The Philosophy of Sankalpa: Co-Creating Your Life through Intention
As a scientist, I do not believe that “things happen for a reason”, or that any deity or “the universe” is in control of our lives. I do believe in cause and effect – the literal translation of karma (कर्म), from the Sanskrit root kṛ (कृ) meaning “to do, act, create, cause, effect”. Many of the actions in the world occurred long ago and/or by other people or natural forces (examples: wars you did not wage or political events you did not live through; your grandparents’ relationship choices; icy roads), and yet they have profound consequences on our lives today. However, we do have control over our own actions, and what we do and how we do it will affect the direction of our lives. So, while we do not have complete control, we might be seen as ‘co-creators’ of our lives.
A basic premise of this work is that whatever part of our lives we put our attention on will be the place that is most affected. If you put all of your energy into your career, you wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t have a booming social life. If you spend most of your free time watching TV, it wouldn’t be a shock if you aren’t in great physical shape. Furthermore, as a consequence, you may feel bad about your body or have health problems, each of which can have other negative downstream effects on your life.
What’s wonderful, though, is that we can effect change by continually (re)focusing on what matters most, in a way that helps us make decisions that are aligned with our highest self. The sankalpa (संकल्प) is a yogic tool to help us focus and bring the power of our deeper core desires to bear in our lives. A sankalpa is a heartfelt intention reflecting our highest ideals.
Much of my experience with sankapla originates from Rod Stryker’s teachings, which are nicely laid out in his book, “The Four Desires”. The Yoga International article “How to Create a Sankalpa” also covers many of the key ideas addressed in greater detail in the book. Elephant Journal has a “4D book club” that includes articles on each chapter, including those dealing with sankalpa. Here is my take on some of the basics to get you started:
Creating a Sankalpa
1. Listen to yourself – some part of you already knows what is out of balance in your life and how to best bring about the changes you need. Yoga practice, meditation, and yoga nidra are some great ways to help you access your intuition around a sankalpa.
2. Break your larger, overarching aspirations down to a single, simple goal that could be achieved in 6-18 months.
3. Keep your sankalpa to 1-3 sentences, so that you can easily remember and repeat it regularly.
4. Phrase it in the present tense, as if it’s currently true. This is also a good test to see if you believe that the goal is achievable.
5. Phrase it in your own voice – say it like you are talking to your best friend.
6. It can reflect the state of body or mind you wish to change (e.g., “I feel calm” or “I am healthy”) or the attitude necessary to achieve it (e.g., “I love and honor my body”) or both. You can also include the methods you plan to use to get there (e.g., “I am calm and have equanimity in my relationships because I sit in meditation for 15 minutes each day.”)
7. Pay attention to your body’s reactions as you say your sankalpa aloud. Even if you have some apprehension or concerns, you should feel joy or excitement at the thought of achieving your sankalpa. If you cannot summon those positive feelings, it may not be the right sankalpa or you may have some other work to do, first.
8. It may take some time to find the right combination of ideas and phrasing. In the meantime, continue to use what you have and rephrase it until it fits. Working with a trusted teacher to hone your sankalpa can be invaluable.
9. Even if your sankalpa ends up being somewhat nontraditional in style or content, if it speaks strongly to your current needs, it’s probably a good one.
Using Your Sankalpa
Once you’ve come up with an intention, you must give it power by reiterating it and applying it in your life. There are several ways to do this. The most basic approach is to plant it in your mind regularly, to remind yourself of your goals. You could repeat it (3 times is traditional) when you wake up and/or before you go to sleep and/or before every meal. If you have a regular meditation or yoga asana practice, the end of your practice is a perfect time to repeat your sankalpa and re-affirm your intention, thus reorienting your mental and emotional energy towards what matters most to you. The same can be done at the beginning and end of the meditative relaxation practice of yoga nidra. Both meditation and yoga nidra provide a space in which your mind is more relaxed and expansive, so you can both connect with your subconscious mind and most easily experience the possibilities that your sankalpa reflects.
Perhaps the most intense, and thus powerful, way I’ve learned of to work with a sankalpa is to use what Rod Stryker calls a “departure point”. The idea is to choose some habit that you feel does not serve your best interests and make a change around it. Each time you have the urge to engage in that habit, instead of doing so, you pause and create a space to repeat your sankalpa, visualizing in whatever way you can what its fulfillment would feel like.
The departure point works because when we shift one aspect of our lives, other aspects also shift. This method takes power away from your “bad” habit and redirects you towards your heartfelt desires. It helps you make a ‘departure’ from the trajectory you’ve been on while engaging that habit, and create a new trajectory towards achieving your sankalpa.
Because our lives are like any interlinked system, the departure point does not have to relate directly to your sankalpa (although it may). It could be that you know you engage too much with your smartphone, or it could be that you consume something that you know doesn’t support your physical and/or mental health (sugar, caffeine, nicotine, chocolate, dairy, etc.). Each time you find yourself tending towards this habit, catch yourself and pause. Take a few deep breaths and re-focus your mind on your sankalpa and the feelings associated with attaining it. Then, repeat your sankalpa 3 times.
The departure point should not be viewed as a punishment or any form of deprivation, but rather a further commitment to shaping your life mindfully to attain greater joy and fulfillment. It’s also not about willpower, but rather about shifting your mindset to one of nurturing the aspects of your spirit that long to fulfill your greatest potential. Like the sankalpa, it should be something you feel reasonably confident that you can achieve.
Remember, each step of this process must feel authentic and in line with your deepest, most genuine desires. If some part does not feel true or feels entirely out of reach, based on your current emotional, mental or physical capacity, re-think that aspect. Find something that both pushes you to reach your goals, but still seems attainable within 6-18 months. The prospect of its fulfillment, and the possibilities it will open up, should be exciting!