The Samskaras in Yoga

(originally written for Zuna Yoga)

 

The Samskaras in Yoga

The relationship between the mind, energy, and actions has always been an area of particular interest for me, and to learn about it in the context of samskaras in yoga has proven a fascinating way to relate them to one another. As it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly how or why the practice of yoga is beneficial to us – ask any new yogi, it sometimes takes a while to figure out just why it makes us feel so good (and it’s different for everyone!) – the description of samskaras and our neurological tendencies in T.K.V. Desikachar’s ‘The Heart of Yoga’, succeeded in explaining a sensation which for so long I had failed to correctly define.

What are Samskaras?

The Sanskrit term refers to the conditioning of the mind to act or direct itself in a certain way on a regular basis. It also refers to those paths or patterns along which these thoughts or behaviours travel. It’s similar in concept to the neuroscientific model of how our thoughts and behaviours, whether positive or negative, become more deeply engrained in neural pathways in our brain with each repetition. The meaning of samskara is reflected in the very word itself, with “sam” meaning “well thought out” or “to accomplish” while “kara” means “the action undertaken.”

But how do Samskaras work?

We must first practice awareness and understanding of self. By understanding our individual habitual expenditure of energy, recognising our tendencies and bringing awareness to those behaviours that are undesired or against our greatest good, we can slowly and gradually learn to redirect our prana, our life force, to where it needs to go. This process is a lot easier said than done, however, and awareness is the first step towards achieving this balance.

Purusha and Energy Flow

Encouraging new behavioural patterns and discarding old ones enlists the use of purusha, the all-seeing force of energy within us; a higher consciousness which witnesses our actions from a distance and observes possibilities and potential directions without engaging. Purusha’s powers of observation are best when the mind is clear, and as such it’s vital that we obtain clarity before attempting to redirect or encourage samskaras along an alternate route. It’s through our practice of yoga that we cultivate and maintain the mental ability and clarity with which to do this.

Why Yoga?

Yoga and meditation aid with the reconditioning of the mind to continually and repeatedly redirect itself away from harmful patterns to which it has become accustomed. Yoga helps encourage the positive flow of energy away from any limiting or restrictive tendencies. This is why we find our practice to be so effective in dealing with mental or emotional struggles. It literally helps us create the space necessary to form pathways out of these negative cycles.

Our beliefs and lifestyles, even when we engage in them unconsciously—especially when we engage in them unconsciously!—can result in imbalances and undesired manifestations of our energy. We must remain attentive and aware as we determine which route we take. The goal is to consciously redirect our prana towards positive and fulfilling actions until it becomes habitual.
“Where the mind goes, energy follows”, and so when this is done continually and repetitively and with conviction, we call it a samskara. And that is when we avoid further suffering.

The 5 Pranas – Apana, Udana, and Prana

The 5 Pranas

-Apana, Udana, Prana

As discussed in the previous post on Samana and Vyana, the 5 Pranas or energies are an important aspect of both yogic science and ayurvedic medicine, which as a discipline also aims to achieve and maintain balance between said energies within the mind and body.
Having already come to understand Samana as an energetic movement stemming from the periphery of the body moving inwards and focused in the area of the naval, and Vyana as a circulatory movement to aid with the transportation of energy around the entire physical body, it follows that Apana, Udana, and Prana each travel along their own individual paths too.

panchavayuimage

Elimination

Apana can be understood literally as ‘the air that moves away’, therefore signifying the downward and outward energetic pathway which it follows. Apana is associated with the elimination of toxins from the body, and is sometimes considered the definition of our pranic or energetic immune system. Again, this can be understood in terms of physical waste and stools, sweat, carbon dioxide and urine, but also in terms of negative sensory, emotional and mental experiences which prove unpleasant or unsuited to our composition. Centralised in the lower abdomen, Apana not only governs elimination, but also reproduction, providing an instinctual self-sufficiency and replenishing sense of continuity when functioning at the height of it’s potential.

