One of the key concepts of Indian philosophy, particularly Yoga, as well as Buddhist philosophy and Advaita Vedanta, is a reincarnation of souls. This philosophy recognizes the eternal nature of the soul, when after the death of the physical body, the soul is reborn into another body bringing with it mental imprints that were left in the mind from previous life. Those mental imprints are formed by actions of the individual as well as external circumstances that going to effect current and future reincarnations. These mental imprints ingrained in the chemistry of our subtle body from the past are called samskaras. (Samskara from Sanskrit: sam meaning joined together, kara meaning action, doing)
Similar types of samskaras are accumulated and they form vasanas (vasana from Sanskrit literally meaning a color), in a yogic context a stronger behavioural tendency and karmic imprint which ‘color’ our perception and, hence, influences the present behaviour of a person. Different samskaras and vasanas get combined and form the next cycle of individual karma.
Samskaras and Vasanas are very similar concepts. Samskaras are those engramic or internal records that were formed in the most recent past. And vasanas are formed for a longer time, have a stronger effect on our actions and tend to be repeated from life to life. Each vasana is a deep trace that tends to predetermine future aspirations, desires, character traits, actions and sensations. Both, samskaras and vasanas are lead to particular frequency of the soul, and vibrations of the mind vritti ( Vritti from Sanskrit, literally meaning whirlpool) in yogic context means fluctuation of thought on the surface of one’s mind. The fluctuation of the mind leads to desires, desires to actions, actions to reactions and all these form karma. Samskaras are the storage place for the seeds of karma.
Strong repeated actions in our current life indicate a large number of incarnations, where we repeated the same action many times, deepening samskaras and developing vasanas.
Samskaras are divided into acquired and congenital. The innate ones were formed in past incarnations and have an impact in this incarnation, for example, having a fear or phobia of something. With past life regression hypnosis, it is possible to find out what happened in past lives and where this fear came from. This technique is documented in books by Michael Newton such as Journey of the Soul, Destiny of the Soul, Life Between Lives.
The soul, according to the law of karma ( karma from Sanskrit action) , the law of cause and effect, passes from body to body in an infinite number. Our actions and reactions in each next incarnation lead to develop new samskaras or reinforce old ones, on the physical and mental levels. Samskaras are deposited in the subtle body (linga-sharira in Sanskrit), which contains all the vital functions to keep the physical body alive.
Samskaras could be both virtuous and vicious. For example, what Swami Sivananda says about the interaction of samskaras: Like different energies, samskaras help or hinder each other. For example, you see a person with a serious illness, and when a feeling of mercy arises in your heart, all the samskaras of your previous acts of mercy combine and force you to serve and help this sick person. When one samskara or virtuous action comes into play, another samskara of a different nature may appear and stand in the way of its fulfillment. It is a struggle between polarity of samskaras.
In our present life we cannot control our past samskaras as they were automatically created as a result of our past actions. Same time we can prevent the samskaras from controlling us. The path of purification of samskaras can be long and it depends on the strength of each samskara. In Indian philosophy there are various ways and techniques used for this purpose, including karma yoga, jnana yoga, raja yoga, hatha yoga, and bhakti yoga. You can read more about the different types of yoga in a book, The Four Yogas by Swami Vivekananda.
Eventually all the yogic practices are aimed at gradually realizing samskaras and vasanas and neutralizing their negative effect on the current incarnation of an individual. Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, stated that access to samskaras is possible through sensory memory during meditation. Below is described one of the many techniques for transforming samskaras according to B. Forbes.
Seven steps for the transformation of samskaras.
Step one: Sankalpa (Sankalpa, Intention)
Creating a healthy samskara begins with sankalpa (sankalpa a Sanskrit term, san means to become one with, and kalpa means time). In yogic practice we use sankalpa to set an intention for our asana yoga practice or a yoga Nidra practice (yoga of a sleep). Sankalpa connects our mind with deeper parts of us that are hard to access just through consciousness.
Conscious use of the sankalpa is a powerful way to communicate to our emotional and spiritual bodies.
In the beginning of yoga nidra ( Nidra from Sanskrit sleep) practice we choose a sankalpa, which preferably should concentrate not on material achievements, but rather spiritual and mental ones. For example, we can choose improving health issues, mental and emotional well-being, mindful breathing, non-violence, or any aspect that is important for us. This is what we need to focus on, it directs our internal resources and brings them inline with the energy of change. The sankalpa acts as a thread that we weave throughout our yoga practice on and off the yoga mat.
Step Two: Tapas (Intensity)
Tapas is an intensity or right energy that guides our psychological process and helps maintain the discipline needed for change we want. However, the intensity itself can be a form of negative samskara, so it is important that the tapas be moderated by the mind. Tapas is the energy that flames our awareness, revealing our inner wisdom. This energy is stored and concentrated within us whenever we manage to refrain from repeating a certain negative samskara.
We create tapas in part by doing the daily work of our samskara practice. This can range from daily yogic practice of asanas, waking up earlier than usual, meditating, writing in a diary, or practicing other types of yoga. We also generate tapas through abstaining from negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It might feel comforting to fall back into old unhealthy habits. Same time if we maintain vigilance around our samskaras and abstain from their attraction, this way we generate a supply of tapas energy . Later we can use tapas for our new intentions, reaching higher levels of awareness and ultimately awaken our true Self.
Once we connect sankalpa with tapas, how do we refrain from repeating our quick reactions, without much thinking, that activate our old samskaras?
