In his book, Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar defines samskara as mental impressions of the past. We can look at them as habits, bad or good, that shape the way we respond to the world. There are ways that they serve us and ways that they prevent us from truly seeing things the way they are. For example, when I get up at night I can easily find the light switch that I have turned on many times before. Or, I can easily lock the door to my house as I leave, but if you asked me a few minutes later if I locked up I might have to go back and check. So in some ways there is an efficiency built into the mind that allows us to automate tasks. We don’t have to “think about it.” I can see something in the distance and don’t have to completely “see it” before I can often make out what it is. But then sometimes the squirrel that made me hit the brakes turns out to be a leaf getting blown across the road. Are we subservient to the mental impressions of the past or can we perceive things for what they are? In other words, can we see the true nature of the world around us?
Mr. Iyengar uses the analogy of waves on a lake. The waves on the surface are one thing. For example, a stone thrown into the water causes ripples on the surface. But if the stone is big enough and/or it happens often enough, the floor of the lake can be affected. Ridges on the bottom can form. Then when you have activity on the surface, you not only get the surface wave, but the waves caused by the impressions on the bottom, a secondary wave, a samskara so to speak. On page 133 of Light on Life, B. K. S. writes: “The practice of yoga is about reducing the size of subliminal mounds and setting us free from these and other fluctuations or waves in our consciousness.”
We can also relate this to yoga postures. Most people spend their lives either lying down, sitting down, or standing upright, and they typically move about by walking or riding in a sitting position. Most people never turn themselves upside down or sideways or bent backwards. When they stumble or lose balance, past impressions have taught them the correct response is to use the legs and the feet to catch themselves. Now, put them in salamba sarvangasana (shoulder stand) and watch the tension in their feet. They are still ready to catch themselves at any second with their feet, even though that action won’t work. The better focus is where the body is touching the ground—the upper arms, shoulders, elbows, etc.
Here are some examples. Notice in picture 1 the tension in the feet, anxiously awaiting that perilous tumble to the floor. But in the second picture you can see the relaxed, although by no means lazy, aspect of the practitioner’s feet. In the first picture, the student has little control over the actions of the feet and they become heavy and rigid, whereas the second picture shows the ability of the student to control, manipulate, and lighten the legs and feet.
We could debate that the second person has simply done sarvangasana enough to have built up a whole new set of samskara. Or we could postulate that yogasana are constantly asking us to clean the slate so to speak, asking us to erase previous mental impressions, see things for what they are. We are constantly trying out new postures, new actions, new expressions of the asanas in order to see things in finer and finer detail, to take the mental habits out of the equation, and to train the mind to stand down and be subservient to something greater than itself.