Mountain Yoga

Swami Paramananda Saraswati

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Note on Typography




This book was begun in October, 1983 while I was sitting in a tent pitched near a cave in the Colorado Rockies at an altitude of 12,000 feet. That winter I spent six months in isolation but wrote only twenty pages. I passed the following winter at the same place and didn't attempt a word. The serious business of writing began during the summer of 1985, when I brought a small, battery-operated computer to the cave and started recording my thoughts upon it.

The stereotype of a person who lives alone in the mountains is that of someone divorced from modern technology but, in fact, I live up here surrounded by a careful selection of the products of today's civilization. Even the ball-point pen, with which I attempted to write the first winter, is a sophisticated implement, which came into currency only in the second half of this century. I'm of the last generation of USA school children who came home each day with ink-stained fingers; even now, in less developed countries, children return from school with darkened extremities. Under harsh conditions, writing with a ball-point pen is certainly easier than writing with either ink or pencil, but I still found shaping the letters with cold fingers too difficult and too slow to keep up with my stream of thought. Once the computer came here, page after page flowed into its memory. My writing implements aren't essential to my survival, but I do owe my life to some thin layers of recently-developed synthetic fabrics. The tent in which I first began to write is a fine example of this.

Whenever I intend to pass a full winter here, I spend September carrying up my supplies and then try to get myself up before October's first hard storm. In 1983, I came for good on October 8, a clear day, and made it here in running shoes. The storm began the following day. The cave here that is my home, is the space under a huge boulder, about forty feet long. It's a good shelter in the summer and, once it's sealed by snow, in the winter. While the snow is building up, I must stay outside of it in my tent. Before the cave is sealed, snow drifts into it. If I were to move inside before it's tight, I could find myself buried in snow, with no place to shovel it away.

The boulders which enclose the cave are perched on a glacier-polished slab; there are few places to pitch a tent in its vicinity. Leading down from it on one side are a few grassy ledges. I picked a not unduly bumpy spot on one of these shelves to pitch the tent. It was positioned so the wind would have to turn a slight corner to reach me. Below it was enough of a drop so I would always have a place to toss the accumulating snow. The storm moved in quickly. About a foot of snow fell on the first day. Then the wind picked up and the tent fabric flapped wildly.

I had made the tent myself. It was high in the front and low in the rear and thus presented little profile to the wind. Every seam was triple stitched and every corner, reinforced. Its fly fit closely over it and was secured in many places. I find that the tent stretches when first erected after a period of storage; I did have to tighten the lines whenever I went outside. The storm was heavy enough so I couldn't stay out for long, only a few minutes each time, just enough to clear snow away and to answer nature's calls. The ledge I had selected did provide some cover from the wind. Every so often the windstream would shift upward and I would hear the wind howling above my head for a moment, until it would drop and hit me again.

The wind continued into the night. It generated noise that made it hard to fall asleep, but eventually I dozed off. When I awoke, near 3 A.M., the noise had abated, but the rear of the tent was buried in snow. The tent was sagging badly; I debated whether or not to go out and remove the weight from the tent. The sagging didn't seem critical; the wind still was blowing hard enough to make it difficult outside. I decided to sit in the tent until dawn. By then the wind was down; the hour it took to clear the tent was pleasant. At noon, the sun was out and I was standing naked in its warmth and was rubbing myself with snow.

The storm resumed the next day. The second night, the tent was completely buried yet it held the weight upon it. I went out in the dark to shovel. There was little wind so working outside in the dark went well. During a storm, even with a well-designed entrance tunnel, each time you go in and out of a tent like this some snow does get in. Good technique helps to minimize this. On the way out you must wait for a lull in the wind, then quickly spring through the tunnel door and immediately draw it shut. Getting back in is trickier. You must crouch at the doorway and wait until the wind gives you a chance. Then you must quickly brush the snow off of your clothing, pull the door open and dive inside. With practice, you learn the places where snow tends to stick to you, like the join of the mittens and the parka and the back of the neck, so you can rid yourself of most of the snow in a few seconds. At night it's harder to enter without bringing snow in with you. Furthermore, while clearing snow from a tent, in the dark you must exercise greater care not to rip it with the shovel.