Step three: Shani ( Slowing down)
Samskaras work as instincts and can be activated in the blink of an eye. Same time this impulsive reaction only strengthens the samskaras, making them even more irresistible. Shani (Shani from Sanskrit slowness, also Saturn in Vedic astrology) can increase the interval between momentum of our inner-reaction and actual physical action. This gives time to reflect, helps us to determine whether our actions is coming from old samskaras, or is there a space and resources for a different, more healthy response.
For example, while performing a Hatha yoga asana we instinctively use our more flexible parts of the body to compensate for less flexible ones. Same time, by slowing down and engaging our weaker parts and being conscious about it, we are bringing more awareness while simultaneously changing the patterns in our physical, mental and emotional bodies. By doing so at first, we might encounter discomfort or resistance. That is a good sign, unpleasant sensations often lead us to rich materials, hence, we know the area where we can work with ourselves to bring more expansion. During yoga practice we learn about our bodily physical patterns as well as we reach memories and emotions that are locked up in our tight places.
This is the approach we need to use in our life. When we slow down, we begin to intuitively understand where the changes are most authentic and respect our higher self. We begin to look inward to develop an understanding of who we truly are.
Step Four: Vidya (Awareness)
Vidya (Vidya from Sanskrit meaning knowledge, awareness, clear vision) is our intelligence that we direct to the parallel inner worlds of our anatomy, psychology and spirit, where the roots of samskara lie.
Awareness helps us recognize our thoughts and behavior patterns, basically our samskaras. Instead of asking ourselves «Why this is happening to me?» we could move to ask ourselves a more insightful question like “What is this pattern telling me about myself?”
However, just intellectual understanding that does not go beyond the mind rarely leads to a real change. Our body contains our emotional intelligence, which might not assimilate our intellectual understanding, which is limited. Yoga asanas as well as pranayama and meditation, work through the physical body, raising awareness to a deeper level. Through a yoga practice we integrate and experience physically and emotionally what we intellectually know to be true.
Sometimes, when samskaras and vasanas are deep, then simple understanding is just not enough to break them out. We face the moment when we are ready to change, but find ourselves in the power of an invisible force. What is this invisible force? Why does it paralyze us so insanely, just when we are ready to move forward?
Step Five: Abhaya ( Fearlessness)
The lure of the old samskaras is that it’s a part of our comfort zone, the belief that «The devil you know is better than the one you don’t know.» We tend to prefer the familiar to the unknown.
Therefore, what we already know and have experienced before- our old samskaras, are precious to us. Samskaras have alluring nature, their sweet familiarity fascinates us with endless repetitions, polishing and deepening to perfection the same patterns, while simultaneously skillfully hiding our fears and destructive beliefs that lie underneath. Samskaras are the tools of maya (maya from Sanskrit illusion, magic) in which our consciousness gets untangled, and higher truth is hidden from our understanding.
The change of samskara requires abhaya, fearlessness. Abhaya helps us face the unknown. For example, when our samskara is to be afraid of relationships. However, if we are capable of committing and staying in relationships, we run into deeper issues, such as feelings of shame, fear, guilt and worthlessness, which may have pushed us to run away in the first place. Through abhaya, we learn to endure unpleasant sensations, allowing them to pass without resorting to the comfort of the old samskaras.
Step Six: Darshana (Vision)
After we have recognized the roots of our patterns, we can finally create a new, positive samskara. To do this, we need to use the power of our imagination and use all our senses to envision what it might look like. This is the moment when darshana– our vision comes into play. Our new vision for the new behavioral model shall be more vital than the old one. We need to convince ourselves that this is real. We use our feelings and emotions to bring it to life – what does it look like, smell like or feel like? The more we visualize the new model, the more real and compelling it becomes.
During the practice of hatha yoga, we create space in the body which leads to generating freedom in the mind. This freedom can spark our creativity, helping us find an unlimited choice of healthier behaviors.
Step seven: Abhyasa (practice)
When launching a new pattern or during times of stress, the lure of old samskaras patterns is the strongest. Continuous abhyasa or practice helps to make our new samskara more powerful than the old one, the more we strengthen the new habit, the stronger it becomes.
Understanding what can cause a relapse and committing ourselves to our practice keeps us from falling back. Now is the time to ask : How can my practice be more reflective? What do I need to work with? What makes me go into breakdowns of the old self?
Each new samskara builds on the previous one like one bed on top of another on the meditation mala ( mala from Sancrit prayer beads), and, hence, becomes a tool for a spiritual practice.
Opening a new neuropath
All patterns, even samskaras, represent a certain order. When we move away from the old pattern, we enter a subtle space, called bardo in Tibetan Buddhism. During yoga practice we notice a space between the exhalation and the next inhalation, this place is a space of unlimited possibilities for what we want to bring into our life, for our new choices. For a mind that likes to stay in the box with familiarity, this in-between space can feel unsettling or even threatening to our identity “If I let go of these beliefs, will I still be me?”
As a result we often resist new patterns out of fear of losing the identities we have built so carefully. The truth is, when we change an old pattern, we experience a kind of rebirth. This rebirth is like a new incarnation within one lifetime, a more awakened and mature version of the same personality. Essentially, that is the goal of all forms of yoga- to bring us closer to our true nature!
The good news is that the ability to change our patterns- once we sow the seeds- is self-generating, self-sustaining, and self-renewing. When we are patient enough to ease the organic process of a new samskara, to honor its inner rhythm and slow, change just happens!