January 29, 2014

Sankalpa: The Practice of Privilege? ~ Emiko Atherton

In yoga, we like to use a lot of Sanskrit words.

Namaste, samadhi and asana are just a few of the more common terms from our vernacular. These expressions are part of our culture, part of recognizing the lineage of yoga and part of creating a shared understanding necessary for a community. But do we really know what all these words mean?

For example, I’ve heard sankalpa, the Sanskrit word for will or intention, mentioned a lot over the last week. And that seems appropriate, since the New Year is a time for resolutions.

But do we really understand the true definition of sankalpa?

I came across the word first when I read Rod Stryker’s The Four Desires.

Stryker wrote, “the most profound way to affect the course of your life is by harnessing the power of resolution or intention, which in Sanskrit is called sankalpa.” Another article referring to Stryker wrote, “all you need to do is focus your mind, connect to your most heartfelt desires, and channel the divine energy within,” to practice sankalpa.

I used Stryker’s writings about sankalpa to make meaningful changes in my life. Instead of being someone with debt and career I wasn’t sure about, I found a path to achieving my dreams. So why then did I cringe every time I heard the word sankalpa this week? I mean, it was worse than nails on a chalkboard.

I believe in the power of yoga to change our lives for the better. I’ve experienced this first hand. However, it’s always bothered me that yoga, a practice that should require only an open mind (no special equipment, membership, or fitness level required,) seems like one of the more inaccessible activities. Look around most yoga studios or read a yoga magazine and it’s mostly white, physically-adept people in mostly expensive clothing.

But what does this have to do with sankalpa?

What went wrong with the notion that through determination and desire, we can harness the energy of the divine within ourselves towards a positive outcome?

That icky feeling I get when I hear someone say sankalpa comes from the fact that I don’t think our modern interpretation of the word recognizes that there are other factors, such as socio-economic position, gender, sexual orientation and race, which play into our success. This type of thinking assumes that we all start at a level-playing field, or level yoga mat, in our case. I think that ignores real social inequities.

Try telling someone who works three jobs just to put food on the table that if they just practice sankalpa and “harness the power of resolution or intention,” then they’ll finally climb out of poverty. Or when Stryker writes, “the power to affect your future […] begins by learning to focus the mind,” all I can think is focusing the mind doesn’t always pay the bills or help a woman get a job in a male-dominated industry.

So what?

If I can use sankalpa to achieve my goals, why should I care if someone else can’t?

For me, it’s because one of the most paramount teaching I’ve learned from yoga is that I am part something much bigger than myself. Tantric teachings (that have influenced Rod Stryker) believe we are all an expression of one vast thing. These ideas support my beliefs in social equity and justice. I want to live a life that reflects these teachings, one where I practice compassion and empathy towards others because we are all connected. I also don’t want to live a life that’s blind to real inequities or believe they are a result of individual will.

Next, I’ve also learned how important my yoga community is to my practice. I want to grow my community, not maintain the status quo. But if I believe sankalpa is only about individual will and self-determination, I’m practicing from the self-centered place I’ve been trying to get away from. I’m also practicing sankalpa in a way that may be unapproachable to many, while I believe every aspect of yoga should be accessible.

Does this mean sankalpa is bad? No! Does it mean Rod Stryker doesn’t offer beautiful teachings? Absolutely not! But I do think we should challenge our definition if we want to make yoga a more inclusive community.

I can practice sankalpa—or at least its common interpretation—because I have the privilege to do so. This definition can exist in my reality as a college-educated, upper-middle class person, a reality where I can expect something in return for my practice. But that’s not true for everyone. However, perhaps sankalpa can really be about living with no expectations, only the intention to open up a little, to maybe feel the divine inside us and others, if only for a second? Now that’s a definition available to everyone.

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Assistant Editor: Gabriela Magana/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Flickr

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Emiko Atherton