To keep myself from slashing my tent, I've systematized my shoveling around it. First, I remove enough snow from the front of the tent so I can get back in. In a strong wind, all I need do is to flip the snow up in the air and let the wind carry it; otherwise I must aim it over the edge of the shelf. Then, on the downhill side of the tent, with sweeps of the shovel, I push the snow off the ledge. If the tent is buried, I must carefully brush the snow off this side of the tent and shove it over the edge. Once I've exposed the downhill side of the tent, I remove enough snow from the rear so I may step around and start work on the greater accumulations on the uphill side. I begin by pushing the snow that's resting on the tent over its ridge and onto the downhill side. If the snow is deep, I must circle back and clear the downhill side once more. Then, to remove the mass of snow on the uphill side, I must swing my shovel over the ridge of the tent and toss the snow far enough so it slides off the shelf. I must be careful not to strike the tent with force, especially as I approach the front poles where the apex of the tent is high and the space between the tent and the inside wall of the ledge is narrow. Against this wall, snow often piles above my head. How much I can shovel depends upon the weather; if it's bad I must content myself with removing the weight of snow bearing down on the tent. Before the storm let up, one night I went out twice to shovel. Then, from October 18 until the end of the month, no snow fell at all.

* * *
Mountaineering and yoga share much in common. Both lead from the ordinary to a higher realm. Those stuck in the ordinary are unable to comprehend either. Both mountaineers and yogis are considered strange, if not insane; both usually live as social outcasts.

Both mountaineers and yogis achieve a harmony with themselves. Mountaineering and yoga both have elaborate techniques but this harmony comes with the transcendence of technique. In mountaineering this happens when you cease in consciousness to be climbing this or that, to be making this move or that move, and enter a realm of pure climbing, taking each move in stride in a continuous stream of ascent and descent. This transcendence may come not only during the more difficult climbs, but during climbs of any level. Indeed, when a climber attempts something too difficult for himself, he's likely to be so involved in making the particular moves that he cannot achieve that state of climbing in itself. On the other hand, a trivial climb is unlikely to propel him into that state.

The yogi enters the state of absolute unity, the union of the individual soul with the Supreme Being. To this end, the yogi employs a variety of techniques, but in the end must transcend technique. Technique inherently involves doing and doership. In the state of absolute unity, nothing happens; nothing is done. The practices of yoga are self-annihilating endeavors, things to do that let the habitual doing of something and thinking of something, run its course and fade away. This transcendence is unlikely to be obtained through the practice of techniques too extreme or elaborate. On the other hand, it's unlikely to be reached by anyone lacking in dedication or irregular in practice.

Both mountaineering and yoga unmask Death. Society has constructed an elaborate mask for Death which prevents His being directly confronted or understood. In India's ancient epic, the Mahabharata, King Yudhisthira found himself confronted with the questions posed by a spirit guarding access to a body of water as would a sphinx. One of its final questions was, "What is (most) astonishing"?

King Yudhisthira replied, "Day after day beings are going from here to the realm of Death, yet all wish to stay behind." [Footnote 1] Though surrounded by dying creatures, nobody wishes to face the fact that he must die.

Society represents itself as the protector of man from Death and, by concealing Death, holds man in bondage. Nowhere is Death better hidden than in Western Society today. The sick and the dying are hospitalized and removed from view; within the hospitals the mention of Death is prohibited. Hospitals are promoted as places where people are cured, not as places where they die. The consent forms that patients must sign before surgery and other treatments are couched in statistical terms that make the treatment seem without alternative and also blur the likelihood of death, even though Death looms real. If one of the patients happens to die, he's covered and removed as quickly as possible lest he disturb the others. The mention of death as a possibility on a personal level is prohibited. A visitor can do little but wear that silly hospital smile and ask, "Are you feeling better now?"

The media present a continuous menu of death. Television news is a stream of wars, murders and natural disasters; many of the other programs consist of fictionalized versions of the same. Indeed, the two merge into one and Death loses His immediacy. Protected by the cathode ray tube, the viewer loses the perception of death as something that will happen to himself. Instead, death becomes something that strikes anonymous people far away and the flickering images on the screen.

Both mountaineers and yogis confront Death directly. Neither normally engage in anything particularly dangerous. Society presents some truly dangerous activities in which Death is neither confronted nor perceived. An example of this is automobile driving, the leading cause of death among our youth. The driver, sealed inside a sleekly styled vehicle, seated in cushioned comfort and enveloped by his favorite music rendered in stereo, lacks awareness of the imminence of Death. Even when an accident does occur, the events are so swift that the driver rarely gains insight into Death. If he survives, more often than not, he resumes his place behind the wheel without change in habit or attitude. After all, driving is a social necessity and, except in a few cities, a person without a car is both an economic and a social outcast.

