Ceremony & Tradition

How to Use the Yoga Philosophy of Sankalpa to Set Intentions

Published on October 27, 2016

Article by Sara Elizabeth Ivanhoe for Bodhi Tree

Prior to embarking on a journey, it’s helpful to know the destination. Of course, this isn’t always possible. But navigating life’s pathways is often less difficult if we are clear on our individual purpose, and to do that, it’s helpful to set an intention through the spiritual practice of sankalpa. In Sanskrit, the word comes from san, which signifies a connection to the highest truth, and kalpa, which is a sacred vow. This implies that any pledge we make should align us with our highest truth—not our basest desire. Sankalpa is not about asking for a desired object or an event to unfold; rather, it’s a selfless resolution that serves the highest good of an individual, a community and the world at large. It’s the act of setting an intention from a state of being, not a state of wanting. In other words, sankalpa can help bring what we seek into existence if it’s coming from a selfless—not a selfish—place.

Sankalpa: Not What You Want, But How to Be

Why does this distinction matter? Ancient practices taken out of context can create confusion for the seeker. References for sankalpa date back 3,000 years to the ancient Sanskrit epic stories, myths and poems in India, such as the Atharva Veda, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. It’s doubtful these vows took the form of “I will let go of 10 pounds,” or “I will manifest a new car.” The visionaries who brought us sankalpa were not creating a manual on how to get what we want. The aspirant is instead inspired by how to be, not what to do or receive.

Focusing on the doing or the getting puts us at risk for doubting our own process. If we judge the progress of our spiritual practice based on our ability to find a nicer house or apartment, we may start questioning whether or not we meditated correctly, properly pronounced a mantra, journaled enough or burned enough sage. If we equate the potency of our spiritual practice with the outcome of material objects and events, we might start believing we got stuck in traffic because we couldn’t do a handstand without the support of a wall.

Having Faith in the Process with the Help of Sankalpa

There are things in this world we cannot control. Meditation, yoga and other practices of inquiry were designed to have us desire less control over others and objects by creating more faith in the pace of our process. Our spiritual work is internal, and while we will ultimately begin to see a difference in the external world because we ourselves have changed, we cannot judge the efficacy of our spiritual work by how much the world cooperates with our ambitions.

While many external factors remain out of our control, we as individuals do have a say over who we are along the way. Instead of setting an intention to get something or to have something, practicing sankalpa will help us direct our energy toward who we will be in any circumstance or imperfect moment. When we accomplish this way of being, we build trust in ourselves and in others. All of a sudden, our original intention, that coveted journey we were seeking, seems less important than those who we’ve shared it with along the way.


hands holding large white flower

Published on: October 27, 2016

Tags: , , , , , , ,