yogic new year 2016 (2)

You are what your deepest desire is.

As your desire is, so is your intention.

As your intention is, so is your will.

As your will is, so is your deed.

As your deed is, so is your destiny.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

An amazing quote from the Upanishads, a Hindu text – it connects desire (deep yearning), intention (forethought), willpower (restraint or ability to act), action (deed) to destiny (future/result).

The sankalpa, intention for the new year has two separate ideas; – one, setting an intention as a goal; which we learnt how to in the previous post. We discovered sankalpa, intention – a gentle sibling to resolution, conveys a similar meaning but is more compassionate and achievable. It helps us to be patient with our mistakes, mindful of our expectations and forgiving with our indulgences.

The second idea of sankalpa is the thought and emotion behind the goal. We must understand that a true sankalpa is not set at the surface; it is a thought, that is born from deep within. This thought is continually coaxing one to explore not just the goal, but also the exact emotion behind which the intention was created. This idea is difficult to dissect, hard to practice and harder to reflect on paper. So, here goes nothing.

According to Paramahamsa Yogananda, between desire/intention (see quote) and destiny, there is free will and action. For example, here is an intention we might make – “I am going to exercise at the gym 3 days a week to lose weight.” Let’s attempt to dissect why this intention is important to us.

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Here, intention as a goal is to lose weight. Acting upon it, we choose exercise. Deciding to go to the gym 3 days a week we thought might help establish a routine, hoping this routine will give birth to a healthy habit. The result – weight loss, perhaps fitness as well. Is it possible that choosing to act via exercise means you want to honor your body with the gift of long term health? If it is, then, isn’t this your “true intention”? Does this sound like an realistic ‘thought’ behind your goal?

There’s no question whether or not an intention exists in everyday interactions. More importantly, are we aware of this intention? An intention as forethought, exists for every action; meaning – behind every action there exists an intention of thought to execute, to will the act to happen. For the goal of intention to succeed it must be set in motion. There must be some energy that lights the spark of effort. Then, intention – through the ability of will, becomes the power that fuels the thought into action. This is the source from which a true sankalpa, is born. An intention, then can be viewed as a thought behind a thought, or the thought that powers a thought. It is not easy to intellectualize this thought process.

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Gurus and yogis say that primary intention, a singular thought is having the Highest Purpose, God or the yogic union, Samadhi, alone as our object of intention – free from all self-centered interests amidst living with integrity. However, to attain this primary intention, they prescribe a path strewn with many secondary intentions.

Secondary Intentions are many smaller intentions that are needed to achieve the primary intention. It is similar to having many short term goals for one long term goal. Eknath Easwaran says that the mind is habitually distracted and divided, filled with forgetfulness of the Divine. Secondary Intentions are those baby steps you choose to act upon and practice constantly until you become habituated in spiritual remembrance. Being able to set smaller intentions through ongoing reflection using the tools of Raja Yoga helped to enable my practice of policing intentions.

Many teachers say it can be a learning experience to bring your intention to the surface after an event. How many times have we regretted an action after the fact and wished we had done things differently? I have a long list. Here, spiritual teachers say it is more enlightening to create a positive intention before an interaction so that it can guide us in empowering actions. This takes immense practice, for we usually move about our daily activities on autopilot. Even then, there always happens to be that one intention in an important interaction that is unfortunately overlooked.

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Everyday intentions are a mixture of selfish and selfless thoughts. These thoughts lead us to act on behalf of ourselves or our family and friends, co-workers and even strangers. They may be routine thoughts and actions that we operate on autopilot or thoughts set at an instant due a reaction to a situation or event. Often it so happens that a primary intention is good, but it is spoilt by a secondary intention which is not so good or imperfect.

For instance, I agree to babysit my neighbor’s kid (primary intention) because I want her to return the favor (secondary intention). Or am I covering a peer’s yoga class with an intention that she will cover mine when I need help?  Or should I hold the elevator door open for the next person or let them take the next one? Should I take the last loaf of sourdough bread in the bakery aisle, instead to giving it to the mother of 2 waiting in line for a fresh batch? Wait – there is more. Should I stop to help pick up the fallen boxes of tissues knocked down by a senior’s grocery cart? Should I tell the customer service desk that a Chevy Malibu has its lights on in the parking lot? The list is endless. We have all been in similar situations at least once.

