Here we are again, crossing the threshold into a new year. We are collectively drawn, not by astrological phenomenon, but by the collective intention, to review the past year and make plans for the new one. New Year’s resolutions are a popular way of easing this time of reflection and transition, and often a commitment to a practice is high on the list. Yoga classes begin to grow in the rising tide of self-improvement, but gradually, the momentum wanes and we find ourselves back where we started, settling into habits and behaviors that we had high hopes of leaving behind. What if we didn’t approach our resolutions reactively, focusing on our personal shortcomings, but instead created a more proactive resolve?
In the language of yoga, we refer to this approach to resolutions as intention or Sankalpa. Sankalpa, defined as will, determination, intention, differs from the traditional New Year’s resolution by cultivating positive growth instead trying to release negative patterns or behaviors. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,, Sutra II:33 directs us that when we are overcome by negative thoughts, we should encourage their opposite. In other words, to overcome our negative tendencies, cultivate opposite thoughts, behaviors, and actions. This is known as pratipaksha bhavana, and it is powerful for several reasons. First, it recognizes that our intention can remain the same, if even if our thoughts and behaviors don’t always reflect it.
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Second, it lifts the weight of guilt from our shoulders. We cannot be expected to change overnight; after all, it has probably taken us years to get where we are. So when we fall back into old habits or thought patterns, we can simply recognize that we have wandered and begin again to cultivate their opposite. No guilt necessary. Third, in cultivating the opposite thoughts and actions, we begin to create new neural pathways in our brain, and soon what was once opposite, is now easeful and natural. Finally, it’s a platform from which to work. Pradipaksha bhavana doesn’t say don’t eat the chocolate cake, it simply says that once you’ve eaten the cake, then begin to cultivate the opposite action by choosing the carrots at the next available opportunity. When we turn our thoughts toward what will improve our situation, and away from what is hindering us now, we can move more freely toward the achievement of our Sankalpa.
The guidelines for creating a Sankalpa support this transition into new actions and thoughts. A Sankalpa is a clear statement affirming something you want to achieve or become. It should be a positive statement (free of negating language like “not”, “won’t”, “can’t”, etc.), set in the present moment (instead of a future prediction, we create our Sankalpa as if we are achieving it right NOW), and in the first person (“I” or “me” without pulling our expectations of others into the mix). When we create a Sankalpa with commitment and determination, and use the tools in our yogic toolbox to support our growth, then our intention becomes our reality.
Please share your intentions / Sankalpas for the new year with us. What do you want to achieve or become in 2009?
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