Sankalpa is a conscious intention – but it is also translated as our heart’s desire or heart’s intention. I feel this is an important way of working with Sankalpa as it takes the intention from purely being a mental construct, conceptual, a wish or a hope and grounds it in the felt sense of the body.
Or the silent or often over-looked voice of the heart.
If we work with meditation and self inquiry we can go beyond conceptual Sankalpa, thoughts and desires and tap into a deeper understanding of ourselves, or at least a deeper hunger for that understanding.
Sometimes we have to let go of the mind… the things we think we want; the things we think we need; the thoughts we take ownership of and how we create a sense of identity from those thoughts and wants – and indeed fuel any limiting self beliefs or a general lack of self worth. When it comes to intentions and resolutions we often tie ourselves into a language of want and desire to change without fully acknowledging and appreciating who we are now. Through a language of ‘wanting to change’ we somehow judge ourselves and focus on our faults, rather than accepting what we are right now. Kelly McConigal suggests that we need to accept the radical premise that we are perfect as we already are. Otherwise we put acceptance off into the future.
“To change something we must alter the energy which creates it.” David Frawley
When working with creating an Embodied Sankalpa there is a place for yoga asana, movement or moving meditation to help us listen at a deeper level – the realm of our emotions, the heart, our instinct.
We can effect real change when we put our heart and body into it. Or moreover, when we listen to our hearts, gut instinct – even our viscera.
We could refer to the silent voice of the heart which is so often drowned out by the overwhelming volume of the mind.
Now, it is not necessary to bypass the mind totally – our conceptual resolutions or intentions – the use of journalling for example can all be an in-road and a great form of self inquiry.
But why not use both – learn to listen to both body and mind. We have really powerful minds so it is good to use mind, language and concept – but to infuse it with the felt sense in the body to manifest or ground it.
“People have an idea of the body and they seek to improve it, care for it through diet, exercise, good relationships and fulfilling work but they do not always think of the body as the source of our psychology, of our thinking, feeling, and the orientation of our values. The embodied life is bigger than health or exercise, it’s how we are alive and how we manage that life, how we form our values and make meaningful choices. The body is the source and an orientation for what an embodied life is like. Philosopher, dancer, painter, psychologist, body worker, it’s all about how voluntary acts can influence their life and their way of experiencing themselves and the world.” Stanley Keleman, Emotional Anatomy
The problem with relying purely on the mind is that language can sometimes tie us in knots – language can be limiting. We might create an intention – but because of our limiting self beliefs we don’t really hear it.
So we need to create ways to listen on a different level – so that our mind does not scorn any conscious language that we might use. Remember the mind is really powerful – sometimes we will simply not hear things that do not fit with our idea of ourselves or the world.
And we need to listen to the language of the body – the non-verbal language or felt sense. We can tap into this more with both interoceptive language and the embodied language of yoga nidra practice.
Interception is mindfulness in the body – one of my favourite definitions comes from Cathrine Kerr – “being awake and aware of sensations within”. This takes us from an auto-pilot type experience of both yoga and even meditation into a deeper listening in the body.
Similarly with the hypnotic suggestion and impact of language used in yoga nidra – it seduces us into the body and takes us our of our habitual thinking mind.
We might learn to navigate 2023 with more clarity if we listen to both body and mind. So often we don’t trust our bodies – our mind overrides the powerful messages or felt sense of the body.
In the language of yoga nidra and embodied practice, it helps take the prefrontal cortex off-line so to speak. I am always hesitant with the use of ‘computer’ type language but it is so often used in terms of the brain/ neuroplasticity (brain’s ability to change) it is hard to get away from.The pre-frontal cortex is the decision maker. This language of yoga nidra and embodied practice also helps us to tune into bodily sensation. Interoceptive language also speaks to the anterior cingulate cortex increasing self-regulation.
In her excellent article This is the Brain on Meditation (Psychology Today 2013), Dr Rebecca Gladding says “If you meditate on a regular basis, several positive things happen. First, the strong, tightly held connection between the Me Center (specifically the unhelpful vmPFC – part of the prefrontal cortex) and the bodily sensation (insula cortex) /fear centers (amygdala) begins to break down. As this connection withers, you will no longer assume that a bodily sensation or momentary feeling of fear means something is wrong with you or that you are the problem! This explains, in part, why anxiety decreases the more you meditate—it’s because the neural paths that link those upsetting sensations to the Me Center are decreasing.”
As we meditate, practice yoga nidra or an interoceptive yoga asana practice, we start to appreciate body sensations for what they are and become more able to listen to the body without fear or judgment.
So what is embodied practice?
We could create a deep listing while in a supported restorative pose – give ourselves space to listen to our heart, to our gut.
During our asana sequence, we could focus on the felt sense of energy – feel into the heart space and give ourselves permission to listen. By creating intention during our asana practice – we can bring awareness to how a ‘mental’ intention sits – does it resonate in any part of the body. If our Sankalpa is a desire for presence or wholeness – where might we feel that in the body. Is there a place where we feel we can anchor that desire for wholeness within the body – or adversely is there somewhere that feels like it lacks that space/ a resistance or a place in the body that seems to feel disconnected?
