A sankalpa is an intention. You’ve probably been to a yoga class where the teacher asked you to “set an intention for your practice.” Intentions are different than goals or resolutions in that they are not finite, measurable circumstances creating success or failure. San means “together” or “with” and kalpa refers to possibility, idea, desire and will. Creating a sankalpa is an exercise in clearing out obstacles, releasing negative formulations and aligning every level of your heart and mind to what you intend.
Instead of creating a plan with measurable milestones along the way, a sankalpa prepares you to unify your body, heart and mind with focus and concentration on the chosen state of affairs. Often we think we want one thing, but act in another way. How are we to understand this? Did we really want the healthy action, or the unhealthy thing we were already doing? Sometimes we want to want the healthy thing, but our actions reveal a more immediate desire for the habitual activity.
Setting a sankalpa is a commitment to want to want the intended thing, and begin to grow in awareness of why we sometimes act and desire in seemingly obstructive ways. In the Upanishads, the theory of human consciousness and motivation underlying this approach to change is sketched out poetically:
You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your DESTINY. ~Brihadaranyaka Upanishads
Setting your sankalpa creates a line in the sand: the place where you decide to bring awareness to the situation you’ve chosen. Rather than mechanically breaking down the habit and treating it as a problem to solve, with this approach you commit to become curious, observant and kind. Oddly, we don’t always know what drives us or what our deepest desire is. When we don’t take the time to pay attention by setting an intention, to uncover this truth about ourselves, our efforts at change are stunted at best, and can even be harmful.
So this New Year, consider setting a sankalpa for growing awareness and remind yourself each morning as you begin practice. You might journal to create a record and accountability, or just set aside time before bed to reflect or meditate. You’ll be surprised at what you discover and how you change in unexpected and surprising ways.