There is a Sanksrit word in the yoga world, sankalpa, which is often translated as intention, resolve, or heartfelt desire. Setting an intention at any point in your life can have powerful effects, such as achieving your goals, staying true to your values, and making an impact in the world. According to professor and researcher Kelly McGonigal, “The sankalpa becomes a statement you can call upon to remind you of your true nature and guide your choices. . . . Discovering your sankalpa is a process of listening. Your heartfelt desire is already present, waiting to be seen, heard, and felt. It’s not something you need to make up, and the mind doesn’t have to go wildly searching for it.”
The practice of yoga is an especially useful container for sankalpa because the holistic practice, which includes physical postures, conscious breathing, and mindful meditation, offers a path for unblocking and unlocking. A yoga practice, whether it is daily, weekly, or once in a while, invites the practitioner to experience life with an open heart, open mind, and open spirit. When you practice opening and connecting in these ways, even for a short while, possibilities abound.
Setting Your Intention Before Practice
Setting an intention before your yoga practice is like planting a seed. You then nurture and nourish your tiny seed during practice with your breath, movement, and mental focus. At the start of practice, the yoga instructor will often invite you to set an intention based on a theme for class, such as courage, trust, or new perspectives; or the instructor might invite you to conjure your intention based on something you’re working on in your life, such as peace within, steady focus, or breath awareness. Your sankalpa might be small (“I am breathing in, I am breathing out”) or grand (“I am love”) and it might be specific (“Today I will attempt a handstand pose”) or broad (“Today I will rest when I feel the need to rest”).
Throughout the yoga practice, then, you continually come back to your sankalpa:
- What does [your intention] look like as a physical pose?
- How can you embody [your intention] within your breath?
- If you are really [your intention] what would that feel like/look like/sound like during your time on the yoga mat?
In one of the first books on the power of positive affirmations, You Can Heal Your Life, inspirational teacher and author Louise Hay likens setting intentions to planting tomatoes: “In order to get this tomato plant with all these tomatoes on it, we need to start with a small dried seed. That seed doesn’t look like a tomato plant. That seed doesn’t taste like a tomato plant . . . however let’s say you plant this seed in fertile soil, and you water it and let the sun shine on it . . . in time, if you continue to water it and give it lots of sunshine and pull away any weeds, you might have a tomato plant with more than a hundred luscious tomatoes. It all began with that one tiny seed.” In the practice of mindfulness, Hay says, the soil you plant in is your subconscious mind, the seed is the intention, the water is affirmations, and the sunshine is positive thoughts.
Setting Your Intention After Practice
Because yoga practice is specifically designed to remove blockages in your body, mind, and spirit, focusing on a sankalpa at the end of, or after, practice can be quite powerful. You will have primed yourself with feel-good hormones, stretched and aligned your muscles and bones so that blood flows more easily, and cleared the energetic pathways so that prana can flow freely within you. When your nervous system is grounded and relaxed, visualizing, or imagining yourself as you wish to be can be easier. Relaxation, in fact, is closely linked to creativity. The practice of yoga nidra can be a particularly effective space to invite potentially life-changing sankalpa. You may be surprised to see the fruits of your imaginings within a few hours or days of practice!
Remember that intention and impact are very different things. Maybe you didn’t mean to step on someone’s foot, but if you did in fact step on their foot, you are still responsible for doing so. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds in his poetic letter to his Black son in Between the World and Me, “It doesn’t matter that the ‘intentions’ of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary . . . ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill.”
Though it can be tempting, especially in the wellness world, to leave it at intention and visions and love and light, lived experience is much more complex. Intentions are essential for creating the life you dream of for yourself and the world, but they must be followed by action. You may set an intention to learn how to play the guitar (Right on! Go for it!) but if you don’t then pick up a guitar, practice every day, take lessons, fumble the chords, and try again, you will certainly not learn to play the guitar. Prayers are lovely, but they are not enough.
Without your intentions, however grand or small, you will have no clear direction for your actions; without your actions, your intentions will be wisps of clouds in the sky. May your intentions and your actions be aligned with the greatest good for yourself and the world.