Published on December 30th, 2019 | by Sheila Ewers0
New Year, New You: Yoga Tools for a Fresh Start
by Sheila Ewers
If you are among the 50% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions each year, you may already have considered making changes in your life for better health, improved relationships or greater peace of mind. Unfortunately, according to U.S. News & World Report, more than 80% of those people who set resolutions abandon them by February.
A yogic perspective might suggest that the failure results from the fact that most resolutions rely primarily on willpower and the desires of the ego. Often, the catalyst for change comes from a sense of failure, the assumption that we are not enough as we are or the belief that shifting our circumstances will bring us greater contentment or joy. Fortunately, the teachings of yoga propose a different path to change: the practice of sankalpa.
According to Rod Stryker, founder of ParaYoga, the word sankalpa derives from kalpa which means “vow” and san, which indicates a connection to the highest truth. Sankalpa comes from the deepest part of the mind and heart and is always spoken as if it is already happening. It emerges from discernment and inner awareness, bringing practitioners into alignment with the true purpose of their lives. Rather than a resolution, which attempts to solve a problem, sankalpa calls forth what already exists as one’s highest good.
For example, rather than say to yourself, “I WILL lose weight,” a sankalpa might be phrased in the present tense as, “I live a healthy and vibrant life.” Repeated often, even daily, a sankalpa serves as a reminder that rather than fix something broken, you need only reconnect with what is already whole. When we can become clear about our intentions, we focus our energy efficiently, notice how our choices affect our highest purpose and honor our long-term goals for self-realization over short-term desires of the ego.
Tools to Discern and Honor Your Sankalpa
A daily practice of yoga, breath and meditation cultivates an inner awareness that supports sankalpa. The practice below can be completed in as little as 30 minutes.
- Ground and center: Come to a comfortable, seated position. For extra support, try propping the hips on the edge of a blanket or bolster to allow the pelvis to tilt forward and the spine to lengthen.
- Connect to your breath: Practice Dirga Pranayama. As you inhale, feel the expansion of the breath in the belly, the rise of sensation into the rib cage and the lift of the collarbones as the upper chest inflates. As you exhale, empty from top to bottom, drawing the naval towards the spine at the end of each exhalation. Continue for 10 full breath cycles. At the end of 10 breaths, state your sankalpa silently three times.
- Synchronize breath and movement:
- Flex and extend your spine. With hands to knees in a seated position, inhale, then tilt your pelvis forward and draw your chest forward. Retract your shoulder blades and lift the chin slightly. Exhale, tilt your pelvis back, round the back of the body, and hollow your belly with chin moving close to chest. Repeat five times.
- Elongate your spine laterally. Inhale, then reach both arms overhead. Extend through your spine while keeping your abdominal muscles engaged. Exhale and drop your right hand beside you. Lean to the right, extending your left arm past your ear while keeping both hips equally grounded on the mat. Inhale back to center, reaching your arms overhead, and repeat leaning to the left. Continue two more times in each direction.
- Twist. Inhale to reach both arms overhead. Exhale and turn to the right. Drop your left hand to your right knee and right hand to the mat behind you. As you breathe in, lengthen your spine, as you breathe out, twist more to the right. Keep both hips equally grounded and facing the front edge of the mat.
- Strengthen the body to strengthen inner resolve:
- Make your way to Downward Facing Dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana). From hands and knees, press actively into the palms of the hands, particularly the base of the index finger. Widen your collarbones and allow your shoulder blades to settle evenly on the back of the body. Turn your toes under. Press into the balls of the feet to lift hips high. Elongate your spine and lengthen legs, pressing heels actively towards the mat (prioritize a long spine over straight legs if your hamstrings are tight). Hold for five breaths.
- Move to Crescent Warrior. From Downward Facing Dog, exhale and step one foot forward. Ensure that the ankle falls directly beneath the knee. Firm the back leg, then inhale and lift the torso upright with arms overhead. Keep abdominal muscles engaged, and keep a slight bend in the back knee if you experience compression in the low back. Hold for five breaths.
- Open to Warrior 2 pose (Virabhadrasana 2). From Crescent Warrior, exhale to pivot your back heel down to the mat at a 90-degree angle. Widen through the hips and open your arms wide. Stack your shoulders over your hips and reach through the crown of your head as you turn the gaze over the front fingertips. Hold for five breaths.
- Return to Downward Facing Dog and repeat, leading with the opposite foot.
- Practice balance to increase focus and concentration:
- Come to Mountain Pose (Tadasana) at the front of the mat. Step your feet hip distance apart, spread your toes wide and root into all parts of the foot. Firm your quadriceps and gently engage your abdominal muscles. Broaden your collar bones, dropping your shoulders away from your ears. Visualize a long line of energy rising through the spine to the crown of the head.
- Move to Tree Pose (Vrksasana). From Mountain Pose, steady your gaze on a single, unmoving point. Keep your right foot facing forward to the front of the mat. Draw your left foot to the inner right thigh, allowing your left hip to rotate outward. Press your foot and thigh together for stability. When you feel balanced, extend your arms overhead. Hold for 5 breaths, then switch to the left side.
- Open the heart to release tension and blocked emotions:
- Practice Fish Pose (Matsyasana). Begin on your back with both legs extended. Slide your palms, face down, beneath your hips. Inhale to lift and arch your upper back, allowing the crown of the head to fall towards the floor. To modify, keep support beneath your head. To protect the cervical spine, avoid deep compression in the back of the neck. Hold for five breaths.
- Calm the mind and release old body patterns:
- Move into a Reclined Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana). Lying flat on your back, bring the soles of your feet to the mat with your knees bent toward the ceiling. Take your arms out wide, position with palms face up. Cross your left leg over your right, wrapping both legs closely together. Press into your right foot to lift the hips and shift them slightly to the left (this will create space for the spine to lengthen and the hips to stack evenly). Drop your knees to the right. Soften into the shape and hold for five to 10 breaths; then repeat on the opposite side.
- Integrate and surrender with Pose (Savasana):
- Practice letting go with a few final moments resting comfortably in a supine position. Remind yourself of your sankalpa and trust the process of building resolve through the wisdom of the body and the quiet of a mind made steady through daily practice.
Founder of Johns Creek Yoga and Duluth Yoga Center, Sheila Ewers leads yoga and yoga teacher training classes and hosts retreats locally and internationally. She has been published online in Elephant Journal and Writers Resist. Reach her at Sheila@JohnsCreekYoga.com.