Driving isn't the most dangerous activity that society has to offer. Boxing is legal and is promoted by powerful forces. Despite the efforts at sanitizing the sport, boxers do get killed. Boxers don't seem to possess any insight into Death. They enter the ring firmly convinced that Death strikes only others; the bouts are brief enough so they have insufficient time to realize otherwise. Society also offers us War, the grandest killer of all. Yet to the soldier, War is presented as a patriotic duty, and death becomes something to inflict upon the enemy, not to happen to yourself. Most soldiers pass through the battlefield without realizing Death's nature, but a few exceptional individuals, like Arjuna of the Bhagavad Gita, have learned the reality of Death through the path of War.

Both mountaineers and yogis take responsibility for their own death. This preemption of Society's role as the protector from Death makes both into outcasts. Assumption of responsibility, not exposure to risk, leads to knowledge of Death. The Russian Roulette player assumes a terrible risk, but rejects the responsibility; if he survives, he's unlikely to have advanced himself in the slightest. Merely to die is not to know Death. The mountaineer learns of Death through his continued and conscious survival, through realistically assessing the risks at every moment, and by making the moves calculated to bring him toward his goal, not his demise.

The yogi learns of Death by penetrating Death's very nature. Through introspection upon his own existence, he realizes the perishability of the body and ceases to identify himself as it, but identifies instead with the Supreme Being. Many specific yoga practices, from fasting to prolonged stoppages of the breath, induce states normally associated with Death or nearness to Death; experience with these reduces the fear of Death. Some yogis do their practice in cremation grounds; of these, the few who aren't just hanging around to garner gifts from the mourners are seeking, through witnessing the death of others, to confront their own. Ultimately, the yogi accepts his responsibility for his birth as well as his death and for every other aspect of his existence; this existence is nothing but a result of his own primordial attachment and desire. However, this assumption of responsibility for his death doesn't imply control over Death, for the body is governed by natural law and its end is inevitable.

Mountaineering and yoga are personal, solitary enterprises; whenever society attempts to organize either, the first thing it does is to hide the individual's responsibility for his death. In the National Parks, the government attempts to regulate climbing. It requires climbers to register before setting out, makes a judgment as to whether the proposed climb is sufficiently safe, and promises a rescue should the climbers fail to return on time. While this may appear to reduce the risk, by interfering with the climber's judgment, the risks may be enhanced. A party registered to do a certain climb, may, when they arrive on the spot, realize that they're better off doing another. However, if the climbs are in view, they may proceed with the first, simply to avoid trouble with the rangers. A party may come down under conditions when it would be better off staying put, just to head off a search or a rescue effort. A climber who wishes to do something prohibited, which he could normally do with minimal risk, may be forced to assume greater risks in order to remain undetected.

Climber's clubs have developed elaborate codes of acceptable conduct and technique that reduce the individual's exercise of judgment. I learned to rock climb at the Shawangunks of New York State in an environment dominated by such organizations. I'm grateful to them for what I learned and do agree that their codes enabled them to train large numbers of beginners at once without accidents. Yet, it wasn't until I left organized climbing and began to take responsibility for myself, that I realized the potential of climbing. The ultimate abdication of responsibility is guided climbing, in which the client places all the responsibility on the shoulders of the guide. The client becomes a piece of baggage to be negotiated along the route, and isn't expected to exercise any initiative or judgment. In all these instances Death is transformed from a real potential to be seen, met and managed to a hidden menace, feared and unchallenged.

When society organizes yoga, it contrives its own concealments of Death. In the West, Death is often hidden through group practice. How can you focus on the imminence of Death when everyone is sitting in a circle, holding hands and chanting together? The challenge of Death must be met on your own. In India, the wandering mendicants lead a precarious existence, unsure of where they'll get their next meager meal, uncertain of receiving attention if ill. With faith in the Lord they pursue their practices under the eye of Death, with the knowledge of a reality surpassing Death Himself. On the other hand, Indian society has fostered numerous temples and ashrams to which an aspirant may retreat and live in relative security. While engaging himself in some simple rituals, he may act as councilor to the rest of society and give assurance to others that merely by practicing a few rituals (including, of course, financial support for the temple or ashram) there's nothing to fear in life or death.

Not all monasteries are havens of security. Life in some of them, particularly in the Zen tradition, is meticulously orchestrated chaos. The student is dealt an endless series of blows to the mind that are specially designed to wake him to reality; if his mind falls asleep or becomes too dull to appreciate them, he may even receive a blow to the body. However, such monasteries are the rare exception in organized religious life; the wielders of the stick are more likely to be petty tyrants than enlightened masters.

