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Have you ever heard of ancestral or generational healing? Or seen a family where the same trauma pattern seems to mysteriously develop generation after generation? The Ayurvedic idea of samskaras along with the science of epigenetics may shed some light on this mystery.
According to Ayurveda, physical, behavioral, mental, and emotional traits can be carried through generations. If mom or dad carries stress, the associated behavior traits can be passed on for generations. These are called samskaras, imprints, carried to offspring.
Samskaras are defined as:
An impression, or under the impulse of previous impressions. The imprints left on the subconscious mind by experience in this or previous lives, which then color all of life, one’s nature, responses, states of mind.
Today, new Western studies are beginning to understand how these traits may be passed down.
While the environment and behavior rarely change the DNA sequence of a gene, they can cause epigenetic changes in the regulation or expression of the gene. This new genetic expression may be what we mean by samskaras!
A 2014 study shows that when young male mice are stressed, their behavior is affected as adults. The stressed mice are resistant to exploring new environments and give up more quickly when given a challenging task. When sperm from these stressed males is injected into eggs, the offspring exhibit the same stress behaviors, without any contact with dad.1
In another study, rodents are trained to fear the smell of peppermint before they become pregnant. When the offspring of these peppermint-fearing rodents are exposed to piped-in peppermint oil, infant rodents show the same fear. Remember, the fear of peppermint oil was recorded in the memory of the mother before pregnancy, suggesting that the infant carries this impression, or peppermint samskara, from the mother prior to fertilization.2
This research suggests that stressful behavior is passed through generations. Stressors alter the expression of genes without changing the DNA sequence. Scientists suggest that if your grandparent lived through heavy stress, such as the Great Depression, certain gene expressions may be turned on or off for generations, affecting the way you behave.3
Understanding how inherited fears, stressors, or samskaras can affect the health and behavior of a family for generations is fundamental in the Ayurvedic roadmap of health. Interestingly, we are only now beginning to understand the subtlety and profundity of epigenetics.
Reversing Epigenetic Traits & Samskaras
Reversing these epigenetic traits is also discussed in Ayurveda. One of the most powerful tools to enhance self-awareness and make deep epigenetic samskaras is the practice of meditation and breathing.
While meditation boosts awareness, it is not a complete therapy unless it is followed up with action steps. Action based on heightened awareness changes negative neural patterns in the brain. The goal of Ayurveda is to be free of old emotional patterns that negatively impact health, happiness, and longevity.
With emphasis on the importance of reflection and self-awareness, Ayurveda claims we can remove samskaras imprinted in our DNA from childhood or our parent’s childhood.
One study suggests that up to 95% of the things we think, say, and do as adults come from impressions from the first six years of life.4 We call these unconscious behaviorsbecause they are drawn from the unconsciousness of old samskaras or impressions. The cure, according to Ayurveda, is to become conscious. This requires becoming more self-aware and then taking intentional action based on your true nature rather than old emotional patterns of behavior derived from childhood.
I have also developed the Transformational Awareness Technique (TAT) to teach people not only how to be successful meditators, but how to take transformational action steps based on the heightened awareness meditation offers.
Most meditation practices leave out what I believe to be the most important part: taking awareness-based action steps. It is the action that lays new neural pathways in the brain and frees us from old emotional patterns and behavioral samskaras.
- Szegedy-Maszak, M., Mysteries of the Mind: Your unconscious is making your everyday decisions. U.S. News & World Report, February 28, 2005.