December 27, 2017

Samskara, Sankalpa & Tapas—The Yogi Trifecta that’s better than New Year’s Resolutions.

It’s that time again when we look ahead to the year in front of us and imagine it to be better than the one we are leaving behind.

We may think of stopping a bad habit, creating a positive one, or reaching for a significant goal in the upcoming year. We resolve to evolve. But let’s face it: our resolutions rarely create the magic we intend.

Before we resolve to change the bad habits that plague us, perhaps we need to understand them a little better.

In yogic philosophy, our habituations are called samskaras. They are mental, emotional, or psychological imprints. Every time we receive a bit of sensory input or produce a thought, a subtle imprint is recorded in our memory. The more intense the input or the more often it is repeated, the stronger the impression becomes. Eventually these imprints become a part of who we are and influence our behavior. It is even suggested that we may be born with a karmic inheritance of patterns through which we cycle over and over again.

Repeating samskaras reinforces them, creating a groove that is difficult to avoid. I like to think of them as our psychological comfort zones. Samskaras can manifest in positive ways such as healthy eating habits or positive self-talk. They can also be negative such as mental patterns that influence low self-esteem or destructive relationships. Our negative samskaras are what block our positive growth.

Changing samskaras is not a process to be taken lightly.

What typically happens on New Year’s Day is that we identify something we want to change, or something we want to manifest, and so we create that tired old “New Year’s resolution.” We declare our resolve in January, and by February, we’ve slipped back into old habits of behavior and forgotten about our commitment. Changing our samskaras requires a much stronger intention and a dedication to a practiced discipline that will support our intention.

Yoga teaches us that the intention we are looking for is called a sankalpa. Unlike our New Year’s resolution, a sankalpa is a sacred intention formed by the heart and the mind. It is a solemn vow that is steeped with determination to harness our will and create focus in our mind and our body. But there is an interesting paradox that we must observe when setting our intention and making our vow. We must realize that we are already perfect as we are, even while we are reaching for change.

If we begin with the premise that we are perfect just as we are, we can ask that deepest, most wise part of ourselves what it is that we truly want, what it is that we need. Sankalpa unites our mind with those deeper parts that can sometimes be difficult to access.

Conscious use of sankalpa is a compelling way of communicating, to our emotional and spiritual bodies, what it is that we truly want. Instead of asking for something magical outside of ourselves to create what we want, we tune in to our own deep knowing. Sankalpa is not something we have to make up. It’s already there. All we have to do is listen courageously to what is calling out from deep inside our heart.

Once we set our intention, we must not be impatient. Significant change doesn’t happen overnight. We have no magic wand in hand, so it’s important to set milestones to help us stay committed during the long year ahead.

So you’ve identified the samskara (habituation) that you want to change, and you’ve created your sankalpa (sacred intention) and taken your solemn vow to remain dedicated to your intention. How are you going to keep your commitment?

The final ingredient in our recipe for change is tapas (fiery discipline).

Tapas is the disciplined practice of implementing your plan for change. It is the dedicated practice that actually causes the change. The word tapas derives from the Sanskrit word tap which means “to heat.” Purposeful change in behavior creates heat from the friction of the new pattern rubbing against the old, negative one.

Change is usually quite uncomfortable. When we consciously change a habit, discomfort arises and creates emotional or physical heat. The heat generated by practicing tapas will incinerate the impurities of our negative samskaras. If we acknowledge that the discomfort generated by the discipline is ultimately good for us, we are more likely to remain dedicated to our practice.

In summary, tapas (fiery discipline) challenges our long-standing samskaras (patterns of behavior), and gradually burns them up and clears the way for our sankalpa (sacred intention) to emerge as significant spiritual and psychological growth.

Rather than reverting to another same ol’ same ol’ resolution on New Year’s Day, I invite you to commit to a new way of evolving.


Author: Kathy Bolte
Image: João Silas/Unsplash 
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis

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