The Yoga tradition offers us a very powerful practice for connecting with our most heartfelt desires. It’s called sankalpa, a Sanskrit word that means “resolution or resolve”. The practice of sankalpa is the practice of intention setting.The sankalpa has the potential to release tremendous power by clearly defining and focusing on a chosen goal. Its effect is to awaken the willpower within by uniting the conscious awareness with the unconscious forces lying dormant. It takes the form of a short phrase or sentence, clearly and concisely expressed, using the same wording each time, to bring about a positive change in one’s life. Now the important question arises: How to choose the appropriate sankalpa?
Sankalpa can be seen from different perspectives. Let us say that life is like a river that has to be crossed. We cannot step straight across from where we are standing now because the river is wide, nor can we swim against the strong current. So we search the bank for stepping stones that we can take, one by one, to cross over safely.
Crossing the river is our aim, our life’s goal. Very few people know what this is. It may take years and years to discover. Nearly everyone who has come to yoga will recognize that they are trying to achieve something, but will not be clear as to exactly what that is. So the first step is to recognize where we are now, where we stand on our bank of the river, and then to recognize what change can be attempted to begin our way over, to take the first step.
This usually means recognizing, reducing and eliminating some negative quality that we know is holding us back, where one overriding bad habit is acting like a barrier to more substantial change. This is the starting point for many people. If that negative quality can be successfully managed and dealt with, then we are in a position to recognize a positive change we can make that would improve the quality of our life. And that is the next stage of sankalpa, where we can alter the way we conduct ourselves with family, friends and society, and in our lifestyle.
Then, looking deeper and more precisely within, there may be some quality lying dormant that holds or has locked within it our hidden potential. Recognizing this is when sankalpa takes on more power because it is the nature of the inner forces, of consciousness, to be always trying to find a positive expression. But some pattern from before, some samskara or karma, has turned that force into a negative expression – or it has been suppressed and is not expressed at all. When the sankalpa is working at this level, then the attitudes we take for granted as being part of who we are will be seen not to have any real basis. Then a noticeable change in attitude takes place where everything is seen quite differently.
From here the focus of the life force becomes quite sharp, and one’s purpose in this life may be recognized, which is what we understand by sankalpa. This must come spontaneously from within as an intuitive understanding, where our nature and character, our path and dharma are in harmony. Here the spiritual dimension of sankalpa is realized.
So although four stages have been described: (i) the reforming of bad habits, (ii) improving the quality of life and living, (iii) creating a real change within our personality, and (iv) realizing what we are trying to achieve in this life – the sankalpa is really always one. But to recognize the deepest quality of sankalpa we may have to go through some of the stages along the way like stepping-stones across a river, each step within reach of the previous one.
It is said that the sankalpa should not change until it becomes realized, but many do not know what they really want and therefore in a true sense do not know their sankalpa. So, if my initial intention is to give up smoking and I succeed, then obviously the sankalpa to stop smoking will change. But really it is a transition from one stepping-stone to the next, so now a higher resolve may be made. And so on until the real nature of sankalpa is realized, as the bigger picture becomes clearer.
We may start at any point along the way, but the choice of the kind of sankalpa we make is very important and should always aim to bring out the best that is in us. Time should be taken at first to find out what level we are at and what is important to us now. Whether changing a habit or an entire personality, it must be in tune with the nature of the individual and therefore come from within, and not be a product of wishful thinking or a casual desire.
For the success of the sankalpa, certain conditions must be met. The sankalpa is like a seed that will have tremendous power, but only if it is sown in fertile ground, looked after and tended daily, with the inner certainty that the seed will produce its fruit in its own time. After the sankalpa is made, the mind nurtures it at deeper levels as the roots of the seed go further down, the emotions express it as a positive feeling that has power and strength, the body resonates with it, and the intellect does not question it – ever. Faith is where all the dimensions of the personality are in harmony, undivided and moving in the same direction together. How can it not succeed?
Lastly, the sankalpa need not be influenced by words alone. It may also be visualized symbolically as an image, felt as a sensation; it may bring up certain feelings which have a recognizable force or are just quietly known. In the end the sankalpa is not just something nice you say three times twice in yoga nidra, but it is a motivating force that you are living and moving toward all the time, every day.
This post has been written and inspired by a dear friend of mine, Swami Anandakumar Saraswati. Swami Anandakumar is an international Satyananda Yoga teacher and an exceptional exponent of meditation. He has studied yoga and a wide variety of yogic disciplines for over thirty years and captured the essence of sankalpa in this relatable and practical sense.