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Working with Intention: New Year's Resolutions and finding your Sankalpa

Happy New Year and welcome to 2023!

People watching fireworks in the sky

January is such an exciting time. In the northern hemisphere, the days are finally lengthening and we look forward to the promise of spring and new life. The whole year stretches ahead like a blank canvas and we start filling it in with plans. A holiday here, a life event there, work commitments, big plans, small plans, things you've always meant to get around to, something you've been saving up for.

We often plan for ourselves as well. Who do you want to be in 2023? What do you want to look like? What do you want to achieve? How do you want others to see you?

After the social focus of the festive season, the new year often seems a good time to start that diet or exercise regime, or to begin your new job search or qualification.

This might even get formalised as a New Year's Resolution. New year is a time of rebirth in nature as well as in society, in many ways a perfect time to create new habits.

According to YouGov, in 2020 around 12% of people in the UK made a New Year's Resolution and of those, just over a quarter stuck with them.

This is actually a pretty good number, considering that making new habits can be one of the hardest things to do due to the way our reward brain chemistry is set up (we get more immediate dopamine 'rewards' for activities like smoking and drinking, as opposed to practicing meditation, for example). We also tend to set ourselves goals without always having a good understanding of the underlying patterns of behaviour, thought and conditioning that have led us to the place where we feel we need to change our habits, meaning that we might be taking on a much bigger job than we first thought.

Yoga has some helpful input here.

In yoga we often work with an intention, known in Sanskrit as a sankalpa. The word comes from the roots 'san', meaning connection with highest truth, and 'kalpa', meaning vow.

We're making a promise to connect with our highest truth, or most authentic self when we work with intention in our yoga practice.

This is in fact a really useful way to approach making a resolution, as it comes from the perspective that what we need or wish to become is already within us.

If we make a resolution the basis that we're flawed and need to change, we re-enforce our conditioning or unhelpful thought patterns.

For example, a resolution to start an exercise regime might have sprung from the observation that you've become inactive or overweight in a way that's detrimental to other things you want from life. Framing this as "I'm lazy, I need to make myself go to the gym" re-enforces the negative, especially if you then find the new habit difficult to stick to (which it will be if you're not already quite fit!) and you end up identifying yourself as that "lazy" individual which leads to negative self-image and self-talk.

In yoga we work on the basis that what we need is already within us, it's already who we are, but we may need to uncover or remember it from time to time.

It's helpful to go beyond the actions we take when we try to form new habits and look at the deep desires for which we think these actions are appropriate.

If starting an exercise regime comes from the observation that your current state of inactivity means you're not able to do other things you value in life, the action springs from a desire to be healthy and fulfilled.

By confirming this to yourself, as your sankalpa or intention ("I am healthy and fulfilled"), you remind yourself of all the ways in which you are already whole, healthy and fulfilled, and the mountain of physical fitness may seem less hard to climb.

You already have these things in your life, it's a case of uncovering ways to extend them to other areas where they are needed. This is why we always state our intention in the present tense, using the phrase "I am", as we acknowledge that what we need is already within us and start from a place of power. Sankalpa is always a positive declaration which takes us out to the bigger picture of our lives via our deep desires or sense of who we really are, rather than focusing on the actions that can form unconsciously from these.

If this all sounds a bit like deep work, don't worry! Forming your intention or sankalpa need not require a workshop or hours of introspection.

Pose yourself the question, what helps me live my best life? Or, what helps me to be who I truly am?

One way start answering the question, to arrive at your intention or sankalpa, is to "just" allow it to arrive. Sounds simple, right!

Hands over the heart
Do you have an intuition about your intention?

On the basis that we already have what we need within us, we do already know the answer to these questions somewhere within.

In Western society we do also however have a tendency to overthink things and get our minds caught up around decisions, even though science demonstrates that decisions are made before our conscious mind even kicks in. Years of conditioning by society and habitual thought and behaviour patterns might make it difficult to hear the answer, but it is there.

See if you can ask the question and simply go with the first thing that pops up, rather than mulling it over. Perhaps there's something like a gut feel, and intuition or a first impression.

You might find that nothing pops up or you start pondering. If so, this is fine. Our deep desires exist through many layers of our consciousness, beyond the busy, thinking, analytical mind with which we are used to interacting with ourselves in the world. Therefore, you don't need to push the question. Just come back to it from time to time, ask it to yourself and see if anything comes up.

Practices like yoga and meditation, in which we learn about ourselves, can also help us listen to what's going on beyond the mind and lead us to our intention. So regular practice can lead us to our intention, even if we start off thinking that our intention is simply to practice regularly!

If you've made plans for yourself, a New Year's Resolution for 2023 or you want to work with intention in your yoga practice or life in general, approaching it with the knowledge that you already have what's required is incredibly helpful and liberating. This is something we'll also be exploring in class this New Year.

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