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As yogis, most of us continually strive to move through life more mindfully. Yet sometimes, despite our best efforts, we run into obstacles and react in ways that don’t serve us. We vow to cut back on sugar, then cave at the sight of cookies; we get down on ourselves for playing the comparison game when looking at social media feeds; we feel frustrated if we can’t balance in Bakasana (Crane Pose) during yoga class. Often, these roadblocks are tied to our samskaras, the Sanskrit term for the mental and emotional grooves, or habits, that we find ourselves falling back into time and time again.
What Are Samskaras?
Whether conscious or unconscious, positive or negative, samskaras make up our conditioning and influence how we respond in certain situations. Changing these deeply ingrained patterns can be difficult—even if those patterns cause us pain. The good news is that we can use our yoga practice to examine our samskaras, identify what may be getting in the way of realizing our best intentions, and work with what we uncover.
By observing our reactive patterns on the yoga mat and meditation cushion, we’re better able to recognize when we react mindlessly in real life—and in turn, consciously shift our feelings, thoughts, emotions, moods, and behaviors. For example, if you lose your balance in Vrksasana (Tree Pose), look at how you talk to yourself. Are you kind? Or do you beat yourself up? Can you dust yourself off and try again, even when you feel like giving up?
The most common roadblocks I see students struggle with on a regular basis are self-criticism, frustration, and lack of willpower. The following sequences will help you cultivate the tools you need to work through your roadblocks, so you can break the patterns that no longer serve you and call in new ones that will help you live more mindfully.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
Stand at the front of your mat in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). As you inhale, stretch your arms out to the sides and then overhead, lengthening through your side ribs. As you exhale, sit your hips back and down. Shift your weight toward your heels, and release the tops of your thighs and tailbone toward the mat. Soften the sides of your neck, unhinge your jaw, and quiet your eyes. Stay here for 1 minute. Utkatasana is intense. You’ll notice your mind searching for a way out of the discomfort. Observe what arises, and choose to stay. When it gets hard, let it be hard.
See also 4 Ways to Modify Chair Pose
Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
Return to Tadasana (Mountain Pose) at the front of your mat, and step or jump your feet wide. Stretch your arms open to shoulder height, rotate your right thigh open 90 degrees, then turn your left toes in slightly. On an inhalation, ground down into your feet and lift up. On an exhalation, bend your right knee any amount, or until it is directly over your ankle. Align your knee with your second toe by rotating your right thigh open. Draw your right outer hip toward your left heel, and lengthen your torso toward your right foot. Place your bottom hand on a block to the outside of your right ankle, and stretch your left arm straight up. Root your right hand into the block as you lengthen up through your left collarbone, arm, and hand. Reach your left arm over your ear, spinning your outer armpit toward your heart. Breathe here for 1 minute, then repeat on the other side.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
From Balasana (Child’s Pose), stretch your arms out in front of you, and lengthen the sides of your body. Look to see that your hands are shoulder-width apart; press your palms into the mat, and straighten your arms. Inhale, and shift forward to your hands and knees. On an exhalation, curl your toes under and pull your thighs back into Down Dog. Ground down evenly into your hands, and pull up through straight arms. Press the tops of your thighs back, and shift more weight into your legs. Stay here for at least 1 minute, observing what arises as you hold the pose. You may feel the urge to fidget, which disconnects you from your experience and may prompt you to avoid what comes up. If this happens, recommit your attention to the actions of the pose.
From Down Dog, reach your heels back as you shift forward, and stack your shoulders over your wrists. Ground down into your hands as you pull up through your arms. Pull your front low ribs in and up toward your spine, spreading your collarbones wide. Lift the tops of your thighs away from the floor as you lengthen your tailbone toward your heels. Reach your heels back as you stretch your breastbone forward. Stay here for 1 minute: Feel how this pose generates heat and connects you to your center.
Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose)
From Down Dog, turn onto the outer edge of your right foot, and stack your left foot on top. Shift your weight into your right hand, and place your left hand on your hip—then extend it up toward the ceiling. Note: Do not stack your bottom hand directly below your shoulder; make sure it’s slightly in front of it. Shift your head back so it’s in line with your spine. Spin your inner thighs back toward the wall behind you as you lengthen your tailbone toward your heels. Reach through your inner heels and big-toe mounds. Stay here for 1 minute, come back to Down Dog, and repeat on the other side.
You can fold this mini-sequence into a longer home practice or simply do these five poses followed by a restorative supported Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) and a supine hip opener, such as Sucirandhrasana (Eye-of-the-Needle Pose). Finish in Savasana (Corpse Pose).