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The Element

Yoga Sutra – Chapter 2 Sutra 31


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.

This entry was posted in Yoga, Yoga & Life, Yoga Sutra, Yoga Texts. You are welcome to read 2 comments and to add yours

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