Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Core Qualities of Yoga, Part 6: Creating Intention

This post is part of a series that explores a variety of core qualities and suggested practices to consider for inclusion in your classes and private sessions (whether on a mat, in a chair, or a combination of both).

by Beth Gibbs

An intention, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is: “A concept formed when the mind is directed toward an object.” You can create intentions for all aspects of your life –– physical, energetic, mental, emotional, or spiritual. Here are two ways to think about creating intention.


These can range from short-term personal, work, or family responsibilities to long-term strategic planning and scheduling for running a business, managing personal finances, or completing creative projects such as crafts, writing, or fine arts. Short-term intentions are usually found on our daily to-do lists (if we make them). Long-term planning may start with a big idea that we break down into manageable tasks that we can accomplish on a daily or weekly basis to build a foundation of success over time.

For example, I made an intention to begin a sitting meditation practice. Knowing my habit of getting excited about starting projects and then losing steam over time, I began by choosing a meditation technique suitable for my busy, active, creative mind. I committed to start with five minutes and then add one to three minutes a month. This slow steady pace worked. I am up to twenty minutes a day. I think I may have skipped a total of four to six days in the past year — not a bad start!

Setting specific intentions for different areas of our lives lends a depth of richness and conscious self-awareness to our experiences. Our yoga practice is no exception. We can:
  • Focus on physical alignment in the postures
  • Practice postures as simple exercise for bones, muscles, and joints
  • Use breath practices (pranayama) to energize, balance, or relax the mind
  • Select a sequence of restorative postures to promote relaxation
  • Choose specific yoga techniques to work with health conditions such as high blood pressure or chronic pain
  • Take classes to experience community with other
Then there are New Year’s resolutions. Making them has a long tradition on planet Earth. Typically, New Year’s resolutions tend to be grounded in the desire to change something about ourselves: our weight, our behavior, habits, or our health. We set a goal and then dedicate the year toward actualizing them. Sadly, according to most statistics, our efforts to effect those personal changes through New Year’s resolutions are dropped before the year is up.

I confess, I have made New Year’s resolutions in the past–made’em and broke’em. They were mostly about losing weight, meeting the National Institutes of Health guidelines for exercise, cutting out sugar, etc. I’ve had more success by creating practical life intentions with incremental steps for changing my lifestyle, habits, and health.


Sankalpas are best used for a much deeper dive into Self-awareness, with a capital "S," than practical life intentions or New Year’s resolutions. Sankalpa practice starts with a basic understanding of the essential truth of yoga: that we are already whole, just as we are. What comes next is realizing the meaning of this in our everyday lives. Sankalpa practice is designed to bring us closer to that realization and help us find productive ways to express it in our relationships to ourselves, to others, and to our planet. Although a sankalpa is directed toward self realization or self healing, the revered Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn says, “When you say something with your whole being…. it can transform the world.”

Creating a Sankalpa

A sankalpa is a short positive statement made in the present tense. Creating and working with a personal sankalpa reminds us of what is already true so we don’t have to apply ego, willpower, or striving. In the yoga tradition, positive statements tend to bring longer lasting results. This perspective is reinforced by a song from 1944 titled, Accentuate The Positive:

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
But don't mess with mister in between

So let’s not put our sankalpa in the negative, such as: I won’t eat sugar, I won’t smoke, etc.

We first want to find the words that feel right for us and then let it play out in our lives. Sankalpas can be thought of as long-term intentions. It is recommended to work with the same sankalpa until the goal is reached –– over a few months, years, or a lifetime. Some examples of sankalpas are:
  • I am awake and aware
  • I am happy, healthy, and whole
  • I am calm, peaceful, and relaxed
Creating a sankalpa requires some time and careful thinking. My sankalpa (which I will keep private) is a deeply felt intention for reminding me of my true nature. I use it when I practice yoga, when I meditate, and off and on during the day when it pops into my conscious mind. I took my time to choose it. I thought long and hard about which words would inch me toward a deeper realization of my place in this huge, amazing, mysterious experience we all share. I’ve been using it for four years now and will probably use it for my whole lifetime.

Here are some steps to consider when creating your sankalpa.
  1. Find it. A few lines from a character in one of my short stories will illustrate the process. Over lunch, Miss Millie is sharing wisdom with a young woman seeking help for a mid-life identity crisis. She tells her to, “Ask the important questions. Become quiet. Listen within for the answers. Be patient with yourself. Trust your own process and be brave.” Patience is key because it will take time. However, if you want to start right away, you can use one of the three examples above until you uncover your own.
  2. Remember it. You can remind yourself of your sankalpa by writing it on sticky notes and tacking them to your fridge, closet door, or bathroom mirror. They will act as daily visual reminders. You can journal about it, noting any blocks, obstacles, thoughts, or emotions that arise around it. You can state it, silently or out loud. Three of the best times to repeat it silently are when you meditate, set up for relaxation after yoga practice, or prepare for yoga nidra, in which stating a sankalpa is an important step in the process.
In this way, we remind our subconscious mind to work on our sankalpa and send reminders to our conscious mind. These reminders may ‘pop’ upon waking up in the morning, driving to work, during yoga, meditation, journaling, or any at any other time during our everyday life activities. Keeping our sankalpa alive enables us to strengthen our connection to our true nature, make mid-course corrections, and return to our path if we take a detour and get lost, and we always do—we are works in progress!

If you’d like to read more about sankalpa practice, this article from Yoga International is online.

Elizabeth (Beth) Gibbs, MA, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is a guest faculty member of the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. Her masters’ degree in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health is from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi, a therapeutic yoga book for children. For more information please visit her website at:

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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