In Sanskrit the word Samskara is best broken down:
Sams refers to being joined together or to be complete and kara is action, cause or doing. The way we look at them in the context of yoga is to describe them as impressions or ideas. In other words samskaras are our actions that are part of our deep make-up.
The repetition of life, our habits, the reinforcement of our actions are said to create grooves so deep that you just keep repeating the action whether it is positive or negative. The positive samskaras are obviously beneficial, but those negative ones are little buggers that can bring you down.
I am currently trying to trade some negative samskaras for some positive ones. This can be a hard thing to do for us creatures of habit. The main things I want to work on I talk about at the end of each of the yoga classes I teach. This are body, breath and mind. At the end of my classes I say aloud “be grateful for your body, your breath and your mind”, because these are the things I would like to improve.
It goes something like this – I get my students to bring their hands to their heart in prayer position and first say
Be Grateful for Your Body.
With regard to my body I silently think of Cher circa 1990 and a quote from her; “You don’t get the best body you want for wishing for it. You get it by work”. Okay okay – Cher also used money and surgery, but stay with me on this one! As well as the cosmetic enhancements Cher actually works her ass off with cardio and strength workouts. I want to make my body healthier so that it gets me from A to B and maybe even to Z . Like Cher who is incredible at 70 I want to feel something of my 21 year old self and actually be able to do the things I enjoy whatever they may be by that point.
To do this I will get rid of the negative samskaras with regard to food. I stopped eating meat and poultry about 2.5yrs ago now. That was a fairly easy thing to change. I was no longer living in Scotland, there was no temptation of square sausages, black pudding or haggis (and yes the sausages are actually squares).
Many people who regularly practice yoga and its deeper philosophies are vegan or vegetarian. I think it is a personal choice so will never pry or query as to why. I still eat fish and seafood and I am not at a stage where I will give up eating cheese or eggs. However, I need to start looking at food as fuel. I need to make better choices. I require energy in order to be active, so the packet of giant chocolate buttons I like may unfortunately have to go in favour of healthier snacks.
My alcohol intake has also decreased over the past few months. I decided to try and do other activities to distract me from those cold pints. I actually started aerial classes on a Saturday and a Sunday. The thought of being upside down on a trapeze is a good deterrent from booze.
Furthermore, I went to a 90min hot yoga class every day for 35 days straight. Alcohol normally leads to dehydration, which is not a good component when practising yoga, especially in 42 degree heat. Unhappily I know this from personal experience. Five years ago I managed to get a UTI from drinking until 3am and then going to 8am hot yoga the following morning. As you can imagine I was dying of thirst during and after the class! Seriously, do not do what I did, it’s bad for your health.
After the recent 35 days of abstinence from booze I went on holiday to Morocco and then to Scotland and had a well-deserved rest. My yoga on holiday involved attempting to balance my friend on my shoulders in the pool. I also did savasana on my lilo and my pranayama breathing was blowing the blasted thing up each day! My point is you need to find a balance for a better life. As I say (stolen from an ex I might add, but it actually comes from Oscar Wilde) – ‘Everything in moderation, including moderation itself’.
Now I am back from my holiday I don’t want to punish my body with a gruelling fitness routine and a limited calorie diet. Instead I want something I can maintain.
In addition, I want to have more sleep which is something I lack due to shift work. So for now I aim for 4 yoga classes, 3 outdoor runs and 1-2 aerial classes a week. This may sound a lot and as my mum says, “it makes me tired just reading what you do”, but truth be told – for me this schedule is actually a form of slowing down. And there will be the occasional week where I will just want to hibernate with a boxset in bed. I enjoy this in the colder months. It allows my body this chance to rest. Rest is good too.
So onto the next stage in my samskaras. After thinking about the body I get my students to raise their hands in prayer to the mouth and say
Be Grateful for Your Breath.
I think of those I know who have passed away. I consider how lucky I am to still have my breath to communicate with loved ones. If those departed were to have been given an extra few breaths – what would they have said? I use my breath to speak to my students and hopefully make them feel more positive.
With regard to the samskaras to do with communication like many people I can speak without thinking so I am trying to be more conscious of this especially when I may be tired or slightly grumpy. Some of my Scottish samskaras around communication have had to shift (well only when in England). My favourite being when someone states something that I need to question and I say “How?”. English people looked confused by this. However, my fellow Scot’s know that ‘how’ means ‘why?’ It doesn’t anywhere else in the world apart from bony Scotland. You can’t explain it but in the moment you know it is right!
But back to the samskaras and my yoga classes. After gratitude for our bodies, next I ask my students to bring their hands to their vision centre in between their eyebrows and say
Be Grateful for Your Mind.
Personally, I think of those suffering with mental health issues. I think of those willing to contemplate taking their own precious lives, people with anxiety and depression. Also those with Dementia and Altzeimers. Once again I say I am grateful. Finally as thanks I contemplate how I can allow my mind more awareness.
My negative samskaras with my mind were wasting time reading nonsense on Facebook. On my 35th I came off of the social networking site. Since then I have had the most peaceful three months. It has been shanti as we say in yoga – peace! No random reading about what people have for their dinner, no looking at photos of people showing off in contorted yoga postures or plonked in front of Ganesh as if in a meditative state and posing for the cameras.
No having to look at photos of people’s memories repeated from the past (‘I can’t believe this was three years ago!’). And the thing I am most grateful for is not to see “friends” with those large caterpillar eyebrows and pouts on a night out, ‘memorexing’ the night instead of simply enjoying it.
This may sound as if I am being critical and seem slightly negative in itself to some of you, but honestly removing myself from all of this has freed up lots of time for me and helped me detach from many thoughts around comparison and judgement. I now fill the time with working on my teaching plans for my students and reading up on the benefits of postures. This is a much more positive samskara for me to follow.
So to conclude: think of something that you repeatedly do that has a negative effect on your wellbeing or daily life, or one that has a knock on effect on the people you come into contact with, then really consider if you can replace it with a positive samskara.
Kirsty is running a Surfing and Yoga Retreat in April next year in Morocco. If you are interested on working on your samskaras and yoga practice please sign up to her meet-up group event: or email her on email@example.com.