Experiment: how to optimize stress relief when work + sleep + family + yoga > 24 hours

This past Monday night, my son stayed up yelling and kicking in his bed until 12:30 a.m. when he finally calmed down.  For new readers, my son is 14 and has special needs.  He is deaf and has very little means of communication  – some sign language and otherwise gestures and vocalizations.  In the past year, possibly since entering puberty, he has had periods like Sunday night where he is in a very agitated state for hours, vocalizing loudly and often kicking or thrashing about and sometimes pulling his hair aggressively. We try to calm him, of course. Hearing the yelling and kicking, especially while trying to express your love and calmness to him and failing, can be tough.

On Tuesday morning I had a meeting at work starting at 9:30.  I kept working with only 2 short breaks until 12:30 am.  It took an hour more to get to sleep.

On Wednesday moring I had another meeting at 9:30.

We’ve all had periods like this in our lives with too much work and family and it seems like we have to trade off good habits like sleep or yoga during the remaining time.  I’ve tried this a bunch of different ways and I’ve come up with some best practices that work for me:

  1. Do yoga every morning no matter what, at least for 20 minutes, even though it cuts into sleep.
  2. Try to fit in Pranayama at some point in the day, even if just during a break at work.
  3. Remain mindful of the yamas and niyamas throughout the day — including taking a short minute to jot down how I am doing on them.
  4. At night — again even though it appearst to cut into sleep time — do the “lifesaving practice” of Krishnamacharya before bed.  It’s only 15 minutes and time after time I have found I will go to sleep faster and sleep better if I do this practice first.
  5. Don’t let tiredness lead me to overeating or drinking. I seem to have a deep-rooted instinct that tells me food or sugar or alcohol will pep me up when I’m tired; but it doesn’t.  As Iyengar explains, Moksha or liberation involves ensuring that your actions are deliberate and intentional and not driven by mindless instinct.
  6. Get as much sleep as possible in the time left over after fulfilling my commitments and doing the small amount of yoga practice above.  Note that I think fulfilling my commitments is part of my practice of Satyagraha: the flipside of honesty is not committing to something I cannot do / and doing whatever I have committed to.  For those workaholic dads out there: this includes your committments to your family, spoken and unspoken.

So how did I do over the past few days?

I did do yoga every day.  I did not do the lifesaving practice Tuesday night and if I had, I may have fallen asleep faster.  I did do a quick journal of yamas and niyamas on Monday but not Tuesday.  I had chocolate snacks and lots of extra food on Tuesday which I really regretted later that night — again proving point 5 above.

One thing I think went really well was maintaining an attitude of Ishwar-Pranidhan: surrender of my ego and focusing on what it takes to accomplish my goals.  On Tuesday night when I learned that some of my coworkers had not done parts of the task I had expected they would do, instead of feeling anxious or defeated or angry, I pulled out my detailed task schedule and added those items, told my wife it would be another hour before I finished, and went back to work.  By maintaining calm if not contentment during these stressful moments, I saved myself time, improved my ability to work efficiently, and avoided an unhealthy adrenaline boost that might have kept me up even longer.

Overall I was kind of happy at many times during the day too, and I recall distinct moments of feeling Santosha – being content in the moment: looking at the beautiful sunset, walking in the evening while on a conference call and looking at the city skyline, and hugging my wife when I got home.

So some things went well, and for others there is room for improvement — that’s part of why I’m here, writing this down.  Perhaps even the act of making it public will help me follow the above 5 practices in the future.

The picture accompanying this post is from a Businessweek article published in 2006 about me and my family.  That’s me, just at the beginning of my daily yoga practice, with my work and behind me, our whiteboard with the detailed schedule for taking care of my son.

Reducing concern about ego -> lightness

That was the title of a cryptic note to myself from 2007.  In total it says:

2 things have really made me feel great and light lately: 1.) not overconsuming; and 2.) noticing and stopping when I’m concerned about my ego.

As if to emphasize but not totally clarify this insight, a note from a few days later says simply:

NOTICE AND STOP WHEN I’M CONCERNED ABOUT MY EGO

Clearly I need to provide more detail when I have these insights.  But having 7 years more experience with this I know now that at the time I was most likely realizing the fantastic experience of moksha.

