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.
"Be happy for those who are happy".
It sounds so easy and straight forward. Yet this mind set can be incredibly challenging and tricky. I myself have been struggling with this recently and need to get myself out of this destructive funk.
In Sanskrit, this virtue, the cultivation of friendliness towards those who are happy, is called Maitri. In Buddhism, Maitri, or Metta in Pali, is one of the Four Immeasurables, or sublime attitudes (the others being Karuna, Mudita, and Upekkha). Patanjali's Yoga Sutras also describe Maitri along with the other attitudes. He states that when the virtues are practiced consistently, our minds become calm and steady. While it is easy to say "I'm happy for you", to actually mean it is quiet a different thing.
Consider your coworker who recently received recognition. Were you happy for him? Or did you question the recognition and feel a twinge of jealousy? Or maybe the yoga student next to you in class was able to effortlessly rise up into a supported headstand while you struggled to maintain balance. Were you happy for her success in the pose? Or did you become competitive or envious of her? It's almost an impulse to react in such ways; however these mind sets are toxic to our well being.
According to B.K.S Iyengar, jealousy, envy, resentment, and all those negative emotions that come up actually drain energy from us, shrinking and hardening our emotional beings. On the other hand, if we full heartedly feel happy with our friends, coworkers, etc. we strengthen our own internal happiness. The more we look for happiness, the easier it will be to find and integrate into our lives (conversely if we dwell on jealousy or the injustices of the world, our view of the world will be tainted by those emotions).
But how the hell do we cultivate happiness for others when our immediate reaction is envy, jealousy, or even anger? I believe the answer to this is two fold.
First: We have to create a friendship with ourselves. It is impractical to say that we will have joyous relationships with others if we do not first have one with ourselves. We need to be happy with who we are and allow ourselves to celebrate our own victories; finding joy in ourselves. Of course we can take this to the extreme and become egotistical and self-righteous which would defeat the purpose. However, finding that balance between happiness with yourself and the desire to improve will greatly benefit your relationships with others.
Second: Practice. And like all things we practice, we are not going to be very good at first. When a situation arises and you catch yourself feeling jealous, envious, or any of those destructive emotions, pause. Take a moment to observe your reaction. Notice how your body feels when you experience those emotions. Then ask yourself, "what am I really upset by?", "Why am I comparing myself with this person?". After you explore your body's response and your thought process, see if you can find a sense of happiness. It might be a very small pulse of happiness at first. But slowly, with repetitive nourishment, this feeling will begin to grow and eventually happiness will overtake the envy, jealousy, and anger and become your new reaction.
So look for happiness. Dig it out from underneath the negative emotions. Put forth the effort into being happy, both for yourself and for other people. As a result you will have more emotional energy, healthier relationships, and you may even begin to receive some of the joys those around you are celebrating.