This this time of year when summer turns to fall, the whole world seems turned on its head by the beginning of school. This is especially true if you have children, but it seems that few people escape the winds of change at this time of year. I notice a marked decline in the attendance at my beginner classes, while my more advanced classes tend to remain steady. I think that this is because beginners are more easily thrown off course, while those who have been practicing for a longer time are more able weather the changes in their lives without letting it affect their practice.
While the universe changes around us, and we attempt to remain anchored in the part of ourselves that does not change, there is also the possibility for consciously changing the habits and patterns that unconsciously govern our lives. Whenever we behave in an unconscious manner, we are creating and deepening neural pathways in our brain, literally conditioning ourselves to continue this behavior.
In yoga philosophy, these pathways are called samskaras. Samskaras are described as grooves, or patterns on your soul and they are thought to travel with us from one life to the next. Often they are thought of as negative, because almost any habit can lead to imbalance. I believe however, that we can have positive samskaras as well, pathways that lead to our greatest joys and passions.
In order to alter negative samskaras, we must first become aware of them. What are the habits that drag you down? Smoking? Complaining? Criticizing? Self-doubt?
Once we are aware of our habits, we often keep doing them, berating ourselves all the while. In order to create the transformation we desire, we must forgive ourselves for the past. Then we need to ask ourselves how deeply we desire this transformation. Without a deep desire for change, we will continue down the same pathways over and over until a crisis propels us forward. Then it is time to ask for help. Most addicts who overcome their deep samskaras to numb their pain with drugs do not do it alone. They come together as a group to hold each other accountable, remind each other where they have been, and support each other through the fire of transformation.
While in the process of shedding our destructive habits, it is essential to consciously create positive habits to replace them. Otherwise, one destructive habit may be replaced by another destructive habit. A meditation practice is probably the most positive habit you can aquire since mediation is considered to be the most effective tool available for smoothing away samskaras.
The more deeply ingrained a samskara is, the longer it will take to create transformation. There may be times when you feel that despite your best effort, nothing is happening, or you may even feel like you are going backwayds. Relapses are an inevitable part of the process of change. At these times, it is doubly important to renew your commitment to change. Make a point of doing something that nourishes you, such as spending time in nature or playing with children. If you step back and look on your journey from a neutral perspective, you will see how far you have come. Do not rush this journey, take it one step at a time. There may be some samskaras that require a lifetime (or more!) of effort to erase.
Challenge: Set aside 5-10 minutes per day for meditation. Choose a time when you are most likely to follow through. For example, if you are not a morning person, do not commit to the morning. If you are not able to meditate at your designated time, do it at a different time — you could even go into the bathroom for 5 minutes at work and meditate in the toilet stall if all else fails. Take a sacred vow to meditate every day for the month of September. Tell someone else about your promise and ask them to hold you accountable.
Begin by setting an intention. It helps to remind yourself each time you meditate why you are meditating. Begin with just one habit or samskara that you would like to change.
Asana and pranayama are both excellent preparations for meditation. Most of you reading this already practice asana, any many do pranayama as well. If you have time for some asana before meditation, it will serve you well.
Whether or not you do asana first, take 10 gentle ujaii breaths before you meditate (this should take about 2 minutes). Then set a timer for 3-8 (or more) minutes. When the timer goes off, you can choose to stop, or of course continue your meditation. The timer keeps you from wondering how long it has been and helps you keep your mind on your meditation.
If you are new to meditation, choose a meditation with a focus (saguna) rather than a formless meditation (nirguna). Your focus can be an image, sound, or word.