III.14 शान्तोदिताव्यपदेश्यधर्मानुपाती धर्मी

śāntoditāvyapadeśya-dharmānupātī dharmī
śānta-udita-avyapadeśya-dharma-anupātī dharmī

“The holder of the forms (dharmī) is present in all the forms (dharma)–past, present, future.”

Throughout Patañjali’s sūtras on transformation (pariṇāma), there is a theme of threes. He describes pariṇāma in three ways (sūtras III.9-12). He delineates three axes of change: form, time, and circumstance (III.13). And in today’s sūtra,  he points out that form (dharma) has a threefold aspect: śānta (dormant, or past), udita (manifest, or present), avyapadeśya (indistinct, or future). The form of the child that I once was is my past, the woman I am now my visible present, the old one I might be yet to come.

The number three suggests change. According to yoga philosophy, the three essential forces of nature–tamas, rajas, sattva (see sūtras II.15 and II.17)–do not rest. They combine and recombine, tumble forward. The nature of nature is change.

Underlying this world of changing forms, says Patañjali here, is a substratum, the dharmī. Let us look at the two words dharma, dharmī.

The most familiar meaning of dharma is duty, purpose, goodness. One’s function in the world, the part one plays or is meant to play, is one’s dharma. It can be understood to be what supports the functioning of the world. I might ask myself, How do I help “hold” the world? In the context of today’s sūtra, dharma is the essential characteristic of a thing, its form (also related to function). Dharmī  derives from dharma plus the suffix –in.  It means that which possesses the forms (as a yogī possesses yoga). It is the holder of the forms.

Rohit Mehta says the ultimate holder of the forms is the Unmanifest, the ground of all that is manifest. Yet we can also interpret dharmī to be the template that determines forms, a blueprint of what is possible–like DNA. Bernard Bouanchaud emphasizes this meaning, and he argues that the dharmī establishes the limits of change we might expect.

Both these meanings are useful and interesting. In the sense that we are all made of the same stuff, there is untold possibility. Insofar as there is a template of forms–shaped over generations,  we are constrained.

Somatic therapist Resmaa Menakem describes how our bodies carry imprints from generations that have come before us. Epigenetics research indicates that experience affects how DNA is expressed in the cells. In this and in other ways, Menakem explains, racial trauma is passed down from mother to child. Our bodies carry in them events our ancestors endured. (See My Grandmother’s Hands, by Resmaa Menakem, pp. 39-40.)

Menakem believes that there is a settling, a healing, that is possible for white bodies as well as black bodies, and he believes that it is through this healing, this transformation of our bodies’ nervous-system patterns, that we can move toward greater truth and justice. The impression of trauma, in other words, is not unchangeable. There is a holder of forms deeper than the trauma, a template for a settled, wholesome, healthy being.

I am a white body, and I am coming to see that it is vital for me (and other white bodies) to come to a better understanding of my white past, the role that my ancestors played in enslaving fellow human beings, and my part in the perpetuation of the racially based caste system we live in today. I must know my white body–its anxieties, its shame, its constraints.

In a 1963 interview with Dr. Kenneth Clark, James Baldwin said the following:

“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. … If I’m not a nigger and you invented him–you, the white people, invented him–then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.” –James Baldwin, public television, GBH Archives

To understand my people, to be truthful about my society, I must know my own body. I must ask Baldwin’s question.

We live in a moment of great potential change. And that potential change is charged by the Black Lives Matter movement, by climate justice activists, by young people around the world who are facing the devastation of our times with a readiness for a new way.

Dr. Kenneth Clark asks James Baldwin in that 1963 interview whether he is pessimistic or optimistic. Baldwin answers: “I can’t be a pessimist, because I am alive.”

We do not know what is possible from the substratum that shapes us. We do not know what is the limit of possibility. But we are alive. And we can choose to move toward life. A more equitable, sustainable life.


“This aphorism sets out the limits of change. Every element takes on numerous forms, for example, water can be a solid (ice), liquid, or gas (steam), depending on temperature. At a given moment, a single form manifests, ice for example, when it is cold. In the same way, each of us carries a multitude of gifts within–qualities that may or may not show themselves, depending on the situation. Our capacities may be categorized in three ways: those that have been shown–the past; those that are showing–the present; and those still hidden away–the future. Our changes are limited by a basic substratum, characteristic of our inner nature, that resists all outside influence. Our personalities rest on this substratum and our influence on another stops here.” — Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga, commentary on III.14

“The word dharmī used here denotes the Ground or the substratum of all manifestation. Dharmī also means something that holds, or something which constitutes a dependable base. Now this Ground is obviously the Unmanifest, for, the entire manifestation rests upon it. It is the Unmanifest that permeates the whole manifestation.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, commentary on III.14

“All forms share the same basic particles through time. … Patañjali’s general notion of ‘substrate’ (dharmī) remains thrillingly current, especially if we emphasize the notion of forms ‘sharing’ particles through fields and field-activities–which contemporary physics points to through the recent Higgs boson discovery. The Higgs boson points to the existence of a hypothetical unified field at the heart of our matter-energy complex–a kind of syrupy substrate by which elementary particles acquire mass.” — Matthew Remski, Threads of Yoga, p. 174

• Does your practice help you settle? To heal?
• Does practice help you be less reactive, especially to those from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, or to those who have difficult truths to tell you?
• Are you able to listen and learn about the history of violence and injustice in this country?
• Are you preparing to live into a future that looks different from today?


masculine adjective in compound

quieted, dormant (from śam, “to be calm”)


masculine adjective in compound

arisen, manifest (from ut, “up,” + i, “to go”)


masculine adjective in compound

indistinguishable, indistinct (from a, “not,” + vi, “apart,” + apa, “away,” + diś, “to point out”)


masculine noun in compound

nature, character, essential quality (from dhṛ, “to hold”); also expresses what is one’s particular virtue,  responsibility, or purpose


masculine adjective, 1st case singular

following, as a consequence or result (from anu-, “after” + pat, “to fall”)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

substratum, ground of being (from dhṛ, “to hold”)


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