The techniques of both mountaineering and yoga enable you to survive long enough in the face of Death to realize Death's nature. I employ the techniques of mountaineering to survive in an environment especially conducive to practicing yoga. From the mountaineering point of view, I do nothing noteworthy. I spend most of the day sitting; only on milder afternoons, do I attempt an ascent to the rim of the cirque where I dwell. Instead of rising to the challenge of the mountains and tackling them on whatever terms they set, I lie in wait until the skies open and the peaks humble themselves before me. Furthermore, when I do venture far on a marginal day, I'm more likely to be motivated by the wish to transport a mouse a respectable distance from my cave before releasing him, than by mountaineering fervor. The morning is the key time both for mountaineering and for yoga; that time I reserve for yoga. As a rule, the yogi doesn't waste his time acquiring new skills, but applies the abilities that he already has to achieve his goal. The musician turned yogi sings praises to God; the doctor turned yogi heals the poor; I, the mountaineer turned yogi, hole myself up in an isolated cave for the winter.

The technique I employ to survive, the mountaineer's technique of synthetic fabric and alloyed metals, isn't the only technique for mountain survival. The yogis of the Himalayas, especially those of Tibet, have developed techniques of body control which enable them to withstand severe cold with little or no protection for their bodies. Both techniques have the same end, freeing the consciousness from concern with the external environment so it may turn inward toward the soul. Both are traps, for preoccupation with technique may occlude the goal. Both are mere auxiliaries to the practice of yoga. Times and circumstances determine which technique is more expedient to employ. In my case, the mountaineer's technique was already known; learning another technique would have meant an unnecessary detour of indefinite duration. Similarly, it would have been foolhardy for the Himalayan yogis to have waited for the advent of synthetic fabrics instead of having developed their own, self-contained techniques.

A certain resistance to extremes of temperature can be developed just by carefully monitoring the body. For example, in Nepal, it's customary to greet a guest with hot tea, usually served in a metal tumbler. When I first arrived in Nepal, I would be given tea that had just been carried all the way across the room, often by a small child. When the tea would be placed in my hand, I would recoil from the heat and either drop it or else barely manage to set it down. After a number of embarrassments, I realized that handling the hot tea entailed not clutching the glass but grasping it gently. With practice, I was able to carry hot tea and to lift boiling pots from the fire with the ease of the Nepalis. Later, when I was in India among people who didn't know this technique, my handling of hot pots was seen as yogic adeptness. A similar lightness of touch enables me to handle cold objects without mittens for longer than I would otherwise be able to do. Lightness of contact is also essential to climbing. Beginners exhaust themselves by clutching to holds while experienced climbers use only the minimal force needed to hang on. If less energy is expended in holding on, more is available for moving higher. Yoga is the art of living lightly in the world. If the energy spent for survival is minimized, more energy may be directed to the spiritual goal. Although I can see how lightness of touch can be cultivated through long practice to enable you to walk on fire or bear extreme cold, I have no need of learning either technique.

The object of both yoga and mountaineering is the Beyond, not the technique. Because the Beyond is inexpressible in words, writings on both speak mostly of technique. When the yogi enters his realm Beyond, he does nothing, experiences nothing, thinks of nothing; any concept or category that may be put forth is inherently of the ordinary world, not of the Beyond. The distinction between It and the unconscious states of swoon and dreamless sleep is that in the state Beyond, the yogi maintains an awareness of it all. Since this fails to make for fascinating prose, writings on yoga tell about the preliminaries to the Beyond, in the hope that the reader, while disappointed that he isn't being told about the Beyond, may make the moves that increase the likelihood of his stumbling upon It himself.

Neither yoga nor mountaineering can be learned through books alone, but require guidance from a competent teacher. For either, practice without guidance is truly dangerous and may well lead to death before accomplishment. This isn't to say that writings are worthless. At the outset, anyone wishing to pursue either mountaineering or yoga has no means of judging whether a teacher is competent; reading a few books may save him from the worst. Once the basics have been learned from a teacher, books are useful sources of supplementary instruction which may elucidate points that the teacher has neglected, or that weren't fully understood at the time of instruction. They can provide information on additional techniques, relevant to those being employed. In presenting this book, I don't expect people to head for isolation in the mountains in the winter, but I would hope that some will grasp the essential points behind the particular techniques I employ, and apply them to their situation at hand.