As we move, repeat a Sankalpa – for the purpose of this article – let’s use this: I am Whole, I am Supported – and I often add – What I have is Enough.
Does this resonate as you move? When you hold a particular asana do you hear this intention in a different way? Does it resonate or is there a resistance? Is the resistance in the body or the mind? Is it possible to go beyond the thinking mind and hear the intention in the body? Is it possible to anchor this intention in the heart? Or anchor this intention in a place where you feel a lack of trust or resistance?
Sankalpa is so often used in yoga nidra as essentially we hear these words in a more profound way in this lucid or healing brainwave pattern that we tap into during yoga nidra. It is as if with the silent repetition of the intention it cements itself deeper into both the neural pathways of the mind and tissues of the body.
Similarly, if we use Sankalpa or intention during our asana practice – we can create a different type of listening – that is a whole body sensation – the felt-sense.
In terms of neuroplasticity, it is said that we can effect long-lasting change when we combine intention or concentration with movement or coordination – as it fires up different parts of the brain. Listening with the body still involves the brain – our somatic sensory awareness and motor cortex. Our mind-body dynamic. in Livewired, David Eagleman says that in terms of the brain’s ability to change, some doorways shut earlier than others – as we get older it might be harder for example to learn a language, but he says that the doorway to change through somatic practices stays open a lot longer. Again there is an introduction to go inwards – one definition of somatic movement is that it focuses on the internal experience of the movement, again we can describe that as the felt-sense, rather than the outward appearance of the movement. Slow, introspective movement helps us tune into the felt-sense so again we start to listen with the body.
I have always been drawn to moving meditations, but that can also be interpreted as meditative movement – so when we perform an asana sequence or dance – we tune into the subtlety; we become aware of how we get distracted and potentially pulled into the look of the movement rather than the feel – we tune into the dynamic or the subtlety of the movement. The wave of the breath, the grounding of our feet, the sensation of expansion, the ebb and flow.
Mindfulness in Motion
Back to movement and the brain and the prefrontal cortex… “The neural circuits of intention activate the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is involved with goals and planning and forethought. But these same circuits also energize the primary and supplementary motor cortex. This is true to such an extent that science often refers to our “cognitive motor” areas. When we “intend” something, this directly activates the motor areas. This means that our motor areas are part of intention and action. We can cultivate embodied practices and nourish our self-to-body relationship in order to arrive at intentions that are, perhaps, more fully embodied than the ones our conscious mind might divine.” Bo Forbes (she writes extensively about the power of embodied practice, restorative yoga, neuroplasticity and much much more – she inspires me endlessly).
Your Embodied Sankalpa
Start with the Aham meditation at the end of the article. It is a silent mantra meditation – Adam means ‘I am’ and as you go to create your own Sankalpa maybe just add one qualifier, so as I suggested as a working practice earlier in the article – “I am Whole” or “I am Supported”. Then if you like take this into a movement practice – at points as you hold an asana or flow from one to another repeat the Sankalpa and see how it resonates.
“Are you seeking peace of mind, freedom from pain, or the feeling of being accepted? “See if you can find a deeper hunger, a longing that’s asking to be nourished,” Anne Douglas
Remember this Sankalpa can be a work in progress… although traditionally we commit to a Sankalpa for life, right now, we can find an embodied term like ‘I am Whole’ which grounds and motivates us in the here and now… this year, this week or just this moment.
Essentially an Embodied Sankalpa practice is about creating a deeper understanding of ourselves so that we feel present and grounded, resilient and motivated.
Aham meditation Practice
Sit comfortably on the floor or chair resting your hands on the knees – backs of the hands resting on the knees, palms to the sky. Eyes are closed or open in a soft gaze.
Allow your awareness to follow the rise and fall of your breath – tune into the rhythm of your breath. You do not need to change your breath in anyway, just tuning into the ebb and flow, the inhalation and exhalation, the sensation of receiving the breath and as you exhale feel a softening in your shoulders, a softening in the face, a softening in the hands – allowing yourself to let go of anything you have been holding onto.
Mantra – Start to silently repeat the mantra ‘AHAM’ – vibrate ‘ah’ silently on the inhalation and ‘ham’ on the exhalation. ‘Aham’ means ‘I am’ – every breath we affirm ‘I am’, with no labels, no judgments – simply ‘I am’ with every breath affirming your presence, your being. (Continue for 5 minutes – you can always extend this if you wish).
When you are ready to finish, allow the mantra to dissolve and draw your awareness again to the sensation of your in-breath coming and going at the nostrils, feel the coolness of the inhalation and the slight warming nature of the outbreath. Feel the breath rise and fall in the shoulders and upper back – deepen your breath and when you are ready slowly open your eyes.