Samskaras & Tapas in the Ashtanga Yoga Practice.
When we begin the journey of dedicating ourselves to a formal daily spiritual practice such as Ashtanga Yoga, we very quickly come up against our deeply ingrained habits, known in yoga as samskaras. In order to overcome our unhelpful habits, we generally need to set strong sankalpas or intentions in our lives.
Samskaras are basically ingrained tendencies, or psycho-spiritual grooves. Those tendencies are traditionally thought to be brought forward from life to life. However, I am not a believer in reincarnation in this way, so my feeling is that the samskaras are developed and reinforced patterns, or tendencies that we have developed in THIS life. These tendencies flourish when given the right conditions, and bring us a great deal of dis-satisfaction, unhappiness and hurt.
Throughout our lives we repeat ways of thinking and acting that don’t help us to grow and live with more (self) love. Whether it is being plagued with negative self talk, whether it is the tendency to constantly worry, or perhaps we have a deeply ingrained selfishness or narcissistic streak. Samskaras are like the grooves water makes over many, many years on rock. The direction the water flows becomes very entrenched, and to alter that flow, or to prevent the samskaras from playing out, we need to do quite a bit of work. In the same way we create a damn, or try and change a waterway and a great deal of work needs to be done. Similarly, to get unstuck from these deeply ingrained mental and emotional habits we need to set strong intentions – known in yoga as sankalpas – to initiate change.
The diagram above explains somewhat the process of what happens. In our consciousness our samskaras are seeds. If they receive the right conditions – they will flourish.
The right conditions for samskaras to flourish are described in the Yoga Sutras as the kleshas. The starting point is avidya – the root word here being vidya – which means seeing clearly. Avidya is the opposite of clarity! It means ignorance. From the point of ignorance arises a strong attachment to craving (raga) and aversion (dvesa) the pulling and pushing of craving and aversion is where the story of ‘me’ begins (asmita). We hold on very tight to our stories, especially around what we like or don’t like.
Overtime these kleshas work their magic, and due to upbringing, life experiences, and a whole range of other inputs we get stuck in habitual ‘grooves’ mentally and emotionally. In fact, we find it quite hard to let go of the story we are telling ourselves. For example, next time you have a disagreement with someone close to you, pay attention to the desire to enter into the ‘blame game’. Raga and dvesa are doing their work and we are playing out our aversion or craving quite often in these situations. Rather than take responsibility for the play of the kleshas we tell other people “you make me feel”.
This inability or reluctance to let go of the story we are telling ourselves, is called abhinivesa. More strictly it means “clinging to life” – the life being the story of I that we perpetuate by spending a lot of time avoiding what we don’t like (dvesa) and chasing what we do like (raga).
Raga and Dvesa basically are the conditions in which the seeds of samskaras begin to flourish. We all have these seeds in our conscious and regularly water these seeds through our attachment to “I, me & mine”.
From the seeds, trees grow and bear fruit. The fruit is our suffering and dissatisfaction.
In order to prevent the seeds from being watered and the trees from growing and bearing fruit, we need to apply a hot flame and burn up the potentiality of these seeds! This in yoga terms is called ‘tapas’ – spiritual heat.
The flames of tapas will sear the seeds so that they can no longer flourish like they once did. Then over time more and more seeds get burnt and we begin to experience deeper levels of peace in our life. We become less reactive, more loving, less externalising and blaming and more accepting and encouraging of those around us. Basically as we stop clinging so hard to “me, me me” we begin to experience greater peace and harmony both in our life and within ourselves.
This is a process and a journey, to which there is no end goal. Indeed, I like the words of Chogyam Trungpa who explains that “The Path is the Goal” For the seeds of samskaras not to bear fruit tapas is central. Dedication to spiritual practice, whether it be yoga or meditation, or prayer, or japa is how we begin to build this fire or heat. Practicing everyday is like adding a log to the fire, the flames will gradually become more intense.
But, as for anyone who is a Survivor reality TV show fan would know It is not easy to get a fire started (and yes I watch this religiously with my 9-year-old). This is the same with tapas. To create flames often requires dedicated effort, concentration, energy and many attempts. This is why people often come in and out of yoga for many years. The coming and going is like the kindle, preparing the foundation for the fire or tapas to ignite. Then there is often a spark, it may be a major life change, like divorce or job loss, or a health or emotional struggle – this spark then sets the years of kindle alight. The flames begin and people begin to feel that spiritual heat in their practice, and then because of the ways in which tapas burns up the samskaras this heat translates into life of the mat.
The way in which samskaras and tapas interrelate are why I believe Guruji (Sri K Pattabhi Jois) taught that Ashtanga Yoga is 99% practice. The daily practice is the only way to get sufficient spiritual heat going to burn up the seeds of samskaras which bear the fruit of suffering and unhappiness in our lives.
Practice is central to this process! And Ashtanga Yoga provides the perfect opportunity due to its structure and predictability of sequence to integrate this work into our life.
Community is key, fellow students, teachers and a shared experience of practice helps sustain us along this path.
Hope to see you on the mat
(And I am also now teaching at Carine! Saturdays 4:30pm)