“In Indian and yogic philosophy, samskaras are the mental impressions left by all thoughts, actions and intents that an individual has ever experienced.They can be thought of as psychological imprints.They are below the level of normal consciousness and are said to be the root of all impulses, as well as our innate dispositions.
Through yogic practices, such as meditation, it is possible to look within and come into contact with one’s inner samskaras, below the threshold of consciousness…” https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/5748/samskara
The New Year is so often equated with the idea of a new YOU! The New Year is like an immersion, a kick-start, a time when we look to break with what we define as our bad habits and look to create what we define as good habits. As yogis, we are looking for freedom from our habits. Our goal is to be present and non-reactive, to be able to say YES or NO.
“The yogi wants to get off the merry-go-round of cause and effect” – BKS Iyengar
We want to let go of our ego mind and release that which keeps us trapped in past patterns or ruts. We want to better control our memory.
Do you remember when you first started to practice yoga and what you learned about your body? Did you find your body moved in habitual ways? Even today, my right foot/leg/hip has a mind of its own, always externally rotating slightly when I’m not paying attention or staying in the present with my practice. How about your breath? When the teacher asked you to breathe deep into your belly, did you notice any tension? Maybe even emotion?
I grew up thinking I was never thin enough (and am still working this old habit/pattern/way of thinking) and spent years sucking in my stomach to create a flatter belly. The first time a yoga teacher asked me to inhale deeply and feel my lower belly expand, I not only felt panic but I couldn’t do it. And then, when she said place your hands on your belly and feel the movement, there was nothing. I’m surprised I ever went back. It took some time, but I eventually broke the habit of always sucking in my belly.
Asana, the word we use for posture in yoga, like Tadasana – Mountain Pose, actually means “to sit”. This hearkens back to the time of sitting in meditation. Today, a more modern interpretation would be “to sit with”. Your yoga teacher might often use phrases like: “sit with this feeling or sensation” or “sit with what you notice without trying to change it”. Yoga is an opportunity to watch/sit with what is happening in this moment and the next and the next. There is no rush, no need to do anything. We can just watch and accept without trying to change it. My tag line – “guiding students in compassion, patience, acceptance and permission” stems from this idea of “sitting with”. By being with our thoughts, feeling and emotions and watching them, we can create a sense of freedom.
The freedom we are looking for comes from the practice of awareness. Every yoga posture we do, pranayama we practice or time we sit on our cushion, is an opportunity to cultivate this awareness and to sit with/watch where our habits, thoughts, ideas and judgments come from.
“Threads we hold together that become a tangled mess” – Anne Dillard
Our mind holds onto our past experiences, our likes and dislikes and is constantly retrieving and feeding us information to make decision. If something feels uncomfortable, say a particular yoga posture, our mind feeds us a story and we respond in kind. Most probably we move away from the pose if it is uncomfortable. The sensation or thought we had gets translated as DUKKHA or suffering. When we don’t like something or if a situation, person, or place causes us what we define as discomfort we lay down another tack in our mind confirming that assessment.
These “tracks” are what we call SAMSKARAS.
“They influence the way we think and move, the way we act and breathe and even the basic conditioning of the respiratory system, nervous system, immune function and all the subtle operational systems of the body.” – Michael Stone.
Because of these tracks, everything we do in this moment is biased by our mental, emotional and physical memories, experiences and interactions from our past. Typically these biases are only reinforced because we lean into and choose what feels good, comfortable and familiar. We stay away from anything that causes discomfort, distress or dukkha (suffering). Everything from our past influences our present and future and we constantly reinforce our habits.
A week ago I wrote about my desire to work with the concept of “good enough” this year. Somewhere in my past, over and over again, I got the idea that I had to always be better, good enough wasn’t enough. I want to change this samskara.
The good news is that we can change our samskaras. Negative samskaras can be replaced with positive ones (sounds like bad habits can be replaced with good habits doesn’t it?). I’m sure you’ve heard this story before. You probably have also heard it takes time. BKS Iyengar uses the metaphor of a still lake that has mounds of our good and bad samskaras at the bottom. Every time something happens that triggers our bad habit and we respond to it, the mound at the bottom of the lake gets bigger. However, if we replace it with a positive habit or thought, the mound gets smaller.
Becoming aware of our patterns or habitual ways of being and doing is the first step in reconditioning and changing our samskaras.
We do this with practice and the use of our intelligence – BUDDHI MIND or witnessing. Because yoga, pranayama and meditation often create what we call CHALANA (churning or controlled disturbance) it is a perfect practice for “sitting with” sensation or discomfort and being able to discern between what is real and what is false. If we stay with the moment or the sensation without allowing the mind (and its memory) and ego to intercede, we can begin to fill in the cracks or lessen the mound and change our habits.
Mind and memory automatically make assignments. Intelligence asks questions, inquires and compares. We aren’t looking to necessarily repeat our past but are looking to move forward, grow and release our habitual ways of being, doing and thinking that don’t serve us staying in the present. Intelligence is in every part of our body. If we just pay attention and become conscious, we would wake up.
Intelligence tries to see things as they are without the influence of mind and memory which keeps us tethered to our old ways.
Ultimately, we are looking for discrimination, the ability to say YES or NO, not just falling on old habits and samskaras.
Take a look at your New Year’s Resolution(s) again. What habits or patterns can you become aware of and/or change to lay down the new tracks you are looking for?