Month: January 2016

Sankalpa: A short guide to getting what you really, really want


As we approach the new year, you might want to ask yourself what do you really, really want in these next 12 months? Importantly, how do you want to feel? Just as importantly, how committed are you to making it happen? All of these questions relate to something that we refer to as “Sankalpa” in yoga.

You may have heard  the word “Sankalpa” in your yoga class. And then maybe your teacher imprecisely translated it as intention. Sankalpa means a lot more than “intention”. Here’s why – I remember during my first months going to class (of course, in my tattered running shorts that were much too old to be worn in public), the teacher would vaguely ask us to set an intention and mine would be something along the lines of keeping my abs contracted throughout  the entire class. Just because I thought that was somehow beneficial for me. Literally, this was an intention, but it certainly wasn’t a sankalpa.

So what is a Sankalpa then? Let’s look at the words that combine to make it.

“San” : a concept or idea formed in the heart

“Kalpa”: the rule to be observed above or before any rule.

In his book, The Four Desires, Rod Stryker poetically defines sankalpa as “an intention formed in the heart”.  For some of us, the Sanskrit might make it sounds exotic and kind of fancy. SANKAPLA. (say it in an overly dramatic voice). But, really, formulating a Sankalpa is quite practical. When we commit ourselves to doing something and systematically remind ourselves of it, it can be hard for it not to come to fruition.

The trick lies in setting the right Sankalpa. Desire and determination are powerful. To make sure that you are aiming these the right way, your Sankalpa should:

  • BE AUTHENTIC. This means that it is something specific that contributes to the deep purpose of our individual life. Your Sankalpa is probably not the same as your neighbor’s Sankalpa. Life gets to be expressed through us in perfectly unique ways to our intentions also get to be perfectly unique.
  • BE DOABLE. Since this is something that we sincerely commit to, it must be doable. I wouldn’t set a Sankalpa to run a marathon in under three hours because I know this is impossible so a logical commitment to this wouldn’t be possible.
  • BE SOMETHING THAT YOU CAN BE EXCITED ABOUT AND HAPPILY COMMITTED TO. You have to want to do it. If not, this is probably not coming from your heart.

In other words, this is something that you can and want to realistically put before everything else because it serves a greater purpose and has deep meaning to you. Keeping one’s core tense for a long time definitely does NOT fit the bill. Offering a loving, listening ear to others could be work. Not looking at a screen after 6 pm or choosing to enjoy your breath could also work. 1,000,008 other things could work as well as long as they are connected to deep meaning and real possibility. Once you are very clear what you deeply desire, you can take small steps to make it a reality. 

How to Bloom Right Where You Are

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Surrender. It is just one word comprised of only ten letters. It should be easy, right? Simple, yes. Easy, not necessarily. Letting go is both simple and challenging at the same time.

During a recent “Yoga for Fertility” workshop, we were discussing the utility of Tapas (purification), Svadhyaya (self-study), and Isvara Pranidhana (surrender) for the process of conception. Perhaps, not surprisingly, Surrender came to the forefront of the discussion.

If you are trying to conceive, surrendering may be more important than ever, but also even more difficult to enact. When your desire is something as close to your heart as creating a new being, it can seem impossible to not overthink, obsess and imagine that you have control of the outcome. It can be even more difficult to let go in the age of social media where it may seem that each week, yet another friend is pregnant and you encounter a steady stream of baby pictures. Paradoxically, trying too hard to control this particular outcome only makes the result that you are looking for less likely to occur.

Whether you are trying to conceive or not, when we get too attached to outcomes, we can create stress that is absolutely unnecessary. And, as humans, when we have a stress response, our bodies react as if we are in a real, emergency situation. Since our bodies think that we are in a real emergency, we respond by bringing energy to the muscles for us to fight or flee, pain is blunted, cognition is sharpened and functions that are not critical in the moment get shut down. These functions that are not immediately critical include digestive and reproductive functions.

This would be a useful response if we are in an actual emergency, but if the stress is caused by thoughts alone, the physiological effects of stress are more detrimental than the mentally-constructed stressor itself. This is where the orientation of surrender comes in handy.

What is surrender?

To begin, to surrender does not mean to be passive. Absolutely, make a great plan, follow it and then…let go of the results. This is a shift of attention where you do what you can and then surrender the outcome. We can even understand surrender as a mechanism of non-attachment where we stop putting up resistance to that which we cannot change.

How is this useful:

You immediately enjoy less stress. This may even feel as if you are dropping a weight that you have been carrying around for a while. Your life may begin to feel more easeful.

You stop missing your life because you are no longer too focused on some future outcome. You get to allow moments to unfold as opposed to rushing through them as you stop sacrificing the present for the future. In the words of St. Francis, you get to “Bloom right where you are.” When you know that you are inherently already enough, you get to let go and fully participate in your own life.

You may even increase your chances of conception. It might seem counterintuitive but, interestingly, surrendering the outcome itself can maximize chances of achieving the goal. Since stress hormones tell your body that it isn’t the right time for reproduction, by decreasing your stress levels, you can create a more conducive atmosphere for conception.

Four Ways to Start the Practice of Surrender

      1. Practice Mindfulness. Notice when you grasp too tightly to a result and what that feels like in your body. Then, see if you can physically release tension. An exhale might be a great place to begin.
      2. Exhale. Feel how, in the exhale, these is a physical sensation of letting go. Soften tension you don’t need – you might notice it in your face, jaw, shoulders, or hips. And then exhale again. And again.
      3. Make “Let go” or “I surrender” a mantra. You can bring this to mind in any moment to re-orient yourself. Some potent times to do this are at the beginning or your day or  when you do something that you habitually do, like logging into your email or answering the phone. You can even deliberately do this when you are feeling the opposite way.  Notice what happens inside as you choose what you focus on through these words.
      4. Practice Yoga Nidra. This practice of rotating attention around the body can be a very useful tool to let go of unnecessary stress and reconnect to deep intention.

Some texts that informed this article that you may love to dive deeper into:

Be Fruitful: The Essential Guide to Maximizing Fertility and Giving Birth to a Healthy Child by Victoria Maizes, MD.

The Power of Surrender by Judith Orloff, MD.

Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender by David R. Hawkins, MD, PhD.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky.