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.  

Early Experiments with breath

I began my routine of practicing asana every morning, and it brought me a terrific confidence and equanimity.  But within a few months, that strong, stable feeling began to slip away — my practice had became more rote, but more importantly, the asana was not enough to compensate for the stress of my work or for other bad habits like sleeping too little, eating too much, and drinking too much alcohol.

For the first of many times I realized: asana is not enough.

So I bought some more books, including Iyengar’s Light on Life, and began working on practicing the yamas and niyamas.  But I also bought a fantastic book that really transformed my practice and my understanding of yoga: The Yoga of Breath by Richard Rosen.

yoga of breath

I encourage everyone everywhere to buy this book and read it many times 🙂

But when you start digging into it, go to the end of the book where there is a suggested schedule for working through the book to develop a pranayama practice.  The schedule gives you a daily practice and ends up taking almost a year to get through all of the lessons in the book.

So I followed the schedule and practiced each lesson in the book — working through it took nearly a full year.  When I finished, I practiced on my own for a few months, and then I started at the beginning of the book again and this time worked through the book in about 6 months.

Since the first day working with the book, I have had a daily practice of pranayama.  I practice pranayama after my asana practice every morning.  I generally set a timer for 12 or 15 minutes and work through a few different pranayama breaths in each session.

The results of this experiment were very favorable.  I can feel a very noticeable difference in my mood all day long after practicing pranayama: it promotes a calmness, confidence and equanimity.  It also gives you a practice you can turn to any time during the day when stress or anger or uncertainty appears: when pranayama is ingrained in your life it becomes easy to immediately turn inward and begin an ujayii breath or a hum-sah mantra and return to a place of equanimity.

I found some surprising results of pranayama practice too.  Since childhood I have been plagued with hiccups when eating very spicy food.  More seriously, I have a heart issue called paroxysmal atrial tachycardia (PAT), which causes my heart to race up to over 200 beats per minute for minutes or hours at a time.  The PAT episodes have occurred since I was 7 years old very occasionally — sometimes monthly, sometimes only a couple of times a year.

After practicing pranayama daily for a few months, I got hiccups and instead of trying other remedies, I closed my eyes and began deep ujayii breathing.  My hiccups went away.  Since that day I have consistently been able to rid myself of hiccups quickly and easily with pranayama.

More importantly, I have almost always been able to stop a PAT very quickly using a deep ujayii breath.  I recall clearly the first time it happened after I had been practicing pranayama daily for 9 months.  I was in a recording session with a band I played in during law school, and I felt the PAT begin.  I sat down on a chair, closed my eyes, and engaged my breath, and the PAT went away.  Since then, I have nearly always been able to stop a PAT this way.

The “Life-Saving Sequence” of Krishnamacharya – save your life in 15 minutes :)

Krishnamacharya was one amazing dude.  He was a yogi and professor of vedanta who taught the two most influential yoga teachers in the west, Patthabi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar.

I’ve seen a couple of documentaries on him and have one book about him. I encourage you to look him up, at least on YouTube.

One documentary includes interviews wiht his son and daughter.  The daughter explained how in his later life, Krishnamacharya developed what he called the “life-saving sequence” to be performed daily.  It is very short and when I saw it I thought I could easily add it to my routine as a nighttime sequence.  Here is my transcription – if anybody reads this and has a correction to this please let me know:

  1. Matsyasana for 3 long breaths
  2. Cobra for 3 long breaths. Concentrate on the middle of the eyebrows starting with eyes closed then opening.
  3. Shoulder stand  for 6 breaths. Concentrate on the throat.
  4. Great seal – maha mudra – each side, for 3 long breaths? (I do this one with Kumbhaka (Breath Retention) after each breath)
  5. Paschimotanasana
  6. Then sit concentrating on the heart.  I fold my palms and breathe for a few minutes.

Now you are ready for bed — and apparently, your life has been saved!

Experiment result: Asana is not enough!

Following my initial successes practicing yoga daily and becoming mindful about my consumption, I had been feeling the most confident and happy in years in the fall of 2007.  But it all kind of fell apart in December and January: I was still doing yoga asanas and pranayama every morning started regularly feeling angry and upset, gained 10 lbs, and got sick for the first time in over a year.

Part of this was situational stress caused by a private medical issue in my family.  But I noticed something else: I had stopped focusing on pracicing the yamas and niyamas.  Once I started that practice again, my mood and my health drastically improved.

So this was a simple experiment that taught be that simply doing pranayama and asana is not enough to make me healthy and happy.  I absolutely have to work on nonviolence, compassion, continence and moderation as well – all of the yamas and niyamas.