Samskaras: What Yoga Teaches Us About Breaking Our Habit Patterns

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One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself on your self-growth journey, is, do you have to live with the negative aspects of yourself, or can you change your life?

The concept of samskaras can help you answer this question.

Samskaras bring to our attention that everything we are, and everything that happens to us is a consequence of our subconscious mind. 

Let’s dive deeper into Samskaras by going over these topics:

An illustration of a woman meditating with circle arrows around her against a green background.

What are Samskaras? 

The word samskara (also Pali: sanskaras) comes from the Sanskrit  ‘sam’ which translates to complete, and ‘kara’1 Samskara (Indian philosophy). (2020, June 23). Wikipedia. which translates to action or cause. The word is often translated to habit pattern and mental impression.

The concept of samskaras is present in Buddhism2 (n.d.). Exploring the Meaning of Samskara or Sankhara in Buddhist Teaching. Learn Religions., Hinduism and Jainism.

Samskaras live in our unconscious selves, and they are our basic drive, which influences our decisions and actions.

Many of these imprints were created in our past lives. They are seen as seeds planted in our subconscious minds, ready to grow into thoughts and behaviors. 

Samskaras are sacraments which manifest as our innate dispositions or habitual tendencies.

In buddhist, hindu philosophy, and yogic philosophy, every karmic act creates an impression in the subconscious. When the impressions are repeated, they are strengthened.

Another thing that strengthens them is whether we are performing certain acts with full awareness. The strongest impressions influence how we think about ourselves and our lives.

In a way, samskaras bind us in the past, and prevent us from progressing, from having fresh ideas and experiences. 

Samskaras are in our unconscious mind, we cannot remember how the process started, and don’t see our actions as a result of these impressions. 

That is why we will often see our experiences and thoughts as fate, destiny, something that was predetermined. And as magical as that sounds, if it were true, why would we need to do anything in life?

Truth is, we human beings are responsible for our own lives, and everything we think and do affects how our future is going to look.
Two yellow road signs, one saying Past and another Future.

How are Samskaras Created?

A samskara begins as a thought, sensation, or emotion that arises in our conscious awareness, in response to internal or external stimuli.

These thoughts and reactions are rooted in our subconscious mind, where they create mental impressions, samskaras.

In the brain, these impressions result in new connections in the neural pathways, which happens when we are repeatedly exposed to the same stimuli. With time, we begin to respond to that stimuli subconsciously, through our samskara patterns.

In yoga, our sense of self, well-being, worldview, action, and memories all reflect samskaras, which are formed in our past and present lives.

Some yogis believe all of our thoughts and actions stem from these underlying samskaras, even when we think they are created from conscious free will.

Although we do have free will, most of what we do is influenced by conditioning. 

Not All Samskaras Are Negative!

When we talk about samskara, it is easy to see them as merely a negative thing. We want to be conscious at all times, right?

In yogic philosophy, that is not true. Samskaras will always exist, and they can be used for our growth.

There are both negative and positive samskaras. Positive samskaras lead to virtuous, divine, good actions, bringing us closer to the truth, and God.

Negative samskaras strengthen our karma bonds3 (2021)., sabotage liberation, and lead to cravings, delusions, and aversions. 

Good actions and reactions build positive samskaras, and bad deeds lead to negative samskaras.

Throughout this and previous lifetimes, we have all performed both types of actions, and whether we can strengthen our positive samskaras depends on willpower

Samskaras help us to navigate the world. If we didn’t have any impressions, it would be impossible to understand and deal with everyday life.

It is a survival mechanism of sorts – after experiencing something, we form an expectation that will guide our reaction to the next time that experience happens. 

They affect our perception of ourselves and others and result in us creating an identity for ourselves based on our past experiences. This in turn shapes our personality traits. 

However, they prevent us from living in the moment, and experiencing the world as it is. Having positive samskaras is more likely to make us feel safe enough to be able to wake up and steer the wheel of our lives.

But to take that wheel back, we first need to reflect and recognize the negative behavioral patterns that have shaped our lives and worldviews.

Clouds in the sky spelling out habit.

How To Recognize Samskaras With Accuracy

Before we talk about eliminating samskaras, we first need to talk about recognizing them. 

