As the calendar turns to a new year, many make resolutions to lose weight, get in shape, or reach other personal goals that they may or may not achieve. Some estimates say over 40% of Americans set goals for the year ahead. The process of making resolutions can create a mindset that favors willpower and a view toward an idealized future that may not embrace a clear grasp on the present. This can be self-defeating because success hinges on external outcomes rather than the clear vision, presence, and awareness that is required to make lasting changes.
One alternative to this approach is to focus on acting with intention toward your highest goals. Intention, called “sankalpa” in Sanskrit, is an ancient yogic practice involving the will, dedicated action, and surrender toward one’s greater purpose and being. “Rather than setting a goal like losing weight, we look beneath the desire for weight loss to find what our heart is actually seeking—something deeper and more universal. Perhaps the desire to be healthy and content,” says Jennifer Reis, a Yoga Nidra teacher who embraces intention as a key teaching.
Intention, unlike simply making goals, points the focus on awareness of the present moment, incorporating mindfulness into the process of transformation. When our efforts are focused only on muscling our way toward goals, we tend to not actually be present for the process that might get us there. Intentional living, or coming from a place of observation and presence, generates a broader scope. Goals are important, but it is through conscious intent that deeper learning occurs.
The art of intention can cultivate a more sustainable approach to transformation. “A goal is more mind-orientated, more based in ego, and ego-push,” says Aruni Nan Futuronsky, a life coach and Kripalu Yoga teacher who teaches healthy living and mindful weight loss. “Sankalpa allows a bubbling up from the heart, the desires of our deepest self emerging. What are you really, in your deepest heart, wanting for yourself? Separate from ego, from effort, from expectation, an intention moves from inside, out—rather than a goal, which is more externalized.” In her teachings, Aruni guides people to embrace mindful practices that provide the space for conscious learning.
Research shows that goals can in fact be detrimental, especially when set in a binge fashion, as we tend to do around New Year’s. “If you are trying to achieve something that is measurable, like losing a particular number of pounds, you may feel driven to push to get yourself there and this is a type of violence towards oneself. The first principle of yoga is ahimsa—meaning non-violence,” says Reis. Instead of trying to force change, or push ourselves beyond comfort toward perfection (and perhaps even beyond the potential attainment of such goals), we can gently direct our conscious awareness toward transformation, in whatever areas we feel need transition.
Here are some tips for developing intention and creating lasting change.
Make incremental adjustments. Futuronsky emphasizes how important it is to take one thing at a time. Just one tiny step, consistently practiced, can change the brain. Even 5 minutes of meditation a day changes the way you work.
Focus on progress. Attempting to adhere to a hard and fast goal can lead to a quick feeling of failure if we break the goal too soon or feel it is unattainable. “Give yourself radical permission to practice progress, not perfection,” says Aruni. Be kind to yourself. You need to be compassionate toward yourself in order to remain open to new habits.
Be in your body. “Child’s Pose is a really nice way to surrender to the longing inside. As a way to return to the essence and the purity of your longing, come to this pose before your practice to bathe in your own desire to change,” says Futuronsky. Giving yourself the time to get out of the head space and into the body can lead to more lasting change.
Meditate to find your heart’s longing. Reis shares this practice for connecting to your inner desire: Hold your hands on your heart center and breathe gently into your heart space. Ask yourself, “What is my heart’s deepest longing? What does my heart desire?” The answer may surface in the form of images, feelings, words, or something else. Listen deeply. It may take doing this many times to hear the voice of your heart. Then, create an intention statement that states your heart’s longing as the truth, with positive words and in present tense. Utter these words throughout your day, either silently or aloud. This is a rich practice of intention and attraction.
Create a physical embodiment of intention. Mudras are symbolic gestures used in Hinduism and Buddhism to affect the flow of pranic energy and activate different regions of the energetic body. Most mudras utilize the hands and fingers, but some can involve the whole body. “Shiva Linga mudra is wonderful for practicing intention,” says Jennifer Reis. “It brings potency to your inner fire and helps you feel a sense of confidence.” Bring the left palm to chest height, facing upward. Make the “thumbs-up” sign with the right hand and bring the fist to rest on the left palm (see photo below). Reis recommends saying an empowering statement aloud and then silently with this mudra such as, “I embrace and unfold my true life purpose.”
Start with love. When New Year’s arrives, perhaps think about your life, and instead of focusing on areas that need change, do an inventory with a mind for self-care and loving-kindness. “The first guideline of yoga is ‘ahimsa,’ meaning non-violence,” notes Reis. When we come from a foundation of ahimsa, we can cultivate positivity and presence and move away from the notion that all is not right with the world to a more constructive perception.
Take a moment to ask yourself, “What successes did I achieve this year? What relationships grew? What went well?” As you imagine the year ahead, and what you can do to improve upon different areas of your life: your health, your work, your personal life, your spiritual practice, think about what practices would benefit you and bring joy. Breathe into the moment and imagine healthy habits that will bring you the growth you desire. This conscious awareness can help you redirect behaviors for transformation this year and beyond.