Is there a right or wrong answer to these questions? Only we know our motive, the state of consciousness we are in – i.e., are we truly in a hurry or do we have the time to clarify our motives before we act? The instant you answer this question, then the decision to act will happen accordingly. When you know what your true intention is, that knowledge alone activates the power of intentionSpiritual intentions then, are well thought-out, conscious motives that have the quality of discernment and detachment, are wholesome and pure, lucid and simple.

But we start here – finding our true or pure intention, is first and foremost, a purification exercise, Shaucha, (first Niyama of Raja Yoga). To acquire purity of intention spiritual teachers say we must continually watch and police our motives in order to avoid not only those that are obviously bad, but even those that are imperfect. Here is where it gets tough. Using the tools of Raja Yoga we must meticulously peel the layers of unwanted debris of motives to reveal our true intention. This process of discernment has to be done before each and every action. This is the yogic practice for purity of intention.

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The bottom line; we are working from the inside out. For instance, if I set a positive intention that I am “open and appreciative” in a certain situation, I have directed myself to be in a particular state of consciousness. Being in this state of consciousness suggests certain behaviors; although no specific actions are necessary in order to be in that particular consciousness or attitude. However, once I establish myself in this state of consciousness, I go about my daily activities, observing my interactions and hoping it will last forever. Before long, life happens and suddenly I am reacting, instead of responding from the depth of my sankalpa. Yet, I cannot have attachment or aversion towards any of these outcomes.

Rishi Pathanjali in the Yoga Sutras, alludes that attachment, raga, or aversion, dvesha, are based on ego, fear and insecurity, while detachment is belief and surrender in the power of the true Self, Ishvara Pranidhana. The yogic word for detachment is Vairaagya. The Yoga Sutras tell us that we have to be prepared to relinquish our rigid attachment to the outcomes of our intention and live in the wisdom of uncertainty and change. Moreover, Paramahamsa Yogananda and Shri Easwaran, both affirm that practice of meditation will take us beyond the ego-mind into the silence of pure consciousness. This is the ideal state in which to plant the seeds of true intention and detachment.

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I want to believe that if my intention is pure, then every interaction will be perfect. Of course, I have no control over how people will perceive or receive my communication. Still, if my intention is pure, and I have faith in it, the result should be pure – right? Yet, if the result created animosity – then, instead of playing the blame game,  I must revisit my intention, reflect deeply and clarify it before the next interaction. Regrettably, the damage may be done – many relationships are destroyed due to misunderstandings of perceived intention. But they say that time heals. In the meantime, I am working on perfecting my intentions, year after year, trying hard to catch the subtlest, deepest thought in the net of wisdom before it is willed into action. So far I’ve caught only a few, but sadly, lost many.

The best practice I have been told is to identify a wide variety of subjects or situations, little and big, emotional and neutral, fun and serious, at work and at play. To become proficient at this, we need lots of practice with forgiveness and patience, and with awareness that misunderstandings are opportunities to reframe our intentions. We may get good at it as we understand the process of purification. Of course, the gurus will remind us of a little something called sankalpa avinaya,  intention arrogance,  when we decide we have mastered it all – only to fall hard. I can give you many instances where I have fallen and bruised my ego.

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Then watch carefully — the power of your intention, your purified forethought, impact all aspects of your life. Each time you decide to start over by reconnecting to your thought before you act, you are taking one more step toward finding your authenticity and freedom. Sages and mystics say that true intention lies in the deepest part of the human heart.  And, to discover it fully, we must be practised in the art of reflecting on our soul, examining its hidden motives, and penetrating its deepest recesses (Easwaran).

When the intention of making Raja Yoga, the 8 fold path, as part of my lifestyle was born, I did not anticipate that I will be working on it for the rest of my life. So each year, I attempt to reframe and purify my sankalpa and keep moving forward hoping that there is one less misunderstanding and one more selfless interaction, leaving the burden of misunderstood perceptions to God and my Gurudev.

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Easwaran, Eknath. 2010, Third Edition. Conquest of Mind: Take Charge of Your Thoughts and Reshape Your Life Through Meditation. Niligiri Press, CA

Salzburg, Sharon.2002. Loving Kindness: Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Shambala Classics

yogic new year 2016 (1)

“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.

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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.

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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.

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  • 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.

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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.

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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!

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Ruiz, Miguel Don. 1997. The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book. Amber-Allen Publishing