What is Samskara and how to change habits

by Catherine Haylock

The concept of samskara (habits) can be confusing. Some texts tell us we should have no samkaras, mindfulness practices ask us to observe our samskaras, and on the yoga mat, we should overcome them. So what is it? Why is it important in our lives? How do we put it into practice? I hope I can shed some light on this.

What is Samskara and why is it important?

Samskara is the accumulations of subconscious impressions. We can think of it as our memories, which influence how we think and how we perceive situations/people. They affect our emotions and how we act/react today, and create habits. The non-serving samskaras lead to self-destructive behaviours and hinder us in our growth. The serving ones lead to contentment and happiness. There are samskaras we were born with (karma), and some we acquire in this life. Knowing the source of a negative samskara (habit) might help us understand it, but sometimes it is unnecessary to find the root of a cause. Just being aware of its influence is enough for us to break the bad habit and turn it around.

If we want to live a more content and happier life, we need to create new healthy habits in order to change. We have to let go of non-serving patterns, creating new samskaras. Each seed we plant has the opportunity to grow.

Our thinking pattern

Stepping on our yoga mat, we can at times recognise our non-serving samskaras. For example, the urge to check emails instead of doing a headstand, shortening the practice when we are bored with it, leaving out difficult postures, etc., you know what I am talking about 😉 But it is precisely in those challenging moments an alarm should go off in our heads, and we need to press pause. We need to take a step back, and notice which thoughts lead to these kinds of behaviours.

It is of course one thing to recognise a pattern, and another to overcome it. Each time we reinforce old habits, we teach our mind this is what we do when it gets difficult and we let this defines us: “I’m the person who gives up when it gets difficult.” To dissolve this imprint, a new habit must come into existence to replace it, a serving one.

So let’s say we observe that we want to give up, what will happen if we don’t react to that thought? Instead we say to ourselves: “I am ignoring this self-talk and carry on”. We then signal our mind that when obstacles arise, we keep on going no matter what. If we repeat this over and over again, we create a new ‘good’ samskara, and we are a step closer to contentment and happiness.

Samskara in the Yoga Sutras

Let’s look at Patanjali’s definition what yoga is:

Yogash chitta-vritti-nirodhah (YS I.2)

Yoga is the stilling of the mind (chitta). Anything that emerges from the mind is a vritti (mental disturbance), which arises from samskaras.
Vrittis are not just thoughts; they are the concept that evolves out of thoughts, trying to make sense of experiences, for example. Vrittis are like filters or a lens that can distort our perception, limiting our views.
Through nirodhah (cessation, removal, quieting), we can master our mind. By redirecting and holding our attention to one object, we can still the activities of our mind, breaking our usual habits that vrittis would normally trigger. Giving us space to see our truth about the nature of life and ourselves, seeing things as they are without the distortion of the lens (YS I.3).

There are many ways to put this into practice. Through asanas and pranayama, self-study, prayers, serving others and cultivating the first two limbs, yamas and niyamas. They all will help redirect our attention and create new habits and new memories, the ‘good’ ones.

Is it necessary to dissolve samskara to reach enlightenment?

According to the Yoga Sutras not all samskaras are influencing our mind (chitta).
Conventional samskaras arise from ignorance (YS II.5). Ignorance is a term we use in yoga to describe when we think that our perceptions to be right, our beliefs to be the truth. Both are flavoured by our past experiences (samskaras). For example, beliefs that we are not good enough, we don’t deserve to be happy etc. Ignorance leads to suffering. So it is this illusion we must banish.

When we manifest wisdom, we create healthy habits (nirodhah-samskaras). These samskaras are not obstacles on our path. Instead, they help us obstruct ‘negative’ ones from emerging. The ‘good’ ones have like a snowball effect. Once triggered, samskaras of wisdom are enhanced and the mind is being transformed, getting closer to the state of samadhi (YS I.50).

How can I change my samskara?

As samskara is what drives the disturbed mind (chitta vrittis), we can also turn it around. When we become aware of how the mind wants us to react, and if we change our actions at that moment, these non-serving ones have no hold over us.

In meditation, for example, when we get restless, we can create new habits. We acknowledge our restlessness but won’t give up, instead we continue with our meditation. Over time these giving-up instincts won’t appear anymore, as new habits have been created.
The more we practice this, the faster new habits will be formed. We can apply this to anything we do in our daily life.

The mindful process is the first step. We need to take a step back and observe what our mind is constructing. How these thoughts make us feel, and how we want to instinctively react to them. If we want to change these thoughts, the second step is to make a conscious decision not to act upon their impulses. Remember, they result from our belief systems, thought patterns, or perceptions, which are tainted by our habits (vrittis).

So we just keep going with the yoga practice, switching off the TV, putting that chocolate bar back into the fridge. We make a conscious decision not to enforce ‘non-serving’ patterns until the ‘good’ ones are ingrained.

It may seem discouraging, giving us the feeling we can’t let our hair down anymore, as we need to train our awareness whenever possible. But this too can become a habit, and at one point, it won’t feel like hard work anymore. We will be able to just see what our mind wants to do, and you won’t need much effort to resist. It gets easier the more we practise.

Measuring our progress

When you start implementing the above, you will start changing and growing. You might be more patient with people around you, feel less anxious about situations, be more at peace with yourself and the world, be more forgiving, and happier too.

We can’t always control our circumstances, but we can change the way we perceive them. We can face the truth instead of seeing it through a filter (vrittis) and stay in the suffering. Even though it might be painful at the moment, if we can step back before we react, we can decide to act in a serving way, real transformation will manifest.

Thinking about change can be an unsettling feeling, when we don’t know the outcome. However, a happier life is an excellent motivation to be courageous and to start right now – walking the path of yoga.