Iyengar’s metaphor: smoothing the mound on the floor of the lake to calm the waters of the consciousness

In Light on Life, Iyengar has a metaphor comparing consciousness to a lake, and explaining that over time, repeated bad habits can cause mounds at the bottom of the lake that result in secondary ripples in the surface above the mound.  I have long been puzzled by the metaphor and felt like I didn’t really get it – what is the sand? And how can our actions create a mound on the bottom of a lake?
Later in the section he explains that “The practice of yoga is about reducing the size of the subliminal mounds and setting us free from these and other fluctuations or waves in our consciousness.”  So clearly this is important stuff!  Yoga citta vritti nirodha!
And he explains that the way to do this is with yoga: asana, pranayama, meditation.  But I have had trouble fitting these into the metaphor: how does one smooth amount of sand? What corresponds to asana or meditation in this metaphor?
But last week I had a kind of a revelation while sitting on a beach gazing at the water – the whole metaphor makes sense now and I can see why I thought about it so much – because it has so much potential to be helpful.  As I sat by the water there was a little ridge under the sand that, as in the metaphor, was disturbing each wave and causing extra waves and fluctuations, making the water more chaotic.  As I gazed at it I realized the action of the water was exactly like what I see in my mind when I am able to meditate and stop labeling thoughts with words: random movement caused by reactions to sounds, feelings, and other movements of the mind.  The consciousness, like the water, is reactive: a reflection of all the forces it encounters.  We have very little control over it, very few tools at our disposal to help smooth the fluctuations, but if we use those tools we can make tiny changes that, over time, can help smoothe the mounds in the sand.
Here is how I understand it – apologies to Iyengar if this is not exactly what he meant, but I find it helpful even if it’s a slight variation:
  • One tool we have is breath.  Breath is like the wind on the lake – if is is gusty, the water will have chaotic waves.  It it is fast, the waves will be higher.  But if we can smooth it and slow it, the waves will be smaller and more regular.  This does not directly smooth out mounds in the bottom, but it can stop them from growing by avoiding the repetitive beating of touch waves on the trench in the sand.
  • One tool is meditation.  Our day is full of thoughts.  Ideally our thoughts help us accomplish our goals, but often they are merely reflections of the reactive mind.  It’s like we are every day canoing around on the lake.  Maybe we have a goal to get to a certain place on the lake and we often paddle toward that place, but the waves on the lake are strong and we often find ourselves just paddling in the same pattern around the same part of the lake every day.  So our voyage in the canoe is like our thoughts — often the canoe is almost rudderless, simply moving in reaction to the currents below it.  And often we are paddlinf furiously but, again, solely in reaction to the current and not necessarily toward our goals.
  • Meditation is when we mindfully stop paddling and simply watch the water; observing the current and the movement of the canoe in the absence of any intentional direction.  
  • So when Iyengar says that our habitual thoughts often cause the mond on the floor of the lake to get bigger, it’s like if we are canoing past this spot every day, and every day we encounter the current caused by the mound, and every day we paddle furiously in response to the current – but our furious paddline is simply increasing the mound.
  • So meditation can do two things to help smooth over the mound on the bottom of the lake.  First, it at least stops us from building the mound higher with our furious paddling.  And second, by taking a step back and observing the lake and the current, we may be able to see another path toward our goal that does not require fighting the mound-created wave.  

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.

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.