Sankalpa– Determined decision, intention or wish. Traditionally one must repeat the Sankalpa three times in one’s mind at the beginning and the end of the practice. The decision should come to mind naturally, this is our internal simple wish.
Starting the year we tend to set ourselves goals, take decisions and make plans. Our practice supports this process, it also can assist us in pursuing those goals and actually fulfil our decisions and plans.
Even though I tend to preach to my students that the process is much more meaningful and fulfilling than the actual result, we also all want to achieve our personal goals and advance our practice on both physical and mental levels. Letting go does not mean to be passive when pursuing our intentions, it is just another component that supports the hard path towards any kind of success; this path must be a proactive one.
I tend to see new students surprised when they discover that Yoga practice is actually a hard work. People say things such as, ‘I heard Yoga is very relaxing’. Relaxation or stress-relief might be chosen as our final goal in practice, but there is a long journey to reach there. A journey which is not necessarily relaxing; it is a physical and a mental workout.
During practice our mind should be always alert and we must maintain full awareness of the movements of our body and our mind. It might shock a few dedicated practitioners but I don’t believe in practicing Yoga postures with closed eyes (except perhaps Tadasana Samastiti and Shavasana – final relaxation). Closed eyes encourage a relaxed and sleepy state of mind and distract us from focusing on the details of the pose we are holding. Even Shavasana is intended to be an alert pose. As I mentioned in previous texts Shavasana is a conscious relaxation. We want to find the centre between stillness and complete letting go or falling asleep.
To make a bit of order in all of this, we might look at our practice as any other process of goal setting, progress or change in our life. Say we start from some kind of a less desirable state that we are interested in altering. We then make a conscious decision to change, we work hard and pass through obstacles on our way and then eventually we achieve some kind of improvement or a more desirable state. At the last stage in this process we want to be at peace with our final achievement. We should let go of any attachment to it and accept the place we have reached. This kind of acceptance will only come after hard, focused, proactive work.
Similarly, we all arrive to our mat with some kind of a back story. Perhaps we are seeking to distress or make a change in our life. Maybe it is only a change towards higher physical ability such as improving our flexibility, strength or fitness level. When we start our practice we take Sankalpa – set an intention, a determined decision that we want to work with in our practice. This is a decision that comes naturally to our mind; it will always be something that we already carried with us from the world beyond our mat. Taking Sankalpa, however, is only the first step. We then must work really hard and practice with an alert, aware mind. We must practice with devotion, we must trust our teacher and yes, sometimes we must practice letting go or acceptance. We must focus on the process − it is not time to relax! We must be aware of all the little details of our body. When we are focusing on the little details, we are establishing a more delicate, sensitive relationship with our body -ꟷ the tool of our practice -ꟷ and thus we learn to use and control it in a better way. We finish our practice with some sense of achievement. As more we practice as more sensitive we become to the changes in our body and thus we notice more and more progress in it. This improvements might not be as visible externally but when we become better observers we need less advancement in order to be satisfied. A sensitive mind is more susceptible to happiness. We find more beauty and joy in things that first seemed insignificant and thus we start finding it easier to surrender and accept our practice and our life as it is. The result becomes more satisfying even if it doesn’t change.
More specific example can be observed in one of the most mentally difficult postures in our practice: Pashimotanasana – sited forward fold. We sit down and begin the pose with some kind of preconception about our ability to do it, then we set ourselves a goal. I guide my students to aspire to move their heart forward, towards their toes. This is ironically an unreachable goal that allows us to explore this act of moving forward with devotion to the process and not the result. I guide my students to put maximum effort, look forward at the direction where they are going and recruit the whole of their bodies in order to move their chests forward. Then I tell them to reach as far as they can and release the head down. At this point there is no more movement forward, it is time to let go and accept where we are. If we want to move forward we need to lift the head again and reach for our goals. Serenity is part of our process, it supports the process, specifically at the stage of reaching our final result, but it is not what gets us there.
Yoga is not some kind of a magical path where we surrender and suddenly reach enlightment. It is a hard work and a journey full of challenges. But when our practice matures we can see the joy and the fulfilment that is contained in this beautiful process of growth. When we arrive in this state we don’t need the result anymore. And then, where ever we arrive as our final destination, we more easily find our acceptance and fulfilment. This place of maturity, however, will never come to us the easy way.
Another way to explain those processes is through the theory of the three Gunas. Humans, nature and all that exists within and beyond those notions is traditionally believed to consist of three Gunas, essences or energies. Those are: Tamas, Rajas and Satva. Everything contains a portion of those energies and every object or subject will incline at different times to one of those broad directions. In short: Tamas is heavy, grounding energy; Rajas is active, dynamic, moving; and Satva is calm, clear or harmonious. Usually as practitioners we will aspire to change into a state of Satva, harmony. Perhaps attempting to overcome some kind of heavy experience, for example: loss. Some practitioners will walk an opposite path: arriving to the mat with a very light, fluid mind they will seek Tamas, grounding and focus. In both occasions, as one of my teachers used to say, the path from Tamas to Satva or the other way around can only be through Rajas, action. There is no change without action. There is no progress by only letting go, we must make a decision to change and then be proactive and not just let life happen.
If I look back at my life I find so many of those processes of self-discovery. I had many failures and successes. Looking back I can see where a wrong approach to the process derived an unsatisfying result. At other times, I was mature enough to accept the result and find the joy in it, and thus I arrived. One example is my journey to Australia.
I grew up in a family of Russian migrants in Israel. Moving countries at a young age and going through the usual hardships of fitting-in in a foreign culture, I always felt displaced. I never considered Israel to be my home and always aspired to come back to Russia, where I was born. Every time I travelled back to my home country, however, I felt that the locals saw me more as a tourist rather than as one of them. This process of fitting-in or rather coming back home always seemed to me unsatisfying, it always turned out to be a failure. It seems to me now that I wasn’t focused enough at the time, on either direction. Years later I took a determined decision to move away. I moved alone to Australia where I had no family, connections or heritage. I worked hard to settle down, to make friends, money and grow my own business; I started completely from scratch. It was a very hard process that required me to be entirely devoted, it left no time for serenity. I had to be proactive and not just let life happen. I don’t feel like I reached my final destination yet, however, I do feel I have arrived. I am much happier and more satisfied then I ever was. Even though I have much less, I am in a much more harmonious, Satvic place in my life.
The way from Tamas to Satva is only through Rajas. The path from struggle to acceptance must be proactive. One must act to reach acceptance and joy. Must work and not only relax. Fulfilment lies more in the devotional journey than in its final destination. It is a misconception that all Yogis are so happy because they are so relaxed and know how to let go. No, our practice is a hard journey of spiritual awakening; a journey that it takes time to find the joy in. A process that must start from a determined decision to change and take responsibility over our life.
It is not too late to start this wonderful journey and there is no better excuse than the start of a new year!