* * *
October has greeted me with some spectacular storms, but it's not entirely storm. It also has days of warmth and sun, although by the end of the month, the sun rises above the rim of the cirque for only three hours. The final two weeks of October 1983 were without a flake of snow. The first thing I did was to dig a tunnel through the snow to the spring beside the cave. There the snow was eight feet deep; I started tunneling ten feet away. On the second day of digging, I reached the spring only to find it dry. During the preceding storms, I had obtained my water by melting snow, a time and fuel consuming process. I never had any illusions that the spring would flow all winter, but I did have hopes that it would last part of the time. I would have had to keep extending the tunnel to it, but as long as it might have lasted, it would have been a valuable asset.

Those sunny early afternoons weren't really for burrowing in the snow, but for walking around and appreciating the environs. A few days later, on one such stroll, I happened to pass an unlikely source of water, a spring-fed, oversized puddle roughly twelve feet long and three feet wide, which curled about the base of a boulder about two hundred yards down from the cave. Since I had noticed water there on my walk in, I decided to investigate. The wind had swept the snow off some ice around the base of the boulder; I began chopping with my ice axe. After cutting through four inches of ice, I broke through to eight inches of water. This water was a treasured resource. Besides liquid for cooking and drinking, it provided water for bathing and laundering. On a calm day with strong sun, I can get clean by rubbing myself with snow, but this is a laborious process, not nearly as effective as a water bath. On milder mornings, I would fill some plastic jugs with water, leave them out in the sun to take the edge off of their cold, and then at midday, strip down and dump them over my head. As the days went on, the water level sank. Soon I was cutting through five inches of ice to seven inches of water, then through six inches of ice to six inches of water. On the October 30, the water had a stagnant look; I did my wash that day. On the first of November, I broke through the ice to find the puddle dry.

Although it became warm during the few hours that the sun surmounted my elevated horizon, October at the cave was truly the beginning of winter. Once the sun disappeared behind the rim, the temperature rapidly dropped to freezing; the nighttime lows were on either side of twenty. In the forest, a thousand feet lower, winter wasn't so far advanced. During the day, updrafts from below carried winged insects of every description, from mosquitoes to moths to species I had never noticed before. The surface of the snow would become strewn with insects struggling to make their last moves before dying. They would congregate in sheltered places. My footprints in the snow would fill with insects taking advantage of a depression's tendency to concentrate the sun's radiance. Insects that discovered the gap between my tent and its fly would stay to enjoy its warmth. As long as the sun beamed upon it, this narrow space would be full of flying, crawling, buzzing and hovering beings, who would die soon after the sun stopped heating the tent. They would often expire clinging to the fabric and would remain attached to it until a wind arose strong enough to shake them off. There the universe, which is everywhere permeated by unapparent Death, was openly pervaded by visible Death. I, whose intrusion into this environment gave these creatures an extension of life, was made to witness them in death.

In tunneling to the spring, I was motivated not only by the prospect of water, but also by the opportunity to make myself a shelter where I could take refuge, just in case conditions turned really bad before the cave was sealed. What I failed to appreciate was how rapidly new snow settles. At first I had made myself a seemingly ample hollow in the snow only to find that within a week it had condensed to a space in which I could barely sit straight. I kept scraping at the roof for more room but couldn't go too high without breaking through. Thus I shifted my effort to walling off the entrance to the cave, but by then, there was insufficient snow at the mouth of the cave to work with.

In November, it began to snow once more. The first days of snow were light, but by the second week, it started in earnest. Again I had nights of going outside the tent to shovel. My first impulse was to improve my tunnel system around the spring by digging up into the fresh snow, but each new snow would pack down the old. Although the tunnel space was livable, it was never really adequate. I began to concentrate on closing the cave. The snows came hard. Most of the time the wind kept the snow from becoming too deep around the tent, but on the night of November 17, two feet of light snow fell without a trace of wind. That night I went out twice to shovel; in the morning snow was still falling. I knew that with this much loose powder around, even a modest wind would put me in trouble. The mouth of the cave was already sealed, but I hadn't yet been able to dig an adequate tunnel to it. I had had grand designs of connecting the cave to the tunnel system that I had been building to the spring, but conditions were already such that I had to move in. I made a provisional tunnel into the cave and moved my gear from the tent into it. Then I must have spent about two hours digging through deep snow to uncover the frozen pegs so I could recover my tent intact. I set up the tent inside the cave and was secure. The following weeks were stormy. I lost the entrance to the tunnels around the spring and never did have a chance to connect them to the tunnel leading to the cave.


1. Mahabharata, Vanaparva 313,116. [Return]

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