The turn of a new year tends to motivate us to reflect on changes we’d like to make, and perhaps to set specific goals. As a counselor and yoga therapist, I consider myself a “change agent” all throughout the year, so I don’t tend to think much about resolutions myself—I might even subconsciously scoff at them. But even so, there seems to be a cultural consciousness that does have some effect on me. Last year I woke up on the first morning of 2017 ready to finally give up alcohol altogether, and the first weeks of this year brought a few important insights about increasing my ability to challenge my yoga therapy students. There’s certainly some utility there, in throwing our own message of hope onto the cultural northbound train of The NY Resolution. By the way: if you had no resolution, doing more yoga would be a really good one, for many, many reasons.
But, as we all know, our resolutions don’t always go as planned. If the goals were easy, we likely wouldn’t have needed to make them into resolutions. By this second half of the month now, all those real-time obstacles—big and small, expected and unexpected—may’ve grown like vines over our glowing images of where we’d like to be. If this is the case for you, I’d like to offer the notion of sankalpa. In yoga philosophy, we use this Sanskrit term to describe a “hearts longing,” or “a deep resolve.” Before practicing our postures or breath work or meditation we check in to ask: WHY? We are about to create fuel of sorts with our practice; the sankalpa asks us, what will that fuel work towards? While you could use the term “resolution” to help to define sankalpa, I sense some important differences; perhaps they’ll be helpful to you.
One of these differences is that the sankalpa is something we search for repeatedly, again and again; maybe even on a daily basis. Given that things are always changing (though at times imperceptibly), it makes sense to check in daily or weekly rather than annually. Time is much more a river than it is a set of separate boxes as displayed on a calendar, and we are the sailors, ideally checking for course corrections continually, with any ongoing data that arises. There is no actual turning over from one “month” to the next; instead, moments become moments become moments.
Another important difference is that since a sankalpa is believed to be a deep part of you, it often lives deeper than our typical resolutions. Let’s say your tendency is to want to lose ten pounds this year. The process of finding your sankalpa asks you why. Are you comparing yourself to decades of media brainwashing and failing to see your own beauty? Do you want to feel the experience of more strength in your physical body? Are you trying to become a version of you that lives in your past, because you fear aging and death? Have you become ready to attract partnership to your life? New Years resolutions risk a shallowness that the sankalpa moves right through en route to deeper truths.
Lastly—and something I hold dear about the sankalpa—is that we are asked to change any sense of goals into an “I statement” in the present tense. If I want to feel less stressed and harried, I may create the sankalpa “I have calm.” The idea here is not that I’m pretending, or “faking it til’ I make it,” but connecting with the part of me which is peace itself and needs more space to grow. The process of sankalpa views your desire for calm as your own deep seed of calm, asking you for more priority. It is already here. You are asked to find it and feel it. It wouldn’t be coming to your mind if it were not already here; now you must simply grow it. The nourishment you cultivate in your asana (poses), pranayama (breath work), and darana (concentration) can then be sent to these seeds, like water to a garden. Even when creating a sankalpa separate from a more formal yoga practice—perhaps as a way to begin your day—the idea is that you will do what you can to “become” that calm (or strength or love or focus or whatever it is) throughout the day. This forces us to get honest with yourself about the “goals” which remain hanging like stars in your sky, lofty and faraway and perhaps quite vague. My sense is that most of us humans are subconsciously waiting to be struck by shooting stars, rather than working diligently throughout the many moments of our days to rewire ourselves towards greater health. We may secretly hope that some external power will bring our goals on a silver platter, without studying how to build the needed ladders between ourselves and these aspirations.
What tiny ways throughout your days might you weave the rope of such ladders? Sometimes that work is hard, especially the finding of that initial spark to halt the entropy of the status quo and orient you towards the new. But doesn’t it sounds better to drop into the strength, peace or (fill-in-the-blank) which already exists within you? And doesn’t it feel better to drop far beneath the distraction of shallow chatter, to the real spiritual work? The sankalpa asks you to begin in this moment.