what is samskara in yoga?

January 13, 2023 |

How often have you chosen something (a thought, an emotion, a course of action) in this moment based on the momentum generated by previous choices? Have you ever noticed that, the more you repeat a choice the easier it becomes to make that choice again, until that choice becomes automatic? These choices, which become habits or mental/emotional grooves, in yoga, are called samskara (the impressions left by previous experiences) and they become deeper every time we repeat that thought, emotion or action.

Samskaras create predispositions to act in conditioned ways that, depending on the quality of our choices (because a samskara can be positive as well as negative) have the potential to keep us locked in cycles of suffering.

Our conditioned ways of relating to the world often just serve to make our experience of the world smaller because they stop us from seeing the moment as it is. The past perpetuates itself because we’re not present. To overcome these cycles we have to stretch our minds and bodies beyond their historical limitations and restrictive narratives, and decide from a more open space of awareness. In fact, learning how to do this is one of the fundamental journeys in yoga.


Attending to the truth of what is happening, to the immediacy of our experience (rather than to our ideas about what is happening) teaches us how to decide with more clarity. This is not easy, of course, so think about it this way:

Imagine a drip of water on a rock at the top of a mountain. The individual drips don’t leave an observable trace. However, over time, if the water continues to drip in the same place it wears a groove in the rock. That drip becomes a stream, and that stream becomes a river. This is how a samskara is formed.

Now, imagine trying to re-route that river so it flows around the other side of the mountain. Not an easy task, right? The same is true for us, which is why building a new habit can initially feel so effortful. We’re still in the ‘drip phase’ of change. Over time, though, if we continue to make the new decision/think the new thought/feel the new way the drip will become the stream and the stream will become the river. A new samaskara will have been formed.

This is how a moment of suffering can also be a pathway out of suffering. This is the journey of samskara.

Want to learn more? Then you might find this course on yoga and the mind interesting.

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