Setting an intention at the beginning of a yoga class is a common practice; an invitation to drop into the present moment and connect with something that stirs or resonates deeply within us. The practice of setting an intention comes from the tradition of sankalpa, a heartfelt statement that we make to support our dharma – our purpose here on earth. It is a vow that we can call upon to guide the choices we make, which support our physical, emotional and spiritual growth, and the knowledge of our essential self.
Sankalpa is not a champagne-sparkled midnight resolution. In the Western world we often make resolutions with our intellect, based on what we think we need to bring into our lives, in order to be “successful” or “accepted” in some way. These kinds of resolutions rarely bring results nor remain a steadfast commitment in our daily lives. Sankalpa on the other hand is a resolve to create the life we are meant to embrace and enjoy. When acknowledged in a relaxed and focused state, the sankalpa is impressed on the subconscious and the resolution or intention resides on the deep level of our soul. In his book, The Four Desires, Rod Stryker explains that kalpa means vow, and san a connection with the highest truth. A sankalpa upholds the deeper meaning of our life and is a declaration you can call upon to reinforce your true beliefs and guide the choices you make through life.
Richard Miller, PhD, clinical psychologist and teacher in the Advaita Vedānta and Kashmir non dual traditions, says that sankalpa arrives with everything needed to fully realise it – with iccha (tremendous will and energy), kriya (action) and jnana (the wisdom of how to deliver that action). It comes not from the intellectual mind but from deep within us, informing us where we need to direct our energy and trusting in divine timing to actualise this intention.
The idea and theme of sankalpa is laced throughout yogic philosophy. In one popular Sanskrit tale, Shiva arrives at Bharavja’s bedside and chides him for refusing to share all that he’s learned after three lifetimes studying the Vedas. He scoops three handfuls of earth at the sages feet and says, “Compared to the mountain of information, what you’ve learned amounts to three handfuls of dirt. It is only through your dharma of teaching and sharing that this wisdom will truly come alive inside you.”
We all tip toe through periods in our lives where the landscape feels dull and uninspiring, we feel stuck or restless. Perhaps we reach a point where we are watching our life revolve around us, but no longer feeling as though we steering the ship. Deep down, in the inner recesses of our soul, there is a voice, a calling of such that awaits attention. There is a knowing or a longing, a place of clarity that when stumbled across, has an urgency and passion to it that is intoxifying and enlivening. When we have the courage and true commitment to honour this deep call within, the universe will reply and open up doors that ceased to exist a moment earlier.
To open our palms to the universe is to acknowledge a willingness and a readiness. In yoga, we often talk of flow and of synchronicity. During each asana, we aim to find the place where our energy flows freely and the pose becomes in a way, effortless. Much like in asana, when we energetically open ourselves to the universe and say yes to embracing that inner calling, the world around us will respond and support us in ways previously unimagined. Fear, indecision, doubt and expectations fall away to a reveal a simple trust and a freedom that comes from riding the waves of grace.
The system of yoga, the eight limbs invites us to gently wash the grit from our eyes. To set an intention, to align with the tradition of sankalpa, is to listen to your internal voice and know that if you move towards your true path with courage, compassion and determination, then the universe will conspire to support you.
As the ancient sage Rumi states:
“Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.
Water is there somewhere.
Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that is a knock on the door.
Keep knocking, and the joy inside will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.”
Noelle Connolly is a trained yoga teacher, athlete, and Philadelphia native, now residing in Sydney, Australia. Taking her first yoga class in 2002, Noelle fell in love with the practice – mentally, physically and spiritually. She currently heads up the yoga program at Sydney’s acclaimed BodyMindLife.