Vasana are deep impressions left by previous experience. They are more fundamental than samskara, which I usually describe as the habits and patterns that we unconsciously follow in our actions.
Samskara is seeing the days getting shorter and feeling that it's time to go back to school. Or feeling irritated when someone steps in front of you after you've been waiting a long time in the line for the checkout at the grocery store. Or believing that you always know the answer or, alternatively, that maybe you never know the answer. Doesn't matter what the question is: you respond like Pavlov's dog. Same stimulus, same reflex.
Vasana, in contrast, reach further down into the overlapping parts of our selves (body, mind, breath, personality, and emotions - what are called the panca mayas, or five layers. Think spiderweb, as in you touch one part, and the entire thing vibrates. Similarly, yoga contends that by affecting one of the layers - such as the breath - we begin to affect all other layers. But I digress.) I often describe vasana as emotional scar tissue - things happen to us, they leave a mark, and when we re-experience the event that caused the damage, we feel the same feelings again, even if there is no chance of the past recurring.
The reason that I bring this up: today I went to the dentist. I'm not usually a person nervous about the dentist. But as I bolted down lunch and then killed some time doing the least calming thing that a knitter can do, which is to troll Ravelry looking for patterns and then drilling down to people's finished objects and then drilling down to problems/errata/mine fields that might be waiting out there in Pattern Land, I realized that I was not looking forward to the visit. I left the house just late enough to get me to the appointment five minutes late, which is a pattern of mine and one that I need to break. Perhaps somewhere in the reptilian part of my brain, I was thinking "Rudeness. Lateness. They'll just tell me to go back home!"
I noticed, as I waited for the elevator, that there is an office called Absolutely Gentle Dentistry (it may have been Absolute) on the same floor as my dentist's very large practice. Why has he never sent me there? I speculate that Absolutely Gentle Dentistry is like the 13th floor in a kids' book that I love but can't recall the title of (not The Pink Motel, which I adore, but that vintage): it does not show up on the elevator pad and only some people can get there.
Unfortunately, I was not dispatched back home due to tardiness. They took me back to the office, had me lay down in the chair, and left me to look at an irritating picture of very yellow tulips against a very blue sky. This is Illinois, office decorator person, not Holland, and if you looked out the window to the left of this graphic, there was a typical grey Chicago sky full of billowy clouds blocking the sun until next June.
I will spare my 14 or 15 readers the rest of my Eeyore-response to the visit, except to note that I felt a whole lot better once I told the assistant that I was nervous. And as I talked with her, I realized that the reason that I was nervous was not about today. It was about being in the same office, in the same chair, practically, where I was told last year that I had to have another surgery. And that one surgery led to another. Suddenly, I was thrown back to that year, when I seemed to alternate between periods of healthiness capped by strange reasons that called for dramatic hospital visits.
Once I found a reason for the stomach being in knots, I felt much better. See, the vasana don't go away. The goal, instead, is to be more aware when they do crop up and then to be able to process the influence without excessive agitation. Yoga doesn't get rid of the difficult stuff; it just looks to add on skills that help you navigate the choppy waters with a bit more confidence and less swamping of the boat. I told my dentist, who had arrived by now and asked if he was the reason that I was nervous, that it was fine and had naught to do with his care, and that I was now going to turn the sound up on my Ipod (the soundtrack of Dreamgirls for some reason seemed to help) and pretend that I wasn't there. He was fine with that.
But don't try to explain vasana to your dentist when the left half of your face, tongue, and lips are numbed with novacaine. Trying to say "vasana" - pronounced vaaah- sa - nah - during modern oral surgery is an art waiting to be developed.