“Yesterday I was clever and wanted to change the world. Today I am wise and decided to change myself. ” – Jalal ud-in Rumi (Sufi Mystic)
Change means to act differently – to adapt, make amends or make things different from the way they were. The act of change begins with an intention. The intention then, persuades many of us to set new year resolutions, a common tradition, to initiate the change. Take a moment to ponder over your typical new year resolutions. How do they make you feel – excited and hopeful at first, anxious or fearful, restless or incomplete later?
For example, do you feel guilty or defeated if you skipped a few days at the gym or for having that slice of carrot cake at your best friend’s birthday – mostly for not sticking to your resolution? The word resolution, invokes a narrow viewpoint or a serious connotation; meaning – if broken or not followed through, the consequences can be hurtful. We feel compelled to expect certain outcomes without any room to make mistakes, hence – the disappointment.
When the new year rolls around, exercise and diet resolutions still seem to be most popular. Trying out a yoga class at your gym or neighborhood studio may be on your list this year. In that case, reflect on how you would like to feel during the coming year. Can you do things differently that will make this year’s resolution more joyful and rewarding?
For years, new year resolutions left me feeling guilty and annoyed; blaming the resolution itself, not my effort, if expectations weren’t met. Then, making a conscious effort to reject this self-loathing, and I attended a special New Year’s Eve yoga class at the YogaLife Institute. Listening to Bob, my teacher, talk about transforming resolutions into intentions was enlightening. This was my first attempt (before teacher training) towards making real lifestyle changes using the tools of Raja Yoga.
The yogic word for intention is sankalpa. A Samskritham (sanskrit) word, sankalpa means “a purpose, or determination, or simply – an intention.” To set an intention is to give birth to a sankalpa. A sankalpa is not set at the surface; it coaxes one to explore not just the goal, but also the exact thought or feeling behind which the intention was created.
I realized that sankalpa as an intention had much more to offer than a resolution. It provided a mindful way to change myself, to be forgiving and, to be accommodating when life happens. With this new attitude, bhava of sankalpa, the hostility that came from dwelling on past transgressions began to dissolve. It encouraged me to look back at my many lapses and let go, even if it took numerous tries. In its place, an exercise in effort, Tapas and surrender, Ishvara Pranidhana, was born to create an achievable intention. These tools of Raja Yoga helped me to open my heart to new possibilities, by rooting in yoga and expanding it to my whole life. Studying and practicing at YogaLife Institute for 10 years, I have come to accept yoga as a lifestyle and not dismiss it as an ordinary exercise.
There are two separate ideas in sankalpa; – one, the setting of the intention as a goal; two, the thought behind that goal. Let’s look at the first one in this discussion and the second one on the next post.
If you are wondering how to set an intention, it can be an exercise in itself. Sara Ivanhoe suggests the following exercise to help create an intention. Be relaxed, calm and positive; then begin.
- Take the time to create a simple statement of intention in the present tense, almost like an affirmation, for your sankalpa. For example, instead of “May life bring me happiness this year” consider “May I be happy and open to receive from life.” Rephrase and re-write as many times as you need until you feel it is just right for you.
- Once you are clear on your statement, use your breath to bring that intention into your body.
- Take a deep breath and imagine the intention filling out your physical body, allowing your body to understand who you are now. Hold the breath for 15-30 seconds and release. (10-15 seconds is fine as well)
- Release, and take a few regular breaths to regain your equilibrium.
- Next, take another deep breath in and hold. This is for your mind. Picture the intention clearing out your brain and setting a new pattern.
- Lastly, inhale and hold. Direct your intention to the deepest part of yourself, your soul. Focus and repeat the intention and finally, release your breath.
- Close your eyes and notice how this practice makes you feel.
- Here are some examples of intentions.
The practice of constant inquiry through Raja Yoga helped to re-frame my intentions. Over the years, they have matured to be more inclusive of uplifting thoughts than to reject negative ones. And, instead of dropping previous year’s intention to make room for a new one, at times I’ve kept both, hoping the old one becomes a part of my lifestyle while I worked on the new one. Many failed intentions (list is long) and a few wonderful successes make up my story. I would like to share this one.
In the midst of learning new asanas, poses, and teacher training, I discovered that yoga practice was incomplete without pranayama (breathing practices) and dhyana (meditation). A sankalpa to make them a part of my daily practice was born. Demanding, laborious, exhausting are a few choice words that come to mind to describe what it took to implement this sankalpa. Of course, I had to keep reminding myself of ahimsa, non-harming every step of the way. Then, “sitting for meditation” following prananyama meant that I was going to be seated for a longer time. Hence, an addendum – to honor my body with yoga props to tolerate longer sitting times. I had to reframe, rephrase and repeat this all inclusive-intention, every year for 4 (long) years until it became a habit and a part of my yoga lifestyle. In the process, I began to cultivate patience and perseverance – an unexpected but joyful bonus. Little did I know that I needed both of them in the very near future. Although I had many breaks in this practice, every obstacle was reflective and every step in the right direction was worth the effort.
As I proudly reveled in the success of this difficult, all-inclusive sankalpa, my husband, Anil, lost his job. After a few stressful months, – a new job was found – in a new state, which meant packing up and moving. I had sown my seeds of yoga, the roots were just getting fertilized and buds of yogic lifestyle were beginning to appear when I had to uproot and re-plant in a new state. I had to begin again. Sage Pathanjali in the yogic text, Yoga Sutra, states the first line as “Atha Yoganushasanum,” – “Now begins the instruction/practice of yoga.” Now, I begin again, digging, sowing new seeds – using the ever-faithful tools of Raja Yoga.
And so the journey continues. It has been 5 years since the re-planting. Still fertilizing and hoping spring will come soon; I couldn’t have done it without sankalpa and the tools of Raja Yoga.
New year intentions don’t have overnight successes. So, when you stray from your sankalpa, don’t criticize yourself. Gentle reminders help; and try incorporating your sankalpa into your daily routine. Make it visible – post it on your computer, near the phone, or on your dresser mirror; simply say it to yourself quietly when you wake up and before going to sleep, and as many times as you want during the day. Better yet, persuade a friend to collaborate with you, which makes implementing your ‘new’ intention (or a recycled one) a joyful one.
Paramahamsa Yogananda calls the yogic union of Samadhi, as “Ever-New Bliss.” So, resolve to keep the ‘new’ active throughout the year. Step on the mat like you did the very first time. Recall the first time you practiced Surya Namaskar, sun salutations. Do you remember your excitement to perform your first vinyasa, sequence of asanas? Recollect the first time you were introduced to your breath. Recall the feeling of practicing Ahimsa, non-harming in speech for the first time. And, each time you repeat these actions, embrace it as a “new” yogic feeling – of doing it blissfully – for the very first time.
Ultimately, being ready for the New Year is getting ready to embrace life—seeing the same people in a ‘new’ way, doing your chores with ‘new’ zeal, working with your old boss or long time colleagues with a ‘new’ attitude, practicing asana, poses with ‘new’ zest – essentially, preparing ourselves for whatever happens next with an open heart, – is the essence, bhava of sankalpa, your intention.
Happy Holidays from our family to yours!
Ruiz, Miguel Don. 1997. The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book. Amber-Allen Publishing