One of the great benefits of a regular yoga practice is cultivating the ability to witness our minds. When we are able to drop into a quiet place in ourselves where we can watch our minds at work, we start to notice it’s habitual patterns. With clear vision, we can determine which of these patterns are serving us and which are holding us back.
The Sanskrit word samskara is a mental impression left on the mind when a thought or action is performed over and over. Our modern colloquialism for this is a habit. Our habits, good and bad, affect every aspect of our lives, from the way we care for our homes and our bodies, to our relationships with loved ones, to- perhaps most importantly- our relationship with ourselves. This is why it is important to be aware of them. If we can be wise observers, samskaras -helpful and unhelpful alike- will reveal themselves for what they are and we can start taking control of our lives and making better choices.
One way to remember the word samskara is to think of a “scar.” Just as a small stream of water continuously flowing over a rock will eventually leave an impression, transforming the rock over time, a thought or action performed over and over will leave an impression on the mind, creating habitual tendencies. The more the habit is performed, the deeper the scar. Without awareness, we can lug harmful samskaras from childhood around with us everyday without being aware of them, or, as a yogi would say, even for multiple lifetimes.
On the yoga mat, we enter a state of observation as we move through the asanas, and from that place we can notice samskaras on the physical level: do I have a tendency to sink into my shoulders in Down Dog? Do I always go for the hardest variation of a pose no matter what? Or the easiest? Becoming aware of the tendencies of our bodies helps us to practice becoming aware of the tendencies of our minds.
We have a natural negativity bias built into to our limbic brains to protect us from danger, but without awareness it can get out of control and is often at the root of unhelpful samskaras. Have you ever caught yourself repeating negative thoughts or obsessive worries continuously in your own mind? When our mind is distracted we may not even notice this loop of negativity. We are especially vulnerable to this when tired or stressed. This can manifest as a tendency to snap at our partner or child. Or to get angry when the F train is delayed. Or to snack on junk food when we aren’t actually hungry. These are common habits that can throw us into a rut, making life more difficult. When we pause to bring awareness to the mind, we have the opportunity to see what’s happening inside our heads and the deep work of self-awareness begins. Over time, this enables better relationships with ourselves, our families and our communities and ultimately we can live a more peaceful, easeful life.
As the season turns from hot, languid summer to brisk, busy fall this is an excellent time to observe and assess our samskaras, strengthening the helpful ones and shedding the unhelpful. Easier said than done, I know. But we’re not striving for perfection, because among other things, it’s impossible! Samskaras are part of being human. As the great meditation teacher Tara Brach says, it’s the two wings of self-awareness and self-compassion that enable transformation. Just as in meditation -where your goal is to bring your mind back to the breath when it wanders, not for it never to wander- your goal here is keep bringing awareness to your habits and tendencies. Equally important, when you slip into an unconscious habit, offer yourself forgiveness and encouragement, just as you would to a beloved child.
As we compassionately observe our flawed and extraordinary selves, with steady effort, over time, we create new positive samskaras that are more powerful than the old ones that don’t serve us. At this point, we are no longer getting dragged around by life circumstances or unconscious thoughts. We are making deliberate choices. We are waking up. We are taking hold of our lives.