In this posting of "The Work of the Light," Yoga NoMa owner's occasional posting on yoga and life, Julia Romano explores the concept of sankalpa, or "intention," and investigates ways by which the paths of action and intention are partners in the process of seeking change through yoga.
Before I had any familiarity with the philosophy or science behind the practice, yoga “worked.” I didn’t know how or why, but at the end of each class, I always felt better. I’d leave feeling as though I’d created more internal space—space in which, paradoxically, I felt closer to everyone and everything.
As for the mechanisms behind that “feeling better,” at that point in my practice I had little conscious interest in them. I didn’t need the hows and whys to validate my experience: the blessed “being-ness” I felt was enough. And like all things in the great practice called life, I could not have truly understood the relationship between mind and body until the moment I understood it—until the layers between me and my Self began to thin, and the various parts of my being found confluence.
Yoga is like rain water; initially, the practice only permeates the first few layers. But the body is thirsty earth, and yoga abides. Like a good, cleansing rain guided by a gentle yet relentless inward pull, yoga steadily seeps through layers, through denser sediment, until it rejoins itself in the infinite current running deep below the surface.
This is what it feels like to have found embodied knowledge - the rising tide of wisdom - through yoga: like a part of you feels profoundly, irreversibly quenched; though you may, on the surface, thirst again, you now know the way to the everlasting spring within. Thirst, you understand, is purposeful: it is nature’s way of helping you seek, and thereby find.
Early in my practice, when yoga was still only skimming my topsoil, I thought things yoga teachers said were silly. I attended classes for their challenging physical practice, and sat through all the fuzzy talk on chakras and rising serpents so I could get the good stuff—the sweaty movement that made me feel alive, and eased the tensions with which I entered the room, be they physical, or subtle body sourced. Why teachers felt it necessary to muddy what were obvious, experienced benefits with intangible babble, I couldn’t grasp. The common directive to “set an intention” particularly irked me.
Without ever outlining methods for achievement, teachers would pause briefly before the start of movement so that we could set our intention for that day’s practice. Okay—how about I intend to not fall on my face? (Fat lot of good that intention did me whenever I practiced crow pose.) It felt as inane and impractical as suggesting I ask some statue of a funny elephant shaped god to remove my obstacles. I’d spend the rest of class wondering how a bunch of forward folding and chair squatting was going to help me realize an intention; what, in yoga’s good name, did a shape you made with your body have to do with an act of the mind? It felt like filler - something yoga teachers are supposed to say - and it felt like both an imposition, and a distraction from what I was there to do. I was there to sweat, to move, and somehow, after all that folding and squatting, feel better.
When I first became a teacher, I vowed that I would never become distracted by concepts that had no somatic grounding, no matter how poetic, or attractive to the ego. Years later, I do my best to hold to that promise. I care little for the “special yogic powers” some teachers have promised; I’ll forego the promise of flying and telekinesis in exchange for learning to put one foot in front of the other in a mindful, compassionate way.
But even after I began to understood the philosophical foundations for many yogic concepts, and my conscious mind enjoyed understanding of their merit, this notion of intention setting still felt vague and impractical. A teacher would say it once, at the beginning of class, like a decree, and then craft a physical body sequence that made no mention of this great thing we were there to intend. I felt frustrated by the fraudulent nature of it, like I was being sold something meaningless in what felt to me sacred space.
But somewhere along the twists and bumps of the last six years of teaching, intention started to make sense, real sense—meaning I could feel it in my body. Intention - or sankalpa, as it’s called in yogic parlance - began to feel more tangible, like a muscle I could strengthen. It turns out it's not magical, nor esoteric; the act of practicing with intention has both clarified, and been clarified by, the way I've come to experience asana. In understanding the relationship between mind and body, I’ve also gained clarity around the ways by which the physical practice of yoga could be utilized to strengthen the mental body muscles we seek to shape and tone—those that support us most during moments of life’s heaviest lifting.
During my graduate studies in clinical psychology, I was introduced to a kind of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy whereby practitioners are taught that thoughts follow well-trodden paths of least resistance. Because thought processes are conditioned, particularly by early life experiences, they can thereby be re-conditioned later in life in ways that better serve us.
But, as I found in my own life, the mind can be heck of a dark, dusty, crowded place, and it’s often hard to see how or where new paths can laid. In my younger life, I often felt a kind of internal claustrophobia; my thoughts were so big and jumbled, they’d take up the whole space of my mind, butting up against its very edges. In order to cognitively change a pattern, you must be able to conceptualize an alternative. In my crowded mind, there was no room to turn around, let alone begin the construction of an alternate perception of self.
This is where the body comes in—the body is like a third space, like an adjacent room. You can step out of the poorly lit, jam-packed mind in which thoughts clang and clammer, and into the open space of the body. The body, then, becomes a container in which we can practice constructing an alternate conception of our own capacity to both feel, and to withstand feeling.
As Aristotle suggested, “we are what we repeatedly do.” As an addendum, I offer: we are what we repeatedly think. How we practice perceiving ourselves is the foundation for our self-perception. I now see asana as a way to seek - and find - a more positive construction of Self.
Ironically, given my previous aversion to the concept, I now construct asana sequences with the realization of intention, sankalpa, in mind; however, I also try and offer my students tangible moments in which intention might be practiced:
If you are seeking more ease and peace in your life, can you seek the lightness within a pose? Can you practice noticing what lightness feels like? In a moment of challenge, like a long-held chair pose, can you find the ease, the softness? Can that experience teach the mind that seeking ease in a moment of strong, challenging sensation is possible?
If you seek more determination in your life, how can you use a moment like a long-held plank to experience that quality of self? Can you choose to perceive shaking muscles as a sign of strengthening? If you’ve backed off, can you choose to perceive yourself as wise for having dropped knees to the mat?
If you struggle with self-acceptance, can you use a difficult moment of balance challenge to choose to not judge yourself when you fall? Can you practice resilience, coming back into the pose? Can the experience become an opportunity to practice strengthening the muscle of compassion for self, and empathy with anyone who has ever fallen?
If you habitually perceive yourself as residing in a state of lack, of not enough-ness, can you utilize a moment of tadasana, or savasana, as an opportunity to perceive your wholeness? Can you practice noticing yourself, from the crown of your head, through your fingertips to your toes, and let each inch of awareness become an affirmation of your inherent completeness?
I offer that the very act of seeking strengthens the muscles of seeking. The capacity to seek - and to find - becomes the pathway most well trodden, and therefore the new path of least resistance.
And so, the next time you find your way to the mat—choose to practice thought patterns, and therefore ways of thinking, and thereby being that answer the call of your heart’s intention. Because the thing is, if we are what we repeatedly think, then the thoughts we think, whether or not we consciously intend them, become the stuff of ourselves.
That is, if you set your intention to find more ease and peace in your life, to learn how to let go of a thought pattern or a relationship, and then repeatedly spend 75 minutes on the mat practicing yoga in a way that affirms holding and attachment, then hold and attach you will. If you can consciously acknowledge that your life would be served by more self-acceptance, and then spend every posture comparing yourself with others, then you will walk out of that class having strengthened the muscle of self-judgment, and all of the tension and strain it implies.
We are what we repeatedly think! But—this does not mean that intention alone is enough. It is the intersection of intention and action at which rests the real power of this blessed practice called yoga. Like every great revolution—it is the collaboration between pen, and sword - between contemplation, and action - that heralds great change.
And so, I offer to you, in this next year make intention actionable. Make the thing that you seek be the thing that you intend to find—and then find it, on the mat, every time you practice.