Sankalpa: How Yogis Make their New Year’s Resolutions

It’s that time of year again. You either love New Year’s Resolutions, or you stay clear. Personally, the New Year has always been among my favorite holidays. Although I recognize it’s arbitrary to call January 1st a new beginning, versus any other day in which we’re lucky enough to wake up alive, it often does feel like a new beginning thanks to the energy of everyone worldwide labeling it as such.

This year in year in my yoga classes, and in my personal life, I approached New Year’s Resolutions from a yogic perspective, that of sankalpa. How does a yogi set their resolutions? We explore in the steps below.

small dog enjoy the baja desert view
Stella the Yoga Teacher setting her intentions. Baja Zen, Todos Santos

Setting Intention

We begin each meditation, and each yoga class with intention-setting. To set an intention is to commit yourself to a particular action for a particular length of time. By setting intention, we consciously give ourselves an instruction to follow. By approaching our practice with awareness, we strengthen it.

In meditation sankalpa can be particularly helpful by giving us a framework within which to recognize when we are meditating, and when we are not. For example, if my intention is to stay present with the breath, each time I find myself veering off to something else, no matter how pleasant, I’m no longer meditating.

Sankalpa can have a similar grounding effect for our asana practice. By setting a clear intention, I give myself a place upon which to anchor the mind. Through the challenges and joy of movement, I stay present by staying with sankalpa above all else. In fact, the root kalpa, can be translated as “the rule we follow above all other rules.”

So what is this rule, and how do we arrive at our intention?

What sankalpa is and is not

In a culture of getting, achieving and becoming, we tend to think of intention-setting as goal-setting. Yet in spiritual practice, there is nothing to get. All we have and need is already within us, the process instead is one of discarding, letting go and revealing.

Sankalpa is not, therefore, “I will not be distracted during meditation,” “I will land the perfect crow pose,” or “I will get rich and look better naked in 2020.” In fact, sankalpa is not in the future at all. It’s right here, already within us.

While kalpa refers to the vow, the resolution, or the commitment, san refers to our deepest heartfelt desire, our connection to the highest truth within us. To arrive at what that is, we can use the following three-step process.

Like any spiritual process, the steps are cyclical, not linear. Once we get to the end, we’ll realize that we’ve always been there – but we must work through the steps to understand that.

dog resting on a couch in baja sur
Stella the Yoga Teacher, committed to her heartfelt desire

1. Listening

Learn to listen. We listen (or not) to the chatter in our thinking minds all the time. It has a lot to say. But what about listening in to our heart mind? How often in our daily lives do we give ourselves the time, space and quiet to be still and listen to the body itself?

Through meditation and through asana, we can begin to develop a closer relationship to the heart mind, what’s spoken to us through felt sensation, through embodied experience, and via the quieter voice deep within, as opposed to the voice of the ego mind.

Listening and getting to know ourselves better is what our yoga and meditation practice is all about. It’s a self-awareness that goes beyond “who am I as (say your name to yourself)?” and instead towards “who am I as a living, breathing, sentient being who is intimately connected to all others?”

2. Welcoming

Once we learn to listen, we can hear our innermost heartfelt desire, our highest truth, true nature, Buddha nature, higher power, or whatever we’d like to name it, calling to us in one of many ways.

Sometimes the voice comes clearly, softly, compassionately, as a loving and kind suggestion from a caring friend.

Sometimes the voice is one of anger, sadness, frustration, discontent, or a feeling that something is not quite right.

In all cases, we practice welcoming it in, understanding that regardless of how the voice is speaking to us, it’s ultimately saying the same thing. It’s calling us home, asking us to recognize who we truly are and what our highest purpose is.

3. Committing

Through the process of listening and welcoming in what it is that we hear (no matter how we get the message) we get to know our innermost heartfelt desire. And how is it possible that we can hear what it says? Because it’s what we already are.

This is the important part. Just as I can recognize sadness in others because I too, have been sad, I can recognize contentment because contentment lives within me, even if I’ve only ever caught a glimpse. Although when we hear it, we might say it came to us out of nowhere, our highest truth has been with us always. We’ve simply forgotten.

In order to remember, in order to strengthen our heartfelt desire, and the place within us that recognizes it because that’s what we are – we speak that connection to truth as though it is true, as though it is what we are.

“I want to be at peace” becomes “I am peace.”

“I will have more patience in 2020” becomes “I am patience.”ย 

“I wish I was stronger” becomes “I am strength.”ย 

And then in comes the commitment. Here’s where we practice the goal as the path. With “I am peace” in mind, we make a vow, a resolution, we set an intention to act in this world as the embodiment of peace would act.

Insert your own heartfelt desire, and make a resolution to act in this world as if that heartfelt desire was you.

Woah – what if each and every one of us recognized ourselves as diving beings, and acted in this world as an enlightened being would act? The world around us would change, wouldn’t it? So why not you? Why not begin with getting to know who it is that you truly are. Begin by listening.


Sara-Mai Conway is a yoga and meditation instructor who splits her time between Austin, Texas and San Juanico, Baja Sur, Mexico. This blog is a summary of an exercise she led throughout a special New Year’s Eve asana practice January, 2019 in Spicewood, Texas.ย 

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