Every person behaves based on their experiences, and the beliefs that were formed as a result of those experiences. Meaning, our interpretation of any experience dictates our life moving forward. In yoga, these mental imprints on our soul and our psyche are called samskaras—psychological grooves formed from a particularly memorable experience. Samskaras can be healthy and unhealthy. If an experience stays with us, and we form a belief because of that experience, we have created a samskara. Once attached to the belief, we will continue to reinforce and behave within that samskara, keeping it alive, keeping it real, and deepening the groove. Negative samskaras seem more difficult to overcome than positive ones.
Someone may have made us feel unworthy, or bad at public speaking, or terrible in relationships. These are stories as a result of an unhealed, or unacknowledged, past. People-pleasing, addictions, low self esteem, or dysfunctional relationships can all result from unhealed samskaras. The tricky part about samskaras is that we are not conscious when they are formed; therefore, we accept our samskaras as truth.
In fact, we feel more comfortable when our beliefs are reinforced, even if unhealthy, so we seek out people and situations which validate our view of the world. Experiences do not have to be dramatic in order to create an unhealthy samskara—they only have to be memorable for our body. Many samskaras are formed when we shut down our feelings around an experience, like with trauma or loss. If the emotion feels "too big," our body will push it away. Without being felt, without space to move, the experience gets stuck. If you have experienced trauma, it is likely that the experience has formed a samskara. In yoga, samskaras are not good or bad, right or wrong. They are a natural part of being human. The reason yoga focuses on the concept of samskara is because it is with compassion and curiosity that we can be free from our past experience; we don't need to carry the residue of our past with us into the present. It is by tuning into sensations in the body, and allowing ourself to feel, that we can observe many of our thought processes. It is with a non-judgmental look at ourself that we can start to heal.
While we will be affected by life, people, and things that happen to us, we do not need to let someone's words or actions define who we are, how we see ourself, or how we see the world.
To me, this is a very freeing thought. We do not have to be at the mercy of life. If samskaras are so deeply engrained, how do we know what they are? And if we don't know what they are, how can we change them? Let's look at some qualities of samskaras, which may help you recognize their role in your life.
- Samskaras cycle and repeat—over days, years, or lifetimes. A samskara is formed when we attach an experience to a belief or behavior. For example, food equals comfort. Possessiveness equals love. Money means greed. The way a samskara stays alive is by repetition. Do you always date the same "type" of person and therefore have the same issues in your relationships? Is there a question you are always asking, like, "Why does this keep happening to me?" Repeated patterns in your life that you want to be rid of might be pointing to a samskara that longs to be healed.
- Samskaras can turn into addictions. If we are using something outside ourself to cope, the constant avoiding and numbing can easily turn into a physical addiction. Alcohol, drugs, and food are a few ways we can shove away our experience. Deep mental imprints can actually shift our chemical make-up when we develop a physical dependency as a result of an emotional experience.
- Samskaras feel safe. Our beliefs, whether true or not, orient us in the world and make us feel comfortable. Whether healthy or unhealthy, supportive or damaging, we cling to them. We are comfortable in the pattern because it is familiar, and it gives us a sense of control and manageability, especially if we have grown up in chaos, fear, or the unknown.
- Samskaras want to be reinforced. We want to be right! We want to have control! These expectations are human nature; we generally don't appreciate surprises or the unknown. As a result, experiences throughout our life that reinforce our core beliefs are more memorable than experiences that point out an exception. Once the samskara is formed, we notice the people and experiences that deepen the groove, and we overlook times that make us question our reality.
Here are 6 steps to begin exploring your samskaras:
- Samkaras need light. Noticing a pattern or behavior you want to be rid of is the first step. To heal a Samskara, we must first bring it into awareness, which involves a brave look inside ourself. Breath, yoga, and tuning into sensations, all help to illuminate the samskara. When I began practicing yoga regularly in order to get through a challenging personal time, I noticed that experiences from long ago were all of a sudden right there in my awareness, as emotions and knowings. It felt like I hadn't moved on at all. A compassionate yoga practice focused on cultivating the witness opens us up to feeling those experiences that were once pushed away. We start to look where we once could not engage. Light on the wound is like light at the end of a dark tunnel.