That means we need to identify a habit pattern and try to find its root. When we become aware of our patterns, we can begin to see their effect on our self-identity and our lives.

This process of self-reflection takes practice and awareness, we need to be able to step back and observe ourselves without judgment. We need to know ourselves before we change ourselves.

It would be useful to have a regular practice of chanting, meditation, and asana yoga practice as through these practices self-reflection naturally occurs. You can also make it a standalone practice. 

Journaling can be a useful practice to deeply understand our samskaras.

We can document them as they happen, we can write down our thoughts and feelings, and note what activated them the first time. Then later, we can come back to them and notice the pattern.

So how do you know a samskara is activated? It is similar to what we call a ‘trigger’ in modern psychology – a certain experience creates a strong reaction.

This reaction can be emotional, mental, and physical, and it is usually a combination of all three. 

This reaction often leads us to be stuck in a loop of thoughts and feelings. It seems we can’t stop thinking about this, and shift our focus to something else. 

Some samskaras are very obvious while others are subtle. We can recognize some of them ourselves, in the moment, for example, we regret or feel guilty after doing something.

The feedback from others can also be helpful in recognizing samskaras, if you repeatedly receive the same comment about your behaviors from different people.

Note that it is entirely natural to have negative habitual patterns. We are all both good and bad.

However, recognizing our patterns and knowing ourselves better supports the process of self-knowledge and transformation, improving our lives.

A woman sitting cross legged on the floor in meditation.

The 101 On Eliminating Negative Samskaras And Strengthening Positive Ones

After identifying samskaras, you can see which patterns you want to eliminate, and which ones you want to strengthen.

You can begin that process by simply contemplating on which qualities you will need to build to change a samskara. For example, if you want to deal with a short temper, you may want to cultivate more patience.

Having a mentor, sharing your process with a friend, or finding resources online, is tremendously helpful and makes it much easier than doing it all on your own.

I read an interesting thought, which I believe is essential in doing this work. We need to work on the negative samskaras even when we are going through a good period of our lives.

Otherwise, we often have a habit of becoming intoxicated with the results of positive samskaras like health, wealth, and joy. We take them for granted, and often abuse our body and mind, forgetting that there is a downward wave after each good period.

Then we are already in a low period, we don’t have enough energy to work on our negative samskaras.

However, if we have the will to change samskaras which is uninfluenced by our current mood, we have a strong chance of succeeding. With persistence, willpower, and patience, we can overcome any negative samskara. 

Rather than having huge expectations of erasing all our negative traits in a moment, we need to be realistic. We need to keep a calm mind and see our strengths and weaknesses. We will need to work step by step.

In some periods we will be more inclined to strengthen our positive samskaras, and at other we will work more on eliminating the negative ones.

Self-reflection and feedback from others can help us determine where we want to put our biggest emphasis.

We can also do both simultaneously – this is often done through spiritual practices. For example, bhakti yoga will simultaneously purify our negative thoughts, and increase our positive ones. The same is true for meditation and chanting.

Selfless acts of kindness and serving others also clear our samskaras and can make us much more motivated than being too critical of ourselves.

Hands holding a sign saying be kind against a pink background.

The Golden Ticket: Have Patience

Samskaras will always exist, but with time and practice, we will no longer be bound by them. We will be able to consciously take our actions. 

However, at this time, we want to be realistic and not judge ourselves too much. Changing patterns is a long process.

One of the best things you can do is have a daily check-in, through a self-analysis meditation or journaling, where you can reflect and notice your patterns and progress. 

In that practice, you can also set your intentions (sankalpas) for the next day. In that way, you are not dwelling on past mistakes, but rather simply analyzing them and seeing how you can do better in the future. 

Knowing about samskaras is not here to make us feel bad. It will only deepen our self-knowledge and help us live more free and happier lives.

Continue your research and read about other yoga concepts:

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Sara lives in Croatia, near the sea, with her dog. She enjoys exploring nature, and making art. She is currently developing a series of children’s/YA stories and comics in her native language, which she feels complements her work and allows her to live her dream life – having yoga, writing, art, and nature in her every day.

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