There is a human behavior that lies beneath our conscious awareness producing the effect, ‘same thing, different day.’ In the world of yoga this is known by the Sanskrit term Samskara. Samskaras are subconscious imprints. They may be considered habituated behavior and offer a revealing look at what repeated things we do that are beneficial and repeated things we do that are detrimental.
A Samskara is like when you get a scratch on a vinyl record causing a skip in your favorite song. It may be that at first the skip only occurs every once and a while, but because it’s your favorite song you play it a lot and eventually there’s a skip in that same place on the vinyl record every time you play the song. The repeated skipping of the record player needle continues to reinforce and deepen the scratch in the vinyl.
For those that remember listening to vinyl before the advent of digital music you may recall a desperate attempt to save a scratched record. By placing a penny on top of the needle of the record player there was hope that the old rut from the scratch would be overridden by a new groove. The metaphor extends to any repeated action we would like to change. The scratch represents a Samskara and the penny represents awareness.
Awareness is necessary as a catalyst for change. Without awareness conditioned patterns will continue. Recognition of a Samskara leads to an awareness of repeated pattern that will continue unless change is implemented. To change Samskaras awareness is the key.
In physical yoga practice Samskaras can come in many forms. In some cases there may be an aberrant alignment pattern in a particular yoga posture that practiced repeatedly could cause a repetitive strain injury or wear and tear from poor articulation in a skeletal joint. In other cases a more general pattern of over-trying or aggressive yoga practice can lead to problems including injury, ego-driven practice, or even a dare-devil attitude causing reckless decisions and unnecessary risk.
Samskaras can be positive or negative in that some things we do in automatic pilot mode are beneficial. When we recognize a negative Samaskara, a conscious effort for change can create a new positive Samskara over time. After enough repetition with awareness as the catalyst for change there is no longer the need to concentrate effort since the new Samskara gets written into behavior.
One of the most relevant examples I have read about changing negative Samskaras to positive Samskaras can be found in Nicolai Backman’s book, ‘The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga.’ “The process can be applied to manipulating our own heart-mind toward yoga. For example, you notice yourself criticizing others without even thinking about it. You want to become less critical and more understanding, so you set an intention to do so. Every time you notice yourself actively criticizing someone, you immediately stop yourself and replace your criticism with kind constructive words. Over time, as you criticize less and speak positively more often, the harmful habit will fade as the helpful habit strengthens.” (p. 52)
By practicing yoga we may learn to break the pattern of Samskara in physical postures, but the bigger picture lies in the effect this will have on our overall way of thinking. Backman goes on to say, “Yoga is about opening ourselves to improvement and new ideas, rather than remaining stuck in the closed loops of deep subconscious patterns” (p. 53). When you perform yoga postures consider changing some of your instinctual behavior from an ego-driven practice, and instead think about detailing the pose with care for proper alignment and quality of breathing. The impact of simple changes can heal the body and the heart.