Vikalpa samskara is a term that describes the fundamental process of an ever refining yoga practice. It encompasses both study of text (with a teacher) and experiential learning and practice. With just experience, we may feel full unto ourselves, but we cannot explain the richness of our experience to others nor can we understand why. If we just hear something from a teacher or see a picture or read about it in a book, however, no matter how book smart we are, we do not have the understanding that comes from personal experience. It is by continuously combining and refining study and practice, that we can have a progressive deepening of true knowledge.
We often talk about “beginner’s mind” with respect to asana practice and meditation (and bringing the beauty of that state off of the mat). We are invited to be receptive and open the way is an ideal beginner, who wants to learn, but does not yet know the topic.
What does “beginner’s mind” really mean, though, in the context of someone who is experienced? I do not believe that it should mean discarding either book learning or discrimination built of experience. What it suggests to me is to approach our practice and life with freshness, with open-mindedness, without being bound by preconceived notions. I think this is the true process of vikalpa samskara. To be able to deepen our knowledge ever more deeply, we have to be willing to be open to shifts and changes in understanding. Then “samskara” does not become a rut, a bad habit, the inevitable effect from a previous action, but the development of a deepening path for more refined understanding.