Moksha or Moksa is often translated simply as “freedom,” but it has a lot of other connotations.  Wikipedia has a fantastic page on moksha, but the definition I like best is, per usual, from Iyengar:

By moksa I do not mean some fanciful concept of future liberation, but acting with detachment in all the little things of here and now–not taking the biggest slice of cake onto one’s own plate, not getting angry because one cannot control the actions and words of those around us.

From Light on Life, at 236-37.  So cool that Iyengar captured both freedom from ego attachment and the moderation in consumption that I noted in my 2007 note.  Both of these concepts are also, of course, two of the Yamas and Niyamas.  Aparigrapha is moderation in consumption and Ishwar-Pranidhan is surrender to “god” or, as I’ve explained elsewhere, surrender of the ego.  By practicing these ethical practices along withe the rest of the 8 limbs of yoga. Patanjali says we obtain a number of goals, one of which is Moksha.

Inswar or Ishvar: A Monolithic “God” in Hinduism?

As discussed here, Ishwar-Pranidhan is the last of the Niyamas, and is often translated to mean ‘surrender to god.’  When I first encountered this, I thought it strange to refer to a single “God” in a tradition rooted in Hinduism.  I cobbled together some definitions in my notes on the subject from 2007 – not sure where I copied these from:

Isvara (Sanskrit) (from the verbal root is to rule, be master):

Lord; the supreme self or hierarch of any universe, large or small, likewise the divine spirit in man. Also a title for many gods in the Hindu pantheon, such as Vishnu and Siva.

In the Bhagavad-Gita Isvara is that which “dwelleth in the heart of every creature” and which “causeth all things and creatures to revolve mounted upon the universal wheel of time” (chs 43; 6l). It is the essence of the spiritual monad in any individualized evolving being, the spiritual root, the god within, and the source of the spiritual and vital streams in any being which bring about its unfolding in evolution and its peregrinations through the fields of experience.

Equivalent to the Father in Heaven of Jesus, and hence the source of the inner Christos or Buddha. Thus in one sense it is the individualized dhyani-buddha of every being.

Yamas and Niyamas

As usual, Iyengar explains it best in the Tree of Yoga:

The first level of yoga consists of what can be called dos and don’ts. Niyama tells us what we should do for the good of the individual and society, and yama tells us what to avoid doing because it would be harmful to the individual and to society. These are ethical disciplines which have existed in the human race in all places from time immemorial. Yama and niyama  are traditional whether in the civilisations of the East or the West, the North or the South.

(at 6)

The sages of old, who experienced the sight of the soul, discovered its seed in yoga.  This seed has eight segments which as the tree grows give rise to the eight limbs of yoga.

The root of the tree is yama, which comprises the five principles of ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (freedom from avarice), brahmacharya (control of sensual pleasure) and aparigraha (freedom from covetousness and possession beyond one’s needs).

Then comes the trunk, which is compared to the principles of niyama (Observances). These are sauch (cleanliness). santosha (contentment), tapas (effort), svadhyaya (self-study) and Isvara pranidhana (self surrender).

(at 7-8)

I have read literally dozens of slightly differing interpretations of these ethical precepts- the 10 commandments of yoga – and if you click on the tags for each of them you will find discussion relating to each of the yamas and niyamas.  But here are a few quick notes that may give extra context to the brief descriptions above:

Asteya – above Iyengar says this is freedom from avarice.  It is often translated as non-stealing.

Bramacharya – In the passage above Iyengar calls this “control of sensual pleasure,” but it is often translated as continence or sexual continence or even a celibacy.  In particular, Gandhi wrote extensively about his own practice of brhamacharya, which he meant to mean complete celibacy.  But as Iyengar points out in Light on Life, it cannot mean complete celibacy as so many of the primary sages of yoga were married and had children.

Aparigraha – Although I think the definition above covers it I think it’s useful to add that aparigraha includes moderation in consumption.

Svadhyaya – I have seen this interpreted to include study of yoga texts and spiritual texts.  These can be considered self-study but it’s important to understand this does not mean solely introspective contemplation.

Isvara prahidhana or “Ishwar-Pranidhan” – often translated as “surrender to god.”  In fact, “Isvar” or “Ishvar” means something like “God.”  But in my own practice I have come to understand that for me, surrender to god and self-surrender — or surrender of the ego — are the same thing.  More on that topic here.