A few days ago I was in the middle of a yoga class, flowing through a sun salutation, pressing back into a downward facing dog, when the instructor crouched down next me and said, "Draw your right foot back so it is in line with the left." What?! I though to myself: My feet are in line with each other. What is he talking about? I can feel them. I looked down at my feet and guess what.... My right foot was in in front of my left. I drew it back so my feet were even and instantaneously I felt my body tense and I heard a little voice peep up in my head saying "Nope. That feels different and uncomfortable. You should go back". Throughout the remainder of class my body kept wanting to go back to that uneven, yet familiar and comfortable foot placement. I had to fight myself to draw the right foot back, to stay aligned. I had to force myself to stay uncomfortable.
Looking back on this experience I am amazed, intrigued, and a little disappointed in how deeply rooted my habits are and how uncomfortable I become when I try to break free. I am a samskara cliché.
The concept of Samskaras is one if my favorites to contemplate and play with (yes I am a yoga nerd). The idea, in a very simplified form, is that we all have ingrained behaviors, conscious and subconscious, that dictate how we relate to and interact with the world around us. The more we practice these behaviors the more deeply engrained they become. Imagine a person walking from point A to point B. Her first trip will only leave a small hint that she was there. However, if she continues to walk on that same trail over, and over, and over again, she eventually will wear down the earth and create a path. This path then becomes the most natural and easiest way for her to travel from point A. The same thing happens, more or less, in your mind. If you repeatedly react to a stimulus in a certain way, or think certain thoughts, you will create paths, or samskaras, in that will begin to determine how you proceed through life. In yoga, these samskaras can be seen as a barrier to enlightenment and unity because they prohibit you from living and acting in the present moment; instead we are basing our actions on past experiences and paths. According to B.K.S Iyengar, we have two types of samskaras: helpful and harmful. The ultimate goal is to remove all samskaras so we are always acting in the present moment; but first we must erase our harmful samskaras by creating helpful ones to replace them. This is done, in my opinion, by identifying the harmful behavior and then making honest, consistent, attempts at veering off that path and creating a new, healthy one.
This is what was happening to me on a very gross level during my asana practice. I had ingrained in my body and my mind, through the 1 hundred billion downward facing dogs that I had performed, that my right foot goes slightly above my left. I do not know why my body initially took that path (maybe it makes the pose easier for me? Maybe I have misaligned hips?), but what I do know is that my current path or samskara is not helping me and could potentially be injuring my joints. And yet, even though I know it is wrong, my body and my mind still resist the change; they want to continue along the same well-worn, easy path.
This example clearly demonstrates just how hard it is to change. We have a subconscious pull to continue doing what is comfortable and familiar. It is hard to take the uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and just different path. But if we want to change, then those new samskaras have to be created. We need to slow down, observe our behaviors, and try to identify just where the path becomes harmful. Then, the next time we find ourselves there, we have to force ourselves to go a different way. It will be hard and it will be uncomfortable; but we need to sit with this discomfort and work through it. We may get lost and we may find ourselves back on the familiar path. This isn't failure this is practice. Every time you come to that fork, take the new path again, and again, and again, until it becomes the familiar trail.
In the past few yoga classes I have noticed it is easier to keep my right foot in line with my left. It still feels weird, but I'm sitting with the discomfort of change and making it stick. I know over time I can create this new path and many others to take over my other harmful samskaras. I just need to slow down, observe, and persevere.