Sankalpa (सङ्कल्प), is a Samskrtham term used in yoga and védānta philosophy to indicate intention.
Let’s break the word into two; sum and kalpa. The root ‘krp’ in one of its word forms as kalpa offers the meaning to be able or capable to make a resolve (courtesy my Sanskrit teacher). The second part ‘sum’, is a prefix which means ‘with’. Commonly, prefixes are instrumental in changing the meaning of the root word or enhance the initial meaning. In this word, ‘sum’ connects with ‘kalpa’ to suggest ‘the highest resolve.’ Thus, it implies an affirmation or resolve to do something or achieve something greater, higher or spiritual. Sometimes, Sankalpa, as an auspicious vow is adopted during a ritual for fruition of a desire for ourselves, a family member or a friend.
Sankalpa can be a short phrase or a sentence, clearly and succinctly articulated that communicates a highest purpose. It can be an affirmation where you can make an agreement with yourself to bring about constructive change in yourself and your surroundings. Of course, your Sankalpa remains private, unless you choose to share it with a family member or friend.
For instance, as a spiritual intention, you might choose to adjust your yoga practice to include more philosophy or prāṇāyāma, or decide to take the big step to introduce the practice of seated meditation for thirty minutes, or deepen your faith to your chosen ideal. Or it can be a simple uplifting statement or affirmation, such as ‘peace or love is my true nature,’ rather than stemming from the ego like ‘I want peace in my life’, or ‘I want to embody love’. Choosing a universal affirmation reveals compassion and extends beyond the circle of I, me and mine.
Gurus suggest to sit quietly each day at a specific time may be for a week or two with intense gratitude and allow the ‘right’ words for the intention to emerge intuitively. Svāmi Niranjanānanda Sarasvati guides students to find their intention in yoga nidra, yogic sleep, a state where one is not really asleep, but in a state of deep relaxation. It is believed that when the mind is in a deeply relaxed state, Sankalpa can be written into the subconscious giving affirmations power and strength towards fulfillment. Repetition of your chosen affirmation in the morning, before meditation, or at the beginning of a yoga āsana practice will help to intensify its effects.
Interesting fact – since intention is after all a vṛtti, a thought fluctuation, this vritti has to be transcended when yogic union happens. In other words, when a seeker attains Samādhi, the eighth step of Rāja Yoga, the Sankalpa vritti will no longer need to be separate; it joyfully merges into the Highest, just as the wave becomes the ocean.
Enmeshed deep in householder life, I hadn’t given much thought of how my intention that was set at the outset of yoga training had changed or evolved. Years later, as life’s lessons occurred daily, many questions about my life, its purpose and intentions surfaced. I wondered how I had arrived at my first intention. What kind of affirmation did I choose? Did it change or evolve? Can I reframe my intentions? I travelled back to dig up my old affirmations to see what the imprints revealed.
I realized that setting an intention was only the first step. Allowing the intention to permeate throughout the day was a whole different escapade. Of course, all intentions, initially driven by the ego, are selfish. But I had to start somewhere. Just like everyone, I began at the physical level of wanting to lose weight (after pregnancy), cut down on sugar to manage my moods, to be patient with my toddler, etc., – a long list – nevertheless repeatedly reminding myself to practice ahimsa, non-harming as I flailed along. How long did I drag along in this same state of Sankalpa is a blur.
During the early yoga training days, the idea of setting intention during home practice came after seeing the success of five minute lectures used at the studio during each class. Essentially, the topic chosen for the week’s study became an intention for each day’s practice. Using the intention to guide me through āsana practice this way was very satisfying and slowly it became a habit at home as well. Since the topics were centered around the Eight Fold path of Rāja Yoga, they helped to create and clarify daily intentions. However, changing them frequently was discouraged as intentions need the time to ‘take hold’. What does that mean? It means affirmations require a period of time to get stronger and accomplish what they were created to do.
Now, having dug up a few old intentions, it was time to modify some of them and create a few new ones. It was not easy to figure out how to make the changes or even why I was thinking of making these changes. Was I missing the bigger picture? I took the time to introspect and find the right words to clearly articulate a new affirmation.
All the while, I continued with purification practices using Yama and Niyama which led me to ‘see’ my existing self, covered with selfish desires, unhealthy habits, likes and dislikes – traits the ego refused to believe they actually existed. The question then was ‘Is this who I really am?’ ‘Is this my ‘true’ self?’ Letting go of each of these not-so charming attributes became my intention.
With this intention, I began to walk a treacherous road of ego potholes and resentment ditches. Each of the traits had a clasp so tight that breaking away seemed impossible at first. With years of abhyāsa, practice, I witnessed the grip on these deep rooted habits loosen just enough to soften the blow and make some progress. I noticed many transgressions that were tripped by my inflated ego and tempted by my senses, were cushioned by Grace, only when I put in my best effort.
As long as I continued to refine my thoughts and actions, remained open to pitfalls, and mindfully put one step in front of the other, the process was, and continues to be enjoyable. Every change – in myself and within my environment – validated that the intention was evolving through sincere effort, execution and introspection. If my ultimate goal is to find my ‘true self’ – that of infinite peace and joy, kindness and love, then my intention must keep evolving.
Today, I see Sankalpa, Intention, as made up of words that have the power to touch the soul. Intention is about the choices I make and how it affects the role I play in this world. Intention is expanding my limited vision to see all possibilities. Intention is purifying my thoughts to change my life one day at a time. Intention is having faith in the process and practice. Intention is realizing it is a journey to discover a better version of myself. Consequently, Sankalpa must keep on evolving.
Still, a prayerful intention that was set twenty years ago continues to inspire me today: “Thank you for another breath, another day – help me use this opportunity to be better than my yesterday’s self with Your Grace”.
Happy New Year!