In a recent yoga class, my teacher got on the topic of samskaras.
So far as I understand, samskaras are generally defined as impressions that influence our actions. These impressions might be formed from our pasts, experiences we’ve had early on that have conditioned us to behave a certain way.
I’m used to conceptualizing samskaras as negative things.
To me, they’ve always seemed to be akin to a lot of the entrenched patterns that one might try to identify, understand, and transform in psychotherapy: stuff that got solidified in childhood, probably as a form of self-protection, which has outlived its usefulness.
With time and attention, we can start to identify how our early life conditioning actually get in the way of an expansive worldview in adulthood, or how our old habits keep us stuck in cycles of suffering.
My teacher made an excellent point, one I had never thought of before. She noted that samskaras can be positive as well as negative. They can include healthy, productive habits that we accumulate over time.
For me, this was a totally new reading frame. Of course there are samskaras that we don’t sign up for, the old wounds and self-protective responses that hold us back.
But we also have experiences and encounters and relationships that help us to create new habits and ways of being. These are samskaras, too.
With any luck, these positive samskaras have the opposite effect: they help to keep us whole and awake and growing, rather than stuck.
I came home after class and read a little more. I stumbled on this article, which connects these themes to Sutra 1:12 of Patanjali: abhyāsavairāgyābhyāṃ tannirodhaḥ.
Abhyāsa is practice.
Vairāgyābhyāṃ is non-attachment, or dispassion.
Tan is their.
I’ve seen nirodhah translated as discipline, or restraint; rodhah is restraining, or disciplining, and ni is complete. So nirodhah is also sometimes translated as “stop,” implying full control rather than mere restraint.
The scholar Pandit Rajmani Tigunait translates Sutra 1:12 as, “That can be controlled through practice and non-attachment.”
“That,” in context of earlier Sutras, is chitta vritti.
Chitta vritti can been translated to “whirring of the mind,” “fluctuations of the mind,” or “waves of consciousness,” in addition to the other translations that I’m not familiar with.
In everyday parlance and application, chita vritti is the anxious “monkey mind” that so many yogis try to quiet through their practices.
The upshot is that, according to Sutra 1:12, we learn to quiet our minds through both restraint and practice.
Notably, restraint alone isn’t enough. We need our practices, our real world efforts, in order to effect change. Tigunait writes,
JC Gabler’s commentary offers similar insights. Gabler writes,
This is the very thing that my yoga teacher had been trying to impart to our class when she brought up the topic of samskaras, both positive and negative.
She stated something that all students in the room, including me, probably knew intuitively: it’s easier to create change through addition, rather than subtraction.
As a dietitian, I feel this truth especially.
I always tell clients of mine who are trying to become vegan or vegetarian that it’s a better starting point to add more plant-based foods into their diets than to forcibly remove animal products.
The latter tends to prompt resentment and feelings of being on “a diet,” while the former feels enjoyable and inspiring.
The same goes for clients who need to adopt modified diets related to health challenges. In those cases there may be more urgency around eliminating certain foods than there is when the dietary change is elective.
Still, I’ve found that folks have the easiest time sticking to new eating patterns when they’re at least mentally focused on what they are eating, rather than what they aren’t.
I tell my clients with eating disorders that they probably won’t be able to simply “turn off” disordered thoughts or compulsions. They can, however, lean into the practice of hearing those thoughts, feeling those impulses, and not acting on them.
They can also start to flood their lives with activities, habits, and thought patterns that encourage their health.
In this context, not acting on disordered habits is vairagya. Welcoming healed behaviors and thoughts is abhyāsa. They’re the two wings of the bird that Gabler speaks of.
When it comes to eating disorder recovery, I believe more and more that abhyāsa, or practice, is the most important thing.
To quote Bill Wilson, “You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.”
I repeat this quote to my clients all the time.
After my reading, I did some thinking.
I thought back to my depression three and four years ago.
The same image came to mind that always comes to mind when I remember that bout of the illness: me lying limply under a blanket on the sofa in my old apartment, drowning the world out with TV, not responding to messages, not budging unless I had to, sometimes for days at a time.
My heart aches when I see this image. The memory is recent enough to hurt, and I feel so much pity for my past self.
I didn’t want to succumb to flatness or darkness back then. I didn’t want to believe in the vision of life that depression was handing me.
What I didn’t understand at the time, however, was that I couldn’t get unstuck from that pain only through waiting for it to go away.
Yes, to some extent, I had to ride the worst of the depressive spell out. Once I was well enough, though, getting better was an active process.
What really helped me was to create new habits, all of which enriched my life: seeking more social connection, doing more yoga, seeing more art, eating more exciting food, enjoying more of New York City.
In other words, addition, just like my teacher spoke of.
More, more, more.
Leaning into fullness and expansiveness may always be a great struggle for me, but I know that it’s the key to meaning and well-being in my life, too. There’s a reason that this blog is called what it’s called.
To wit: I had a difficult week, which culminated with a lot of anxiety on Friday night and Saturday morning.
When I woke up yesterday, I had a panicky moment of realizing that I had a ton of stuff on my calendar this week. Some of it was social, with friends, and some of it was work related.
Since I couldn’t cancel any work stuff, I wondered whether I should cancel on some of my friends.
We all have moments in which it’s helpful to say “no,” or to take a rain check, knowing that good friends will understand.
The more I reflected on it, though, the more I realized that I wasn’t tempted to clear my schedule because I really needed a breather.
I was just resorting to my old habit of self-isolating and making my life smaller because I think it’ll make it easier for me to handle pain, anxiety, or burdens.
I’ve learned time and time again that cutting myself off from people and the world doesn’t actually help me to cope. It just makes me forget about all of the fun, beautiful stuff that counterbalances life’s inevitable challenges.
In the end, I actually added a plan or two to my schedule this week. And I’m not at all sorry that I did.
Wishing you a week that’s full, in the best and most meaningful way that it can be.
Happy Sunday, friends. Here are some recipes and reads.
I love tiramisu anything, so I’m super eager to try Jess’ tiramisu overnight oats.
I was never a seafood person pre-vegan, but Val and Mani’s tofu “fish” has me intrigued!
This cavatelli white bean stew is right up my alley.
I adore pizza con patate, and Francesca’s version looks wonderful.
Actually the most adorable vegan Easter dessert I’ve ever seen.
1. This article on immune health is aimed at older adults, but I found it solid and helpful for adults of all ages.
2. I enjoyed this Code Switch episode on how people of color, women in particular, have shaped our food landscape and preferences.
3. The lasting power of good memories.
4. This was cool: 7 everyday kitchen tools that originated with the work of 19th Century black inventors.
5. Finally (and fabulously!), the joy of letting loose.
It’s a beautiful, sunny Sunday in New York, and spring is in the air. I’m closing up my laptop now so that I can get out and enjoy it—and wishing you a wonderful afternoon, wherever you are.
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