- Undoing samskaras requires different choices. Once we allow an experience to come into our awareness, we open ourself up to new possibilities. At one point in my life I got so fed up with dating people who continued to hurt me and let me down, that I decided my choices in a partner must be flawed. If I was drawn to a certain "type," I decided to choose the opposite. I remained open. I looked at my beliefs about love and questioned every single one of them. What does love look like? Who makes me feel loved and how do they treat me? Why do I have amazing friends and less-than-amazing lovers? By starting to look at the patterns, and by staying curious about my beliefs around love, I was able to arrive at some powerful insights about my understanding of a romantic partner. You can get curious about your beliefs in order to change a behavior, or you can change a behavior to learn more about your beliefs. Samskaras hold less power when we start to try new ways.
- Be ready for resistance, from yourself and others. All of our behaviors and beliefs have been accepted by everyone we interact with. They have been accepted by us as truth—it is scary to let them go! Family and friends might question your new attitude or new behavior. YOU might feel unsettled or annoyed at first. Your mind will start to tell you it's not working or it's not worth it. Move through resistance. Know that discomfort as you get curious, stay open, and try something new, is part of progress. After enough practice, resistance will dissipate and your new pattern will feel more natural.
- Samskara in yoga also means, "rite of passage." Meaning, when we heal our samskaras, or are at least brave enough to shine a light on them, we will be transformed. By making different choices, we shift our entire reality. Each time you observe a craving without acting, you are changing your brain and your physical dependency. Each time you observe an old pattern or belief and call it out, you are shaping your character and opening yourself up to new possibilities. Choices mean freedom. No longer are you stuck in false beliefs that have been dictating your life circumstance. We may be sad or uncomfortable when something familiar feels like it is going away, but instead of looking at your healing as a punishment, or as a loss, see it as a doorway to a new way of life.
- Healing is about progress, not perfection.
Healing samskaras happens as a result of the culmination, not doing it right upon the first attempt and forever after that. In fact, missteps, setbacks, and times you screw up are also part of the process. Slipping back into an old belief or behavior does not mean your efforts will not be successful. It only means that you are trying, and you are gaining valuable self-awareness as you go. When we try to let go of a bad habit, or shift a well-traversed belief, we will undoubtedly be faced with many opportunities to practice. What seemed like a minor problem at first may appear worse before you get the hang of it. You might notice that the critical voice is very loud—you had no idea how much you talked down to yourself. Set-backs do not mean you should give up. Mistakes do not mean anything is lost. Keep going. Perfection is not necessary to heal. But staying without judgment is.
- Start with one small thing. I started by quitting drinking; I knew it had turned into an addiction because my body craved it. I had terrible withdrawal symptoms when I stopped, and it was bringing everything down in my life. I started with this one thing (the most glaring thing) and over time, I learned how much my addiction had control over my entire life and my sense of self. Without alcohol, other emotions and experiences arrived and crashed into me. The undoing made me want to shine a light on everything. Every belief, every behavior, every pattern, all of it was on the chopping block—did this serve me, or did I want to be free? Start with one thing. You can't make a wrong choice. Most samskaras point to a bigger belief, like unworthiness or the need to prove. Be patient and know that one wound has the power to heal all the others.
My favorite part about healing samskaras is that as soon as you make the choice, as soon as you commit, the Universe shows up to help. During times when we are facing the unknown and moving forward anyway, when we are fully trusting in ourself, we receive all the support we need. As long as you keep showing up, as long as you keep moving forward, you will be introduced to the right people and situations. You will feel connected and not alone. You will begin to believe in something greater than yourself, because you will feel guided and held. You can play with this energy—the Universe loves that. Ask for signs. Acknowledge your fears. Ask for help. Be open to taking new routes to work or saying yes to different opportunities. Just because healing is hard work and takes discipline doesn't mean we can't have fun along the way.
Each time I have decided to burn a letter, drop a habit, or examine a belief, that exact lesson or pattern shows up. I am confronted with my choice, as if the Universe is asking me, "Are you sure? Really really sure??"
Be sure. Trust yourself. Be ready for a test, and commit. You deserve to be free.