We are undeniably, creatures of habit. We tend to gravitate toward what is comfortable and familiar even if it no longer serves us. It is a part of being human. Your life today is the sum of your habits. How fit are you? How happy? How much yoga do you practice? – all a result of your habits. Want to change any of that? Do a quick google search and you will find a plethora of books on how to form habits and how to break them. Even yoga philosophy addresses this intriguing aspect of our human existence. According to yoga philosophy, not only do we form habits throughout our life, we are born with certain karmic conditioning that influences our mental and emotional habits – called Samskara.
The word Samskara comes from two Sanskrit words, sam = same, complete, joined together, and kara = action, cause or doing. The meaning of the word points to the understanding that the repetition of our thoughts, behaviors, and actions becomes our conditioning. The more we repeat any Samskara the stronger and more engrained it becomes. Samskaras can be positive, and help propel us forward in our evolution, or they can be negative, get in the way of our evolution, and even be destructive or life threatening.
Often Samskaras go unnoticed, quietly and unconsciously guiding our thoughts and behaviors until we bring our attention to them. Our Samskaras even sneak into our yoga practice with us. There’s a saying that the way we do anything is the way we do everything and this is also true on the yoga mat. Do you ever find yourself on auto pilot going through a class until the teacher says something about your posture or offers you an assist that brings you out of a habit? You know it was a habit because the new way feels different or even uncomfortable, yet you sense a part of you waking up and turning on. That is precisely how we begin to transform Samskaras and why yoga practice is such a powerful tool for doing so.
The physical practice of yoga helps us gain understanding and insight through the body. When physical practice is combined with the underlying philosophy of yoga there is great synergy that fuels transformation of the mind – creating change on the level of thought and emotion. One of the greatest gifts of yoga is heightened awareness and the capacity to see ourselves clearly. If we realize that aspects of what we see are outdated or harmful we can take steps to create change and even replace old ways of being with new positive Samskaras.
Translated the word Sankalpa means seed. In order for a plant to grow first there is a seed placed in fertile soil. The same is true of transforming our habits. First we must plant the seeds of change. Our practice is like the fertile soil that brings the seed to fruition. Identify what you want to change. Is it a negative habit that is getting in the way? A positive habit you want to create or nurture? Perhaps both? Sit quietly and set the intention to create change. Place your thoughts and awareness completely on this intention and bless it with the purity of your heart
Tapas means heat or austerity. This is the fire that burns bright enough to propel you forward. Change requires discipline and focus. It is easy to fall back into what is comfortable and familiar. Tapas is the friction necessary to overcome resistance and continue no matter what. It might mean getting up earlier in the morning to ensure you get your practice in, or watching less tv so you have time to meditate. If your inner fire is strong you will stay the course. And every time you resist the temptation to rely on the old pattern you make the new pattern stronger, building a reserve of tapas for the future.
Shani means slowness. Habits are triggered by a stimulus which creates a response. The time between stimulus and response can be split seconds, which is why habits become so unconscious. When we practice slowing down we build time into the stimulus response equation. A moment of pause can provide time to make a different choice. Think about how much more awareness you have when you move slowly in your yoga practice. While it is often harder to move slow there is more reward as you listen intently to your inner wisdom and make conscious decisions that support your wellness.
Slowing down enhances Vidya or awareness. This is perhaps the most key (and most annoying 😉) phase of habit change. In order to transform something we have to be aware of what it is that needs transforming. From the yoga perspective, lack of awareness or Avidya is the root of all suffering. Awareness is like turning the lights on in a dark room; it illuminates what we weren’t able to see before. Through the physical practice we are able to take Vidya a step further into the realm of the body. This level of integration allows all that we know to be true in our intellect to become alive in our bodies.
A common translation of Abhaya is fearlessness. However, my favorite translation is “not without fear.” I love this translation because it speaks to the fact that there will always be fear. Fear is a necessary part of life and helps keep us alive. Yet, some of our fears aren’t so much about life or death as they are about the courage to move through discomfort. Change often means getting outside of your comfort zone and stepping into unknown territory. Abhaya gives you the inner strength necessary to step into new and unexplored territory without falling back on old familiar Samskaras.
Darshana is the vision to see what we want. This is especially important as we create new positive Samskaras in our life. Imagination is powerful. When we can imagine what our new way of being looks and feels like we make it real. On the yoga mat we clear out what is old and stagnant from the body and make new space. It’s like pulling weeds from a flower bed. Space allows for clarity and the room for new Samskaras to take root.
Researchers used to believe that the brain was fixed at a certain point in development, that once we developed so far there wasn’t a lot of change in how the brain functioned. Now we know better. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change over an individuals lifetime. The expression “neurons that fire together wire together” illustrates this discovery. When we have a thought or behave in a certain way neurons in our brain fire together to create that thought or behavior, which forms a groove. The more we repeat the thought or behavior the deeper the groove. In order to create a new thought or behavior we have to get new neurons to fire together. This is where Abhyasa (practice) comes in. We have to practice it again and again while remembering that creating a new groove takes time.
Some time back I came across an article outlining these seven steps for Samskaric re-patterning and I decided to use all seven as themes in my Sunday morning class. It has been a powerful journey to embody these concepts for myself and witness them take root in students. Anytime we set out on the journey of transformation it is important to hold the light of compassion for ourselves and for others. Perhaps all seven feel overwhelming at first. If I were to choose one as most crucial I would say Vidya, awareness. Moving through our life with greater awareness is akin to waking up from a long slumber. Once our eyes are open there is unlimited possibility.