Support

Udana on the other hand is an uplifting force of energy, literally translated as ‘upward moving air’, and is primarily associated with the progression, growth and transformation of the body and mind as they evolve continuously throughout our lives. Physically, Udana aids with balance, growth, and our ability to stand and carry out actions. It also governs speech and is said to stem from an area in the throat, supporting the head and organs associated with our mentality balanced upon the spine. This force of energy being continuously drawn upwards is easily blocked, resulting in stunted growth and stagnancy within our actions and thoughts. Yoga and Ayurveda are used as ways to reopen these pathways and aid the correct flow of Udana throughout the body, unblocking both mental and physical pathways and habits which have hindered our growth and expansion into the world.

Guidance

Prana in it’s own right serves as the energy of ‘forward moving air’, and although Samana constitutes inward moving energy from the external and its assimilation to the internal,  Prana as a whole deals with the reception of all sensory engagement and its propulsion around the body. Not only does it provide the energy which is necessary for all other pranas to function, but it guides them from its seat in the region of the third eye.

While all 5 Pranas on a physical level have many inherent effects on our body’s reactions and chemical processes, the “receptivity to mental sources of nourishment” (D. Frawley) that can be achieved by incorporating pranayama techniques successfully into one’s yoga practice is an invisible yet exceptional way to achieve and maintain a better mind/body balance and ensure the healthy functioning of the channels through which the pranas travel (nadis). These channels will be discussed  further in another post.

The 5 Pranas – Samana and Vyana

The 5 Pranas
1. Samana and Vyana

Having consumed and digested a certain amount of knowledge on the 5 pranas during my teacher training with Zuna Yoga and also from reading the likes of David Frawley’s ‘Yoga and Ayurveda’, I was inspired to delve deeper and discover more about the subtle differences which exist between them.
‘Prana’ is taken in its most basic form to mean ‘energy’, and we as humans use the five forms of this energy effectively as a means to connect with the universal experiences that are the physicality and consciousness of being. Frawley outlines how the one dominant force of prana within us divides into five separate types which can be categorized according to their movement and direction, and in this blog series we will delve into each pranas individual role and effects within the body in context to the whole.

Prana, Apana, Udana, Samana, and Vyana serve as a means to help us digest and assimilate with all elements of our environment. It’s interesting to consider these actions in terms of elements outside of food and water, something which I had never ever considered before I began to glean an understanding of the pranas.
Outside of the breath, oxygen or air, prana refers to the overall life force which sustains both mind and body and has the power to maintain equilibrium between them.  While food and sustenance are included in the ‘balancing air’ of Samana, which works predominantly in the gastrointestinal tract digesting food,  it also refers to other areas which deal with digestion – namely the digestion of oxygen through the lungs, and the digestion of experiences in the mind. Whether emotional, mental or physical, the correct and balanced functioning of this particular prana is vital to achieving and maintaining a balanced lifestyle.


Ingestion

Moving towards the midline of the body from the periphery inwards, one can imagine the digestive actions of Samana in terms of inhaling and exhaling, in terms of ingesting food, and also in terms of other sensory experiences – sight, sound, smell and touch. These actions all require the assimilation of an external sensation with the internal body as it currently exists, and as such the inward flowing direction of Samana means that it is the primary prana, or energy, required to do so.

Continuity

A similarly fascinating combination of movements and energy can be observed in Vyana, which aids in circulation and continuation of energy throughout the body. Having established that movement is key to living and maintaining a steady balance, it follows that one of the main pranas must deal with this continuity of motion throughout the body – be it food and water moving through the digestive process, oxygen moving through the lungs, or thoughts and emotions through the mind. This is Vyana’s role.

Cogs and Wheels

The subtle differences between these two pranic energies (Samana and Vyana) is important to be aware of when attempting to understand the power of prana, the combined functioning of which must be broken down to ensure achievement of optimum expression and balance within the body. When Samana’s role ceases after the ingestion of sensory experience, Vyana kickstarts the movement of this externally sourced energy around the internal body. In a way it’s kind of like the cogs in a machine coming into action as their individual role becomes necessary to ensure correct functioning of the whole task. Similarly, for just one of these cogs to be even slightly off or imbalanced in its alignment, the machine does not function to the best of it’s capability.

Having experienced in the past what I have now come to understand as severe imbalances of these energies, manifesting itself within my tiny and self-absorbed world at the time as varying degrees of depression and anxiety, it follows that my fascination with this particular aspect of yoga and energy consumption is ongoing and ever-expanding.

The other 3 prana, Apana, Udana, and Prana itself are similarly linked and we will continue the discussion of them in the next post.