up on the cliffs overlooking the ocean – looking down at mind as it tossed around by the waves of life.

  • This Perceiver can see that sometimes we are riding high on a powerful wave and that mind calls it “happiness”.
  • This Perceiver can see that sometimes we are under stormy water struggling for breath and that mind calls it “depression”.
  • This Perceiver can see that sometimes we are floating peacefully in a tranquil ocean without any distraction and that sometimes the mind looks up and even sees the Perceiver seeing it.

The “Perceiver” is “centeredness”  – is it that which is always all-right and always knows it. It is the “Perceiver” in me that said to me “everything is all-right, this wave will also pass, hang in there” when I was literally struggling to breath. It is the “Perceiver” in me that corrects misperceptions that assail mind from internal (self) and external (others) criticisms. It is the “Perceiver” that guides me to right action and keeps me from wrong action (making things worse).

Just as it is “disrespectful of someone else’s life process to assume that they are inadequate to their experience” – it it also disrespectful that “I” assume that “I” am inadeqaute to my own experience. That assumption is rooted in ignorace and a limited perspective. There is nothing in me that needs fixing except for that ignorant and limited perception – and that cannot “be fixed” – it can only mend itself (given supportive settings). This is the “end-game” of Yoga.

Posted in Yoga, Yoga & I, Yoga & Life, Yoga Sutra, Yoga Texts | You are welcome to add your comment