Samskaras and the Road Less Travelled

21 Oct

This time last year I was on an extended road trip that took me through four time zones, eight cities, three national parks and countless truck stops. Truck stops are fascinating places, worlds unto themselves, really. They’re populated by road warriors who congregate there to refuel, eat, wash-up, and relax between long stints behind the wheel. The interesting thing is if you look carefully, you will see at most truck stops a video game room, and in that room you will see racing games, and at those games you will see glassy-eyed drivers seeking to alleviate the pressures of the road by getting behind a toy wheel and swearing a blue streak as they burn virtual rubber.

Strange as that may seem, I know I’ve repeatedly done the same sort of thing in my own life. Years ago when I was a junior lawyer, for example, I would relax after a tough day in court with takeout in front of the TV, and my shows of choice were, you guessed it, Ally McBeal and Law & Order. More recently, I’ve had days where I’ve practiced yoga before heading out to teach yoga and then, at the end of the day, responded to the question, “what do you want to do tonight?” with the word “yoga!” And what about this one: have you ever caught yourself taking a break from that document on your computer screen by clicking over to Facebook or pulling out your iPhone? Yeah, me too.

So what’s up with this compulsive, repetitive behavior? According to yogic philosophy we create subtle impressions, called samskaras, with each thought, word and action. These samskaras are not unlike the grooves our feet make on the earth when we walk the same path over and over again. Habitual behaviors continually reinforce our samskaras until the ruts becomes so deep and well-worn that we forget what it’s like not to be in them. The result is we become totally conditioned to continue along the same trajectory we’ve always traveled, even when the path is self-destructive or a waste of our time.

Each time we step onto the mat, we bring with us all of our samskaras, good and bad, liberating and binding. Some of us bring our perfectionist tendencies along for the ride and scrutinize each breath and movement under the microscope of self-criticism. Others push themselves to the extreme, striving to go faster, harder, better as they seek to conquer the next spectacular inversion, hand balance or backbend. Others yet hang back in their avoidance of all discomfort and physical exertion, convinced their cool disengagement is safer than actually putting themselves out there and risking failure.

Now, because our samskaras are etched into our bodies and minds, we can approach our time on the mat as an opportunity to see and work with the deeply ingrained habits and patterns of our lives— patterns that are often hidden in plain sight. This is good news for those of us who are willing to trade comfort and complacency for happiness and freedom.

In my experience, good yoga teachers do more than call poses, count breaths and give alignment cues: good yoga teachers also teach us in ways that alert us to our samskaras. They are willing to ask us to go against the grain. They might ask one student to ease up while asking another to get the lead out. Consequently, the best yoga teachers tend not to coddle their students and they may not win any popularity contests either. As my teachers like to say, the yoga practice shows us where we are tight and also where we are being uptight. This means the resistance that shows itself within the microcosm of our mats is not something to be suppressed or negated. I dare say it’s the very point of our practice.

Don’t forget that “the path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.” (John Dewey)

Photo by Alex Lin

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