What is a Samskara?
When we practice yoga we cultivate the ability to concentrate the mind so that as we move into various physical postures, we begin to notice our habitual patterns of holding within our own body, just as we might observe physical patterns of holding in musicians as they perform. Say, for example, you are doing a twist in your yoga practice. As you deepen into the pose, your attention drops down and you observe the processes going on within your body and your mind. You may also start to explore different movements you always make and theories you have regarding the composition of the particular pose. You churn these thoughts, feelings, and sensations back and forth as you would blend butter with an old-fashioned hand churn, folding them into the pose and drawing them back out with your mind to mix them back in again. As you work the pose you may start to experience unfamiliar sensations, patterns of deep conditioning that are buried deep within your body. You may have sensations of attachment and also of repulsion to whatever is arising. These habitual patterns and sensations are called saṁskāras.
Sam means “to collect together” and kara refers to activities, deeds, or in this case it refers to things that are made or patterns. Saṁskāras are the subpatterns that are collected together into universal patterns and then held deep inside the body. Our ego structure is intimately tied in to these unconscious configurations, and any good yoga practice takes us right into the heart of our own saṁskāras.
These patterns of perception are the result of grasping onto certain things we believe we need or we want, and rejecting other things we believe to be of no use to us or things we imagine are going to hurt us. Deep in the core of the body there is often a kind of anxiety that bubbles up right under the surface of our conscious experience because of our preconceptions about what is good or bad, right or wrong, needed or not needed. The anxiety emerges because a genuine perception of what is actually happening in the present moment is arising, but it is colored by our habitual ways of perceiving—our saṁskāras.
Consequently much of our life is spent avoiding the undercurrent of anxiety that surfaces as we place a mask of happiness (or tragedy) over what on a deeper level we are actually aware of—the present moment. With practice we learn to observe these brief little moments of anxiety before they are covered up by the avoidance habits of mind. The content of our observation could be wonderful, bright, and happy, or it could be absolutely miserable, but nonetheless we stick with it and watch it with an open mind and an open heart. And this is the foundation of the practice; that we simply train ourselves to observe the presentation of the mind, the vṛtti, whatever it is and whenever it drifts into our conscious awareness. Honing this observational skill within āsana, prāṇāyāma, and meditation practice, we eventually discover that there is far more to the practices than we might initially have thought. We find that more important than getting into a remarkably deep back bend, or holding our breath for five minutes, or chanting an entire ancient text from memory, is the power of clear observation.