New Grooves: Exploring Samskaras


Happy New Year Dear Yogis.  This is such an exciting time of year for me.  I love the symbolic renewal of a New Year, and all of the possibilities it suggests.  I think others must feel this way too since so many resolve to do something big and grand and so closely held.  A New Years resolution is like admitting that you really could be anything, maybe not before, but now.  It’s tradition, faith and optimism; three of my favorite things.   The media tells us that our resolutions are mostly doomed to fail, that they simply don’t work.  Still most of us persevere, somehow believing in the magic of our deepest held desires coupled with the return of 1-1.

This isn’t something I generally like to ask since it really stresses most of us out, but: What do you want?  What would you admit to if you weren’t afraid of what others might think of you, if you didn’t think you were admitting some weakness?  What are you privately resolving to do starting on 1-1 and for the rest of your life?  Most of us will say “lose weight” or “get in shape”.  But that won’t happen on the first of January.  In fact I believe there’s much to be done before that even becomes a possibility.  Don’t despair, this is a good thing.

As a child I was fascinated by Greek Mythology.  I really loved the stories about Zeus and Poseidon and all of the other irrational, fickle Gods.  As an adult I find it interesting that early attempts to convert the Greeks to Christianity resulted, to the consternation of clergy, in the melding of multiple philosophies.  Early churches and cathedrals proudly displayed Christian and Pagan images side by side.  I’m sure the missionaries at the time found this to be maddeningly ignorant.  As a yoga teacher I love reading the stories of Hindu Gods as well.  The stories that explain the creation of a certain pose like Hanumanasana or that revere an ancient figure such as Garuda.  These stories make my experience so much richer and it would be arrogant of me to discard or disdain thousands of years of oral and written history simply because I was raised in a Christian culture.  With the arrival of a new year I’ve been thinking about Kali, the Goddess of Destruction.

Kali was Shiva’s (think Indian Zeus) wife.  Here she is depicted standing on Shiva.  Kali is considered Shiva’s other half, or his female incarnation.  She is associated with death, blackness and time.  Some consider her the most important God, even the creator of all Gods.  In that she destroys she is the catalyst for all change, she is the beginning of all creation since endings make way for beginnings.   Although in much of the ancient Tantric literature Kali appears as a vicious warrior, in more modern interpretations and indeed in deeper study Kali is a transformer and a nurturer.  Knowledge of Kali helps the devotee to rid themself of ego, to make profound personal change with confidence.  She challenges the meditator to go deeper into themself to search for understanding that is beyond the material world.  Aside from the gaping black mouth, lolling tongue and necklace of heads she’s a bit of a mother figure.

In considering this blog post for January I knew I had to address the New Year’s resolution.  The yogic concept of samskara was immediately brought to mind.  Depending on whom you ask, the Sanskrit word samskara has many interpretations.  A common definition among yogis is that samskaras are grooves imprinted upon your mind by your past.  You could think of them as well traveled paths and they help to define your personality.  These grooves can be caused by past experiences, habits, culture, your upbringing, etc…  A samskara is neither good or bad, it just is.  It can become a problem though when it forces you into a rut.  You try and try to quit a certain behavior or create a new one but keep falling back into that deep groove.  One can create new samskaras, and indeed one must daily since they are a representation of our experiences and history.  But in order to quit bad habits, those samskaras that are associated with the bad habits must be neutralized.  I imagine that the grooves that cause one to be overweight or out of shape are numerous.  Yet we often try to address just one or two of them.  We dive into a new diet or exercise program without ever addressing the habits and history that will suck us back down into the rut.  Then we fail, we suffer.

Samskaras that have outgrown their usefulness must be identified and neutralized before new ones can take hold.  A yoga practice is a wonderful place to do this.  One does not have to go searching through the mind for lost memories and experiences to uncover samskaras.  We just have to be present enough to recognize them when they come up. Did you ever wonder why we end a yoga class in Savasana, or corpse pose.  Yeah it looks like a corpse, just laying there but it’s symbolic too.  Savasana is our opportunity to absorb the practice, to allow changes to take hold.  It’s a figurative death in our old habits and samskaras.  It’s the destruction that makes way for change.  Throughout our practice we strive to be neutral and objective.  We move and breathe and sweat to come back to stillness, to a clean slate, tabula rasa.  In yoga we believe that the tabula rasa is our natural state – contentment binding us to all creation and love.  It’s neutrality that allows us to start at square one.  It’s indifference without the suffering.  Gradually, with dedication we can begin to create new grooves, ones that serve us.  This is not an overnight process, but it’s not particularly difficult either.  It’s a progression of very small steps and choices that begin to change us, reshape us and our grooves both inside and out.  Will-power is not required but compassion is vital.

Yogis, this year I will endeavour to create new habits and grooves, and neutralize some others.  I am aware that some things in me will have to be destroyed to make way for change.  I mourn these things but am aware that my inner Kali requires it.  Change is hard, that must be why Kali is such a ruthless, homicidal and blood thirsty Goddess.  She represents some of the most painful stuff us humans can imagine.  Change is natural, inexorable and will not wait for you.  One way or another something good or bad will make way for something better or worse.  New grooves will be created, old ones deepened and you can only hope to have a hand in their creation or destruction.  The one thing that will never change dear yogis is that your natural state is contentment.  At your deepest level, below the grooves, you are love.  Namaste yogis, Happy New Year.

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